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
He's rather lovely - intelligent and self-aware, under that youthful bravado - and I couldn't help teasing him a little when he started talking about how he envies the street life of his former school friend back in Kherson, Ukraine, whom he encountered "walking around in a gang, looking cool". I asked where he lives and he named a reasonably rough bit of north London. Plenty of gangs there, I said. I'm sure they'd have you, what with the tattoos and all. Fortunately he recognises that he can't risk breaking a leg. Still, he's already seen more of real life in his 21 short years than many of ballet (and music)'s practitioners will experience in twice that.