Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 10:56 UK

Ballet's Ed Watson is no bad boy

By Caroline Briggs
Arts and culture reporter, BBC News

Ed Watson and Miyako Yoshida in Ondine. Photograph: Johan Persson
Ed Watson and Miyako Yoshida dance the lead roles in Ondine

Royal Ballet star Ed Watson is set to appear on the big screen when a performance of Ondine is relayed live from Covent Garden to outdoor screens and cinemas across the UK.

It is not the first time the 33-year-old principal dancer has been used as a poster boy to attract new audiences to the Royal Opera House.

In 2007, a simple close-up of Watson's chiselled features with a playful smile on has lips, graced the cover of the Royal Opera House's autumn season programme, and on adverts and posters.

The slogan read: "Meet Ed. Fact: When he's dancing, pound for pound, he's stronger than a rhino. Superheroes really do wear tights."

Some claimed the advert was a shameful "sexing up"; others said that it was decidedly "dumbing down". The ROH said it was a chance to get "up close and personal" and challenge the public's perception of ballet dancers.

Watson himself was merely amused.

"I didn't think it took itself too seriously, which I liked, I thought it was kind of funny," he says with a shrug.

"But there was a crazy couple of weeks where it was commented on in all sorts of papers, from The Guardian to The Sun, asking if it was it too sexy, why was it sexy, and all this ballet and sex thing kicked off.

Ed Watson. Photo: Jason bell
Watson says he was bemused by reaction to his photograph

"They'd find a picture of me in a ballet where I was wearing just a pair of underpants and suddenly I was the bad sexy boy of ballet. I was like, 'Not really'.

"From a picture of half of my face, suddenly I was, you know, a slut!" he laughs.

But Watson's reputation has not been built on his sex appeal, rather his sinewy, sinuous and incredibly flexible body.

And he is quick to admit his ginger hair and graceful limbs means he's not your average Prince Charming.

It could explain why some of the big classical roles are absent from his repertoire - not that he's complaining.

"I don't play handsome princes or anything," he laughs. "I don't do ballets like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or Nutcracker, I don't get away with those roles.

"It's not that I don't understand or appreciate them, but there are people who do it a hell of a lot better than me and I don't really have a great interest in doing them."

Instead, Watson prefers the Kenneth MacMillan repertoire, or more modern works from Wayne MacGregor or Christopher Wheeldon. The roles, along with the Rhino ad, has earned him the tag 'Ballet's bad boy'.

Because I was made principal relatively late - I was 28 - I feel like I'm just starting out, which has given me a rejuvenation
Ed Watson

"I'd like to know why myself!" he laughs when asked about the nickname.

"Maybe it's because of the sort of roles I do on stage. I'm always snogging, or killing someone, or going mad or something, maybe that's what it is, but that's my job!

"Or maybe it's because I was born in Bromley," he laughs, forming his lips around the alliteration of 'Bs'.

Away from Covent Garden, Watson has also worked with other more contemporary choreographers, such as Wheeldon - the former Royal Ballet boy who set up his own "transatlantic" company in 2007 - and the Ballet Boyz.

"For me its good to go and do something as Ed Watson, and not Ed Watson from the Royal Ballet," he says. "It's refreshing to do something different, but I always want to come back here.

"I've been at the Royal Ballet for 15 years, but I don't feel stuck. Because I was made principal relatively late - I was 28 - I feel like I'm just starting out, which has given me a rejuvenation."

Sea spirits

Watson is currently reprising the role of Palemon in Ondine, opposite principal guest artist Miyako Yoshida as the mischievous water sprite who falls in love with a mortal.

Frederick Ashton's romantic tale of sea spirits and sailors will be relayed live from the Royal Opera House onto cinema screens across the UK on Wednesday night thanks to a tie-in with Arts Alliance Media.

Ondine also kicks off the BP Summer Big Screen season with live outdoor ballet and opera screenings across the UK, encompassing Belfast, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Plymouth, and Trafalgar Square in London.

It will be followed by La traviata on 30 June, and The Barber of Seville on 15 July.

"Cinema is something that everybody has been exposed to and if they have an interest in dance or ballet, or are curious about it, then it must feel like a safer environment for them to try it out," explains Watson.

And Watson credits TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing for helping to break down more barriers.

"The whole dance thing on TV - even Strictly and Billy Elliot - means there is much more of an awareness of dance these days and it seems to be more popular.

"It's still not football, but I think it is more accessible, and the fact it's put out there in places like the cinema and Trafalgar Square is just amazing."

Ondine will be screened on Wednesday 3 June at 7.30pm.

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