Calvin Royal III

by Tamu McPherson

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Calvin Royal III took his first ballet class at age 14, inspired by the amazing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Though Royal came to ballet later than most, his career has had a steady stream of success and scholarship. He joined the American Ballet Theater’s main Company in 2010 after three years in the ABT Studio Company. In 2017, through his hard work, determination, and “exquisite talent” (as defined by Misty Copeland), Calvin was the first African-American man in over two decades to be become a Soloist at ABT. He’s danced his way through Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, and The Nutcracker, as well as the pages of VOGUE plus campaigns for GAP, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger. Follow along as we highlight more in our latest Pretty Birds profile.

 

Meet Calvin Royal III

Tamu McPherson spoke with Calvin Royal III about his life, inspirations, and remarkable career.

 

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Tamu McPherson: When I met you, I asked you about the origin of your last name. It’s so regal. I hadn’t seen you dance yet, but you were in town to celebrate the Pirelli calendar in which you appeared at the request of your mentor Misty Copeland. I had seen the images and could only imagine how magical you dance in person. Like a king. I read in the NYT, that after your debut in “Apollo” during American Ballet Theater’s Fall 2019 season, the critic Gia Kourlas wrote in The New York Times that you were “suddenly the most elegant male dancer in the company.” What would the 14-year-old dancer in you think if given a glimpse of your life now?

Calvin Royal III: 14-year-old Calvin had no idea what he was getting himself into. When I first started ballet my freshman year, I thought it would be so easy. I had done a community project every Christmas called the Chocolate Nutcracker, and in the production we performed west African dancing, hip hop, jazz, and modern. When I was accepted to the arts high school, I was curious to take ballet, because it was the one dance style I hadn’t done before. I never imagined that one decision could change my life forever. That I’d one day perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York or the Opéra Bastille in Paris. I’d like to think my 14-year-old self would be proud that a young black man from a small town in Florida could work his way up and through his sheer determination, hard work, and staying true to himself could be doing all this. 

 

TMP: What was your experience as a black male teenage classical dancer? Did you come from a family of dancers or artists that you could turn to? How did you grow into the confidence of self that you possess today? 

CR: My dad was in the army, and my mom stayed at home taking care of my brother and me growing up, so I didn’t really get much exposure to arts and culture as a kid. When I was around 9 or 10, my parents divorced and we moved to Florida to live with my grandma. My mom and my grandma both studied ballet in their local studio when they were young kids, but the idea of making it a career 1950s and 60s was not a reality. Grandma always loved opera, dance, and classical music, and when she would babysit us, I remember her always playing her classical music station on the radio at bedtime—her favorite was Pavarotti. I think a big part of my confidence to keep dancing was because of my mom and my grandma. Their encouragement and support over the years helped me through difficult moments, especially moving to New York City on my own when I was 17. They didn’t care that I’d likely be the only black person in a rehearsal room. They didn’t care that we didn’t have the money for housing and tuition. They somehow knew all along that they would find a way. It was their faith that gave me strength.

 

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TMP: How do you think the ballet industry has changed in terms of representation and diversity? How are you personally challenging racial prescripts in ballet as a black male dancer today? What walls are you kicking down or flying over? 

CR: The ballet industry has come a long way in terms of representation and diversity, but I think we have much further to go and much more to learn. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy the moment I stepped into my first ballet class at the American Ballet Theater School, almost 15 years ago. I looked around the class and behind the scenes and saw so few ethnicities represented, especially in leadership positions. Now, almost fifteen years later, I can see more people of all colors on both the artistic and executive side of the company. I would love to see black and brown faces on stage and behind the scenes, building the productions, designing costumes, choreographing new works, making executive decisions about how the future should look in schools and companies worldwide. It’s deeper than just having one or two people of color in an organization. Just last year, there was controversy over two dancers who posted a photo to Instagram in full blackface at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow before their performance of La Bayadère. After Misty, myself and others spoke out about this photo online and in the New York Times, the director Vladimir Urin commented that he “will not comment on the absurd allegation”. By us being on stage shattering perceptions, I’ve learned the importance of speaking out and bringing awareness to the injustices our industry still needs to overcome.

 

TMP: Who has been the biggest inspiration and/or encouragement in your career?

CR: I have a long list of guardian angels who’ve helped me along the way, but I must say, Misty Copeland has taken me under her wing and spoken up for me when I didn’t feel like I had a voice, my private coach Maxim Beloserkovsky who has nurtured me in all the roles I’ve performed over the years, and Arthur Mitchell who was the first African American Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet and Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem. I briefly worked with Arthur before he died two years ago, and his bold presence and spirit still live in me.

 

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TMP: If you could provide a list of the ballets or pieces that have defined your personal art, what would it include?

CR: To be honest, I’ve always tried to perform or create new roles, in a way that allows space to bring my own experiences and soul to it. Some of the roles I’ll never forget are preparing my version of Romeo in Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo & Juliet, Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, which explores love and the wisdom we gain from experiencing it, and Apollo, the God of music.

 

TMP: Do you have a favorite ballet, once that drums up the emotions every time you see it? 

CR: Romeo & Juliet, and Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. They get me every time!

 

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TMP: What is your dream role?

