Performing for a week in February at Sadler’s Wells, the American Ballet Theatre is on its way to London with English ballet dancer Thomas Forster in tow. Charlotte Marshall chats to the dancer about his love of crisps, living in New York and why the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are responsible for his career.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Penge, Southeast London.
What first got you interested in ballet?
I used to love Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I really wanted to do karate but you had to be 10. So my mum booked me up for ballet lessons and told me that if I made my legs strong she promised she’d let me do karate. For some reasons I just stayed in the ballet class and never did karate. But it led me to have this profession so I’m glad Mum pushed me in that direction.
How old were you when you started?
I was eight. I took part in a little class every week after school. From there she [my teacher] told me to audition for the London JAs [the Royal Ballet School’s Junior Associates programme] and that’s when I went from being the only guy in the class to there being tons there and it was a lot of fun. After JAs I was 11 and I was faced with the decision of either giving it up or to keep on going with it. The schools were good where I was in London, but the education I could have got through going to a ballet school would have been so much higher, so Mum told me to audition for these boarding schools and I ended up going off to Elmhurst Dance School for five years.
How did you end up joining the American Ballet Theatre?
It’s been five years now. After Elmhurst, when I was 16, I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and I was there for three years and in my third year we did a tour to America and the Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre was watching one of the shows and got in touch with my director at school and said they’d like to offer me a job. So I thought the prospect of working in New York would be really fun, so I said yes.
Do you ever get homesick or did boarding school prepare you to be away from home?
It does prepare you definitely but at the same time I do miss my family a lot. I love it out here in America but I have two sisters, Rachel and Louise, I miss them tons and obviously Mum and Dad as well. But thanks to Skype I get to see them at least every week. Going home twice a year isn’t really enough so I do get homesick. I can’t wait to come back.
Will your family be watching you at Sadler’s Wells?
They are yes; they’ve got tons of tickets! There’s going to be a huge following – my dad says everyone’s over 60 so I’m going to have the over 60s following!
Do you miss anything else about home?
Honestly? The English newspapers are so much better; better written, better laid out. The American ones are just full of adverts; they’ll hate me for saying that!
Also the sweets and the crisps – they call them potato chips out here – they’re nothing compared to England. Chocolate is awful! The Hershey’s Kiss tastes like something I wouldn’t give my worst enemy! Then you come home and you’ve got Dairy Milk, Galaxy, you’ve got the Real McCoy’s crisps! Oh, man, it’s to die for. Whenever I come back I stock up, most of my theatre case is full of English sweets.
Are ballet dancers allowed to eat junk food?
I think I’m quite lucky because I’m 6’3, I’m a big lanky guy, so my metabolism can take it all. I’m sure that’s not the diet of most ballet dancers, but for some reason I can put it away.
How often do you rehearse?
Most of the time we work from Tuesday through Saturday and we get Sunday and Monday off. Sometimes you don’t get two days off, but it is well worth it. It’s fun what we do. It is strenuous work but when you put it in context it’s not extremely hard.
You start at 10:15 and usually you go until about 15:00 and you get an hour break – you get little five minute breaks every hour – and then from 16:00 to 19:00 we work again.
How do you prepare before a performance?
Sometimes the company provides a big warm-up for the whole company and you all take a class or barre. Sometimes you just do your own; you just stick on your iPod and just jam out and get a bit of a sweat going before the curtain goes up. But some people just like to relax and get warmed up during the performance.
Do you eat before?
I do. A lot of people don’t though because they don’t like the feeling of being full. Definitely for women that’s true. With me, I get really weak and a bit dizzy if I don’t eat so I have to munch away before a performance. Obviously not steak and chips, but a little sandwich. Or a bag of McCoy’s!
What do you do when you come off stage?
Generally you’re on a high from the performance and the endorphins that have been realised from working up a sweat, so you go out for a drink or a meal, but then at some point you do crash and think ‘wow, I really am tired’.
Do you have an essential dressing room item?
Well you have to have your make-up! It sounds a bit silly, but you have to have stage make-up. My Uncle Al is the chairman of the British Legion and he gave me a beer mat so I put all my make-up on a John Smith’s beer mat. So if I had to pick anything it would have to be my John Smith’s beer mat!
What is the best thing about being on stage?
It’s nice to perform for people and try and give them something. Also it’s a personal achievement as well, you try really hard and work to be able to do something and then to fulfil it to the best you can at that moment.
And the worst?
It can be quite nerve-wracking because you’re out there on your own, but I think you have to take the mentality that you’ve worked your hardest up until that point so you try your best and whatever happens happens.
Why should people come to see the American Ballet Theatre at Sadler’s Wells?
The standard of the company, dancing wise, is extremely high. It’s also a very mixed rep so I think it will appeal to a wide audience. You’ve got the romantic ones, which some people will love, then you have Theme And Variations which is very high impact and high energy which some people like.
What has been your favourite point of your career so far?
There are so many highs, to pick one is tough. Just recently I got to perform with Julie Kent in Washington; that was an amazing experience. Me and my girlfriend, Leann Underwood, are also dancing in Everything Doesn’t Happen At Once and it’s always really nice to dance with her.
When you have a day off, what do you do to relax?
Nothing really, just sit and watch TV! My girlfriend has a little dog so we take him on a walk. Very chilled; maybe the cinema, something to eat, nothing exciting. Sometimes bowling or we go to Chelsea Piers and hit golf balls! The most amazing thing about New York is it stays open all night long. When they say it’s the city that never sleeps, it literally never sleeps. The grocery stores, everything is open 24 hours, in London everything closes down around midnight.
Were people surprised when you decided to be a ballerina?
A little bit as a kid. It was tough doing ballet because it’s not the ‘normal’ thing. It’s not strange but in South-East London I was the only one doing that, so I definitely did take a little bit of slack. But everyone also was quite understanding and I never got any real bother with it, just a few snide remarks here and there or a few handbag fights but nothing at all serious – I don’t think I need counselling for it!
American Ballet Theatre performs at Sadler’s Wells from 1-6 February.