Melissa Hamilton. Photo: Simon Fowler
In today’s interview, Melissa Hamilton, Soloist at the Royal Ballet tells us more about her incredibly inspiring story and how believing in herself and her dreams has got her where she is today. Melissa is also dancing in Metamorphosis Titian 2012, a super production already considered as one of the highlights of the London 2012 Festival.
Hi Melissa, your story is incredible and we can’t wait to share it with our readers. Our first question is about your passion for ballet. We’d love to know how it all started for you and what it is that you love about this discipline?
MH: I started to go for one lesson a week of ballet from age four purely as a hobby. It wasn't until I went to a Summer School in Scotland when I was 13 and was dancing all day every day for a week, that I suddenly found something that I really loved spending that amount of time doing. From then on I had it in my head that I would audition for a vocational school (at 16) after my GCSE's, which my parents wanted me to stay in Northern Ireland to do.
I love how there is always something new to learn in ballet, you can always do things better than you did them yesterday so it's impossible to get bored as you constantly have something to strive for.
You started your professional training a lot later than other ballerinas. I imagine the first few months at school weren’t easy… Tell us more about it?
MH: It wasn't easy at all... I was coming from a tiny hobby based local dance school, having done only a maximum of two days a week ballet after school, to joining a class of girls who in majority had been at vocational schools since 11years old. It was like playing catch-up!
Yes, it must have been very hard... At the end of your first year at Elmhurst, you were actually told you should give up. How did you manage to keep motivated and believe in yourself?
MH: I don't like to be told "you can't" - that's one of my greatest sources of motivation. The will to prove that what I believed in was right regardless of what other people were telling me is what I owe my career to today. I knew I didn't have the backing of my teachers in that first year in Elmhurst but to be told at the end of the year that ballet wasn't a suitable career choice for me was hard to stomach at the time. However, I knew that the teachers telling me this were being replaced the coming year, so I went with the gut instinct to return after the summer break - I didn't want to give up on where I wanted my life to go.
And luckily, when you came back after the summer break, your talent was recognized by someone very important - Masha Mukhamedov – who decided to take you under her wings. What was the year of intensive training you had with Masha like?
MH: Masha came as the teacher to my class in my second year in Elmhurst and suddenly my eyes were opened to a totally new concept of how to work. We only had ballet class with her in this year, no solo, repertoire or pas de deux lessons. When it was announced she was leaving after one year of teaching there to move to Athens I was devastated. Soon after I actually was the one to approach her with the idea of teaching me privately - to which she thought I was crazy! However, I knew she was my only hope of getting to where I wanted to be and most importantly I knew she believed in me. So I quit school after two years (of a three year course) and I started my 10 month intensive training with her in Athens consisting of a solid four hours a day, six days a week.
What was the best piece of advice she gave you during the training?
MH: Trust me!
Melissa Hamilton. Photo: Simon Fowler
You did and it most certainly worked! You’ve had the opportunity to enter competitions as well, including the renowned America Grand Prix. To your surprise, you won. What did it mean to you? Did it feel like you were finally being recognised?
MH:At 18 that was my first time performing a classical solo in a proper theatre! We knew that I couldn't audition for a company without having any stage experience so this was our way of gaining some of that. It was also important to see what was "out there" in the youth of the ballet world - competitions are an excellent way of opening your eyes to the talent around the world. I had never expected to win Grand Prix and it came as a huge shock to both myself and Masha.
Congratulations! This is very impressive. As a result of your hard work, you were offered a contract with the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company but this wasn’t what you wanted. You wanted to get into the Royal Ballet. Your determination and talent paid. Tell us how you got in?
MH: To work in New York had never been something that I had even considered. Being British, my ultimate aim was to dance with the Royal Ballet... however in the ballet world contracts are like gold-dust and not something to turn down unless you have a number of offers. When we arrived back from New York, Masha contacted Monica Mason the Director of the Royal Ballet, told her about me and asked if she would be interested in looking at me. Jet-lagged we then set about making a short DVD to send to her in London after which I was invited to take company class and was offered a corps de ballet contract starting at the beginning of the new season.
Fantastic! You must have been thrilled to get closer to your dream. One thing we haven’t asked yet is what is it about the Royal Ballet that you love and that you think makes it the perfect company for you?
MH: The Royal Ballet offers an incredible repertoire to its dancers with the MacMillan and Ashton heritage a huge part of what makes the company unique. Not only do we dance the classics but an equal importance on neo-classical, contemporary and the creation of new works means all aspects of ourselves as artists are constantly evolving. What we dance is like our fuel so the repertoire is a huge aspect to consider when looking at companies to audition for. Our facilities here at the Royal Opera House offer us incredibly comfortable conditions to work in and our annual tour is definitely a great perk!
