WILLIAM BRACEWELL - BALLET DANCER
“Technology is now used to measure how much force we're putting through our bodies every day. We have high-tech force platforms which analyse leg power and lifting velocity. It is important to understand the capacity of our bodies and know what they can cope with.”
William Bracewell is a ballet dancer. Born in Swansea, he left home aged eleven to study at The Royal Ballet School in London and is now an internationally acclaimed dancer. An athlete as well as an artist, I spoke with William about the rigorous physical demands of life as a professional ballet dancer.
How did you originally get into ballet?
I was a hyperactive child with lots of energy. My dad wanted me to play rugby but for some reason it never really clicked. Then I tried musical instruments but didn’t get on very well with that either. When a friend asked me if would like to join her at a ballet class, I thought why not? Initially, I felt overwhelmed, I couldn’t understand any of the terminology. But there was something about the prospect of learning more that I found appealing. I auditioned to join the Royal Ballet School aged eleven. Although I definitely enjoyed the dancing, I didn’t absolutely love it. In fact, there were times when I hated it, like when I had to wear little tight shorts for the ballet exams. I also felt nervous about the prospect of leaving my home in Wales. But as I got further along the audition process I started to realise that joining the Ballet School was something I really wanted. It was an amazing opportunity.
Was anyone ever negative about your interest in ballet?
I remember being too scared to tell any of my friends I was going to ballet classes, I was nervous about what they would think and how they would react, so I would tell them I was going to karate instead. Everyone eventually found out I was accepted to The Royal Ballet School and no one said anything negative. I think they realised I must have been quite good if I had been accepted to the school. It was also lucky timing because Billy Elliot had also just come out, which helped change peoples’ perceptions of ballet.
Does ballet allow you to express a different side of your personality?
As a child I was energetic but socially quite shy. When performing, I can show a part of myself on stage that I never show in my daily life. There is a part of me my friends and family don’t see that comes out on stage. When you are dancing you have the excuse of being someone else, and if you are pretending to be someone else you may do things you ordinarily might not think you are capable of. Once you’ve done it, you become more confident about your capabilities and can carry that self-belief into other aspects of your work, training in the gym or trying a new movement.
How important is the way you look in ballet?
There are ideal body proportions, such as long legs, arms and necks. Having said that, if you’re not born with those features it doesn’t necessarily prevent you from working in a professional ballet company. Ultimately, I do worry about what I look like because aesthetics is an important part of ballet. But I don’t think about it too much because you naturally stay in good shape. We have an intense training schedule, which involves a lot of cardiovascular exercise as well as weight training. It can actually be very difficult to gain weight. You sometimes see successful ballet dancers unable to continue because they eventually suffer from repetitive strain injury. It is really difficult when that decision is out of your control.
Is ballet a sport as well as an art form?
I am currently injured and not able to train properly. Being injured has allowed me to take a step back and think about my training schedule. We have amazing support at The Royal Ballet; physios, strength and conditioning coaches, performance psychologists, and nutritionists. It is really comprehensive. These experts also have experience training athletes from other sports and they say our training schedule is far more intense. Usually an athlete will train for around two hours in the morning, rest and eat, and then train for another couple of hours in the afternoon. Ballet dancers train almost double that. So, when you think about in those terms, ballet definitely can be classed as a sport.
What does a typical training week look like?
I go to the gym three days a week and work on strengthening my legs with deadlifts and squats. I also work on my core and upper body. I try to strengthen areas where I have had weakness in the past, such as my shoulders and knees. We also do a lot of band exercises to improve stability and ankle strength, which is really important for ballet dancers.
Ballet is about conveying different types of emotions and you need to be capable of a range of movements; big, strong, quick, sharp movements that require a lot of power as well as slower, more subtle movements. You are sending signals to different pathways of the body. Repeatedly exercising the pathways gives you a better awareness of your whole body.
Our programs are meticulously put together and we always analyse the performance data. As well as gym sessions, we focus heavily on recovery from shows and rehearsals. This involves having the right nutrition, using ice packs, massages and acupuncture. I also focus a lot on getting my smaller muscles working properly.
Which ballet dancers inspired you growing up?
I enjoy watching other dancers, analysing how they move and how I can apply that to my own dancing. I am now dancing alongside some of the dancers I admired growing up like Federico Bonelli, which is insane. You get pretty starstruck when you realise that you are in class with some of these people. I don’t just take inspiration from male dancers, there are also plenty of female dancers I get inspiration from.
Do you think more needs to be done to encourage young people to watch ballet?
The average age of the audience is slightly younger than you might expect, but there are very few teenagers or people in their twenties. It is odd because if you look around at the people that are performing, we are all young and obviously have a massive passion for ballet. But that isn’t always reflected in the audience; I think part of the problem is that young people don’t always have the disposable income to buy tickets. In general, I think it can be really valuable to go to the theatre and enjoy experiences that are different from your day to day routine. When you go and watch a good show, it can be an incredible escape from what you might have been dealing with that day.
What was it like working on Infra (Wayne McGregor’s abstract ballet)?
It was a real highlight for me, there was so much emotional intention behind the movement, it became really special. One of the reasons I am here is because I love the variation we get at The Royal Ballet. We do so much classical ballet, to the highest standards, but also have the opportunity to do new contemporary work, which gets you moving in a completely different way.
I enjoy cycling. In professional cycling there might be a team of six cyclists but five of them are ultimately working for the success of one, star individual. In ballet, a performance involves many dancers but ultimately there are a small number of stars. Would you say ballet is an individual or team sport?
The rehearsals usually begin with you only dancing with your partner. It isn’t until later on in the rehearsal process that you are around everyone else in the performance, and that is when it all comes together. There needs to be a connection between every single person on stage. You need to have an awareness of where everyone else is and even if you're not looking at them or interacting with that person you need to know where their energy is. That can also change during each performance which makes every show different.
Technology permeates every aspect of modern life, have you started to notice it impacting ballet?
Technology is now used to measure how much force we're putting through our bodies every day. We have high-tech force platforms which analyse leg power and lifting velocity. It is important to understand the capacity of our bodies and know what they can cope with.
How do you feel when you are dancing?
It changes massively. Emotions range from anger, to peacefulness, to nervousness, to frustration. I think that's why I love ballet, you can feel so different. There are also times when I have come off stage and I couldn’t remember anything I have just done.