A Masterclass with The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae
I recently reported that a masterclass with Royal Ballet Principal Steven McRae would be taking place at The Royal Academy of Dance on Remembrance Sunday.
‘Celebrating Dance 2012’ was billed as a day of dance to fundraise for the Frank Freeman Scholarship fund. McRae’s masterclass was open to students studying Advanced 2 or the equivalent with a Q&A for students and teachers.
To teach is to touch a life
So, it’s a bright sparkling Sunday morning and 21 slightly awe-struck students stretch apprehensively as their teacher does the same on the floor beside them. McRae senses their nerves and the initial exercises at the barre release a little of the tension. McRae has a handy line in humour and as every great teacher knows, nothing breaks the ice like a bit of a laugh. McRae asks whether they’ve got the exercise, and no-one wants to speak up, but it’s clear they aren’t sure. A few exercises later and McRae says, “don’t lie to me,” with a smile on his face, as he gets to know them better and repeats the exercises, sometimes with the music, so they get a feel for it. McRae wants them to really commit to the steps; he says it doesn’t matter if they fall over, what’s important is not to doubt themselves (or they most likely will) and to give it their all.
Not that this isn’t a serious business for McRae, who has been teaching “proper ballet” since he was around 17 years old, although be began teaching when he was only 13, encouraged by his teachers in Sydney, Australia. Everyone knows McRae as a seriously excellent technician, and indeed he says that technique is the basis of everything, but today he wants the students to understand that every professional dancer has steps they can’t do, or parts of their body they don’t like : the message is that it doesn’t matter. You have to do your job, in class or on stage, good day or bad, and sell it. It’s a theme he’ll return to.
What is a masterclass with Steven McRae actually like ?
One of the many brilliant aspects of this masterclass is the generosity that McRae offers his students. Generosity of information, tips and tricks, which he acknowledges later on have sometimes been withheld by people he’s come across in ballet. To this end there is much visualisation : toffee looms large. Toffee? I hear you ask … Well, yes. In an effort to explain to the students how he wants them to work their feet into and off the floor, McRae wants them to think of the stickiness of toffee.
The students are gently steaming, now that the barres have been moved to the side and centre work is underway. McRae gives them some Bournonville beats, which favour tight, fast and neat footwork with graceful epaulment, and asks them to be deliberate. Again, he wants to see commitment to the steps. The students aren’t so keen to move to the front; I don’t think it’s an issue of spacial awareness, rather that they are still a little awe-struck by their teacher. It’s a shame, because this whole event is for them. At one point McRae asks a row of three tightly packed girls turning quickly, “so, you like dancing on top of each other ?”
By the end of the class the students show that they have got it, and their improvement is noticeable. Jam packed with nuggets of information, McRae wants to boost their confidence and technical ability as much as is possible in one class. And he does.
There’s a lot of noise, too. Not only from the excellent pianist, but from McRae as he explores with the students how he wants the movements to look and feel. He encourages them to be musical; the steps are not enough.
Don’t show me all of the kitchen stuff. Show me the meal.
Once the students are getting the hang of McRae’s sticky toffee, he wants them to hide the mechanics of the steps and work on the artistry. He asks them to spice it up; do something different – anything to stop the steps from becoming just another exercise. One of McRae’s coaches at The Royal Ballet told him that he didn’t want to see all the kitchen stuff – you know, the crockery, cutlery – the preparation; he just wanted to be shown the meal. So McRae set about teaching the students how to conceal the effort and make it look easy, because the easier it looks, the more the audience will love it.
He also wanted them to not give everything away at once – to accent some of the musical phrases, not all of them. That way we appreciate it more. He gave them tips on how to emphasise a jump, by turning up the head and keeping the arm high. He gave them assemblé exercises which were the same ones he used in recovery, after his Achilles tore (of which, more later).
Another tip – when your arms are in a correct fifth position, looking straight ahead, you should be able to see your pinkies (your smallest fingers) in your peripheral vision. Obviously you can see them if you look up; make sure you look straight ahead.
Most of all, McRae explained how going back to the basics and doing everything properly would help with every other part of the class – turning, jumping – placing particular importance on the feet.
McRae spent a lot of time explaining the importance of “selling it.” It doesn’t matter whether you fall over, hop, or run out of steam – sell it ! Half of the audience won’t notice, but they will if you look as though you’re apologising when you dance. Don’t dance small. McRae demonstrates what he means with his chest expanded, shoulders back and strong, arms shaped and hands curved. He says, “show the jewels. Give me diamonds.” He’s quick to point out that if you shuffle along, head down and arms eating into your lines, no-one is going to believe that you can sell the goods.
