Interview: Steven McRae

© Manuel De Los Galen
Posted: Fri Feb 25 2011

Australian dancer Steven McRae thrives on taking risks and is fiercely ambitious. Lyndsey Winship goes along for a ride with the Mad Hatter

Sydney native Steven McRae is frequently one of the most exciting things on the Opera House stage. The 25-year-old, flame-haired Royal Ballet principal, who followed his sister to dance classes as a kid, only decided to focus on ballet in his late teens, but when he decides to do something, he goes all out. A multiple prize-winner and nominee at this year's National Dance Awards, he's a favourite in those sparky roles that show off his super-fast feet and whizzing technique, but he can do romantic leads too and makes his debut this season as Prince Siegfried in 'Swan Lake' and Des Grieux in 'Manon'. He'll also be showing off his pretty damn amazing tap dancing skills as the Mad Hatter in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', the Royal Ballet's first new full-length ballet for 15 years.

First of all, tell us about 'Alice'.
'It's going to be visually spectacular. The sets, the costumes, the brand new score and Chris's incredibly imaginative vision; I think they're all going to explode together. It really will create this wonderland where the audience is going to be in shock at every single scene.'

Sounds great. Have we been a bit lacking in new narrative ballets?
'Oh yes. It's definitely time for the company to have a new full-length [ballet] done for them. We've got to keep them coming, every season.'

Why do you need that, as opposed to more abstract or one-act works?
'Well, we're artists. You need those ballets created for you to develop artistically. It's fine to do existing roles but there's nothing like having a character created for you.'

What's the most rewarding thing about your job?
'When you're in the middle of a really dramatic pas de deux, with a partner you feel so at home with and you can feel the two of you are just hitting it off and it's just happening - that's the most rewarding thing.'

Is it the kind of feeling you can't get in ordinary life?
'Every time you step on stage there's always the risk that it could go horribly wrong, but it could also be the best show of your life. And it's that adrenaline of just not knowing. I live off that buzz. I guess it's like someone stepping out of a plane for the first time to go skydiving, or doing a bungee jump. That's what it's like for a dancer every single time they step on the stage.'

It must be hard to control that adrenaline.
'It's hard after a show when your adrenaline levels have been that high to go back to average [life]. It's hard to come down from that. But you wake up the next day and go back to class.'

What do you do in your average non-dancing life?
'I'm studying for a BA in business management and leadership.'

How do you have time for that?
'That's between midnight and 6am.'

What's that going to lead towards?
'I try not to rule out anything in life. In the future I'd love to direct - whether that's a ballet company, a ballet school, a TV studio, a film studio.'

Right now you're about to dance 'Swan Lake'. Is that a big deal for you?
'Oh yeah, you always want to do the classics. And our “Swan Lake” is different to others. The prince here isn't just your typical cardboard-cut-out prince; there's more to him. He's a young lad, he's got a bit of cheek to him. He's happy hanging out with his friends but he has to conform to what his life should be and that's a bit of a struggle for him. I'm really looking forward to tackling that.'

I'm thinking of a modern prince you could model him on…
'[Laughs] I think he's got similar hair to me as well.'

You've moved up the ranks really quickly. Are you quite ambitious?
'Yes. I don't think ambition is anything to be ashamed of.'

The British tend to be a bit suspicious of ambition.
'I flew all the way from the other side of the world for a purpose. I didn't just leave my family behind, leave everything I love about Australia behind, just to sit back and see other people do what I want to do. I got off that plane with that in my head. It's a shame that ambition is looked at that way, but I think ambition is a good thing. Monica [Mason, the Royal Ballet's director] has said to me in the past that my generation are so used to having things happen very quickly, it can make us impatient. But I think impatience is a good thing. It keeps you hungry, keeps you striving, you're always working.'

So much of success in dance is about attitude and not technique.
'In life it is. I watched Piers Morgan interviewing Donald Trump last night. He said that when it comes to people who mean business, you can just tell by looking at them. They're there because they want to achieve something, they're there to do a job, and I really admire that.'

And when you go on stage you mean business?
When I step in to that building [points to the Opera House], I mean business. In life, I mean business.'

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' is at the Royal Opera House, Feb 28-Mar 15