James Hay makes his debut in Monotones on the 24 November 2015. His debut as the Young Man in The Two Pigeons is on the 5 December (matinee). Details of Monotones I and II / The Two Pigeons bill.
You can catch James Hay and Francesca Hayward dancing the lead roles in Rhapsody on 16 January 2016 and 30 January, matinee. Bill details.
The Royal Ballet’s 2015/2016 season is providing big opportunities for James Hay, promoted to First Soloist in June. His breakthrough came when he first danced Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody with Francesca Hayward two years ago. They are scheduled to dance it again in January 2016 in a double bill with The Two Pigeons. By then, he will have made his Pigeons debuts in a December matinee.
Until he was cast in the leading role in Rhapsody, Hay’s youthful career since joining the company in 2008 had been mainly in ‘jester’ roles: Puck in The Dream, Kolya in A Month in the Country, Alain in La Fille mal gardée, The Fool in Prince of the Pagodas, lead Mandolin Dancer in Romeo and Juliet. Did he feel frustrated at rarely being given weightier roles?
‘I did feel categorised in those roles as one of the shorter dancers in the company’, he says. ‘But I’m happy to have taken time to mature into the bigger parts I’m getting now. I’ve learnt a lot from doing the supporting roles, so I know how the characters interact in the rep. we do. I think I’ve got the dancing down, so I can build up my own interpretations as an actor in leading roles. They’ve come at the right time for me’.
As well as dancing The Young Man in The Two Pigeons, Hay will be taking on the role of Florizel in The Winter’s Tale when Wheeldon’s narrative ballet is revived next April. He’ll also be dancing in Ashton’s Monotones in upcoming bills – a rare legato role for him: ‘It feels more natural for me to dance legato work. I’ve had to work hard at moving fast in Ashton’s choreography. Just because I’m not tall, it doesn’t mean I’m a quick mover.’ In fact, his proportions make him look lean and long, as he does in Rhapsody, partnering petite Hayward.
‘We’ve known each other for ten years plus, through the School and into the company, though we were separated by about three years, he says. ‘It’s a good time to get to know someone’s personality, what makes them laugh, so then we can have fun together.’ His 2011 debut with Hayward in Rhapsody, however, was a huge personal challenge for him. ‘I had an injury that took me out for eight months, so I had to go from doing nothing but rest to dancing the role in the space of two months. It was a mountain to climb. I did what I think was a good performance, and I was so overwhelmed when the curtain came down that I welled up. There was such a release of anxiety and emotion, and then having such a great reception from the audience – it was so special. That’s why we dancers do it, for that gratification for us and the audience.’
Ruefully, he recalls the sole occasion when he had to miss a curtain call. ‘We came to the end of Symphonic Variations, which is a notorious stamina tester, and I realised at the first curtain call that I couldn’t see anything or feel anything. I had to walk off stage before I passed out, so there was one curtain call without me. I’ve never done that in eight years on this stage.’
In fact, he first performed on the reconfigured stage 16 years ago, when the Opera House re-opened in time for the Millennium. Aged nine, a Junior Associate of the Royal Ballet School, he was one of the dancing children in the then Kirov Ballet’s reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty. (The production was given in the Royal Opera House in the summer of 1999.) Before that, while the House was closed, he had appeared as a small boy in the Royal Ballet’s revival of Ashton’s Ondine at Sadler’s Wells. ‘I still have the little tights with my name on them as a memento of my first show with the company. The costume department found them and gave them to me – they are tiny.’
He was taken into the Lower School at 11 and graduated from the Upper School with the Dame Ninette de Valois Award for Most Outstanding Graduate in 2008. He had already won the 2006 Young British Dancer of the Year Award and the Lynn Seymour Award for expressive dance in 2007. He was a Prix de Lausanne prizewinner and won the Audience Appreciation Award at the Erik Bruhn International Competition in 2012, when he danced with Francesca Hayward.
‘We were coached by Johan Kobborg in the pas de deux from Flower Festival at Genzano. It was incredibly valuable to be coached by Johan, one of the great dancer-actors of his time. He had included me in a brief tour to Denmark in my first season, which opened my eyes to a wider world of dance.’ Would he like to take on the role of James in Bournonville’s La Sylphide (which Kobborg produced for the Royal Ballet)? ‘I’d jump at the chance’, Hay replies – though he may have to guest elsewhere to do so, since it is no longer in the repertoire. Guesting with another company is something he has yet to try.
He is happy where he is, now that his career is going in a promising direction. ‘I’m being given the chance to create characters. I loved being the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures last Christmas, finding out what my White Rabbit could be. It’s rare that we get to investigate comic roles. And I’m longing to be Florizel in The Winter’s Tale next year, after understudying the role while it was being created.’
Hay was originally understudy for Paul Kay while Liam Scarlett was creating Hansel and Gretel for the Linbury Studio Theatre two years ago. When Kay was injured, Hay became Hansel to Leanne Cope’s Gretel. ‘Working one on one with Liam was a great experience, especially in a darker work. To try to think like an innocent child when you’re conscious as an adult how nasty the world can be was quite a challenge. So was having the audience so close during what was about an hour’s worth of dancing. I had to learn to hold back in order to make it through to the end.’
Hay was in the middle of rehearsals for The Two Pigeons when we met in the Opera House. He had never seen Ashton’s 1961 ballet in performance. It was last mounted by the Royal Ballet a scarcely credible 30 years ago, and he had missed Birmingham Royal Ballet’s performances. ‘I’m starting from scratch, trying to work out the character’s back story. Why is he already so fed up with the girl, as soon as the curtains open? Why does he go off with the gypsies if he loves her? I have to find a way to bring that across in a way that makes sense to me – and the audience.’
He says he can relate to Ashton’s Young Man because he loves adventure and travelling. ‘Touring is great, but I like to take a good summer break and travel, to get away from the closed world of dance – this bubble I’ve been in most of my life.’ Ballet, though, is addictive: ‘I’ve so much more to give and to learn who I am. I used to imagine I’d train to be a pilot when I stopped dancing, but now I’m growing interested in coaching and, who knows, maybe something more. I have high ambitions!’