The ballet dancer Steven McRae is determined to freshen up the public image of ballet with projects such as a photographic collaboration with the fashion designer Paul Smith.
Ballet: A future with style
A young man steps into a busy Tokyo street. Wearing tailored shorts and boat shoes, his leather bag slung casually over his shoulder, he flicks his Ray-Bans into place before hailing a taxi - and vanishing into the urban traffic. It is a scene that would not look out of place on a fashion shoot, but our protagonist is no catwalk model, hip DJ or international designer: he is, in fact, a ballet dancer, Steven McRae, off to freshen up after a morning of rehearsals.
Say the word "ballet", and a flurry of images is likely to spring to mind, from the rustle of pink tutus and a perfectly arched satin ballet shoe to spinning pirouettes and elegantly dying swans. But a new generation of dancers are determined to rid ballet of its more traditional and clichéd associations and instead embrace it as a modern, dynamic and even "cool" art form. McRae , who was recently in Tokyo with the London Royal Ballet Company's Japan tour, is among the ballet world's brightest hopes for such a future.
Hailed as one of the most promising dancers of his generation, McRae was made a principal dancer by the Royal Ballet last year at the unusually young age of 23. But it is not just his fiery spirit, technical brilliance and charm that make the Australian stand out - he is also determined to change the image of ballet. At the top of his to-do list? Creative collaborations with the world of fashion. Already, he has masterminded ballet-fashion projects with the British designer Sir Paul Smith, who recently photographed Royal Ballet dancers for a new exhibition, and subsequently included McRae in his autumn/winter advertising campaign in Japan.
"I'd like to change people's perceptions of what the ballet world actually is. It's not a stuffy world, it's not for the elite. It's modern and creative and I think many people would be shocked if they came to see what we are actually doing," says McRae. The concept of fusing ballet with fashion is not new: Coco Chanel's costumes for the Ballet Russes in the 1920s feature among her most memorable creations. More recently Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld designed a tutu for the English National Ballet, while Narciso Rodriguez also created costumes for a new work by the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
But such high-profile collaborations remain few and far between, and that is something that McRae is determined to rectify, with projects ranging from exhibitions and advertising campaigns to costume design. The afternoon we meet, an occupational hazard of being a ballet dancer is in evidence in the form of a plaster stuck to the middle of his forehead, beneath his signature mop of flame-orange hair.
Laughing it off, he says: "I was cut by a flying sword in a fighting scene on stage last Sunday. All very dramatic, lots of blood." Born into a motor-racing family living in a quiet Sydney suburb, McCrae first encountered the world of dance at the age of seven. After watching his sister's dance classes, he decided he wanted to join - it was love at first sight. Describing the unlikely juxtaposition of motor racing - his father was a drag racer - and ballet, he says: "They're so extreme but they are so similar in terms of adrenaline. Racers thrive off that buzz, that adrenaline rush they get when they race. And I think dancers are the same. You get such a rush through your body when you are stage, and you can easily become addicted to that."
His adrenaline-fuelled talent came to international attention at the age of 17 when he scooped the prestigious scholarship competition Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland - and two days later found himself in London, studying at the Royal Ballet School. "It was a massive culture shock," says McRae, who is warm and amiable with a barely discernible Australian accent. "I'd never been to Europe before; I'd always lived at home and I was miserable at first.
"Every morning, I'd wake up and see the suitcase on my wardrobe and wonder if I should jump on a plane home. But it makes you strong. You know that if you really didn't want it, you would get on that plane home." Happily for the Royal Ballet, McRae stuck with it and upon graduating was one of three students in a class of 30 who were offered contracts with the company. Since then, he has experienced a rise as meteoric as his balletic leaps - starting with his promotion to soloist two years ago and culminating in his debut in a principal role last year, as Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty.
The night before our interview, he was Romeo alongside Juliet, danced by the wonderful ballerina Miyako Yoshida at a Tokyo theatre in her final performance before her retirement from the Royal Ballet. But his skills are not confined to the stage. It was earlier this year, while shopping in the Paul Smith store on Floral Street near the Royal Opera House in London, that McRae came up with an idea. "One day, when I was in the shop, I thought wouldn't it be amazing to collaborate creatively together," he says. "Both Paul Smith and the Royal Ballet are British icons and both are based in Covent Garden. It seemed a perfect match."
Not one to hang around, he set up meetings with Smith, the pair hit it off and a plan was hatched: firstly, an exhibition of the Royal Ballet's 18 principal dancers photographed by the designer. The end result was a collection of beautifully composed monochrome matt shots of dancers in a mix of rehearsal attire and Paul Smith clothes at the Royal Opera House, which was unveiled in Tokyo in June and will be exhibited in London next month to coincide with London Fashion Week.
The advertising campaign followed, and further collaborations with Smith are reportedly in store - and a string of other high-end brands, ranging from Louis Vuitton to Dunhill, in McRae's sights. "Ballet and fashion have always been compatible," says McRae. "Both are devoted to creating an aesthetic that is perfect to look at. These two worlds mirror each other in their quest for the perfect snapshot image. But I feel that there is so much more room for collaboration."
Highly ambitious, he is also studying for a degree in business management and leadership with a view one day to leading a ballet company - McRae is keen for the world to appreciate the durability of ballet in the context of celebrity transience. "During the Margot Fonteyn era, ballet was a glamorous world and dancers were treated like old-fashioned movie stars," he says. "Today, the whole celebrity world has become really trashy. You appear on a reality show for a day and you're famous. But I hope that when the trashy celebrity scene dies off, people will once again respect real artists for their true talents."
He adds: "The ballet world is a very valuable tool for communicating. When people come to a performance, they can see for themselves, it's not just someone in a tutu, but there are powerful messages." The Royal Ballet Portraits by Sir Paul Smith will be exhibited in London in September.