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Matthew Hart
Dancer and Choreographer

by Dani Crawford


© Matthew Hart

Hart in reviews

Dani Crawford reviews



Matthew Hart sits across from me half man, half....Toad.  He is in between performances of William Tuckett's “Wind in the Willows”; brilliant green make-up about his eyes, little bumps and knobs drawn in to complete the look.  When he heads back into the Linbury StudioTheatre shortly, he will do what he has been doing since his Royal Ballet days - lighting up the stage with a dynamic burst of energy, charisma, and captivating artistry.  Years of great press will tell you he is not only very good at that – he owns it – much as he owns the role of Toad, which he created. 

And now, at 31 years of age, he can truly embrace a role such as Toad.  But this was not always the case.  In his early years with the Royal Ballet, these would be the types of characters he would find himself perpetually cast to dance. They were all fantastic and rewarding roles which he made memorable to the delight of the company and audiences alike. But he began to feel, all too often, that he was pigeonholed to playing the part of the boy, the woodland or mythic creature, the jester. As it turns out, this Toad wanted more; he wanted to become a Prince.      

Matthew Hart started his amazing journey at age eight, tagging along with his mother to her dance classes. He was invited to join in and before long the teacher suggested he consider a more professional path. Adroit at everything he set out to do - tap, jazz, modern, even learning guitar and piano, he seemed destined for musical theatre. But at age16, when it came time to choose from the numerous schools to which he had been accepted, instead of going with a contemporary or musical theatre programme, he chose the Royal Ballet School. 

 


Matthew Hart as Toad in a publicity shot for Wind in the Willows
© Andy Wale, design by Dewynters


Says Hart on this decision, “I thought, I'll go to the Royal Ballet School for a couple years and I'll really work on my ballet because that will be a great thing to have under my belt, and then I'll go back into theatre.” After being exposed to the Royal Ballet everyday, their rehearsals and performances, watching the Ashton and MacMillan reps, and following favorite dancers, he suddenly found himself swept up into the whole institution of ballet. And he couldn't get enough of it.

Things didn't quite go as he might have planned, however. “I got injured and was out most of my first year. That was when my choreography really took off.  I had choreographed as a child, my own little things, including a solo



"I got injured and was out most of my first year. That was when my choreography really took off."
Matthew Hart

 
for myself in a competition to raise money to come to the Royal Ballet School. That put me in the spotlight as a choreographer as well as a dancer.  When I got injured my first year and didn't have much to do, I started to focus on the choreography. By the time I got to the end of my two years at the Royal Ballet School, having now choreographed classically, I decided my new mission was to get into The Royal Ballet.”

And he did. His rep as a dancer included many of the classics, “The Nutcracker”, “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Giselle”, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella”. He also performed in ballets by Balanchine, Ashton, Tharp, Bintley, and Forsythe, to name just a few. Probably his most important and celebrated role was as Bratfisch in MacMillan's “Mayerling”.

A year after he arrived at the Royal Ballet he was enjoying a promising career as both a dancer and a choreographer. And then, Sir Kenneth MacMillan passed away. “That really left the gateway open for my choreographic career because suddenly The Royal Ballet didn't have its principle choreographer anymore. Prior to that I had already been choreographing for the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet had commissioned me to do my first professional ballet. Now suddenly there was this slot in the rep where Kenneth had been commissioned to do a new work and it was left open; so I was given the opportunity to do my first work there in 1993.”

Eager, hungry, with an enormous amount of energy and determination, he took quickly to the increased responsibilities as a choreographer. At the same time, his dancing had taken off as well and he received notable press in everything he danced. There seemed to be no limits to what this wunderkind could do....or so it seemed. But as time passed on and his remarkable career became something that dreams were truly made of, there slowly grew an unhappy underside to it all, one that became harder to ignore with each passing year.

