Steven McRae’s leaps and bounds

23 Feb 2017

Author: Louise Schwartzkoff

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It’s a long way from Sydney’s western suburbs to the Royal Opera House stage in London. This Australian ballet dancer has made the jump, thanks to his shining talent and pure force of will. But things might have turned out very differently. Once upon a time, he wanted to be a drag racer.
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Dianne McRae often sends texts from her home in Australia’s Gold Coast, checking up on her son, who lives in London. “How’s your day going?” she might ask. “What are you up to?” On more than one occasion, Steven McRae has texted back to tell his mum that he’s in Buckingham Palace, dancing for the Queen. All in a day’s work for a principal at the Royal Ballet.

McRae meets me at the stage door of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, his workplace for the past 13 years. “Want to see backstage?” he asks, then leads the way to a cavernous space crammed with wooden sets, prop staircases that lead nowhere and a glittering Christmas tree that almost brushes the ceiling. These make up the scenery of The Nutcracker, a festive extravaganza in which McRae plays the lead role of The Prince, for an audience that comes from all over the world.

Steven McRae as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Credit: Royal Opera House, 2013. Photograph: Johan Persson.
Steven McRae as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Credit: Royal Opera House, 2013. Photograph: Johan Persson. 

From drag racing to dance

McRae didn’t always want to be a dancer. As a child in Sydney’s western suburbs, he dreamed of being a drag racer like his dad Phillip, an auto electrician with a passion for motorsports. He followed his older sister into dance classes, where his teacher Hilary Kaplan soon saw his potential. Here was a boy, she thought, who could dance with the world’s best companies – perhaps even the Royal Ballet.

But it wasn’t that simple. Phillip and Dianne McRae both worked long hours in the family business. They were not the sort of family who could jet around the world so their son could compete in ballet competitions. Nor could they afford the fees to the prestigious Royal Ballet School.

McRae was 16 years old by the time he performed in his first international competition. It was 2002 and, for the first time, the Royal Academy of Dance’s Genée International Ballet Competition was being held outside the UK. He could compete in his hometown, on stage at the Sydney Opera House. He wore spangled crimson pants that made him look like a teenaged genie and won the gold medal.

 “Little did I know that would be the last time I would perform in Australia for a very long time,” he says.

 Steven McRae was 16 when he performed in the Royal Academy of Dance’s Genée International Ballet Competition in 2002.  Credit: Branco Gaica, courtesy of the Royal Academy of Dance

Steven McRae was 16 when he performed in the Royal Academy of Dance’s Genée International Ballet Competition in 2002. Credit: Branco Gaica, courtesy of the Royal Academy of Dance.

Up, up and away

A few months later, McRae and his mum flew to Switzerland for the Prix de Lausanne competition for young dancers. It was an expensive gamble but one with potentially huge rewards. The best dancers in the Prix de Lausanne win scholarships to the world’s best ballet schools.

McRae, by now 17, showed off his technique, but what really won over the crowd was his tap routine to Monty Norman's James Bond theme – a bold choice in a classical competition. He swaggered and strutted and spun in a performance that had the audience gasping, giggling and cheering by turns.

The judges were just as impressed. McRae won first prize and a scholarship to The Royal Ballet School. The late Gailene Stock, then the school’s director, told McRae not to go home to Australia but to pack his bags and fly to London the next day.

He shot through the ranks of the Royal Ballet dancers. By 21, he was dancing roles that would usually go to more experienced performers. When Danish principal Johan Kobborg sprained his ankle before a performance of Romeo and Juliet in 2007, McRae stepped in to take the lead on opening night.

Steven McRae as The Creature in Frankenstein. Credit: Royal Opera House, 2016. Photographed by Bill Cooper.
Steven McRae as The Creature in Frankenstein. Credit: Royal Opera House, 2016. Photographed by Bill Cooper. 

Strength through adversity

Then came disaster: a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. “I’d done all these principal roles, I was working with many choreographers, I was climbing through the ranks of the company,” says McRae. “Then my body just stopped and said, no, too much. So I was off the stage for almost a year.”

He thought his career was over. “There’s always someone younger and better coming up, so you automatically think, that’s it – I’ve lost,” he says. “I was very down for many months. But then, during the rehab process … I was able to spin it around: OK, I’ve achieved this much. Let’s use this now to come back even stronger and wiser.”

In the years since, McRae has danced lead roles in ballet’s iconic classics. He has also worked with contemporary choreographers to create new work. As the Mad Hatter in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, he had the chance to show off his tap skills on the Royal Opera House stage. In Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein, he was covered in raw, jagged scars as Victor Frankenstein’s monstrous and tragic Creature, a role, he says, that took him “completely out of my comfort zone”. He has also worked as a guest artist with companies including the American Ballet Theatre, the Australian Ballet and the Tokyo Ballet.

Steven McRae as Florize in The Winter
Steven McRae as Florize in The Winter's Tale. Credit: Royal Opera House, 2014. Photograph: Johan Persson. 

Beyond ballet

McRae documents much of his preparation for performances on Instagram and Twitter. Here he is in a golden crown, springing into the air as The Nutcracker’s Prince – a post that drew more than 4000 Instagram likes. And here’s a video of a stretch that takes his chin from the floor to point at the ceiling, then back around to meet his toe flexed behind his arched back (12,156 views at time of writing). There is also a good smattering of photos of his two children, two-year-old Audrey and new baby Frederick, and his wife, fellow Royal Ballet dancer, Elizabeth Harrod.

He thinks it’s important to reach out to an audience beyond the usual ballet crowd. “I still go to functions and sometimes people will say, ‘So what do you do during the day?’ There are still some people who believe that a dancer just turns up and does their show at night. It’s our responsibility to educate them.”

He recently made a video with online magazine Nowness, comparing ballet with motorsports: “the speed, the risk, the attention to detail, the rush of adrenalin”. 

During a trip to Japan, he met manga artist Takafumi Adachi, and they started working together on the Ballet Hero Fantasy strip, which appears in a Japanese ballet magazine and stars McRae as a leotard-clad cartoon.

“In any profession it’s easy to get caught up in your bubble,” he says. “There’s so much good in these platforms … I’ve had contact with people who I never would have had contact with, who have nothing to do with the dance world. You can really communicate and get across a message that you believe in.”

Find out more about Steven McRae's work with The Royal Ballet, London

In 2016, Steven McRae was the Ambassador for the Genée International Ballet Competition. Click here to watch the final until 11 March 2017