One of several Americans to join The Royal Ballet lately, soloist Eric Underwood has become an audience favorite in London, particularly in neo-classical and contemporary repertoire. The former American Ballet Theatre corps member has notably created a number of roles in works by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon. Last year, he debuted in Wheeldon’s 2002 Tryst with soloist Melissa Hamilton. Here he discusses the
Eric Underwood: Tryst’s structure is quite unique. I had to get my head around the idea that the lead couple does not interact with the corps de ballet. The main pas de deux was created on Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope, and Jonathan coached us for the revival. Wheeldon came in to work with us after we learned the roles. It wasn’t easy trying to capture the feeling that was there originally.
There is an energy more than a specific character—Wheeldon would speak of otherwordly gods that are drawn to each other, of their magnetic relationship. The music, by composer James MacMillan, is inspired by a Scottish poem, and Wheeldon was looking for the kind of very full movement that you find in nature, like grass in the wind.
Initially in rehearsal I was trying so much to achieve everything, to make sure we were on the music, because it’s very difficult. I’m naturally an assertive dancer, but with time I found a more serene place. To do that pas de deux well, you have to be really strong, really focused and really calm—that combination is different from anything else I’ve danced. But Melissa and I have built a partnership, and dancing with someone I’m so completely comfortable with is a joy. Physically we’re a striking contrast—she’s pale and blond and I’m black—but onstage we’re on the same page.
Wheeldon’s choreography is demanding, especially in terms of partnering, but the sense of accomplishment is such a reward. There’s a
physicality to each step that’s unique. Personally, I enjoy trying something, falling, getting back up. And when I’m working with Wheeldon, that’s possible. When someone is giving you so much positive feedback, it usually brings about a very positive result.