CONVERSATION

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline

The Diary of Calvin Royal III, Principal Dancer of American Ballet Theatre, is the cover story of Issue #14, entitled: Creative discipline. Welcome to Caleido, an inspirational diary, that narrates many stories: about creative people, trends, travels, objects./ Read the Editor’s letter here

Diary of: @calvinroyaliii

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
© ph Quinn Wharton
1. You are now the Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Caleido interviews Calvin Royal III, principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. In a world of such complex change, do you think that ballet is also undergoing some kind of evolution? If so, what is it? Or, conversely, is it precisely because of its timelessness that it is an eternally interesting art form?

I believe that dance and, in particular, ballet is evolving even if it doesn’t seem that way to non dance followers. From a purely physical standpoint, dancers nowadays have the capacity to do so much more. There’s a greater sense of athleticism, but like generations past the execution has to be done with grace and ease. Thankfully the industry has learned so much about creating better conditions like sprung flooring in training studios and on stages, and dancers have access to physical therapy, cross training, and nutritional support that allows us to soar higher, prevent injuries, and have longer lasting careers.

I’ve worked with and learned about choreographers from diverse backgrounds who have created new dance narratives that inspire and challenge cultural and societal norms which I think is also forward evolution for the art form.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
2. In addition to being “eternal”, dance speaks a universal language… Just think of great works such as “Swan Lake”, which are known to all generations and at all latitudes. What is an episode, which occurred during your career, that lies in your heart and speaks of this universality?

I have to say it’s this moment I’m experiencing now! I’m currently in New York preparing for this exceptional moment where I’ll be premiering three big roles this season and returning to the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House after Covid closed its doors for two years. One of those roles is Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Swan Lake is the pinnacle of classical ballet. From the technique required to execute the steps, to the iconic imagery of the ballet as a whole, and the powerful Tchaikovsky music. Part of the process is the ability to meet all the technical demands of performing the ballet, but even more important for me, is the realization that Swan Lake, like many other dances, is so much more than doing steps to music. It’s the in-between moments that are compelling to me. The moments that pull the audience in, and tugs on the heartstrings.

The pressures and confusions the prince in Swan Lake experiences really resonate with me in my own life. The struggles with how he’s seen by others versus how he sees himself and how he’s searching to define his wants and needs for his path forward. The ability to choose the one he loves, and decipher what’s real and what’s imaginary. To me, it scratches the surface on the universal themes we get to tap into, and it’s meaningful to interpret these roles with all of that in mind.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
3. In September 2020, you became Principal Dancer (after 3 years as a soloist): you are the third black dancer to obtain this appointment (after Desmond Richardson and Misty Copeland). Apart from the professional aspect, how did you experience this achievement from a personal point of view? What were your thoughts when you heard the news? If you were to write them down in a diary for posterity, what would you write down? How can such a universal art form be so non-inclusive?

I was thrilled! It was good news that came at a very difficult, confusing, and uncertain time in the midst of the pandemic, but I was thrilled. I remember when the news was announced, I received messages from young kids, my family, and people from all over the world who said seeing me helped them see themselves. I got goosebumps reading those messages. It was like a wave of joy and possibility erupted. Becoming a Principal dancer is an ongoing process for growth and discovery.

I took my first ballet class almost twenty years ago at this point. I was fourteen and a half, and a freshman at my performing arts high school back home in Florida. With two hands on the ballet barre, I had a lot of physical and emotional challenges to overcome. I just knew I had to start somewhere. I went on to attend summer dance training programs where I could learn from other teachers and dancers my age. It was at those programs that I was put outside my comfort zone, and could push beyond what I thought were limitations holding me back.

My junior year of high school, my ballet teacher took a group of us to the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition for young dancers who came from all over the world to compete for scholarship prizes, and from that competition, I was offered a scholarship to move to New York City and continue my studies at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.

Fast forward sixteen years later, I went from being a student in the ballet school, to taking big leaps at various stages in the company, to taking center stage as a Principal dancer. I’m thrilled about a moment like this for the history of ABT, the ballet world, and a chance to inspire young artists to validate that dreams, no matter how impossible they seem, are in reach.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
4. Speaking of Misty Copeland: it was with her that you posed in the 2019 Pirelli Calendar, shot by Albert Watson, interpreting the story of black minority redemption in the world of dance. Along your path of growth (and redemption), were there any people or “icons” that inspired you? Which ones? Why them?

Yes, absolutely! From my earliest days, it was my mom and my grandma who were my greatest influences. My grandma inspired my brother and I to explore all types of cultural things and sports. She saw it as a gateway for opportunities. My mom was our safety net. She always made sure we got everywhere we needed to be, and made us feel seen and supported. It was her love and belief that made me believe that I could be anything I wanted to be.

