[Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2020]
Matthew Ball joined the Royal Ballet Company during the 2013/14 season and proceeded to tear his way through the ranks – becoming first artist in 2015, soloist in 2016, first soloist in 2017 and principal dancer in 2018. His breakneck journey reflects the evolving thrust of the company; Ball arrived as a generational shift was underway – the Royal was opening up its repertoire with new choreographers, expanding the classical focus of the institution.
2020 has been a disastrous year for the arts and difficult times lead to consolidation and reflection. Stepping away from the rigour of daily rehearsal, finally with some time to stop and reflect, the need to contribute more to the creative process and make his own work has crystallised.
Revered choreographer Paul Lightfoot stepped down this winter as artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater after 35 years with the company. An influential, defining voice in contemporary dance, Lightfoot has watched Ball’s career explosion and offers some sage words of advice.
Paul Lightfoot: Hi Matthew, how are you doing? Are you at the Opera House?
Matthew Ball: I’m doing OK, thank you. Yes, I’m in the restaurant!
PL: In the restaurant? [laughs]
MB: I’m pretending this empty restaurant is my new office. We’re only rehearsing one thing at a time, so two rehearsals a week, but I’m trying to make the most of it at the minute. Where are you?
PL: I’m at home actually, sitting in my attic, but I have been moving around. There’s loads to do because today is officially my first day of unemployment from NDT [Lightfoot announced in 2018 he would step down from his post as Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater this year]. Emptying my office is crazy, it’s 35 years of memories. I’m creating an archive at the moment; I went through every single piece of paper to work out what to keep. It was just a flood of memories, but a really good time though, I love it.
MB: How do you find that process? I’m a hoarder, I find it difficult to part ways with anything that has any attachment.
PL: I’ll tell you now: keep it!
MB: Keep it! [laughs]
PL: Yes, because no-one else will, except your mum [both laugh]. When I first started to undo the office, I went over with my car and I’d take stuff out bit by bit, because I couldn’t face the prospect of taking it all in one go. So many things I’d forgotten… I kept stupid stuff. Like a menu card or something, old clippings, anything like that. I’m a hoarder as well, absolutely. I have a huge problem with it. You know, I’ve got this new motto, that if I buy a new piece of clothing, two pieces have to go. But I was so grateful, I kept everything. Even though I’ve thrown away more than 50 percent of it, the 50 percent that I kept is what you would probably think are the less important things but are somehow vital. Little keys and stuff. That’s what I’ve been up to.
MB: Isn’t it amazing how an item can bring back a memory? Obviously, music has that effect, but an inanimate object like a napkin with a bit of lipstick on it…
PL: Absolutely, yes. It’s strange, this Corona time. Are you pretty much based in London the whole time now?
MB: Yes. I’ve been home once or twice to Liverpool to see family, but otherwise I’ve been in my flat. We’ve been allowed into the Opera House since June, to come in and use the studio, which was a relief, obviously. But the status of the city within lockdown has been going back and forth. So, in terms of preparing for shows, it’s really as-and-when. I feel like I’ve gone through several different phases of productivity and creativity, and then the flipside of that, not knowing what to do next.
PL: Yes, it’s been a bit like necessity’s the mother of invention, hasn’t it? I felt the same. As soon as we went into lockdown, I was like, “Fuck, no.” I was ending my directorship and I thought, “I’m not going to finish like this. I’ve got to find a way to do something,” but somehow, I felt like I kept saturating an area and then, “Now what?” Like you had to reinvent yourself.
MB: I saw the time off as an opportunity, not to become a better dancer, but to become better at things that may add to my dancing, that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to invest in and develop. Take yoga for example, of course it’s a physical practice, but instead of the outward nature of performance it is an internal and very personal journey. Usually, we are so privileged to achieve amazing things with an incredible team around us. I’m sure you feel the same kind of way, working with a large company, the behind-the-scenes staff are vital to these performances. To do that halfway [performing smaller pieces with less dancers and crew] felt like a bit of a cheat. As soon as we did one or two performances though it suddenly felt like you had to snap back into this ‘normal’ thing. There is a side of me that almost doesn’t want to go back to exactly how things were.
PL: I don’t think it should be that way. I don’t think it’s possible anyway. No-one likes to go back. Change is the only constant. I think it’s been revealing for all of us, in any walk of life, but for artists, it’s definitely been confrontational. The connectivity that we need in order to survive, I don’t know, it’s like being Catholic and told you can’t pray, it doesn’t make sense.
