It seems an exceptionally good moment for homegrown ballet talent in Britain. The Royal Ballet School alone is producing a remarkable number of excellent dancers, many tipped for the top. Two of these are Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball who will make a joint début, as the young lovers Romeo and Juliet, with the Royal Ballet on 3 October.
21-year-old Matthew speaks with a soft Liverpudlian accent,
My dad is from Liverpool and my mum moved there from Newcastle when she met my father.
Matthew is from a theatrical background. His father, Chris, is drama advisor to the city of Liverpool and an honorary research fellow at Liverpool University, though it was his mother, Liz, who was more influential on putting him on the path to Covent Garden.
My mum didn’t actually dance professionally, but she did spend a year at White Lodge, attended the Italia Conti Academy, and went on to teach A-level dance. So she took me and my two older siblings to class. The other two did it for a while, but my brother hated it, my sister liked it a little, and I happened to be the one who really took to it. It just went on from there… a progression really.
So what does Mum think, now that he’s dancing lead roles on one of the world’s most prestigious stages?
I don’t think she imagined it for one second. She didn’t have it in her head to be a pushy ballet mum, and she certainly didn’t need for one of her children to become a ballet dancer, but I’m sure she’s incredibly proud and excited.
In fact, it wasn’t his mother who suggested him auditioning for White Lodge, The Royal Ballet School’s base in Richmond Park. Gaynor Zwaagstra, who was his dance teacher at the time, had trained at the School and suggested that he should give it a try.
I wasn’t forced into anything as from a young age I’ve always been competitive and serious about what I do. My mum was homesick when she left home for White Lodge so I think she was probably quite reluctant to let me go to be honest… I mean, a kid of 11. I wanted to though. I insisted, I think.
Matthew told a local paper at the time,
Homesickness doesn’t put me off because dancing is what I really want to do; it’s everything to me.
So he packed his bags and headed south to London and White Lodge, which has been home to The Royal Ballet School’s younger students since the 1950s. He didn’t look back.
It’s was a surreal experience. A closed environment in the middle of a fantastic park, living in what was a royal hunting lodge… it’s out of this world really, perfect for intensive training. There’s very little outside influence, so you are in London but you could be anywhere. White Lodge is fab: the friends I made there and the experiences that I had… it’s one-of-a-kind really.
He soon found himself on stage with The Royal Ballet, because in December 2006 he was given that role that all young boys covet – the role of Fritz in The Nutcracker. However, for most of his first five years in London, he was immersed in the greenery of London’s Richmond Park. Then it was time to pack his bags and transfer to central London for his final three years.
When you move on from White Lodge to the upper school in Covent Garden, it’s a huge shock to the system. We were suddenly dancing with lots of international students, right in the middle of Covent Garden – a world apart.
Encountering the foreign students brought 16-year-old Matthew up short.
The international students coming into the school scared me, to be frank, by how good they were and how far ahead of us they were, because they seemed to have developed much quicker with the sort of training that they’d done. We had boys from Mexico, Portugal, Colombia, Japan and Australia and all of them had a very mature kind of body and technique already. That was certainly a shock to my system.
But it was a shock that stimulated action, and made him even more determined.
I don’t think I could be the dancer that I am today without having been surrounded by the quality of those dancers throughout my training. Having said that, I was also around Yasmine, Frankie [Hayward] and the like, so you build up a collective force with these groups of people. The inspiration you get through being with such people and how it affects you is important.