The young Belfast-born ballerina Melissa Hamilton of the Royal Ballet is making her debut as Manon in a couple of weeks' time. I had a lovely talk with her for the Independent (out today, here), but it's been rather truncated, so here's the "Director's Cut".
Blessed with long, powerful legs, beautifully fluid arms and an opened-out, all-giving style of expression, the young Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton has been compared to “Charlize Theron in pointe shoes”. Now she is preparing for a crucial debut on 13 October as Manon in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet of the same name – possibly her biggest challenge to date. British-born female principals have been in short supply in the company of late (the sparkly Lauren Cuthbertson is currently the only one), so hopes run high for the future of 26-year-old Hamilton from Northern Ireland, whose official ranking is “first soloist”.
Hamilton’s delicate looks belie her ferocious strength, both physical and mental. She started her training in earnest only at 16 – many others attend vocational schools from 11 – and it is her sheer single-minded determination that has enabled her to make up for lost time.
Growing up in Dromore, near Belfast, she took ballet lessons as a hobby, until attending a summer course in Scotland when she was 13 opened her eyes to the possibility of dancing full time. “In Northern Ireland it was virtually unheard of to become a professional dancer,” she says. “My parents knew nothing about the ballet world, so it was difficult for them to advise me. That course showed me that if you want to be a ballerina you can’t just do one lesson a week. I had so much to learn.”
Her father and mother, respectively a builders’ merchant and a teacher, persuaded her to complete her GCSEs first, keen for her to have “an education to fall back on”. Still, the drive to dance remained; and though rejected by the Royal Ballet School, Hamilton won a scholarship to the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham.
There the full extent of her disadvantage as a late starter struck home. She says she felt constantly discouraged and after a year she was advised to abandon her dream altogether. Fortunately, fate seems to have had other ideas. The husband and wife team Irek and Masha Mukhamedov, former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, arrived at the school as teachers and spotted her potential. After a year, they left for Irek to become director of the Greek National Opera Ballet; aged 17, Hamilton elected to decamp solo to Athens for intensive one-to-one coaching with Masha.
Melissa Hamilton, photo by Bill Cooper
It might have seemed a leap of faith, but Hamilton says it was a no-brainer. “I didn’t see the point of staying somewhere where you’re trying to convince people,” she comments. “It probably looked impulsive, but I went with my gut instinct. I think when something’s right, then as human beings we know it.” Private study with Masha Mukhamedov was utterly different from anything she had experienced until then: “It was more than a teacher-pupil set up; it was more as if she was the mentor and I became a product. She was creating me, just as much as I wanted to be there. We found each other completely and it worked.”
It certainly did. After winning the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007, Hamilton was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre, yet her overriding dream was to join the Royal Ballet in London. She sent a DVD to the company’s director, Monica Mason, and was invited to take class with them. A place in the corps de ballet was soon hers.
She rose through the ranks via that same focused determination to work, work, work. “I lived in a little bubble in Covent Garden,” she says, “and in the summer I’d only take one week off, then go back to the studio and practise on my own.”
About six months ago, though, she began to feel that something had to change if she was to move on to another level. “Sometimes if you want something so badly you become your own worst enemy,” she says. “I’ve often tried to make things work instead of letting them happen. Now I’m learning to let go.
“I realised that my friends’ lives had changed, but mine hadn’t. I felt I couldn’t keep living the way I’d lived until then.” She moved to a leafy part of north London, near some of her friends and with her new home went a new attitude: she decided to stop “fighting”.
“I think my whole initial work life has been a fight,” she says. “I’ve never hidden that it was a struggle. It was. It was hard. It was traumatic to a certain extent. From the get-go I was fighting against people who said I couldn’t do it. You get into a routine of thinking this is just the way it is – but it doesn’t need to be like that.
“I felt I was holding myself back, because I was still het up about living like I should be living, rather than living in the moment and appreciating everything that happened to me fully. It has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life: I’m able to live right now, rather than thinking constantly of the end goal. It’s a much more pleasing way to be.”
This, she says, is why she feels ready at last to tackle the tragic heroine of MacMillan’s ballet, based on Abbé Prévost’s novel Manon Lescaut. “You need to have had a certain amount of experience both on and off stage to do this role well,” she says. “Now I’m at a point in my own life where I’m ready to grasp Manon.”
Melissa Hamilton in Raven Girl,
photo by Johan Persson
Torn between true love for the Chevalier des Grieux and the lure of filthy lucre, Manon makes all the wrong choices and is destroyed by them. “I think she’s in genuinely in love, but ultimately she loves herself more,” says Hamilton. “Des Grieux gives himself completely, yet she tires of it because there’s no game, nothing to keep her fighting to get it. She needs to be adored and draped in jewels to make her feel something. That’s her ultimate destruction – she can’t be content, she constantly wants and needs.”
