23-Sep, 11:00

02:03, July 13 186 0

2017-07-13 02:03:02
Cover Story: Eric Underwood, the American Star of the Royal Ballet

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.

“I don’t want people to think I’m not grateful,” Mr. Underwood said, “but I always had the belief that it will happen because I will make it happen.”

If there is a consistent critical through line in appraisals of Mr. Underwood’s work, it is his unbridled joy of movement. “The best times in my dance life are when you are simply witnessing me dancing, rather than me performing for you,” Mr. Underwood said.

The often robotic technical proficiency that characterizes certain dancers of his generation comes with a cost to artistry, he said: “I have so much more to offer than a jump and a pretty pirouette.”

He is an easygoing firebrand who tends to flout convention, a performer magnetic in equal measure to choreographers and the fashion flock, and one whose rise to the rank of soloist has upended a number of stereotypes, not all of them about race.

Likening himself at his best to the passionate and un-self-consciously expressive ballroom children battling for runway supremacy at obscure vogueing contests or the tango or waltz aficionados whose passion for anachronistic dance styles has gone mainstream thanks to shows like “Strictly Come Dancing,” he said, “I’m ready for my next phase.”

That phase, as Mr. Underwood explained, involves his goal of being the host of a dance show much like the ones he watches at home, a forum for young people who may have never considered that the elitist world of ballet might give them a chance.

“I never wanted to be the ‘black’ dancer,” Mr. Underwood said. “I wanted to be a great dancer. The challenge was that I was not seeing anyone who looked like me.”

Even early in his professional career, he said, something became clear to him: “If I was not going to take Nureyev’s path or Baryshnikov’s path, I was going to have to find a path of my own.”