After 26 years with the Royal Ballet, Edward Watson has been trying to retire from his role as a principal dancer, but things keep getting in the way. “There’ve been moments where I thought I was going to retire, and moments where I certainly should have done,” he says, but it hasn’t yet happened, thanks to “injuries and requests from people to do one more thing and a weird series of disasters and brilliant opportunities”.
There was a ruptured ligament and then just as he was about to get back on stage, a broken foot, which dashed his hopes of a final performance of his acclaimed Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling. Then there was Wayne McGregor’s Dante Project, a major new work due to premiere in May, which would have been the perfect send-off, shelved thanks to Covid. So as he was revving up for a big finish, Watson found himself stalled. And after all those years of coming into the Royal Ballet studios six or sometimes seven days a week, suddenly nothing. Limbo.
Watson, who is 44, spent his lockdown at home keeping in shape, doing ballet class on Zoom, sitting down (“Which is rare, I never sit down”) and enjoying some afternoon telly, but now he and the rest of the Royal Ballet company are back in the studio, preparing for their return to the stage in a celebratory live-streamed gala.
Watson will be performing a trio from Wayne McGregor’s Virginia Woolf-inspired ballet Woolf Works, with Akane Takada and Calvin Richardson. Generally, the new regime in the studios involves mask-wearing and small, distanced groups, but dancers who are working closely with each other are being tested twice a week so they can perform as normal. “Yes, we’re fully tested and Covid-free and working together which is really nice,” says Watson. “When you’re dancing it’s really easy to forget everything that’s happened. The music starts and you get into the flow. And then at the end you put your mask back on,” he adds. “So, for seven minutes it’s nice.”
Watson dances the role of Septimus Smith from Mrs Dalloway, a first world war veteran afflicted with PTSD, and he’s grateful to have the opportunity to revisit it. “It’s something that I really love and it was probably the thing I was most sad about never doing again,” he says. The role plays to his strengths in the way Watson’s fine-boned face is so good at showing complex shades of confusion and torment. As well as being known for mastering the most avant garde geometries of contemporary ballet, he loves to get into the psychology of a character, whether historical or literary. “Virginia Woolf was a bit of a maverick in the way she spoke about this gay story, and nobody was talking about shellshock at that time either, and it’s all there in the writing, descriptive and emotional, the colour and feeling in the language, and it’s amazing to try to physicalise it.”
Beyond this performance, Watson’s intention is to finish The Dante Project – a three-act ballet inspired by The Divine Comedy, with music by Thomas Adès – as his last hurrah, and then dedicate himself fully to his new role as a repetiteur, coaching other dancers in the company. Last time I spoke to Watson he had just turned 40 and told me he felt great, better than he did at 30. There was no sign of retirement. It doesn’t take long in dance for everything to change. “At 41 it all went wrong,” he laughs. The ligament injury was the start. “It becomes very revealing how much you’ve put your body through,” he says. “What I’ve done for the last 30 years, it’s not normal to do that to your body. But it is possible.” It just has an impact. “To rehearse that every day, it’s a lot of toll, physically. And then as you get older mentally too: to make the physical happen you have to work much harder.”
Watson’s had huge successes, he’s reached the top of the dancer’s ladder, but he always lacked self-confidence, especially when he was younger. “I hated myself, hated the way I looked, hated the way I danced,” he says. “There was a lot of negativity and I think it might have come out as being a bit stroppy. It’s just my nature to come from a place of self doubt. I wish I’d been braver sooner.” It’s the by-product of putting yourself out there in front of people. “Other people form an opinion on the work and when you are the work – as dancers we are the visual, physical representation – that does something to you. Even the things people watching don’t know about you, you feel like they’re being judged.”
He’s quick to say that doesn’t mean he’s hated performing, the opposite is true. “It has been amazing and I’ve loved it.” And there may yet be more dancing, if the right project comes up. “But I’m quite enjoying the bit where I get to decide whether I do it or not,” he says. He’s trying to make good choices. “I had a couple of experiences where I’ve said yes to something over the last few months then started rehearsing and gone, I’m really sorry, this doesn’t feel like what I should be doing. Even a year ago I never would have done that, I would have said yes, and hated it and made myself push through because that’s my duty. That sense of duty is not as strong as it was.”
Ever self-effacing, Watson is quick to talk about the other people who have helped make his career, whether directors who’ve guided him or choreographers whose vision he’s tried to deliver. McGregor is pivotal – “he’s been my last 20 years”, says Watson. “Twenty years since Symbiont(s), when we worked in lunch breaks and evenings to make something happen. Now it’s establishment and he’s our resident choreographer.” Watson’s extra-flexible body, not necessarily in the traditional classical mould, was the perfect fit for McGregor’s inventive contortions, pushing angles past their polite limits. “I wouldn’t have done half the things I have if it weren’t for him,” he says. “I never, ever would have been brave enough to move in a certain way, to say yes to other things. It’s been completely transformative to my whole life really.”
Chroma, McGregor’s 2006 piece set to orchestrations of the White Stripes was one of the stand-out experiences of Watson’s career. “It was completely exhilarating to be involved in the freshness of being able to move like that. Everything about it felt like a new step forward.” There are four other shows seared on to his memory: Woolf Works, Mayerling, Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, in which he played the paranoid king Leontes, and Arthur Pita’s version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which saw an insectoid Watson covered in sticky black treacle.
It’s not only choreographers who have been crucial in his story, but other dancers, notably Watson’s partnership with Leanne Benjamin, a diminutive Australian who retired from the Royal in 2013 aged 49. “Without her I wouldn’t have done all the roles I have, that’s for sure,” says Watson. “I literally wouldn’t have been able to do them with anyone else because she was tiny and I’m not a great partner and I’m not that strong, I’m not built like that. But she allowed me to have those experiences and for that I’m eternally grateful. I think my biggest memories of being here are being in ballets and looking into her eyes. People ask what I remember about a show, well, I remember seeing Benji’s face. So that tells me about that connection. I won’t ever have that again.”
Watson could have retired quietly, but does it feel important to have a proper send-off? “It didn’t for a long time,” says Watson. “I was really anti it, having that feeling that you’re turning up to your own funeral and suddenly everyone’s crying and throwing flowers and being nice to you. I saw other people do it and it filled me with dread, but now that it’s coming closer I think, yeah, why the hell shouldn’t I!”
• The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage will be streamed by the Royal Opera House, 9 October-8 November.