Her des Grieux is the Royal Ballet’s Canadian star Matthew Golding, who joined the company in February (and if Hamilton resembles Charlize Theron, Golding looks uncannily like Brad Pitt). The pair have already danced Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet DGV together, but Manon will be their first major appearance as a partnership. “We’re finding each other as people and as characters, building something together, which is very exciting,” Hamilton enthuses.
Now her horizons are broadening in other ways. She has begun to love travelling; and a recent visit to Barcelona brought her to the studio of the sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, with whom she is hoping to develop a collaboration. Invitations to appear abroad as a guest artist “seem to be popping up,” she says; and recently she has become the insurance company Allianz’s cultural ambassador to Northern Ireland. With their backing she hopes to find ways of raising awareness of and access to ballet there, whether touring with colleagues or setting up courses or masterclasses.
“It seems a shame that if you want a career in ballet, you have to leave the country,” she remarks. “The public in Northern Ireland doesn’t know that a girl from there is now dancing with the Royal Ballet. I think that’s sad, because you should be able to feel some sense of pride that someone’s done that.
“I’d like to develop ways to help young dancers have an easier path into ballet than I had,” she adds. “It’s a wonderful world that so many people don’t even know exists. If I can bring that back to Northern Ireland, then it’s an honour.”
Manon, Royal Ballet, from 26 September. Melissa Hamilton dances on 13 October. Box office: 020 7304 4000
(OK, OK, I promise I'm never, ever going to say again that I'm on holiday and won't blog for a week. Apologies for typos in the past few posts - I was working on a shiny-screened laptop in brilliant Egyptian sunshine....... Now back. Bit chilly here, i'n't it?)
My birthday tribute to The Rite of Spring - a piece of music without which my life might have been very different - is out in today's Independent. (Own obligatory book plug here.) Below, please find the director's cut.First, here's a fascinating interview with Monica Mason, Kenneth MacMillan's original Chosen Maiden, about the making of his version, with extracts of dancing from the amazing Ed Watson, the most recent male Chosen One at Covent Garden, among others.
probably the most cataclysmic moment in the history of music. On 29 May 1913
the curtain rose at Paris’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the new ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of
Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to a score by Igor Stravinsky.
Minutes later the place was in uproar. This event set the music of the 20th
century in motion as surely as the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 13
months later heralded a terrifying new age in warfare, politics and society.
recently at the first night of the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th
and 21st-century music, The
Rest is Noise, the artistic director Jude Kelly termed this era “the age of
violence”. And in 1913 The Rite of Spring
was indubitably the most violent music the world had yet heard. Harmony is
slashed, cubic, multilayered. Often the orchestra effectively plays in two keys
at once. Melody, when it is present at all, is fragmentary, suggesting the
ambience and contours of folk songs. Rhythm drives the whole thing, but those
rhythms – elemental, driven, clashing – are anything but predictable, throwing
the listener about like a runaway train. Stravinsky sets up a pattern only in
order to shatter it. It has been suggested that the work contains “a touch of
story is indeed cruel. An imaginary ancient tribe sacrifices a young virgin to
propitiate the god of spring. We are hapless witnesses as the Chosen Maiden is
selected, glorified, then forced to dance herself to death. It is a gut-wrenching
idea that could seem almost to tap into a primitive bloodlust. Whether or not
that was deliberate on Stravinsky’s part, or Nijinsky’s, is something we’ll
probably never know.
claimed that he had the idea for the ballet in a “fleeting vision”. But someone
else needs to receive more credit for dreaming it up: the ballet’s
designer, the Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who was far more
deeply engaged with matters of folklore – besides Theosophy and occult
mysticism – than the composer himself. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets drew on
fairy stories and Russian folk music, but the wellsprings of horror that underlie
The Rite are never fully present. Stravinsky
certainly developed the scenario in collaboration with Roerich, and later the
artist was furious to see his crucial role in its creation downgraded while the
composer hogged the glory.
there was much of that to be had from the hissing and cat-calling on the first
night. The protest broke out shortly after curtain-up. Stravinsky fled the
auditorium and observed the rest of the performance from backstage: “I have
never again been that angry,” he recalled. Serge Diaghilev – the impresario
behind the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, responsible for commissioning all
concerned – was nevertheless rather satisfied with the outcome. Even then,
there was no such thing as bad publicity.
at The Rite” has been the subject of
endless scrutiny. Doubt has been cast on whether it really amounted to a riot at
all; noise, yes, but fist-fights, probably not, though around 40 people are
said to have been thrown out of the theatre. In all likelihood the disapprobation
was directed at Nijinsky’s eccentric and ungainly choreography, rather than
Stravinsky’s efforts; after all, with so much noise, the music was scarcely audible.