What would you say has been you first breakthrough after entering the company?
MH: I would always consider my pas de deux in Wayne McGregor's Infra with Eric Underwood was what brought me to peoples' attention.
And do you remember the first role you had to dance with the corps de ballet? How was it?
MH: It was The Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadere. I am thankful that this was the first ballet I was involved in at the Royal Ballet because the corps de ballet girls are used extensively throughout so I was used on stage immediately, not just covering and learning the work in the studio... by dancing on stage we make the biggest progress.
You mentioned earlier Wayne McGregor and this pas de deux in Infra. This role was created by Wayne himself for you. What a brilliant experience it must have been! Tell us about the role and how you prepared for it.
MH: This was at the beginning of my second season. I was very naive to what it meant to be created on by the Resident Choreographer of the Company and what a priviledge it was. I was just going on the fact that I was loving the rehearsal and creation process and found it all new and exciting - I never thought of the impact this pas de deux could have had on my career.
The pas de deux in Infra created on myself and Eric Underwood was very physically demanding as I was literally stretched to my limits... so I had to ensure I was incredibly warm before stepping on stage to avoid injury. I will be dancing Infra again in the 2012/13 season with the company so it will be very interesting to come back to and develop it which is always important when you get the chance to repeat a role.
We’re most definitely looking forward to see you make your return! How is it to work with Wayne?
MH: Wayne pushes his dancers to new limits. His language is not like classical ballet, which has a name for each particular step, instead his is purely about the movement of the body so to learn and retain is a lot more difficult. This makes the creating process sometimes more mentally than physically challenging to begin with, but by performing your body works on muscle memory and physically you can push it to it's extremity.
Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Speaking of pushing limits, you reached new heights recently when you obtained one of the roles most coveted by all ballerinas: Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. The reviews were great. Tell us more about being Juliet and more importantly how you added your own “touch” to it?
MH: Juliet is truly one of the most incredible experiences I have had on stage. To live out a role like that is something that words cannot describe. You give yourself to be your version of "Juliet." You feel every emotion on the journey she goes through over three hours and at the end you are paid back for all the hours, months, years of work you have put in. I studied Shakespeare's text, watched the films and of course other ballerina's take on Juliet. You can learn so much from watching other dancers. To draw on your own experiences in life is also important when dancing a role. I think it is by putting aspects of yourself into a character on stage that brings it to life and makes it become so much more than the steps...this is how you touch people.
You danced with Edward Watson who was Romeo. Did you enjoy dancing together? How is he as a dance partner?
MH: I was scheduled to dance with Rupert Pennefather as my Romeo, but three days before our performance he injured himself and Edward replaced him. This is not the most ideal scenario, especially when you are making a debut, but I had worked with Ed in a lot of the McGregor ballets so I felt very comfortable at such short notice to put a three act ballet together with him. I absolutely loved those three days and the performance with Ed - he was so supportive of the fact that this was a debut for me and I had total faith in the fact that he would be the Romeo to my Juliet in the performance.
You’re dancing in Metamorphosis Titian 2012, which was showed for the first time on Saturday the 14th July. Can you tell our readers more about what it’s about?
MH: It’s a collaboration with 7 choreographers, three artists the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery to create an evening of three new works in their response to paintings by the Renaissance artist Titian. The works are based around three of Titian's masterpieces - Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon & Diana and Callisto. It is all part of The National Gallery's contribution to the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. There are four performances and it will be relayed live in Trafalgar Square and across the UK on 16th July.
Tell us more about what we can expect from this production?
MH: It will be an exciting evening showing how masterpieces like these by Titian paintings can inspire living artists today. The new work will be created on the company with Wayne McGregor and Kim Brandstrup's Machina, Christopher Wheeldon and Alastair Marriott's Trespass and Will Tuckett, Jonathan Watkins and Liam Scarlett's Diana and Actaeon.
Who would you say this production will appeal to?
MH: With the collaboration of the British artists Conrad Shawcross, Mark Wallinger and Chris Ofili working alongside the choreographers creating the set designs for each ballet, I hope an audience will be drawn to see the vision and work of some of the best contemporary artists in different fields of the art world in one space in one evening.
Last question: what are your plans for this summer? Some time off will be much deserved after all your hard work.
MH: Immediately after the season finishes on 23rd July I go to Spain to perform in a gala before taking a short holiday. After this I will start preparing to dance the lead female role in the ballet "A Bientot" which I am guest performing on 25th and 26th August with The Asami Maki Ballet in Tokyo. Then straight back to London to start the new 2012/13 season on 28th.
A very busy summer in perspective then! We wish you the best of luck with the upcoming performances and your career. Thank you so much for your time!
Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood in Infra. Photo: Dave M.
Metamorphosis: Titian 2012