The maverick dancer changing the face of modern ballet

More “MC Hammer than Baryshnikov”, Eric Underwood is on a mission to bring ballet to the masses – which is why, he tells Tim Auld, he’s just made the hardest decision of his career

Eric Underwood wearing an Insomnia shirt, jacket and trousers and Kurt Geiger shoes at London Fashion Week Men’s, in June this year
Eric Underwood wearing an Insomnia shirt, jacket and trousers and Kurt Geiger shoes at London Fashion Week Men’s, in June this year | Image: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images

One of the most talented and exciting ballet dancers of his generation, Eric Underwood has not taken the traditional path to the top.

He grew up in a suburb of Washington DC in a neighbourhood where, he recalls, he and his siblings would regularly have to sleep on the floor for fear of being hit by stray bullets from the gang battles outside. His only experience of dance up to the age of 14 was boogieing around the kitchen with his mother to Al Green and Marvin Gaye. Yet by 22 he had been snapped up by The Royal Ballet, and during his 11-year tenure there he rose to soloist, creating – with the choreographers Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon – a number of the most striking roles in modern ballet. He has described his inspirations as being “more MC Hammer than Mikhail Baryshnikov”, a statement borne out by his star turns in Carbon Life, with music by Mark Ronson and vocals by Boy George, and Chroma, with a score by The White Stripes and design by the architect John Pawson.

Described by The New York Times as “an impious outlier in the rigid world of classical ballet”, Underwood has admitted to a fondness for cigarettes and clubbing (“I don’t want to be tamed”); he’s been photographed full-frontal nude by David Bailey for GQ and, slightly less scantily clad with Kate Moss, by Mario Testino for Italian Vogue; and he’s pinned his political commitments to the mast, choreographing a film about climate change for Vivienne Westwood. “I enjoy modelling, I enjoy going out, I enjoy laughing,” he told me when we met before this magazine’s fashion shoot at a photography studio in London. “There are so many things that shape me more than just being the ‘prince’. I find it completely boring to live life that way. If that’s a rebel, then I guess…”

Underwood as the caterpillar in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for The Royal Ballet in 2011
Underwood as the caterpillar in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for The Royal Ballet in 2011 | Image: Johan Persson

Indeed, bland predictable soundbites are not Underwood’s thing. When I asked him whether dancers should be paid more, he pulled no punches: “There’s plenty of money at the ballet. There’s plenty in the audience and behind the scenes. You train and you study as much as a doctor or someone who dedicates their life to what they want to do. The difference, I think, is that ballet dancers don’t go into that career with the idea of wanting lots of money.” When I asked if a sense of camaraderie within a ballet company was important to him, he was unashamed to say that he’s the cat that walks alone: “There are some dancers who feel a sense of family. Me, personally, absolutely not. I prefer to work individually and to focus on what I’m there for, to develop myself and to move forward.”

In conversation Underwood is easy-going, thoughtful, candid and quick to laugh. But it’s fair to say that the one thing to expect of Underwood is the unexpected. So I should have anticipated that between sitting down to talk to him and writing about it a week later, something sudden would happen. 

He’d spoken to me about wanting more than “having people come watch me jump and turn, and then applaud”, prompting me to ask if he was fed up with performing. “No, I’m not. I think I can do more,” he said. “I think there’s a bigger message. I love dancing and I’ve enjoyed dancing but I think my voice is probably more powerful in this moment than my pointed toe.”

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A die-hard fan of Strictly Come Dancing, he added that he wanted to find a way to “bring ballet to the masses, to create accessibility – doing something that’s sort of pop culture and relatable to people”.

But he’d also spoken with relish about reprising his role as the “sexy caterpillar” (pictured top) in a forthcoming revival of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for The Royal Ballet in late September. “I start behind the stage, on top of this mushroom, smoking a hookah. As the curtain’s about to open, I’m thinking, “What way can I approach this, and still maintain the sexuality but do it differently?”

However, within days of saying this, he announced his decision to leave The Royal Ballet. He wouldn’t be appearing in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and when I asked his publicity firm if his departure had been planned the answer came back that they hadn’t known anything about it until it was sprung on them.

With (from left) actor Eric Rutherford, Hackett co-founder Jeremy Hackett and model Richard Biedul at a Hackett London launch event at Henley Royal Regatta in June
With (from left) actor Eric Rutherford, Hackett co-founder Jeremy Hackett and model Richard Biedul at a Hackett London launch event at Henley Royal Regatta in June | Image: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Hackett London

When I caught up with him by phone in LA two days after his resignation, he seemed, as ever, calm and collected. Had The Royal Ballet – indeed had he – known that his departure would be so precipitous?

“I couldn’t speak to you about it,” he said. “Things had been in planning. I think The Royal Ballet were fine. I think they’ve always known I had other interests. We have a great relationship, so that’s OK.” Still, with just over a month to go before the opening of Alice, someone must have been grinding their teeth in frustration.

As to precisely what’s next for Underwood, he said he was unable to divulge details. He’s not moving to another ballet company. Modelling is already part of his portfolio and that will continue: “I’ve done quite a bit now and I enjoy it.” He could say he’s been in “very quiet talks with television people” and that his involvement with the BBC programme Inside Out last year (that saw him visit a school in Hackney in search of ballet stars of the future) “really pushed me to reach for this accessibility thing and the television aspect of it. Billy Elliot was some form of progress. But I think things need to be taken to a larger platform.” When pushed further he said it’s not just TV, it’s a variety of things. Oh, and it’s not just ballet.

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Whatever it may be, he’s clearly on a mission, and given how far the child known as “the dancing boy” on the street and “the black one” at ballet school has come against the odds, it would take a brave man to bet against his future success. “That’s the role I’m most excited for,” he told me. “Eric being an adult.”

To see our photoshoot with Eric Underwood, click here. To watch a video of Eric Underwood dancing at our photoshoot, click here.

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