My first ballet teacher, Ms.P, encouraged me to keep pushing when I couldn’t find my way with ballet. She always knew the right thing to say at those pivotal moments, and she helped me embrace my vulnerability. Her belief gave me so much strength.

And I remember back on one of my greatest blessings of all when I met and performed for dance icon Arthur Mitchell. He was the first African-American man to become Principal Dancer with New York City Ballet, and upon the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1969, he left the stage to establish the Dance Theatre of Harlem—a haven for ballet dancers of color to show the world that they too could excel in classical ballet. Before Mr. Mitchell passed, he requested that I perform at his memorial service in Harlem. The piece I danced in was AGON Pas De Deux, a role created on him by George Balanchine. Just being in the room honoring him was a highlight of my life as a dancer and leader in this art form. I realized how important it is to carry the torch. I have been inspired to, like him, find ways of carving a path of opportunity for young dancers that will come after me.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
5. I have always found the definition of ‘creative discipline’ of dance interesting, which at first glance might seem an oxymoron: how can a discipline that is so codified and based on strict execution be creative?

There are no shortcuts in ballet. I think the conveniences of life as we know it create a hunger for instant gratification. Being a creative person requires discipline and understanding the rules. The fun part for me is finding ways to expand on them and bring new life and perspectives to those rules. In ballets like Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, for example, I finally have these iconic roles as a Principal Dancer to lead and build on my interpretations. Bringing my own perspectives to the roles all while honoring the lineage of dancers who interpreted those same roles generations before me.

Film by: Quinn B. Wharton

6. During the recent pandemic, many dancers approached the social world and created video-performances, which went viral. What is your personal relationship with social media? Which 3 profiles have you recently discovered that we should start following?

I think social media is a tool to connect, bring awareness, and create. It can sometimes feel a bit trivial, but I’ve always hoped to use my platform for good. I try to educate without being preachy, inspire from the things that I find inspiring, and offer perspectives to those who chose to follow me. I like to share elements of what goes into being a professional ballet dancer, and bring awareness to causes that are important to me, like supporting refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, and organizations that help disadvantaged youth or advocating for voting rights in America. If I could pick three accounts that I love today, I’d say @leapofdanceacademy @thebigquiet and @earthfocus they’re my go-to’s for inspiration, balance, and an escape to nature.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
7. Apart from choreographic preparation, what are the other steps to prepare a performance (e.g. character study)?

Before learning the choreography, I like to learn and understand the story. If there’s a book or a film of the original story, I’ll do as much research as I can to learn about the world the character is living in and who they are at their core. Once I’ve done the background research, I can finally get in the studio to start translating the dialogue or character traits into the body language of the character through the choreography. Making choices on how they stand. How they make eye contact with the other people in a scene. Are they more impulsive, or reserved. How the character behaves around superiors in a scene versus how they act around their best friend or lover. And when it comes to showtime, the best part of the journey is surrendering to the present moment.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline

@calvinroyaliii

8. For a dancer, music is like air. It is a visceral, inseparable relationship. Off stage or in the rehearsal room, what music do you like to listen to? Is there a playlist on Spotify that we should listen to?

I studied piano as a kid, and my husband is a pianist, so music is a great love of mine! My alarm clock is Arthur Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s my sunrise! My Spotify playlists range from Billy Joel and Stan Getz, to 70’s Road Trip or Miracle Tones and Labrinth. I think overall, I appreciate a more tranquil mood when it comes to music.

9. We all know the “public” dimension of your performances. What form does your personal and intimate relationship with dance take? Are there moments when you dance only for yourself? Personifying the dance, what kind of partner is it?

I’d say my relationship with dance is a balancing act. It’s a challenge to separate life’s experiences and what I do in the studio or on the stage. Sometimes a role calls for drama and taps into very sensitive subject matter. There are days when I feel indulgent in a movement because it took so long to figure it out. When it connects, I just want to hold on and make the moment last. My partnership with dance is open and honest with the possibilities, and embraces the day-to-day challenges as they come along.

Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
@calvinroyaliii
10. What is an object in your home that you would never give up? What is the memory associated with it? Can you send us a photo taken by you?

When I first moved to NY, I used to print photos from my disposable camera and hang them on my bedroom wall. All those photos live in a photo album now. It holds all of the memories from the last 20+ years and is kind of like a personal artifact at this point. Each photo brings me back to a specific place and time. A reminder of this adventure I’ve been on.

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Very last thing: for information on upcoming performances, and to follow more of Calvin’s journey visit him on Instagram @calvinroyaliii and at www.calvinroyaliii.com
other contents of this issue:
Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline
Calvin Royal III: Creative discipline

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