“I'd been getting a great deal of attention for both my dancing and choreography. But there came a point where I was doing so much choreography, I was having a hard time keeping up with the dancing and was getting injured a lot. I began to feel like my choreographic career was taking over, which was fine in one sense because I absolutely loved it



"I was receiving a lot of attention for my work and that was wonderful. But I started to think about my dancing; thinking that maybe I was losing out"
Matthew Hart

 
and I was doing really well at it. I was getting so much work. I was doing ballets basically everywhere in this country, all the different ballet companies and for the all schools.”

He was in fact doing so much, and all of it so well, that he was heralded by many as the country's next great choreographer. “I was receiving a lot of attention for my work and that was wonderful. But I started to think about my dancing; thinking that maybe I was losing out. Don't get me wrong, I was having a brilliant dance career, getting great press, but I wasn't doing nearly enough of it. I wanted to do more and what I really wanted was to do serious roles. I was tired of playing the boy. I wanted to be a man.”

So too, while he had a great passion for creating work, he had never had any guidance in how to work with people and therefore going into the studio to work with the dancers in a position of authority, became a painful experience. “As a choreographer I had a lot of difficulty with the dancers that I was working with. I was very young, I was inexperienced as far as managing people, and I was a perfectionist.  I was so passionate and so driven.  I expected everyone to be as committed, to be as serious about my work as I was. Everyone was committed in their own way



"I was given a lot of opportunities; I was pushed and encouraged, but I don't know whether I was supported emotionally or mentally."
Matthew Hart

 
of course, but nobody was going to be as sensitive about my work as I and so I would go into the studio with very high expectations and inevitably come out let down.”

“Looking back now, I think that was a mistake on my part; that was too much to expect. It really wasn't anybody's fault. It was just the situation. Without putting down the establishment there, I was given a lot of opportunities; I was pushed and encouraged, but I don't know whether I was supported emotionally or mentally. I was supported artistically and professionally in the sense that I was given everything on a plate. I was allowed to go into the studio and do whatever I wanted. Nobody checked up on me or asked me do you need an assistant? Do you need someone to guide you through this? And at the same time, I was giving off vibes like I could do it on my own. And I was doing it on my own. But I think had I had guidance, had I had a mentor, I might have been easier to work with.”

Hart felt increasingly separated from his peers. He also believed that because he choreographed, none of the other choreographers at the time would use him in their new works. He wasn't, therefore, getting the kind of roles that he needed to explore the deeper creative side that he knew lay within. “I felt I could be a serious artist. And I also wanted the chance to grow up actually, because a lot the stuff I did there was very sort of the cute kind of character roles. And they were great roles, but I felt I could do more than that. If I stayed, every time those ballets



"Looking back now it does seem like madness."
On leaving RB for Rambert

 
came back, I knew I would always be doing those roles and I would never get the opportunity to do anything more serious.”

Professionally successful but personally unhappy, he decided to make a very daring change. He left the Royal Ballet in 1996 for Rambert to pursue a contemporary dance career. Says Hart, “Looking back now it does seem like madness. I was getting a name for myself. I was becoming very, very successful and I left right where it was really going somewhere. And even though I was getting a lot of critical acclaim for my choreography at the time, I decided I was going to stop for a couple of years and focus on dance. I knew it would be a humbling experience for me coming from an establishment where I was a big fish and going to an establishment where I was going to be the new person. But it would give me a chance to reacquaint with people. I would be one of the dancers; I would be an equal.”

“The moment I got to Rambert, I got a chance to learn the most fantastic repertoire of dancing roles. I got to work with Jiri Kylian and I got to dance in most of Chris Bruce's rep.” He also danced Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp, amongst others. In works such as “Cruel Garden”, he finally got to let loose the serious artistic side to his dancing that had been bottled up for so long. And it was indeed an incredible experience. But after a point, and a creative outlet channeled mostly through dance, his spirits began to sag again. He missed choreography.

