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About the Change

Edward Watson

First Soloist, Royal Ballet

by Mandy Kent

© Bill Cooper

Watson reviews

Royal Ballet web site

Mandy Kent reviews

Interview and words by Mandy Kent. Bruce Marriott sat in.

On a darkened stage, four video projections of Edward Watson dressed in white singlet and pants, gradually come into focus and enlarge. With his fine-boned face and flaming red hair he really stands out. Striding, full of fierce energy, the real Watson arrives centre stage and just erupts into an explosive, breathtaking, solo.

This is Qualia, a ‘raw sensory experience’ created by Wayne McGregor, and if you had never noticed Watson before, you'd now be riveted to your seat. The Watson style is about power, inner strength and gracefulness - it makes for a heady mix.

Many noticed Edward last year in critically-acclaimed performances such as the Friend in Judas Tree, the central role of the soldier in Gloria and the Messenger of Death in Song of the Earth. His dramatic gifts brought each of these very different roles to life, each performance powerfully compelling.

In person he is down-to-earth, funny and modest with a self-deprecating charm. When we met one afternoon at the Royal Opera House, he arrived clutching a rapidly congealing toasted sandwich and a can of drink, as he hadn't had time for lunch.

It was during the run of the Polyphonia Triple Bill performances and he had a role in each ballet; Polyphonia, The Four Temperaments and Sinfonietta, sometimes appearing in all three on the same night, which must be quite an exhausting feat! There had already been some very complimentary reviews in the papers, particularly of his ‘Phlegmatic’ variation in The Four Temperaments. Just how does he remember all those steps? “I do find it hard; I think that’s the most exhausting thing, rather than doing anything physically. At the end of rehearsals I run through it all in my head, I find that helps me to learn it better... if I can visualize it, then I know it.”


Edward Watson in The Four Temperaments
© Bill Cooper

He had some very tricky steps to visualize when he appeared in McGregor’s Qualia, part of the innovative programme of new works on the main stage. McGregor is famous for his quirky and extreme style, to which Edward's flexibility and speed are particularly suited. The closing duet also featured Edward, partnering Leanne Benjamin in an eerily erotic finale, full of intense concentration and those amazing extensions that make his limbs seem even longer.

He has worked with McGregor before: “I’ve made Symbiont(s) and then Brainstate, and I’ve done a short film with him. It’s interesting the way he works compared to other people, because for a long time you’re just learning enchainements, a whole routine everybody learns, until at the final stages of putting a piece together he’ll say ‘Right you do that’. What you’ve all been doing together could become a solo for you, or it could turn into a duet, you never know how it’s going to turn out, so you spend your whole time making sure you know ALL the material. It’s a really different way of moving as well, you can’t put a name to half of it, you can’t say ‘Can we go from the jete?’ you say ‘Can we go from that funny wiggle with the head!’. Wayne is very patient with us; he gives us a lot of time to learn it, because it is so different; he’s very good like that. ”

Edward was born in Bromley in 1976 and grew up in Dartford with his twin sister. They started ballet classes together at the tender age of three. At eleven, Edward was accepted into the Royal Ballet School at White Lodge. “I found it really hard to start with, not particularly being away from home, though that was difficult, but the competition aspect. I was the only boy in the local school, so of course I could do everything, then suddenly you see all these other people who can do it all better! I’m not a particularly competitive person anyway, though I’m quite motivated, but to be in that situation for the first time at the age of eleven isn’t easy. It took me a long time to get used to it.”

He joined the Royal Ballet Company in 1994. His first roles as a student included the back row of La Valse, and the Mazurka in Sleeping Beauty “As Rapunzel’s Prince in a blue wig and thigh length silver boots!” he laughs." Then in my second year for the company I featured in a thing that Ashley Page made called Sleeping with Audrey for a mini-tour and that was my first created role and the first featured thing I did.

I’d always loved Ashley’s work. I think he had done Fearful Symmetries the year before I joined the company, and I thought I’d love to move like that. I thought the company looked great. There were people like me and Laura (Morera) and Ricardo (Cervera), and those were our first roles ... I don’t think people would have seen us or what we were like as individuals if it hadn’t been for him."


Edward Watson in MacMillan's Images of Love
© Bill Cooper

He has also appeared in many of Cathy Marston’s pieces, such as Traces and Unstrung Tension and in pieces by Matthew Hart and Christopher Wheeldon. Edward does seem to be most associated with more modern pieces and has particularly loved dancing in these created roles, enjoying the close personal connection. However, he doesn’t want to be type-cast in the roles he undertakes. “I think, because when I joined I worked with Ashley Page a lot when I was young that very much shaped the way people saw me. I don’t think anybody saw me do anything classical for a long time, so they just saw the way that I moved and said ‘Oh, it’s not by-the-book classical’. It doesn’t mean that I can’t do it though, because actually my classical technique is fine.”

The new roles continue into 2004. Romeo, a role coveted by male dancers world-wide, is his for the very first time. Taking on Romeo's mantle, a role danced by Nureyev and Dowell, is very important to him and he is committed to making the most of this opportunity. “I feel maybe it will make me be taken more seriously; I feel like it’s the next step that I should take, if I’m going to have any kind of development, and I’m really excited.” Jonathan Cope, a veteran Romeo himself, will be teaching him but Ed intends to bring his own unique stamp to the role... “I think I’m going to have to!”

