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Over the last 20 years there has been a dramatic increase of ‘ballet boys’ across the UK; in 2016 The Royal Ballet School received more applications from boys than girls and English National Ballet say that their intake is now equal across sexes every year. Here at Scottish Ballet the interest from boys is growing in all our Education activities. Can we credit this purely to Matthew Bourne’s all male cast of swans and the cinema release and musical Billy Elliot, or is there more to it?

Our CEO/Artistic Director Christopher Hampson, Principal dancer Christopher Harrison and Rehearsal Director Oliver Rydout talk about what it was like dancing as a child, what influenced them, and what the future of dance holds for the male dancers in the Company.

What brought you to ballet?

Christopher Hampson: I started ballet at three, because a girl I used to hang about with went, but actually it wasn’t really ballet that intrigued me, it was theatre. Ballet was a way in for me. Even though I have made a career from dance, both on stage and off, it’s still the theatrical environment that keeps me coming in, where the work gets seen.

Christopher Harrison: I lived in a really small community [Kippen], so whenever they put anything on the whole village got involved! The teacher said ‘come to my next dance workshop’ and that’s when I was introduced to ballet. The teachers were really enthusiastic and my Mum saw how much I enjoyed it. She heard about the auditions for Junior Associates at Scottish Ballet and before I knew it I was in full time training.

Oliver Rydout: I was about three when I started dancing. My mum would often have music on at home and I just started improvising. Around the time I should’ve been auditioning to go in to full-time training I completely went off ballet. I really enjoyed gymnastics, but eventually I missed the artistry of dance; I wanted to do my floor routine to music, but men’s gymnastics doesn’t have that artistic strand to it. After a push from my teacher, I started going to Hammond School in Cheshire, and suddenly dancing alongside other boys and having a bit of competition made me fall in love with ballet all over again, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

A dancer in the studio holding his leg in the air

Was there a dancer that you identified with or that inspired you?

Harrison: When I was in Junior Associates I got to perform one of the children’s roles in The Nutcracker and Campbell McKenzie (former Principal at Scottish Ballet) was dancing the Prince at the time. He was very charismatic and you could see how the whole Company enjoyed being on stage with him. I just couldn’t stop practicing after that experience. I remember going back to the Dance School of Scotland and showing off a couple of moves, which looking back on it, the other kids must have thought I was a nightmare!

Did dancing always come naturally to you?

Harrison: It’s such a great challenge each time you go in to the studio. Sometimes that can be quite daunting for a young person, especially if it’s constant, but if you have good people around you who are enthusiastic and can point you in the right direction it makes it a lot easier.

Rydout: I think dancers’ training is much more varied now. When I was at The Royal Ballet School it was very classically led. It still is, but I think the training is a lot broader. We weren’t exposed to so much other technique so, for me, it was really daunting to do contemporary.

What has ballet given you?

Harrison: When I was younger I was quite hyperactive and it taught me a lot of discipline and that helped my school work as well, because I had a bit more focus. It’s definitely opened up so many opportunities that I would never have dreamt of, just to be on stage is probably the biggest thing.

Rydout: It gives you a really strong focus, my focus when I was dancing was pragmatic; I had to do the best job that I could do and it has always been like that for me.

A man spins with one leg out to the side wearing flowy black trousers

Was there any stigma or bullying when you were training?

Harrison: Yes, there was. Luckily I had a lot of support, everyone knew what I was doing and was fully behind it, but obviously in life you’re going to get someone who is just a bad egg. I was always told; ‘if it wasn’t me it would be someone else and the people who do that don’t have your best interests at heart’. I always tried to listen to the people who looked out for me; I think that’s probably the best thing for an aspiring young dancer to do.

Hampson: I don’t know if that kind of bullying still happens? It’s so accepted now to say ‘I’m a dancer’ or ‘I work in dance’. That’s a thing now, which it just wasn’t in Manchester in the 1970s; it was just not what you did then. I was dancing child roles in professional companies from the age of six, with Northern Ballet and then any visiting ballet company, and that actually negated a lot of hostility. It’s a much more even playing field now. There were people who were harsh then who see me now when I’m back home and they’re just proud of me.

Why do you think there are more boys in ballet now?

Harrison: Social Media helps, anyone can go and look on YouTube for any sort of dance that they can connect to, whether it’s contemporary or classical. One of the first things I saw was Rooster by Christopher Bruce and the fact that it was choreographed to The Rolling Stones, which my dad used to listen to when I was growing up, meant that I had a connection as well. I could relate to it more than a 60 piece orchestra and that made me more comfortable.

Hampson: Everyone always talks about the ‘Billy Elliot effect’ but it’s really the ‘Matthew Bourne effect’. The pinnacle of the Billy Elliot film is performing Matthew Bourne’s all male Swan Lake. When we were training, the ambition for young male dancers was going to Covent Garden and being a Prince, but for the young people who Billy Elliot was appealing to in 2000, it was about being in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. That’s the turning point I think.

Siegfried stands on his toes and stretches one arm up as he looks at his hand

Do you think that having more male dancers is influencing the type of dance that is being made?

Harrison: There have always been big roles for the men, but I think the technique is getting more advanced. The men used to be able to just lift and jump but now we have to get our legs up as high as the women.

Hampson: I think it does affect the repertoire. The Rite of Spring traditionally involves a woman being offered up for ritual. That’s what it was when Nijinsky did it in 1913, and then most productions have been that way. But I think about when I choreographed it in 2011, to be able to think about it another way, where it’s actually about two men. That’s a kind of zeitgeist, because it’s around men becoming more prominent in their role now.

What lies ahead for dance?

Hampson: One development that is just beginning and is intriguing is blind casting, where, for example the Juliet character is the Romeo, and vice versa. We start to look at whether it needs to be a woman who dances that role, which has happened in theatre for years, and could be quite interesting for ballet.

Rydout: Male dancers need to be as flexible as the female dancers, in that same way women are expected to be more physical and strong. Men and women having similar physicality has already been happening for a while but perhaps it will become more pronounced.

Harrison: I think sports science has come a long way and things like Gyrotonics [a specialist body conditioning system practised here at Scottish Ballet] has helped dancers to become even more flexible and strong.

Rydout: In a way all this will make us directly affect what’s happening in dance schools. The diversity of our Company and our dancers will mean that we expect that from dance students. Institutions need to ask themselves ‘what does the industry need from training bodies’.

Hampson: Yes, I find now that we have to say to [dance] schools ‘this is what we expect’. We have to be proactive at Scottish Ballet by getting some physical training in; we’ve got full time Gyrotonics staff making sure our health care is being well provided for and that’s going to have to start happening in dance education too. Only doing just ballet just doesn’t cut it anymore; we need a much broader portfolio.

Interview by Sarah Potter, Copywriter – Advancement, for Scottish Ballet’s Backstage magazine.

I always tell people that the year I joined the Royal Ballet School was the first year that more boys than girls had been given places at the school, so I really think that I was at the very beginning of the shift we are starting to see in the attitudes towards male dancers. At my local ballet school I was the only boy in my school, and to go from that to being with all these other boys, whose dreams and goals were the same as my own, was really special. I really hope that anyone who wants to dance can, and that the only reaction it elicits from anyone else is admiration and encouragement.

Matthew Broadbent, Scottish Ballet Artist