When Melissa Hamilton first runs on stage as Manon, descending from the stagecoach to greet her brother, she looks like a ditzy blonde innocent. ‘She’s not naive’, insists Hamilton. ‘She’s learning fast how her charms can affect other people. By Act II, she knows what power she has – how to work a room, how to get what she wants. Manon may not be book-smart, but she’s incredibly people-smart.’
Melissa has had to work hard to get what she wants as a dancer. Growing up in the Northern Irish countryside of County Down, she was remote from the intensive world of vocational schooling for a ballet career. She enjoyed a weekly class as a hobby until a summer course in Aberdeen raised the possibility of professional training. She finished high school in Belfast, ‘book-smart’ as her parents wanted, before applying to ballet schools in England at the age of 16.
The Royal Ballet Upper School wouldn’t take her, but Elmhurst in Birmingham would, on a scholarship. After two years, she was warned she’d never make it into a ballet company. The only teacher who believed in her, Masha Mukhamedov, was about to leave. Irek Mukhamedov had been made director of the Greek National Opera Ballet, so the family moved to Athens in 2006.
Melissa went too. ‘I knew that I had to seize my only chance to have a ballet career. Masha agreed to teach me privately six days a week for ten months. We set a goal of July 2007 – a completely crazy crash course – but we trusted each other completely. We worked one-on-one in a tiny studio without air conditioning. There was a heat wave in Athens that summer, so I really suffered.’
Did Masha teach her by the Vaganova or Bolshoi system of Russian training? ‘No, she analysed my physique and tried to heighten my strengths. I had no real base to work from, unlike dancers who’d started seriously in childhood. So I had to try to make up for lost time, picking up as much as I could. Masha understands my body, so I’ve gone back to her again when I’ve needed coaching for a role.’
Melissa was surprised when I told her I had seen Masha dancing in 1994, in a small troupe of dancers that Irek had set up, not long after joining the Royal Ballet. Masha, who had been a soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, has the highly arched feet that Melissa has. (The Mukhamedovs’ daughter, Sasha, is a principal with Dutch National Ballet, and Masha is now training their son at her private ballet school in France.)
Against the odds at the age of 18, Melissa competed for the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007 and won. The prize was a contract with American Ballet Theatre’s studio company. ‘I totally panicked’, she says. ‘I’d never thought of moving to New York, after I’d uprooted myself to Athens for nearly a year. Masha contacted Monica Mason at the Royal Ballet and I sent a DVD. I did company class and was offered an artist’s contract within a week of winning the YAGP competition. Everything in my life had been so unexpected, but if you want something badly enough, you’ll go to great lengths to make it happen, however blindly.’
She started as a snowflake in The Nutcracker, and a beggar, then a harlot, in Manon. ‘I had to make myself a sponge to absorb everything, to enter this headspace that pretty well everyone else shared because they’d been involved in the Royal Ballet culture since they were 11. But I was lucky to have had roles made on me early on by Wayne McGregor [Infra in 2008, Limen in 2009]. Now, when I’m in Wayne’s ballets, like Yugen, I’ve been in the more senior group, instead of being the youngest. I think to myself ‘Wow, how fast has this happened!”‘
She was soon cast in MacMillan roles – Juliet, Manon, Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. ‘I love his work for being so human, so real, when we spend much of our career being fake. It’s so satisfying when you can feel such heightened emotions, have someone else’s way of thinking.’ After dancing as Mary Vetsera in a dark wig, Melissa dyed her fair hair brown. ‘I needed a radical change at that point, to be another self with a sense of empowerment. It was a phase in my life – it showed me I preferred being a blonde.’
She made a more radical change by taking leave of absence from the Royal Ballet in order to join the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden as a principal. ‘It came about as an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up. You need to try whatever life throws at you, good or bad. The more you push yourself, the more you achieve. I think people can be too quick to squash their potential.’
Jiri Bubenicek , a senior principal dancer in the Semperoper company, was about to retire in 2015. He had seen Melissa dance in a gala, and asked whether she would be his Manon for his final performances as Des Grieux in Dresden. Discussions with both companies’ artistic directors took place. It was agreed that Melissa should join the company for a year so that she could dance leading roles in their productions. ‘They had ballets in their rep. that I really wanted to do, and I knew that it would take ages at the Royal Ballet before I got those roles. I wanted the chance to dance the classics before I felt overwhelmed by them. And Kevin [O’Hare] made it possible for me to come back.’
Semperoper’s director Aaron Watkin cast her in his productions of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère and Don Quixote. She guested as Giselle with the Kremlin Ballet and danced in modern works by choreographers such as Mats Ek, and Stijn Celis, as well as in the company’s William Forsythe repertoire. (Semperoper Ballet will be performing an all-Forsythe bill at Sadler’s Wells, 21-23 June 2018.)
Though the transfer to a German company can’t have been altogether easy for Melissa, she came back to the Royal Ballet with a positive attitude. ‘It was an eye-opening experience, a definite life-shift for me as a person and an artist. I’m happier, not quite such a workaholic now that I’m more confident in my abilities. I really appreciate dancing Manon back with the Royal Ballet, in a company that knows the MacMillan ballets inside out. They give you so much more to play with because you know where to look, whose eye to catch in the big scenes. I always try to go back to the source of inspiration, like the original book about Manon and Des Grieux, to give me clues. If you come into a role that’s been done time after time, you have to find your own sense of depth.’
She will be dancing Mary Vetsera again in October, with Ryoichi Hirano as Crown Prince Rudolf. Melissa doesn’t have a regular partner in the Royal Ballet. (Manon was the first time she had danced with Nehemiah Kish, other than in a gala pas de deux.) She has much enjoyed performing with Roberto Bolle in a touring group he puts together in Italy. Earlier this year, they danced a pas de deux by Mauro Bigonzetti at a gala for the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s 85th anniversary in St Petersburg. ‘Roberto is heaven to work with’, she says. ‘It’s rare for someone at his level to hold ballet more highly than themselves. It’s really special to be held in his arms.’ He continues to message her about her availability, but she’s been very busy this season with overlapping roles.
So far, still a First Soloist, she has not been cast in the Royal Ballet’s upcoming classics: Swan Lake, La Bayadère and The Nutcracker. Should anyone drop out for any reason, she’ll know the roles. But for now, she respects the casting decisions.’The level of dancers in this company is incredible’, she says. ‘We have our rankings and we’re all striving for something greater than us, as a collective, to give our best to a ballet heritage.’ What she really wants can’t be put into words. ‘That special experience on stage you can’t find anywhere else. A trust with a partner that takes you beyond two people trying to do the same choreography at the same time, so you transcend who you are. It doesn’t always happen but it’s the best feeling in the world when it does.’