Everything starts with class, which is not some mindless beast that you do every day. Back to basics. Whether you’re dancing a Russian Bayadere with fancy arms behind your head later on, in class you make sure your arms in fifth don’t break the line. McRae gives another little gem – Lesley Collier coaches him in classical roles and she told him to think of a Roman blind and the cord that is alongside it to pull it up and down. With your hands on the barre, raise one up and then down as though you are pulling that cord up and down. Then do both arms together. This exercise was especially relevant for ladies in arabesque, and McRae had a particular style he wanted to see. Particular in all aspects of ballet, what you see, and learn from, in a masterclass with Steven McRae is a dedication to excellence, always.
We observed a poignant two-minute silence to honour the fallen; it proved a timely reminder for the students that they are doing something they love, and that is only possible because of the sacrifices of others. It also served to put into perspective something that concerned more than one of the students – how to handle nerves. McRae told them that he likes pressure, that the whole point of being in class and pushing yourself to your limit every day was exactly for that moment on stage when the curtain goes up. But for anyone finding it hard to cope with pressure, he offered perspective : that this is ballet. On Remembrance Sunday as much as on any other day, as the ballet class continued, McRae urged the students to save this timely reminder that there are people fighting, right now.
During the Q&A session McRae was asked whether his experience of tap was a help or a hinderance to his ballet. His response was that he hoped no teacher would ever tell a young person “you can’t do that” – when you’re young why shouldn’t you try everything ? He didn’t think it had done him any harm and mentioned fellow Royal Ballet Principal Roberta Marquez who had also done a bit of tapping, as had Darcey Bussell. It doesn’t seem to have hampered their ballet either, though he conceded that it’s different for women who are on pointe. McRae learned everything, even the castanets, and thinks that now, the diverse repertory at The Royal Ballet works in his favour.
McRae talked about his serious injury (a ruptured Achilles) when he was just 21, in response to a question about coping mentally with injury. Prior to that, he’d been dancing all the Principal roles, pushing himself with guest appearances all over the world, never saying “no” to anything. He was eager to do everything but his Achilles said no. It had been tearing gradually for some time, but a stage rehearsal proved pivotal when his calf snapped. He’d been putting too much pressure on it because his Achilles wasn’t working properly.
But the injury proved to be a positive experience and his Achilles is now stronger than it was before. McRae spent his recovery time watching up to 5 shows a week – from the front, wings – and it reinforced the fact that no performance is ever perfect, nor is it likely to be. He noticed how, as dancers, a small wobble would be the end of the world backstage after the show, but that for the audience, it was nothing, and that in the end it’s better “not to sweat the small stuff.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. McRae thinks it’s better not to be over-prepared, but that if you accept that nothing is perfect it takes some of the pressure off.
McRae had luck on his side too, although he admits that he didn’t cope well with his injury at first and described himself as “pathetic.” At The Royal Ballet he saw a sports psychologist, who helped him to visualise his injury. He had been waking up and without even putting his foot to the floor, had been imagining that his Achilles was painful and throbbing, which wasn’t helping his recovery. The sports psychologist would ask him to describe what his injured Achilles looked like. McRae is naturally articulate, and he would say “black, red, broken twigs.” Then she would ask him what the other one looked like (note : she never referred to one as “bad” or “good”) and he would say “bright blue sky, running water.” After a while she would ask again and he would describe the injured Achilles, “still black but I can see water going through the twigs.”
McRae suggests that you “spin it into a positive” when it comes to injury. Come back better than before. He also says “go and speak to someone. It really helps.”
Your career is a three-legged stool
McRae believes that the three-legged stool concept – where the three legs are represented by hard work, talent and luck, and you need all three, all of the time, to stay balanced – is a great metaphor for a ballet career. As for his own career, McRae is currently studying for a degree in business management, which he finds hard to fit into his schedule. He thinks that he will always teach, but says it’s not a priority at the moment. He wants to stay involved in the profession in some capacity when his dancing days are over, whether that’s directing a company or dance organisation, or something else. He believes it’s important to push forward, and part of that is passing on information to the next generation, which he says it what it’s all about.
And finally, McRae says it’s important for all dancers to remember that it’s not over until you’ve walked off and no-one can see you.
A priceless experience such as this is one to be relished. As McRae said at the start, he intended to give them a lot of information throughout the masterclass and if they took away just one thing, it would be worth it.