Eric Underwood, soloist at the Royal Ballet, on his ballet shoes.
GB Tell me why you chose your ballet shoes.
EU I think I chose them because they’re like an unsung hero. They’re as much a part of the show as me but no one ever looks at them. You see feet when people are dancing but you never think about the actual shoe. The shoe is smelly, it’s gross, it stinks. It’s full of sweat. And I think that sweat explains what’s happening and how much work is going into it. Ballet often looks so effortless. The shoe is telling the truth.
GB Are they necessary? Can you dance without them?
EU They are necessary. Without them you get a lot of friction. My relationship with them as a dancer is pretty intense. I don’t like to dance barefoot. I like to wear my shoes really tight.
GB When did you get your first pair?
EU When I was thirteen and I had a pair of leather Freeds with a hard sole. And the knuckles of my toes hung out of the top. They were awful! These ones are canvas so they’re more pliable than the leather.
GB In a ballet you have to act, you have to be aware of the music and you’re doing this very physical and often painful thing. Are you aware of the beauty of what you’re doing while you dance?
EU Yes you are. It’s captivating, not just for the audience but for the dancer too. I’m not Eric, someone else is there. I’m aware of my position in space and at that moment I’m in fairytale land.
GB You dance in classical as well as contemporary ballets. Is one more beautiful than the other to you?
EU No I think there are different angles of seeing the beauty. In classical ballet there’s a strong tradition and in contemporary there’s a freshness that’s there. They can both be beautiful but different.
GB Balanchine thought ballet didn’t need to have a specific meaning beyond the music and dance. He described it as being like putting flowers on a table for their beauty. “You like flowers because they are beautiful…I only wish to prove the dance by dancing.”* Do you think contemporary choreographers think about ballet in a similar way?
EU I don’t know if I can answer that but I know I don’t want to be flowers on a table! I don’t want to be objectified. I’m a person and I have an opinion!
GB Are you allowed to put your personality across?
EU If it’s a new work the choreographer gives you a skeleton, like a canvas and I think that as an artist you have to put a bit of yourself into it, so you have a relationship with it.
GB The ballet tradition is very aristocratic. And you’re dancing in the Royal Opera House. It’s all very grand.
EU I like to think more about the human aspect of it and it not being so elitist. I like to think about that person who has a standing room ticket and came genuinely to watch dance, rather than the girl in the gown who’s on a date in the opera house.
GB You trained in America. Is it a different aesthetic there?
EU Yes, the training is very different. I learned how to do lots of steps and then they were perfected. Here it seems as though they perfect a position and then work on a virtuosic way of doing it.
GB So the same ballet I see here might look very different in America?
EU Absolutely. The style of the dancers can completely change the ballet. The physicality of dance has evolved so much and that has also meant that things have become more extreme.
GB Do you think it’s possible to shock in a ballet still, like the Rite of Spring did at its first performance?
EU I hope so. Last year we did a ballet called Carbon Life by Wayne McGregor that was a collaboration with Mark Ronson. Gareth Pugh did the costumes. At one point Alison, the singer from the Kills, was singing about getting someone ‘by the f***ing neck and slapping them to the ground’. The ladies in the opera house clutched their pearls! There was definitely shock going on!
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
EU I think when you’re able to look at something in so many ways, from so many angles and it still transmits a beauty. These shoes are sitting here now and it’s a completely different relationship to when I see them after a show when they’re soaking wet and I’ve exhausted myself. That’s beautiful to me.
*From Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans