As I turn to be introduced to London-born Thomas Forster, a Corps de ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre, I fear I’m going to be visiting my Chiropractor very soon afterwards as I gaze skywards and am greeted by a 6’3”giant who, as you’ll see, turns out to be absolutely lovely. We’re catching up between shows while his company are in London for a week-long tour.
His earliest ambition, to be a Ninja Turtle, saw Forster’s mum, with no ballet experience of her own (he says “I don’t know if she was huge fan of it before”), send him to ballet class to “make my legs stronger for karate.” He took class once a week and after a while his teacher, June Lowdell, suggested he audition for The Royal Ballet School Junior Associates (JA’s). Forster was successful and really enjoyed the experience at JA’s, but wasn’t offered a place at White Lodge (the Royal Ballet School Lower School in Richmond Park, Surrey).
Elmhurst School for Dance
Forster trained at Elmhurst School for Dance in Birmingham on a full scholarship, “the class was small, so I got a lot of special attention with the academics and the training was at an extremely high level and really good.” Forster was there for five years, before moving to The Royal Ballet Upper School in Covent Garden where his contemporaries were future luminaries including Joe Caley (now dancing with Birmingham Royal Ballet) and Xander Parish (with The Mariinsky Ballet), with whom he still keeps in contact. At the end of his training he was offered a contract with Birmingham Royal Ballet but chose instead to try out a new experience in New York. “The Royal Ballet School was an amazing school. It prepares you really well for a career in dance; they cover all aspects. And I was young; I had an offer from Birmingham Royal Ballet.” He didn’t take it ? “I would have loved to, it’s just when I was eighteen I thought it would be a good chance to experience New York. But that’s the only reason. I worked for Birmingham Royal Ballet when I was in third year at The Royal Ballet School and I loved it there too. Really nice company. Really, really high standard, with some of the best dancers there like Joe Caley. American Ballet Theatre gave me a Studio company contract so I went with that. Everyone has their different story and some places work for you and in some places it doesn’t; you’ve just got to find the right fit.”
Forster was offered an apprenticeship with American Ballet Theatre’s main company in January 2007 and then the Corps de ballet in December of the same year, where he’s been for four years. “It’s a great company, everyone is so friendly. The rep is really fun and nice. The ballet masters and mistresses are really nice and they’re there to help. It’s just a nice atmosphere to work in, and you definitely feel self-improvement; it’s definitely a positive place to work.”
American Ballet Theatre’s style of dancing is quite different from Forster’s training, and so I ask how he addressed that, “it is, yes. To be honest I feel like it’s helped me because I feel English training is very straight and narrow, and it’s good to be very textbook, but in America and especially in American Ballet Theatre they have all the big stars, and you often find with the really big stars that they have the textbook straight and narrow technique but they also just go for it. And so you need that American, ‘right let’s do it’.”
At 6’3” he is very tall, does he find it … “challenging ? Yes, it’s very hard. It’s just that it takes me a little longer to find myself. I feel now, I’m 24 but I’m really starting to come into myself, whereas I feel someone who is slightly smaller might find their centre of gravity and their togetherness in jumps a little earlier. Each person matures differently but I definitely feel being tall, there’s so much resistance when you jump, for instance, you really have to be well placed and you really have to focus on what you’re doing otherwise you’ll fall on the floor.” Forster comes into his own as a dance partner, though, “I feel being tall for partnering actually helps because if you’re too small you can pull your partner back and I think it’s nice to be over them a little bit.” Did he ever feel that he was too tall at the beginning ? “Not really. Because through the progression I just grew and grew and grew and grew. I definitely am on the tall side though,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
I wonder whether he has the time or even the inclination to try choreography and he says, “yes, I did a little bit at The Royal Ballet School; it was fun and I enjoyed it. But it’s tough, I think, to choreograph at an early age because theoretically you’d be choreographing on your peers and maybe to get what you want, you can’t be too friendly, sometimes. So I feel like it’s tough for young people to do the choreography.” But maybe later ? “I’d never say never.”