Commentators have pointed to all manner of issues at stake that night, from a
faction in attendance that was loyal to Diaghilev’s better-established
choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, to the sensitivities of a French audience
beleaguered by the tense atmosphere that prefigured World War I. But some
composers who heard it were not happy either; Puccini attended on the second
night and dubbed it the work of “a madman”.
emerged from the fracas dispirited; he feared that the hostile reception would
shatter the momentum he had achieved following enthusiastic responses to his first two ballets, The Firebird (1910)
and Petrushka (1911). But just under a
year later, The Rite was rescued when
the conductor Pierre Monteux championed it at the Casino de Paris, purely as a
concert piece. Allowed to stand or fall on its musical merits, The Rite rose triumphant.
Today The Rite of Spring has achieved a
popularity that Stravinsky could only have dreamed of on that notorious first night.
It is a tribute to him that even after a century in which every traditional parameter
of music – tonality, rhythm, melody, sonority – has been subverted or
destroyed, this work has lost none of its power. In a year dominated to excess
by composers’ anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – The Rite, only about half an hour long, is enjoying a similar
celebration in its own right.
anything, its power has increased with familiarity (no doubt helped along when
Disney animated it with volcanoes and dinosaurs in Fantasia). It is a concert staple, a modern classic. Last year the
London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in
Trafalgar Square; a 10,000-strong audience turned out to cheer it on. In the
theatre, numerous choreographers have turned their hand to its
reinterpretation, from Kenneth MacMillan’s geometric marvels to the
heartbreaking terror of Pina Bausch’s version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal.
expect plenty more of it this year. Sadler’s Wells is to stage a celebration
entitled A String of Rites, including Michael Keegan Dolan’s choreography of The Rite for Fabulous Beast, a
large-scale community project and a new, full-evening ballet by Akram Khan,
entitled iTMOi (in the mind of Igor),
with new music by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. And first, the
work features in a concert in The Rest is
Noise, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick
Nézet-Séguin. It’s clear that as it reaches its hundredth birthday Stravinsky’s
most famous score has become as perennial as spring itself.
The Rite of Spring features in
The Rest is Noise at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 February with the London
Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Box office: 0844 875 0073
MUSIC THAT SHOCKED
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
opera changed the face of music when later composers fell under the spell of
its harmonic language; but its eroticism scandalised many listeners. Clara
Schumann wrote: “It was the most repulsive thing...To be forced to see and
listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of
decency is violated …I endured it to the end since I wanted to hear the whole
Georges Bizet: Carmen (1875)
opera was a flop when it first opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. It broke the
conventions of the venue’s repertoire by ending in murder and tragedy; and the
sexually liberated Carmen was regarded as a scandalous, immoral heroine. The
opera’s many admirers included Nietzche and also Tchaikovsky, who was greatly
influenced by it, but Bizet died three months after the world premiere and
never saw its success.
Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)
amplified Oscar Wilde’s play about the lust-maddened princess and her demand for
the head of John the Baptist with music that mixed sensual beauty with
claustrophobic and violent excess. Salome’s final scena over the severed head culminates in a chord that encapsulates
her depravity so thoroughly that tracts have been written about this moment
alone. The opera was banned in London for its first two years. Strauss set out
to shock – and succeeded.
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet
wind from other planets,” runs the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set for
soprano and string quartet in this ground-breaking work. So did its audience.
The planet in question was the final movement’s experiment in “atonality”: a
piece written without any tonal centre, giving an impression of floating,
unrooted dissonance that exists for its own sake rather than for its relativity.
More than a century later, the effect still sounds radical.
John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists,
Adams’s opera fell foul of ferocious international sensitivities. Planned
productions were cancelled and some responses expressed horror that the work
should dare to portray the emotions of characters on both sides. After 9/11, an
article in the New York Times accused
it of “romanticizing terrorism”. Its UK stage premiere finally took place at
English National Opera last year, to considerable acclaim.
It's 20 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan died and the Royal Ballet is about to open a triple bill of his works to mark the anniversary. I had a wonderful talk the other week with his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan, and my piece is out today. Read it in the Indy, here.
In this film, made to introduce the cinecast of Romeo and Juliet earlier this year, and fronted by its Juliet, the lovely Lauren Cuthbertson, the great and good of the company explore the work that is regarded by countless fans as the choreographer's prime masterpiece.
Today I am off to meet someone who could yet turn out to be one of his successors. Watch this space.