MB: One thing this experience has made me address – when you’re forced to stop, and where that leaves you – it’s made me feel more confident in the realisation that I feel the need to create. I’ve often toyed with the idea of choreographing, but usually played it off as, you know, “I’m too busy. Maybe this is the time in my career when I focus on X, Y and Z and make sure that I’m at the top of my game, which obviously takes a lot of commitment anyway, and there’ll be another moment for that.” But this period has made me think, “There’s no time like the present.” I don’t want to waste the wealth of experience and ideas and the feeling of the present time, which I think is quite poignant and full of possibilities, a lot of things to question. I wanted to ask you about your first experiences of choreographing. We were both at the Royal Ballet School, for me it was part of the curriculum.
PL: Yes, it actually was when I was there, too. Well, it was an optional part.
MB: I volunteered as well, but since then, in my professional career, I haven’t really taken that plunge, and I’m trying to push myself to now. I’m creating a short solo work on myself, and I’ve been doing a few film projects with me and my partner. We have some ‘draft works’, where the company are allowed to create on one another, coming up soon, which I’m hoping to be part of. Was it a necessity for you to take that leap? And what drove you to do that? Was it with Sol [León – house choreographer alongside Paul at NDT] that you started creating early on as well?
PL: I was a funny bird because I started dancing, but I didn’t really think about being a dancer. For some reason, it was just something that got added. I wanted to be an actor, and was obsessed with marionettes. So, I’m a bit musical, but not very much – I’m pretty crap actually. But as soon as I started dancing, there was this feeling that I was making things. I was always a bit of a fantasy kid – you and me were born in the same area of the world – I was a farmer’s lad and I was always outside, everything used to be about making up stories. I actually did get involved with choreography early on, it went hand-in-hand for my whole career. The Royal has changed a lot from the generation I was there. You’re a new generation, particularly with regards to the classical genre, because you’re not classical anymore. The spectrum has really been broadened, and for me, choreography was just part of it naturally. Everything changed for me when I did stuff out of the Royal and got the position at NDT, because that company was purely about creativity. I had this big realisation – and I hope you have it, and you should move on it is my answer to your question before, because I think that true artists can’t not somehow get themselves involved in the creative process. You can be a fantastic dancer but being part of a creative process is a totally different thing. It immediately triggers something within yourself about your responsibility inside a creation. You start doing those games in your head, don’t you? Like, “What would I do? Would I have done what that choreographer just did?” I went through so many processes of that. My first piece, I was 21, was with NDT. I didn’t start with Sol, but very quickly… you know, we were a couple, and she and I just hung around in the studio. I think you should start with yourself. How old are you now?
MB: I’m 26.
PL: Yes, I would say just get going, do what you think. I always started on myself. A lot of the vocabulary really developed in me, particularly my quirks and idiosyncrasies. You know, I’m left-handed, so my whole body is a bit left-orientated. When I was choreographing, everyone would hate me, they’d say, “It feels wrong, Paul! Why have you done that?” Somehow, your personality is driven into that sector of creativity and it’s a huge part, because it builds on you as an artist.
MB: So, you tried to embrace that?
PL: Well, I’m hyperactive. I didn’t have a choice really! It was just like I couldn’t do it any other way, and I’m a selfish little bugger. So, I had to do it my way! And then that just developed. You have to start shedding the bits that aren’t necessary. A lot of our egos come into play as artists. We’re emotional people and that’s our responsibility, but at the same time, you’ve got to be mature with yourself, haven’t you? There’s a point where you have to say, “OK, let go of that bit. Why am I doing it that way? Because I believe in it? OK, then let’s go there,” and not just, “Because I WANT IT THAT WAY.” Lots of things started developing in me and, as the dancing progressed, I was very fortunate – I was in a place where I was super encouraged, and that was everything. We were making, god knows… I mean, the company’s 60 years old now. We’ve made over 800 world premieres. So, that was my environment, and the Royal was not that environment when I was at school or seeing the company. I felt the moment I met NDT that the Royal wasn’t the place I was meant to be. I needed more, as a choreographer. I think now, as I look at the Royal, and I can’t say I know it that well, but I feel it’s changed. It’s a tendency we’ve seen a lot in classical companies and classical dancers, that the blinkers have been taken off, and that’s so good to see. I look back at Sylvie Guillem. She was one of the first who just started being public about, “I want more than just to put my pointe shoes on and go in a tutu.” It set off momentum in the classical world that was so necessary. If we’re going to work on reinterpreting great roles and great ballets, you also still need to have a present inflection of your character in there. My first ballet was shit, by the way. It was the worst thing I ever made.