What are his ambitions then; American Ballet Theatre has 57 dancers at the current time in the Corps de ballet and progressing through the ranks can take time. During each season the bigger roles are highly prized and not easy to come by. His reply demonstrates how laid back & calm he is, “well, I feel everyone wants to be principal or soloist but for me, honestly, I just want to be the best I can be. Because I am so tall and lanky it’s about getting it together and doing it, and I do get a lot of satisfaction from being given something and then taking it on and improving and doing it well. If something comes my way, great, if not then at least I’ve done my best. There’s nothing else you can really do because it’s out of your hands anyway.”
Nevertheless, other choreographers have noticed him. Benjamin Millepied (principal dancer with New York City Ballet and freelance choreographer) created the ballet Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once which premiered in the UK during this London tour, and Forster created a role. How did that come about ? “Ben worked with us in the Studio company so he has quite a good bond with the younger dancers in American Ballet Theatre. I’ve done many of Ben’s gigs; we did a France and Germany tour one year, and so he always tries to get me first cast, me and a few others as well.” How does Ben work with the dancers ? “Ben’s style is he comes in and just offloads it and he’s very smart.” David Lang’s music is an acquired taste, as I described in my review, so what’s it like to dance to ? “Sometimes with that music it is hard to hear but we have been doing that piece for a while and you can hear the tens, you can hear the eights.”
Forster was chosen to partner principal Julie Kent as Her Lover in Washington DC for a performance of Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. How did they cast him; does he know ? “We did it in the Studio company and so I think they knew I could do it well and I did it about two years ago at City Centre with Melissa Thomas and it was really fun then, and then it came about again with this London tour and Washington. I was meant to be with Stella Abrera who’s a gorgeous, really beautiful dancer, but she hurt her back so I did it with Julie. It was great. She’s amazing; she is incredible and then as a partner she doesn’t stop if something goes wrong, she keeps going and she’s very enthusiastic. She lets you know what you need to do to help her but you never feel it’s vindictive or she’s blaming you for anything.” I’m guessing that despite the calm delivery of this massive opportunity, he was nervous. “I was, because it’s JULIE KENT. I was nervous. She’s always super chilled, even if little things go wrong in the performance she says that things aren’t ever perfect but you do your best and try. She’s really amazing.” What did he learn from the experience ? “Julie taught me that the most important thing is to just keep going because even if something is going wrong, half the time people don’t notice and its only if you make a thing of it, unless it’s major, that it shows. On stage it never goes perfectly so you have to learn how to work through that. That’s possibly what makes her so amazing because nothing floors her.”
Despite such stellar company, when I ask who he’d most like to dance with, and tell him that he can’t choose his girlfriend (Leann Underwood, Corps de ballet, same company), he doesn’t hesitate “I mean she [Leann] is amazing to dance with. She’s so good.”
American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre’s working patterns also differ from Forster’s UK experience, as they have breaks between seasons, sometimes lasting a couple of months. Is this easier, or harder, for a dancer ? “I feel like we do work so hard and the thing is with American Ballet Theatre, today I did Theme and Variations & Company B and then tonight I’ll do Theme and Lilac Garden, so you’re constantly changing, your mind’s always on the go. So you don’t really have time to get bored or too out of shape at all really. And they always put on two casts, and sometimes three as well.”
Forster misses McCoy’s crisps and proper chocolate (among other things), so does he have any plans to return to the UK ? “I don’t know really, I’ll play it by ear. I never thought I would stay in America this long but I do really love American Ballet Theatre. I think it’s a great company and the dancers are all so great to work with that it would be hard to imagine working somewhere else. But at the same time I do really miss my family and I do miss England, so I take the view, ‘I’m not going to worry about it and wherever life puts me…’” he tails off.
Does he have any advice for this year’s graduates ? “When you leave school there is no-one really on your ass any more. There are people working hard for you but it becomes about you and you have to work for yourself. You just have to push for yourself and give yourself personal goals and not rely on someone else to kick you up the bum when you’re being lazy because also, the ballet career is really short and if you’ve spent too many years of your youth dossing about then it catches up with you. So maybe when you leave school you’re not going to be given incredible opportunities straight away but when, if ever those incredible opportunities do come you want to be ready for them, and the only way you can be ready for them is if you knuckle down and work hard.”
As Forster listens to the photographers requests outside the theatre for these photographs, he’s attracting attention from passers-by – some fellow dancers, some members of the public. It’s clear that the way he feels about the people in the company is reciprocated, and I can’t help thinking that more attention is going to come his way from the public as he gets more roles and dances them very well.