CR: Romeo. It’s probably the most demanding role for a male dancer in classical ballet. I’ve seen so many great Romeos perform it over the years, and even the best of the best will say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done. There are technical challenges, complex partnering with Juliet, sword fighting, and above all telling the story with no words and all movement. I’ve been studying acting to help me with this too.

 

TMP: For those of us who don’t know what it means to be a soloist at a world-renowned theater, can you explain your current appointment. (What it takes to get there, are there any leadership responsibilities associated with the title? Does it influence the roles and invitations that you receive from other theaters?

CR: Being a Soloist with the American Ballet Theater is like being chosen for the Olympic Team. Although I started ballet at 14, which for most dancers is super late, making it this position is a huge honor and something that took 10+ years to achieve. This journey to Soloist was met with many challenges, the technique classes every day getting my body to do things it didn’t want to do, rehearsals, performances to prove myself, advocating for myself when no one else would. There’s healthy competition because let’s face it, nowadays there are thousands of incredible dancers all over the world. I will say, it was difficult at some moments to even imagine becoming a Soloist with ABT. I somehow, kept pushing myself and calling home, and getting the encouragement, and I’m so grateful I kept going. I remember once being told in a costume fitting that I couldn’t wear the “white” tights, because my “skin is too dark and those are for the prince”. Can you imagine? My head wrapped around the question “Would I ever be a prince? A leader? The one who people pay to go see perform?” It has been a journey of strength, loneliness, perseverance, and acceptance of the fact that my dream was worth the risk.

 

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TMP: What advice would you give to any young dancer pursuing their careers?

CR: My advice to a young dancer or anyone wanting to pursue a career, is to really discover if you love it unconditionally. From my own experience as a dancer, nothing was ever given. There will be times when the low murky moments outweigh the highs (injury, not get the promotion you worked so hard for, zero recognition or acknowledgment, deferred dreams) and you have to find a way to pull yourself up and keep going. So, when you love something, and I mean REALLY love it, nothing can take it away from you. 

 

TMP: How do you prepare your mind and body for performances? And how do you unwind afterward? What’s your favorite treat?

CR: I LOVE a power nap. Especially a couple hours before the show. It’s my recharge. When I wake up, I usually put on some music and eat a little snack. I’ll do my makeup, and like to sing in my head or out loud (but not too loud, because I share a dressing room with 8 other soloists). It helps me with the nerves. After the show is over, it takes probably 45min to an hour to decompress the energy. I’m usually starving by the time I get home and eat a big (usually vegetarian based) dinner that my boyfriend and I like to cook together. I’m not a big sweets person, but I do love his banana bread when he makes it.

 

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TMP: Do you observe a spiritual practice?

CR: I think most of my spiritual practice involves self-care. Meaning, I wish I took better care sometimes! Life has felt so off-balance lately. My friend invited me to join this daily meditation group that I’ve been doing every day. It’s helped me so much! I’ve finally been able to claim some peace in all this chaos that surrounds us.

 

TMP: Tell us what’s on your Spotify playlists these days.

CR: I’ve been listening to Solange’s recent albums a lot, and I love the Lauryn Hill radio station on there too. Anything these days that makes me feel good and grounded.

 

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TMP: We are currently undergoing an unprecedented pandemic. How has the Coronavirus impacted the theater and arts industry?

CR: Everything is shut down. The only access I have to a dance studio or stage is right here in my living room. When it’s warm out, I’ll go to the courtyard outside my building and do some ballet barre exercises on my own. It’s a difficult time for all of us, so I try not to complain. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be on the front lines of all this. My heart goes out to the medical professionals, grocery store workers, delivery men and women, and scientists racing against time. They’re the ones who don’t have a choice and are battling this pandemic for all of us.

 

TMP: How are you and your fellow dancers supporting each other during this health emergency?

CR: We’ve literally talked on FaceTime and Zoom more than ever before. The dance community is one of the most resilient groups of people I know. From the outside, it can oftentimes be seen as highly competitive and out of touch, but this crisis has revealed how connected and supportive our community truly is. Every day, I open Instagram and see so many dancers giving LIVE dance classes to keep their bodies moving, and inspiring the world. I just hope that once the global crisis calms down, non-dancers and supporters will continue to help rebuild our community’s financial nightmare. The arts suffer so much but is something that gives people hope and light during tough times like these.

 

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TMP: Are there any charitable organizations that you would like to amplify here?

CR: American Ballet Theatre, my home company, has recently launched the ABT Crisis Relief Fund that helps support ABT’s artists– dancers, production crew, pianists, ballet masters, and ABT Education Faculty during this turbulent time. We’re asking for donations large and small to help us through so that we can get back on stage and share with the world the magic and beauty of dance. 

 

TMP: Can you share a favorite quote, poem or prayer that you turn to in challenging moments?

CR: I’ll never forget an interview I saw a few years back with Dr. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah asked Maya if she could tell us why she knows the caged bird sings? Maya replied:

“The caged bird sings, because it must—it must or die. It may be, must and die. I don’t know, but it must sing. Sometimes the melody arrived at in the cage is much more fetching, much more appealing, much more profound, much more poignant than the melody arrived at by the bird who’s on the loose. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill. Its song is heard on the distant hill. For the caged bird sings of freedom.”

 

See more of Calvin Royal III on Instagram @calvinroyaliii

Imagery by Myesha Evon 

 

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