Calvin Royal III, the third African American ballet dancer to rise to the rank of principal in American Ballet Theatre’s 82-year-history, made history yet once again during the company’s 2022 Summer Season (June 13-July 16), when he performed lead rolls in two of ballet’s iconic classics, “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Royal was also featured in the New York premieres of Alonzo King’s “Single Eye” and Alexi Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage” as well as Jessica Lang’s homage to singer Tony Bennett, “ZigZag.”
The Amsterdam News announced the promotion of this exquisitely elegant dancer by ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, just before the pandemic two years ago, noting that he had become, with ballerina Misty Copeland, the third Black principal dancer in ABT’s now 82-year history, becoming its first Black male principal dancer in over two decades. The third member of that illustrious group being ABT’s first Black principal dancer, the legendary Desmond Richardson. But, as ABT customarily announces promotions at the end of its season, now, two years after his promotion, this season was the first time Royal steps onstage at the Met as principal dancer.
As anyone aware of the racially marred history of classical ballet knows, there was nothing foregone about Royal’s journey to this moment from those days 20 years ago when he was a talented youngster studying jazz, hip hop, West African dance and ballet and performing in the annual local production of the Chocolate Nutcracker in St. Petersburg, Florida. Yet, in 2006, after standing out as a finalist at the Youth America Grand Prix Scholarship Competition in New York, he joined ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school, then joined ABT II (now ABT’s Studio Company) in December 2007 displaying such talent that a few years later he was invited to join ABT as an apprentice, soon after becoming a corps de ballet member, and being promoted several years later, in 2017, to soloist. All the while his stunning technical proficiency and dazzling charisma has won critical acclaim and audience approval.
With a career path that has had no false steps, Royal entered what would be one of the most challenging seasons in any principal ballet dancer’s career with performances as Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake” and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s ravishingly romantic “Romeo and Juliet.”
Earlier this year, just before the season kicked off, the Amsterdam News snared a few precious moments to get his thoughts on being back in a live performance and his career thus far. Here is that conversation, unfiltered and unfettered.
Calvin Royal: This my first season at the Met dancing as a principal in these iconic classic roles which, in many ways, define you as a principal, not only by what you bring to the technical execution of the steps but now I will have this huge opportunity to interpret these roles that have been danced for hundreds of years. I will be able to interpret them in a way that not only honors the past but brings my own perception and perspective of who these characters are to me. For instance, with Siegfried, when I did research on the role, I found so many parallels with many of his character traits and his struggles, struggles with how he’s seen by others, how he sees himself, what he wants for himself and his path forward, what’s real and what’s imaginary, what he can change and what he can’t. I feel like a lot of those parallel what I’ve been experiencing coming back to the stage wanting to deliver on my responsibility as a principal dancer and trying to be the best I can be and hopefully inspire audiences and those kids, who are as I once was, to love ballet and to want to see more.
AmNews: In the past, the Black male dancers who performed those iconic classical ballet roles, like Siegfried and Romeo, did so with foreign ballet companies, for instance there was Sylvester Campbell dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Christopher Boatwright who was Romeo in the Stuttgart Ballet’s performance at the New York Metropolitan Opera House back in 1979. (The Amsterdam News featured his debut in an article from June 30, 1979 titled “Boatright Conquers Classical Ballet Bias.” )
CR: As a Black man I’m completely aware of the gravity, the importance and historic nature of this. But there is the inner voice in me reminding myself when I was a young kid in love with ballet and being swept up by the local Chocolate Nutcracker project and being able to now look back and see how far I’ve come and the work I’ve put in to be able to stand on the stage of the Met. It’s historic but it’s also an honor…When young dancers are coming up through a company they’re often compared with who once was, like “Oh, she reminds me so much of Suzanne Farrell,” or “He reminds me of Misha [Mikhail Baryshnikov].” But, there were so few of us, of Black people at the top who’ve had the opportunity to interpret these big classic roles. When I did research on even Desmond [Richardson], I admire him so much, his talent and his contribution to this art form, it’s remarkable what he’s done and when I did research on his short time at ABT, I was looking for when he did his Siegfried or his Romeo, and I didn’t find it. I’m just…this is an exceptional moment to really not only just do it but to be able to show that there’s possibility for those that look like me, too, and to sort of swing that door open and say, “I’m not the first and only, nor do I want to be,” but this has to be something that people will look to and say, “I can do that, too.”
AmNews: The ABT Summer season kicks off in June which is Pride Month and you’ve done work that honors all of you, that honors you as a Black man, you as a gay Black man, and not many people have been able to live their truth on stage as you have. I’m thinking of the duet you did with another male dancer in the dance titled “Touché.” Talk about how it feels to be able to exercise that level of artistic and personal freedom today.
CR: Yes, Christopher Rudd’s “Touché” was about two young men, performed by me and João Meneguss,who were in the dark and afraid to share their inner thoughts and feelings and sexuality with each other and with the world and then stripping away all of that and finally embracing it. I felt like, not only with “Touché,” but even with other roles I’m able to play those emotional ties as connections that I’ve felt in life somehow make it easier to translate them into the works that I’m doing. Being able to know what being afraid feels like, knowing what losing someone feels like, knowing what wanting to go after something that society is telling you is not acceptable, or your parents not thinking that you should, and you wanting too, like in “Romeo and Juliet” or “Touché.” It’s being able to share all of that and I feel like life’s experiences have allowed me to tap into a lot of those universal human themes.
AmNews: It seems like ballet can be a vehicle for social change, whether consciously or unconsciously.
CR: I think it’s both conscious and subconscious. I think that as a young person getting into dance it was purely the love of movement and music and being able to interpret those movements and make them speak. But, I feel like as artists we have this responsibility and also this power to change perceptions of what people think, of what they even think a prince looks like. So, for me, I’m aiming to bring a certain level of excellence to my work which in turn is a reflection to the public on their own perceptions. It’s not aggressive. It is what it is. Here we are, it’s “Swan Lake” and Calvin’s doing Prince Siegfried tonight. (laughter)
AmNews: And, just like that, the times they are a changin’.