From the start, Christopher Bruce had made it clear the company would not support his choreographic career. With Rambert's packed schedule, there was scarce time to put into creating freelance work. After a couple of years his hunger, his drive to get his teeth into more than just one thing, began to gnaw away at him. Slowly, his confidence as a choreographer began to erode. “I felt I had lost my ability to choreograph because I hadn't really done very much of it. It just sort of slipped away. I hadn't been getting very much experience and was no longer growing as an artist creatively.” While the four years at Rambert were very rewarding and tremendous for him as a dancer, they would exact a toll on him all the same.

By 2000 he was burned out, exhausted, depressed and his self esteem was at an all time low. Not sure what direction to turn, at the age of 28, he decided to quit dance all together. He needed to take time off and figure out what it was he really wanted. It proved to be the best possible move for him. As he kept up ballet classes, his old injuries healed, and he got himself physically better. He took on a couple small projects, very low key. And after a year off, he was indeed physically mended, but his emotional fortitude would soon be put to the test as it came time for him to honor a previous commitment made four years earlier, to create a full length ballet, “Mulan”, in Hong Kong.

Terrified at the prospect? Says Hart, “I thought, my god, I've got to go out to Hong Kong and choreograph a three act ballet from scratch and I have no confidence, I'm very insecure, and thinking I'm not going to be able to do it because I haven't choreographed anything on that scale in four or five years. But I went out there. And I did it. It was a great success though it nearly killed me off. You know, it was really, really hard work and at a time where, again, I just felt like I needed someone to hold my hand. I didn't have that emotional support. But it was also a really good thing because I came away from Hong Kong thinking no, I can still do it. I've still got it in me. It was a boost.”

 


Matthew Hart
© Matthew Hart


Meanwhile, two other former Royal Ballet dancers, William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, had just formed their own company, George Piper Dances, and were looking for another motivated, highly creative, self starter for their opening season.  It was to be an incredibly exciting new company with classically based modern dance. The timing was perfect as Matthew had just returned from Hong Kong and he was keen to join on. With GPD he would dance in works by Forsythe, Maliphant, Bourne, Lightfoot, Linehan, Khan, as well as Trevitt and Nunn. Again he would be able to show off his serious and creative side. He would also choreograph a new work of his own, “other mens wives”, for the company. He hadn't planned on staying beyond the opening season, but ended up with the company for two years.

“I really, really enjoyed it, having not danced for a year.  It was especially good for the first year because it was what I needed.  They are so laid back and easy to work for and it was great.  But what ended up happening was once I found my feet again I started thinking I want more. I'm hungry. I'm feeling confident again. Plus, as my commitment was with them, I wasn't able to take on other things as I would have liked to have done.  There were a couple exceptions, 'Toad' being one of them (2002), and then working with Adam Cooper in “Sea of Troubles” in Washington (2003). The work was great but there just wasn't enough of it.  I wanted to be out there doing more.  It was a difficult decision to make, but I decided to go freelance.”

Immediately he was called back to Japan, this time to work with Tetsuya Kumakawa and 'K-Ballet' for their Summer Season 2003. He not only danced as a guest artist but created a ballet for the company as well. He then worked with Adam Cooper and Company at The Exeter Festival dancing in works by Darrell and Cooper, and in a piece he created for himself, “Solo”.

This past winter has been a very exciting one for Matthew. At this writing, he will have finished another critically acclaimed run of “Wind in The Willows” and taken on Cathy Marston's “Before the Tempest, After the



"Boy did I ever prepare for it, I went off and had all these singing lessons and then did this audition in front of Cameron Mackintosh, Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre"
on auditioning for Mary Poppins

 
Storm”. He also had his first ever singing audition for the role of Bert in “Mary Poppins”.

“Boy did I ever prepare for it,” says Hart. “I went off and had all these singing lessons and then did this audition in front of Cameron Mackintosh, Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre.  They were absolutely over the moon with my audition.”  Indeed, Mackintosh handed out some pretty high praise commenting that Matthew was the best song and dance man he had seen in years!

