Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
How Calvin Royal III came to be in Alexei Ratmansky's new ballet
Ballet competitions may be scorned in some quarters for their tiresome, circuslike exhibitions of technical tricks. But behind the scenes, career-defining encounters often take place, as Calvin Royal III knows firsthand. For Royal -- an elegant and refined dancer who recently became American Ballet Theatre's newest soloist -- participating in the Youth America Grand Prix helped launch him into the profession.
Initially Royal, who attended a performing arts high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, wasn't convinced ballet was for him. "I hadn't taken any ballet before my freshman year, so I only started at 14," he explains. "My first year, I went to my teachers wanting to switch majors, because it was just so difficult. At the time, it didn't seem like something that I could actually do. But I went away for summer programs and started getting stronger."
During his junior year, Royal attended the Youth America Grand Prix where he participated in a scholarship audition class taught by Raymond Lukens of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. The instructor was impressed by the potential of the tall, graceful teenager and offered him a scholarship. "That competition was an experience that I'd never done before, and it's what led me to ABT," Royal says.
Things moved fast. By 17 Royal was living in New York and attending the JKO School for his senior year. "I don't come from a very wealthy background, so moving to New York seemed like such an overwhelming expense at the time," he says. "But my parents said they would do everything they could to make a way for me to come."
Royal danced for three seasons with the ABT Studio Company, where his eloquent phrasing and appealing onstage presence were noted. "Our director, [former ABT principal] Wes Chapman, was tough," Royal remembers. "I think a lot of it came from his experience working his way through the ranks of the company. He knew what it took. We were dancing roles that the principals and soloists do, so he was really pushing us to get to that level."
Royal became an ABT apprentice in 2010 and a member of the corps de ballet the next year. Soon he was dancing featured roles and in 2013, when Twyla Tharp's intricate, demanding Bach Partita returned to ABT's repertory, he performed a leading part alongside company principals, looking gallant and at ease with the complex choreography.
Many of the major roles Royal tackled during his corps de ballet tenure were in the rapidly expanding repertory of works by Alexei Ratmansky, the Russian choreographer who has made ABT his artistic home since 2009. He recognized Royal's talent and individuality early on. So it's fitting that his first outing as soloist is as the lead in Ratmansky's new work Songs of Bukovina, which is set to a series of preludes by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov. The world-premiere piece is part of ABT's fall program, which runs October 18-29 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater.
"The choreography is super-fast and super-complex -- there's a step on every note," Royal says. "The tempos for a lot of the pieces he's created on us in the past, I think, are much slower in comparison to what we're doing in this one. The physicality of his movement is going to be pretty wild. I feel it's totally different from anything else he's created at ABT so far."
Royal is also excited to revisit Symphonic Variations, a pristine, classically pure 1946 masterwork by Sir Frederick Ashton that he first performed in 2016. "This year, since there's not the stress of learning it in such a short time, I can let everything sink in and really dance it -- let the music move through me. I've been listening to the music a lot over the last few months, just finding nuances, and hearing things in the score that I want to bring out in the dance more this time around."
The newly minted soloist also returns to one of Ratmansky's most striking recent works, Serenade After Plato's Symposium, set to the eponymous Leonard Bernstein concerto, which features seven male dancers with one female making a late entrance. "Alexei was very particular, and seemed to know exactly what he wanted when he was creating Symposium," Royal says. "For each dancer, he wanted to bring out those strengths that maybe had not yet been seen. He molded it around each person that he choose."
Royal recognizes how fortunate he is to be part of ABT's Ratmansky era, working regularly with one of the world's leading choreographers. "It's really special," he says. "I feel that with every new creation that he does for us, he's gotten to know us even more as dancers. He seems more settled, and has more trust and communication with us. He's giving us something, but he also wants us to take it to places where we give our input. He seems very open to that. There's a new sense of something brewing."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages
Top image: Calvin Royal III in Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
TDF Members: Go here to browse our latest discounts for dance, theatre, and concerts.