MB: That’s the way, isn’t it?
“This Covid experience has opened my eyes to how necessary I feel like that sort of work is: just sticking on music and feeling something almost pouring forth.”
PL: I was just like, “…and they’re never going to ask me again.” But my director was a choreographer and he didn’t say it was good or bad, he just said, “Try again.” That was the best thing. So, yes, try it. Come on, you’ve got a lot in you. The few times we’ve met in our lives, it’s been clear that you’ve got a lot of questions you want to answer.
MB: Definitely. I remember going to watch NDT in Manchester when I was growing up, as you know my mum’s a dance teacher and a friend of a friend was at NDT. So, it was very much part of my dance background, in terms of what I was seeing from a very young age. Some of pieces that I saw really cemented themselves in my mind. Those formative years, when you’re very young and impressionable, tend to inform your aesthetic and taste, and I think that’s why I’ve continued to love the work of NDT to this day. When I was eighteen and about to enter into the graduate year at the Royal Ballet School, I took a summer course in The Hague – the summer-intensive programme – and that’s the first time we met.
PL: It wasn’t the first time, mate.
MB: Wasn’t it?
PL: Yes, your mum brought you to Aunty Nancy – that’s our family friend – and she said, “This little boy here wants to dance.” I met you, you’d just started ballet. How old were you then?
MB: I was only six.
PL: Exactly. I knew you 20 years ago. You don’t even bloody remember!
MB: Bloody hell, I can’t believe it! [imitating Paul] “You mean I didn’t make an impression?” [both laugh] Anyway, I was at this summer-intensive and I very nearly took an opportunity to join the company as an apprentice. But, after having spent eight years training with the Royal Ballet, I was also given an indicator that I was going to have a place in the company. I was encouraged and felt like I’d committed so much that I had to at least let it come to fruition if it was going to. I’ve been in the company seven years now, but it has really been quite a whirlwind because things really happened for me after a year or so. It came at the right point in that generational shift within the Royal Ballet, like you were saying, we have a lot of new choreographers working here. I was lucky enough to be involved in a lot of these new creations and get myself noticed, and then be given opportunities to make the top rank of the company a couple of years back. Among the experiences I’ve had in the company that I feel are the most valuable have been working on some of these new creations. For me, that’s something that I’m finding quite hard at the moment – obviously, to some degree the company is having to revert to our more traditional repertoire, I suppose it’s safe there in terms of bringing in audiences. For so long, I felt like I’ve thrived off of these sometimes very challenging moments, where I’ve been asked to be working on Hofesh Shechter choreography, which is a very grounded, introverted, thick way of moving, and then going next door to rehearse Sleeping Beauty, which is the paradigm of classical ballet. For me, that was really quite invigorating. If I didn’t have that contemporary, modern, relevant work happening alongside the classical work – which I do enjoy as well – then it would have been much more difficult to manage. This Covid experience has opened my eyes to how necessary I feel like that sort of work is: just sticking on music and feeling something almost pouring forth.
PL: I’ll tell you a funny story actually. You probably know, but when you first were deliberating what to do, I have good communication with your present director, Kevin [O’Hare], we were at school together, and Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer. We had a little private chat, like, “What should we do?” I said, “I’d be really interested to take Matthew in, but of course, he’s not quite sure what to do. How is it looking from your end?” kind of thing, and they said, “Well, we’re interested in him, but we don’t quite know if it’s going to work out.” I think they didn’t know at that point you were going to rise to such a level, particularly so swiftly. We all didn’t want to push you in either direction. It was a bit like, “He’ll sort it out and decide.” You seemed to be on this borderline. When you came back with a decision, I actually felt very good because I felt you’d really thought it out well, I was sure you’d made the right decision.
MB: I definitely deliberated over it for quite some time!
PL: Well, I think it’s part of the beauty in you, Matthew. You’re not standing on one side of the water or the other, and I find that so annoying sometimes, especially in the dance world, it’s the ugly sister of the arts already. It doesn’t need to be one side against the other, and I feel like you were always standing on the bridge, I think that’s a really beautiful place to be in life.