So how does one respond to such a compliment from one of the world's most renowned impresarios?  Well, obviously it signals the way for a whole new career for him.  And that is what he is now leaning towards.  “I want to keep up the serious dancing.  I don't want to let that go.  But I am really ready to take on something new where I can use my voice, where I can act and dance. ”

He has been auditioning for other musicals and has recently signed on to do the role of the composer, Sidney Cohn, in Adam Cooper's, “On Your Toes”, which heads to Japan shortly. This June he is back working again with William Tuckett on “The Soldier's Tale”, in which he plays the Devil, a role that incorporates both speaking and dancing. There's a strong possibility of a West End musical role for him later this year and further in the future, he hopes to dance The Swan in Matthew Bourne's “Swan Lake” and maybe a key role in another spectacular Bourne production, “Edward Scissorhands”.

And what of his choreography? “I am still trying to get over being told that I was going to be the next great



"I am still trying to get over being told that I was going to be the next great choreographer in this country."
Matthew Hart

 
choreographer in this country.  I think when you are very young and everyone is telling you that, you can't help but believe it. The intentions are good but the pressure becomes huge. I went away thinking that I had failed because my career had not gone the way that everyone had been telling me it would; because I hadn't followed the path I had been shown to follow.”

“Everything happens for a reason.  Right now I have another chance to really focus on my career as a performer. And I still associate choreography with being a very difficult experience, not creatively, but in dealing with people. Those experiences have scarred me a bit, and so the pressure and responsibility of being in charge again, it scares me. Which is really weird because when I was 19 years old and I was doing everything, there wasn't a fearful bone in my body; it all came with such ease.  But that's being young. That's being naive. I know a lot more now and I can no longer rely on the fact that I am a protégé, the young, new beginner. I'm not that anymore.  But who knows, maybe a bit further down the line I will just wake up one day and say, you know, what I really want to do is create 'this'.” 

Whatever his insecurities and self doubts these days, it's not apparent from the outside. In fact, it is hard to imagine he could actually have a fearful bone in his body. He's patently cheerful, has an infectious enthusiasm and like it or not, he still has those boyish good looks and an irresistible charm to match. Nonetheless, he insists he is not as confident as he comes across. He has taken one step to help bolster himself in that regard, however. He has finally hired an agent, not only to put the word out there for him, but perhaps too, to fill the role of a mentor of sorts. He is not shy to admit that he has always felt that he needed someone to watch out for him, hold his hand, to



"I'm the sort of dancer that I can never do half measures."
Matthew Hart

 
nurture him both artistically and personally. This is something he feels he has always lacked in his career. Hopefully, he has found just that.

As our conversation winds down, we talk just a bit about Toad and the similarities between the two of them. “I'm the sort of dancer that I can never do half measures. I'm either all or nothing. I'm never in the middle, even when I'm training. Toad is the epitome of 'all' - in the sense that he is full on. And I too have to be full on in everything I do. Of course,” he laughs, “Toad is also selfish and self-centered. Still, you can't help but love him.” And certainly, one cannot help but love Matthew Hart.

Matthew and his 'Toad' head out now to take the stage and will soon elicit all manner of laughter and giggles from an adoring audience. And this will be music to his ears. But these days there is far more contentment, both professionally and personally, in such recognition. And as for being a Prince...well, he might want to notch that up a level to King, because he just may be set to rule the West End and beyond, in the not so distant future.


** Matthew has been the recipient of numerous awards for dance and choreography including the Cosmopolitan/C&A Dance Award in 1988, the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award in 1991, the Frederick Ashton Choreographic Award in 1994, and the Jerwood Foundation Award for Choreographers in 1996. A film was made of his choreographic work, 'Peter and the Wolf' for BBC in 1996. In 1999 he was nominated for 'Outstanding Achievement in Dance by the Barclays Theatre Awards. He has choreographed ballets for such companies as Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, The Royal Ballet School, The English National Ballet School, National Youth Dance, London Studio Centre, London City Ballet, Dance Umbrella, London Studio Theatre, the 'K' Ballet, George Piper Dances, Hong Kong Ballet, and Ballet Deutsch Oper am Rhein. This year he was selected for entry into the prestigious Times' Who's Who list.

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