He will start rehearsals in the New Year, and is thrilled to be taking the leading role in this most famous of ballets by one of his favourite choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan. "I have really loved doing the MacMillan work I've done; I just find it fascinating and I felt like I've grown or learnt something every time. It's never the same twice and you always find something in it to make you think."

In preparation he has been watching other performers whilst on stage himself as Benvolio or Paris. He has also been watching the video of Wayne Eagling whom he greatly admires. He knows the play very well “I studied it at school, and I will re-read it and re-think. It’s actually the first dramatic role that I’ve done that has a really clear narrative. There are definite thoughts that I have about the role and I’m looking forward to it.”

His Juliet is Lauren Cuthbertson, less than 2 years with the company, and she will be making her debut too. He and Lauren have danced together before though, in Polyphonia for example. They are both very expressive dancers and there seems to be a budding partnership developing. He finds her both intuitive and easy going, a perfect combination!


Mara Galeazzi and Edward Watson in The Judas Tree
© Dee Conway

Does he find the prospect of a first night daunting? “I love first nights, I get really excited, but then I get that horrible feeling of a second show, if there was any way of not doing a second show! You always try and be the same as the first or you think it’s not going to be as good so you put all this extra pressure on yourself and things go wrong, but I love first nights!” Tickets are already selling well for both the matinee on the 12th and the evening performance on 16th April; and without doubt his first night as Romeo will be an exciting prospect for us all.

For all Edward's hard work, one of the ever present realities is that companies move and change and the Royal particularly has been hiring several new men from abroad at first soloist and principal levels. He emphasised strongly that it is irrelevant where a dancer has come from and that it is very important not to create a divide between British trained dancers and those from overseas. At the same time he realises that competition for roles will be increased, but “As we said before, I’m on all the time, I’m in a lot, and I think people might get bored of seeing me, I don’t want it to be ‘Oh that’s Ed Watson again’. I’m getting to a stage where I’d rather dance really well than dance a lot. I love being involved in as much as I can be, but at some point I think something’s got to give because I think people will get bored. I would hate that to happen. ”

Since Edward tends to catch your eye, even when dancing in a minor role, the chance of an audience yawning through his performance seems highly unlikely. However, perhaps it is frustrating for him to dance the smaller roles such as in the 'pas d’action' in La Bayadere? “It was just the way they cast it this time, it was all really highly cast, soloists and first soloists. That’s what it is, that’s my job and I’m not in a position to say ‘I’m not going to do that’, and I wouldn’t actually, because I enjoyed it... and I just loved that turban! ”

Given Edward’s obvious delight in dressing up, it came as no surprise to find that he had made his debut as a model in a fashion shoot for GQ magazines September 2003 edition. “I had just been on the cover of ‘Culture’, the Sunday Times magazine, and I do Pilates twice a week with Dreas, in Notting Hill, and one of his other clients is the fashion editor of GQ. She was looking at me and she just approached me at the end and said ‘Oh I’d really love to have you in the magazine; I’ve had this idea of doing 10 pages in the new suits for the next season’. I finished rehearsing here at 5.30 pm one evening and we went to the studios and worked from about 6.00pm until 3.00 in the morning! Christina Arestis went too; they said ‘We’re thinking of having a girl in it, so I said ‘Oh I know someone.’ I needed a bit of support, my friend will do it! ”


Edward Watson in Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
© Bill Cooper

The photographs are sepia tinted with a 1940’s feel, and make Edward look very dashing. In the final photograph he is in his birthday suit, with Christina draped modestly around him. How did he come to pose nude? Apparently it was proposed that in the final photograph Christina would model the suit whilst he wore nothing. “I thought that was quite funny, it made me laugh, the thought of it, and having just taken my clothes off for Anthony Crickmay , (I did a series of photos with him, very tasteful...) I thought, ‘I’ve done that before, I’ll do it!’ but I just wanted it over, at 3.00 in the morning, it was the last picture, and I think that’s about the only picture they got where we weren’t laughing! I’m not sure my Mum was too pleased, I did tell her and I sent her a copy, she said ‘Oh yes, I don’t know what was going on in the last picture but you looked nice’, so that was it! First time she’s seen me in a suit I think!”

Edward benefits greatly from his Pilates class in other ways; he has great respect for his teacher, Dreas Reyneke, who has helped to train many ballet dancers in Pilates technique. “I really like working with him, he’s got such an amazing eye. Since I’ve been working with him, my body has changed, I feel much stronger and my balance is different. He comes to watch performances and says helpful things. It’s just that I have to go at 8 am, to fit it all in! I do weight training with him too, so I’m getting there, but it’s hard when I’ve been working here all day. I've had 2 months now when I’ve not had lunch breaks and I’ve been working to my limits, but it’s not always like that, it goes in stages.”

Despite working such long hours and spending his spare time sleeping at the moment, Edward likes to step out of the intense world of performing now and again to meet friends, catch up with a film, or go to the theatre. He doesn’t smoke and says he doesn’t have time to drink either. He hardly seems to have time to eat, having arrived at our 3.30pm appointment with his lunch! Hopefully he had a few minutes to eat that very cold toasted sandwich before commencing his next rehearsal in a very long and busy day.

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