PL: And then the exposure you suddenly had, I mean in twelve months! I was like, “Excuse me, what the fuck? That’s going well.” So it really paid off, and at the same time, I could see Kevin and the Royal were also bringing some very interesting repertoire. I was really happy for you because otherwise it might have been a short ride on a fast machine. If you were rising up the ranks so fast, there might have been difficulties later, because where does your artistry then develop? We all know it’s a butterfly existence compared to other careers. If we were bankers or doctors, you’re looking at 40, maybe even 50 years of career, whereas ours could top 20 if we’re lucky, on the level we’d like to be before we have to alter into some other kind of artist. So, you’re 26. Physically, you’re in an amazing stage of your life and you’re working so hard on all of that, but it’s never too early to start working on the other part, because in five, six, seven years, you’ll realise, “I’ve done as much as I can with my body. Now it’s a question of maintaining it and slowly coming over the other edge, but what can I add to that?” There’s so much more in artists. If we look at some of the great examples of our past, they were not necessarily the best technicians, but we loved to see them on stage and that was because they had developed that in their artistry. The example you set is great to see, you’re a broad-thinking young man. So, going back to the creativity, it’s going to be another string to your bow. You don’t want to just be getting likes on Instagram because you’re ‘Mr Hot Bod’. That is so what we don’t want to do with our art form. The physical part of it is so vital and it’s brilliant to see it. I know it’s a buzz. It’s a kick when you get to work on your body in that way, and you just feel like, “Wow.” Like, you know, “I’ve got so much potential inside me.” So, your career has been fantastic so far. Maybe you’re riding a wave of success now, but you know that can be a fickle horse. You want to really delve into yourself. I think you are, I think you do, and I think that’s great. I have a lot of admiration for you.
MB: Thank you for that. I’m really interested by the conversation you had with the influential people in my career about my outlook. Some of the experiences I’ve had, and the fact that people were uncertain about me, I’ve also personally felt that uncertainty – that’s been something very valuable for me. I often find myself questioning things right down to the base level. I think that meant that when I did get presented with an opportunity, I really tried to do something different with it, and that meant Kevin or Chris, or anyone, sat up a little bit. Maybe I wasn’t jumping higher than anyone else, but no-one else decided to make that choice on stage. For me, a large part of that was acting. It’s not something that, as a ballet dancer, you’re trained to do, and obviously acting in dance is a different ballgame to what you’d consider the usual drama, whether it’s film or theatre. A huge part of what we do is telling a story, whether it’s linear, non-linear or abstract. When I found that side of expression, I realised it could inform all of my dancing, even if it was a ‘shallower’ prince archetype from the 19th-century ballets.
“When I found that side of expression, I realised it could inform all of my dancing, even if it was a ‘shallower’ prince archetype from the 19th-century ballets.”
PL: Yes. They’re usually quite stupid actually, the princes. They made mistakes all the time.
MB: Yes, a bit like, “Duh.”
PL: “What on earth are you falling in love with a swan for, mate? It’s not going to work.” I agree with you. Think about pantomime, it’s this ancient tradition of acting on stage, there’s so much to learn. That’s why the Royal’s such an interesting place – it’s so hugely based on tradition and legacy, if you use it the right way, you shouldn’t run away from it. I come from a company with a more rebellious nature, but the funny thing was we were creating our own tradition slowly in a modern sense. But going back to one point you made – your insecurity is a gift. Uncertainty is not a weakness, you know.
PL: That’s probably also why you rose from a place that people weren’t expecting. We’ve seen it a million times in our careers, people are convinced they’re going to be a star, and it rarely works out how they predict. You can’t find artists that way. It doesn’t work. It’s not a textbook. So, I think the questions you’re asking are probably part of the mystery and the beauty in your artistry.
MB: Definitely. I wanted to ask you as well…
PL: You don’t have an answer to that, because I’ve been paying you a compliment! [both laugh]
MB: I wanted to ask you about theatricality and drama on stage. The last time NDT was in London, at Sadler’s Wells, I felt like I was watching another genre of dance. [NDT showed four pieces together in 2018: Shoot the Moon, Woke up Blind, The Statement and Stop-Motion] Watching some of Crystal Pite’s [associate choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater, associate dance artist of Canada’s National Arts Centre, and associate artist at Sadler’s Wells, London] new work with the writer, Jonathon Young: Betroffenheit, and Revisor as well – I’ve been watching a lot of films recently and I wanted to ask if there were certain directors, or even other choreographers, that made you feel you wanted to push further? For me, there was so much possibility with the set of Shoot the Moon. The set with three rooms that rotates, with doors and windows, and there’s filming going on behind-closed-doors and all subterfuge, intrigue. It presents so many amazing different ideas, but also gives the opportunity for the dancers to be filmed in close-up, which is obviously a very different type of performance and experience. Like I said, I really enjoy the acting side of things on stage, and spoken word as well. Often, I feel like dance, and choreographers, have shied away from that.
