May 062011

The Times talked to Pen­nefather on the eve of his 30th birth­day and his début in :

Never under­es­tim­ate the import­ance of look­ing good in white tights — says Debra Craine. For a male bal­let dan­cer it’s a cru­cial part of the job descrip­tion. So lucky . He’s got that aspect of the job well and truly sor­ted. At 6 ft 1in, with a per­fectly pro­por­tioned bal­let physique and a nat­ural princely bear­ing, the prin­cipal dan­cer cuts a hand­some fig­ure on stage. Be it one of the 19th century’s many princes or one of the 20th century’s tra­gic her­oes, Pen­nefather is the quint­es­sen­tial romantic lead­ing man.
Even if he doesn’t think so. “People tell me that I suit the prince roles, that I have a cer­tain stance or some­thing,” he says. “It’s nice to hear that and it’s very encour­aging, it means I don’t have to panic about play­ing a prince. But I don’t think about myself when I’m on stage, or about how I look, espe­cially with all the makeup they put me in. Gor­geous? I cer­tainly don’t feel it.”

Pen­nefather has a spe­cial qual­ity on stage — heart­felt emo­tions com­bined with a vel­vet touch as a part­ner — that is a rare and valu­able com­mod­ity. And until I saw his Lysander in The Dream, who knew that he had such a flair for romantic com­edy? He is also one of only two Brit­ish men in the prin­cipal ranks (the other is ) and as a res­ult one has to add “homegrown hero” to his CV. “I feel a respons­ib­il­ity as an Eng­lish dan­cer,” he admits, “but I also don’t want to let the stand­ard drop because there have been such great Eng­lish dan­cers here: , Jonathan Cope, Bruce Sansom. So yes, there is a pres­sure not to let audi­ences down, but I enjoy that pressure.”

There will be plenty of that tomor­row when two sig­ni­fic­ant events in his life take place on the same day. At the mat­inée per­form­ance of Manon he will make his debut as Des Grieux, the love­sick stu­dent whose life is ruined by the greedy cour­tesan at the heart of ’s pas­sion­ate block­buster. Tomor­row is also Pennefather’s 30th birthday.

On Manon:

It is the role I have always wanted to do. Manon scares me because it has such con­trolled solos and the pas de deux are quite tricky, but it’s scary and excit­ing. Des Grieux is such a good part, though it feels scary to be doing it on my birth­day. No cham­pagne break­fast for me, that’s for sure. I really enjoy dan­cing with Sarah [Lamb, also mak­ing her début]. I feel very com­fort­able work­ing with her. Phys­ic­ally we are well matched and I think she will be really good in the role.”

On turn­ing 30:

I’m upset about being 30 only because a male dancer’s career gen­er­ally fin­ishes in his thirties. In your twen­ties you feel as if you have all the time in the world; in your thirties sud­denly it’s a count­down. The back starts to go, the arabesque goes. But I have a large amount of rep­er­toire under my belt, I have learnt many roles, so now I can give more time to the artistic side of things. I can work on per­haps light­en­ing up on stage, which I have been told I need to do, and not look­ing so moody. So in my thirties I will try to develop my roles and have some fun on stage.”

On the :

The bal­let teach­ers were quite enthu­si­astic and quite sup­port­ive, but the aca­demic side of things was always a prob­lem for me. It was a struggle because I am dys­lexic and found it very dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate and there wasn’t the sup­port that there is now for dys­lexic kids. Even now it takes me a very long time to read any­thing. There are cer­tain tech­niques you can do to help your­self, so I can read but it takes me a lot longer than other people.

I also developed more slowly as a dan­cer because I think it takes taller boys a bit longer for it all to click together. Smal­ler boys have more con­trol and more aware­ness of their bod­ies; taller boys are gangly and a bit weak, at least that’s what I found. It took a year of private coach­ing for me to feel like I was get­ting anywhere.”

Pen­nefather pho­to­graphed by Tim Cross for the Dan­cing Times

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