Who, I wonder aloud, would play Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood in the stage version of his life?
His is pretty much the perfect narrative arc; the sensitive black teenager growing up on a gang-ridden housing project on the outskirts of Washington DC, whose mother urges him to apply for admission to a performing arts school. There’s the bungled audition, the serendipitous glimpse of girls in the corridor practising the splits, his polite-yet-bold approach to the ballet teacher. The inevitable out-of-hand rejection he (politely) declines to accept.
Then the try-out. The dizzying demonstration of unschooled yet coruscating talent. The scholarship to a ballet boarding school full of wealthy WASPs…And that’s long before we get to Paris, Milan, dancing with Beyoncé or his recent intemperate outburst that ballet dancers smoke, drink and have one night stands just like regular people.
Now who could possibly convey all that? While also executing the sort of technical brilliance that makes seasoned critics reach for the superlatives - once, that is, they’ve remembered to breathe? “Me!” cries Underwood. “Me, I hope! I have a vision of my journey told as a sort of Billy Elliott update, featuring kids from backgrounds and ethnicities that aren’t usually associated with ballet. When you travel in a crowded carriage on the Piccadilly line and look at all the faces, is that fabulous diversity reflected in the performers you see on the stage at Covent Garden? No, it’s not.”
True, but when you’re gazing up from the stalls, ballet is about magic and fantasy, nutcrackers , swans and Don Quixote’s mythical beasts, not night workers and tourists, suits and mothers with buggies.
However fascinating Underground passengers are as individuals, surely ballet is all about precision, conformity and, yes, uniformity? The corps de ballet, as the name suggests is meant to be one body. “That’s true up to a point, but we need to push boundaries and connect more with people who think ballet isn’t for them because they can’t identify with the identikit dancers,” says Underwood.
Aged 31, he is very much a one-off. Dressed in a thick knitted polo neck and skinny jeans, he has just polished off bacon and waffles for breakfast. (He credits porridge, pasta and protein as his staple diet as “hates vegetables.”)He is handsome - all over, apparently, given that he posed for a full frontal nude portrait in GQ Style - charismatic and likeable, an altogether rarer combination than you might suppose.
He models, he choreographed a film for Vivienne Westwood and is in talks about making his debut on prime time television (although is cagey about the detail). He is currently in talks with Britain’s best known ballerina, Darcey Bussell, whose tenure as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing has elevated her to national treasure status. Could it be that they will dance together?
“I can’t divulge what we are discussing, but let’s just say it’s something to look forward to around Christmas time,” grins Underwood. Quite so. Underwood’s reputation is growing as a mesmerising soloist. Standing 6ft 2ins, initially the Royal Ballet suggested he might be better off in Stuttgart where the male dancers are taller than in Britain.
But Bad-Wurttemberg’s loss is Covent Garden’s gain, and since his arrival from New York in 2007, Underwood has gained British citizenship.“I feel at home in London, in Britain, it’s a very accepting, open and welcoming society,” he says.He has danced leads in the likes of Swan Lake, Sylvia and Manon and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and is about to take on the role of Tybalt in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House.
He’s cool, lives in fashionable Shoreditch, is a dedicated club-goer and has three tattoos (a dragon on his stomach, a question mark on his ribs and another he keeps under wraps). He’s flamboyant but thoughtful with it and possesses a gentleness at odds with the “fags, booze and casual sex” remarks he made to the achingly hip magazine Disorder.
“Those were generalisations,” he stresses when I inquire whether his knuckles were rapped for also questioning the elitist and “snobbish” attitudes of the ballet world.“What I meant was that we are people who have an existence away from the stage. Do I drink? Sure I do, especially cocktails, but only at weekends. Do I eat cheeseburgers? Yes, because I burn up so much energy every day.”
And the, ahem, how can I put this delicately, the casual sex bit? After all, he did bring it up in the first place. Underwood demurs.“I’m not interested in talking about that side of my life,” he says carefully, with an ameliatory smile. “But I do take issue with the cliched Black Swan movie depictions of ballet dancers starving themselves and torturing their bodies and being entirely cocooned in a rarified bubble.“
Yes, ballet is about perfection - and you spend eight or nine hours a day trying to achieve it - but it’s unreasonable and unhelpful to expect dancers to be perfect. Ballet is one of the few art forms that still retains its mystique (and, arguably, is all the better for it) but Underwood would gladly trade classic decorum for freshness and accessibility.
“On stage you’re trying to please people who are familiar with the technical aspect of our job but you also want the whole audience to see what’s happening in your heart. I think that is possibly more important than how many times you can turn around or how high you can lift your leg.”
The Strictly effect has witnessed a dramatic shift in public perceptions of ballroom. As a result, the public are more aware not just of the mechanics but the emotional component of dance.“Even if you are dancing a role or doing something that’s new and contemporary and choreography created for you, you still have to convey emotion,” says Underwood. “That might be vulnerability, love or anger. There is always a message.”
Underwood’s personal message is one of dance and diversity; reaching out to youngsters from communities for whom ballet is as foreign as it is to the young protagonist of Billy Elliot. It has as much to do with socioeconomic background as race.
“When you are a child there is nothing more powerful than having someone say ‘I believe in you’,” says Underwood. “That doesn’t happen to a lot of children. Sure, I was poor growing up, there was gun crime - a man was shot dead on our porch - and sometimes we would sit in the dark if there was no money for electricity, but I was loved unconditionally and so I never doubted myself.”
Underwood’s sister drives a school bus. His brother is a furniture remover. But his mother saw a creative spark in her other son and decided unilaterally that he should be an actor. She enrolled him for an audition at a performing arts school. Aged 14, he froze in his audition and couldn’t speak. Afterwards he was so worried about his mother’s reaction that he approached a dance teacher and ask to join her class.“She said, ‘this is for trained dancers only,’ and I said ‘if you show me I can do it,’” says Underwood.
His natural ability was immediately obvious and thanks to grants and bursaries he was sent to a ballet boarding school.“It was a culture shock for me,” he says. “The other kids came from very different homes; their houses had elevators and staff and they received lavish boxes of clothes and luxuries from home. Right then I knew that to have any chance I would have to be the best, so that’s what I strove to be; because there was no Plan B for me.”
He worked the 6am shift in a local gym, handing out towels and locker keys, before turning up for 10am ballet class. Hard graft holds no fear, and since he graduated he’s never been out of work.“I’ve never stopped moving, really, I don’t know what would happen if I did; I might seize up!” he muses. “I get occasional aches and pains; I’m what’s known as a ‘strong man’ so I do a lot of lifting and carrying of ballerinas. But they have a far tougher time when it comes to the state of their feet.”
He has danced with Beyonce at a charity event in the Jacob Javit’s Centre in New York, and was impressed by the singer’s application“She was fantastic, she wanted to master the steps and movements and do them properly rather than faffing about,” he recalls. “As a perfectionist, I love nothing better than working with another perfectionist.”
Ah yes, the “p” word again. It’s hard to escape, much as he tries. Yet it’s quite refreshing to meet an artist of his calibre who isn’t intense and exclusively focused on “the work” and sees himself in a wider role in a bigger picture. I hope his Royal Ballet paymasters will harness his energy and enthusiasm off as well as on stage.
“I’m not being facetious; I absolutely love dancing, but I’m not exactly curing cancer, am I?” he smiles, mischievously. “To convey truth you need to live truthfully; be human, with weaknesses and strengths and have all sorts of experiences.”
Including tattoos, cocktails and, of course, the odd ballet number with Beyonce.