NY Times: Eric Underwood, the American Star of the Royal Ballet | Premier Model Management



NY Times: Eric Underwood, the American Star of the Royal Ballet

Eric Underwood chats to NY Times on how he prepared for his life’s work by dancing with his mother at home to Al Green and Marvin Gaye.

LONDON — The most shocking thing about Eric Underwood, the American-born star of the Royal Ballet in London, is not that he has a potty mouth or a dragon tattoo shooting out of his navel. It is not that he has been photographed frontally nude by David Bailey for a fashion magazine or by Mario Testino mostly unclothed with Kate Moss for Italian Vogue.

It is not that, unlike the dance drones of the “Black Swan” cinematic cliché, he enjoys an evening at the Box, a raunchy cabaret here, and has been known to gorge on burgers and fries now and then.

All of these are established elements of the 33-year-old Mr. Underwood’s reputation as an immensely likable if impious outlier in the rigid world of classical ballet. The shocking thing about him is what he does at home.

On those evenings when he is not performing at the Royal Opera House, or on stages around the world, he can often be found on the sofa at his house in Camden conducting one-sided geezer-type arguments with the judges on “Strictly Come Dancing,” the BBC One equivalent of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

“I’m obsessed,” Mr. Underwood said.

So fixated is he, in fact, that he spent a recent morning shopping for shrubs at the Covent Garden Market to build a privacy screen shielding his living room window from a railway line that runs parallel to his house.

“Right now people now can look in at this crazy man yelling at his TV,” he said.

We were seated in a leather banquette in the bar of the Colony Grill Room at the Beaumont Hotel in the Mayfair district of London. Both the bar and the hotel are theatrical simulacra of a glamorous Art Deco watering hole and hostelry. They were conjured by the celebrated London restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King on a site once occupied by a parking garage. The Beaumont has been one of Mr. Underwood’s favorite places ever since he spent a night there, in a suite called “Room” designed by the British sculptor Antony Gormley.

Mr. Underwood, though muscled, lean, athletic and at 6-foot-2 seemingly built for the discipline, fell into ballet as a teenager almost accidentally when, after flubbing an audition for a performing arts school, he spotted a nearby movement class underway and bluffed his way in.

“I didn’t know anything about ballet, but I could already dance,” Mr. Underwood said.

The assertion seems needlessly boastful unless you consider how central it is to Mr. Underwood’s mission to normalize and demystify his chosen profession. The technical barriers to entry in classical dance are stringent enough to discourage many potential talents from trying. And yet more than mere technique, dance artistry is created from the sum of life experiences, he said.

In his case, that experience notably includes Friday nights spent at home in suburban Maryland, where his mother, a secretary, used to push the furniture against the walls so that she and her three children could dance to Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye.

It was largely a happy childhood, Mr. Underwood added. While many accounts of his upbringing have emphasized the hackneyed narrative of escape from the rampant violence and gun crime of a poor neighborhood near the nation’s capital, that is not altogether how he remembers it.

“Sure, there were gangs at school and there was gunfire, but we were loved and appreciated at home,” he said. “My mother brought us up with that American attitude of ‘You can do anything you want if you work hard enough.’ She had this saying: ‘It’s just an obstacle. Get over it.’”

His ascent through the ranks of the classical ballet world, though hardly without obstacles, would be the envy of most in Mr. Underwood’s profession: Early in his teenage training with the ballet teacher Barbara Marks at Suitland High School Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Maryland, he was awarded a Philip Morris Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet in New York.

Graduating into the company of the Dance Theater of Harlem, he was promoted at the end of his first season to soloist, and joined American Ballet Theater in 2003. Offered a spot as first artist at the Royal Ballet three years later, he relocated to London, and was quickly elevated to soloist, becoming a favorite of choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor.

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