PL: For me, it came more from my background in the North of England. The cultural exposures I got were local theatre, I’d go to Theatr Clwyd and I always wanted to be an actor, I started off with that. I love theatre and I love film, I’ve always loved film, and I was also a big fan of silent movies, there is much choreography going on in there if you look at it.
MB: So much, I was watching some the other week.
PL: The first piece we made using video was Silent Scream. Then we thought, “Dancers can’t traditionally talk. So, let’s try and tell the story in our way, in a more modern sense, using the possibility of multimedia.” That developed for Shoot the Moon – I really wanted to make a ballet that felt like a play.
MB: It really worked.
PL: That’s what I liked about it, the idea of what goes on when someone leaves the stage. What happens to an artist when they’re not in the limelight, or in the focus of the story? So, the live filming behind the wall could be projected above and immediately you start to create this cross-section. These cross-purposes all start to amalgamate, and you make all kinds of stories out of them. There’s no traditional narrative, but it felt like the story’s going on. Stop-Motion is the same. You can’t tell exactly what’s happening, but emotions are constantly thrown at you.
MB: Yes, it’s powerful.
PL: All that multimedia stuff was really important in our work. I just love theatre. I love theatre, and I love going to see great dance, and going to see classical work well- done. I don’t like to see classical ballet anymore if it’s not well-performed. If you’re going to touch those masters, then you need to be on a top level. Crystal is a dear friend and colleague, and she’s really crossing over with writing these plays with Jonathan, and then producing them in a classic form. She’s really forging herself a new direction. I always tell her, “I’m so jealous of you.”
MB: It’s fascinating. Seeing her work at the Paris Opera, she really plays into that idea of the subtext, the layers behind what a traditional story might be. I suppose there’s a real wealth of that in dance, it’s similar to music in that it’s so expressive and can say so much, but it’s not a definitive fact or sentence, like the spoken word. It’s something that’s always up for interpretation and a subjective opinion from the audience, which is what I think we all find quite exciting.
“…it’s about finding that sense of progress and change, and being able to embrace a difficult moment.”
PL: We all influence each other, to what extent depends on each of us. I’m close with Philip Glass, the composer, we speak a lot. He’s written two works for us, and Shoot the Moon used his music, he’s such a collaborator. He’s not that kind of composer that just writes music for himself, and I found that inspirational. Like, “Yes, why do we have to be so closed off?” That’s why I also got involved in making décor. I mean, I designed all the décors myself. I thought, “I want to get further away from what people expect out of modern choreography,” which is a black box and some dancers in not many clothes because ‘that’s modern’. I was talking with [renowned choreographer] Jiří Kylián in the lockdown, he said, “I think dance is going to come back so strong, because it reminds everybody of the things we can’t have.” For a generation, it’ll probably be, “You were there in 2020.” It shook us all up. It’s natural when a stone drops – those ripples will spread and there will be reactions in the choreographic sense. I don’t mean people making Corona ballets. I think that would be a bit tosh, if you don’t mind me saying! But the fact is, it will inspire artists, whether it be a writer or a musician, a choreographer or dancer. So, I’m hoping for the phoenix to rise out of the ashes, because it’s pretty grim at the moment.
MB: Like we said right at the very beginning, it’s about finding that sense of progress and change, and being able to embrace a difficult moment.
PL: But you’re a happy bloke in general with the things that you’ve been doing?
MB: Yes, I am. I feel like a more well-rounded individual after all this, to be honest. I’ve taken up a few things, learning a bit of piano, or reading books that I’ve always meant to. It’s made me think in a slightly different way. Being accountable for my own time has been really valuable. Usually, we have such a busy rehearsal schedule, which I follow, then I get home and I just eat and recover. Whereas now, that freedom with the time has meant that I’ve had to take control if I want to do something constructive. If I don’t do something movement-based during the day, I won’t go to bed feeling good about myself. I’m learning a bit of Portuguese with my girlfriend, but it’s also coming from my own head, rather than being dictated to me. At the Royal we have been very lucky to have all these experiences with different choreographers and modern pieces. But we have to keep on making work if you have so many different programmes to get out in a year. That was quite hard for me, because it didn’t allow for a consolidation process within the work. We’d often produce something, and you wouldn’t even feel like you had any time to let that settle and see where it had touched you or affected you, what was valuable about it, what you could take from it.
PL: Yes, but I think that comes with art in general. I think you have to grab hold of it, that’s life. You know, it’s gone sometimes, and this might be the moment, so you just have to keep going, it’s always challenging. I used to joke with the dancers, “Watch out because you’re all tired and miserable now, but in ten years, you’ll look back say, ‘That was the best time’.”