Interview

Dancer Profile - César Morales

César Morales talks us through his childhood dance training in Chile, and the subsequent journey around the world that led to him becoming a Principal dancer at Birmingham Royal Ballet.

'I was born in a town called Rancagua in Chile, about an hour and a half from the capital, Santiago, where I lived for most of my childhood. My father was a butcher and my mother worked with him, and I went to an ordinary school in the city. We were always drawing, singing and dancing in school and I really enjoyed it.

'One day, they took the school choir, including me, to the Opera House to see a ballet – I loved it and wanted to learn. My mother didn’t want me to go, so I asked my sister to take me for an audition at the school, and I was offered a place! After that I just said, "well, I’m in the school now." My parents actually loved it, especially once they’d seen me on stage, as the company in Santiago used to use the little boys from their school for their Nutcracker.

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'So, I started dancing when I was 11 years old. That might seem a bit late, but ballet isn’t a very common thing to do in Chile back then – some boys started as late as 18. In my school there were 40 girls and only three boys! It’s different now, but when I was growing up, there weren’t any ballet schools like there are in this country. We didn’t even do any grades like they do here.

'I went to normal school in the morning and then to ballet school in the afternoon. We did a class and then a rehearsal of something, and that was it. They trained you very quickly to become a dancer – we didn’t learn anything about music or history of ballet. We used to do a lot of school shows, which were fun. We even danced in the street – they set up a big stage, outside, in front of all these people. We did La fille mal gardée, The Nutcracker and some others. That was really nice actually, and when I was 16, I was offered a contract with the Ballet de Santiago.

'Sometimes in Chile, you’d reply, when people asked what you did, "I’m a dancer."

They’d then say "yes, but what do you do?" and you’d reply "well, I’m a dancer!"'

'I don’t think I "knew" that ballet was what I wanted to do for a job, but I loved it and everything happened so fast – I was only 16 and I had my first contract with the company I had really wanted to be in. I was so happy! My parents wanted me to finish my schooling though, so until I was 18, I worked all day and then did my school work in the evenings. It was really hard work, but it was the best thing for me. I did really well in the company – when I was 17, I was promoted to Soloist and when I was 18, to Principal.

'When I started in Santiago I was in the corps of course, but it was a bit weird, because I did a lot of different stuff. I worked with Ivan Nagy, the Director, and he really believed in me. He always said to me, "you need to learn – you’re going to be good" so, I was dancing corps de ballet roles and Soloist roles, and learning Principal roles too, even if I didn’t dance them. It was really good for me.

'I remember in my first year I did corps de ballet in Giselle and also the Act I pas de deux. I did a really difficult piece called Études by Harold Lander – it was all technique. I would even do the Principal role in the matinee and then the corps in the evening. I also did the pas de deux from The Nutcracker. In my third year, I danced my first prince in Ivan’s Swan Lake. Immediately after my first show, they promoted me to Principal! I love Swan Lake and have such fond memories because of that.

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'I think ballet is a lot better known in Chile now – a lot of people want to do it. But when it first started, I think it was hard for families to accept that you could actually make a living from being a dancer. Sometimes in Chile, you’d reply, when people asked what you did, "I’m a dancer." They’d then say "yes, but what do you do?" and you’d reply "well, I’m a dancer!"

It’s different now. I won some medals and some critics’ prizes and actually became quite well known at home. They asked me to be in some commercials and to be a judge on a programme like X-Factor, but I didn’t want to do any of them, because I left for Europe.

'I became quite well known at home. They asked me to be a judge on a programme like X-Factor.'

'I spent seven years with Ballet de Santiago, and guested all over the place too. Then I went to New York in 2003 to do an International Ballet Competition. I won the gold medal, and with the money, I went abroad. I’d always wanted to come to Europe, particularly to France, so I left my job in Santiago and moved to Paris, with no job and without speaking French.

'The first year was so difficult! I didn’t have any money, and in order to take class you have to pay. But I met some really nice people and I was invited to dance with the Paris Opéra Ballet in a little gala, and it was amazing. I did the second act of Giselle and afterwards, they invited me to take class. They respected my dancing which was nice, and it was very important for me, because I could learn a lot about the French way and quality of dancing.

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'My first actual job in Europe was in Prague, where I guested for a year. I also danced in Slovenia. I was offered a contract with Paris Opéra Ballet, but I thought I could do more somewhere else and, because I had experience it would be too hard to start again.

'At the end of the year, I came to England to take class with The Royal Ballet. Unfortunately Monica Mason got delayed on the tube and missed my class. I didn’t have much money and couldn’t stay – I had to go back to France. So I said to myself, "well I can go to ENB! Maybe they will let me take a class." I did, and they offered me a Principal contract! I was there for four years before I came to Birmingham Royal Ballet, and it’s almost four years here too.

'Unfortunately Monica Mason got delayed in the tube and missed my class.'

'In my fourth year at English National Ballet, I felt like I needed a change. At ENB we did four ballets a year and danced them over and over again. That’s great for gaining experience and being on stage a lot, but I wanted a new challenge and to work with some new people.

'Here, it’s completely different. You have to learn so much - sometimes you don’t have as much rehearsal time as you would like. You need to learn to pick things up much faster and to trust that your body will do the right thing on stage. It’s a different experience. So, I sent my CV to David Bintley and he called me, saying he was interested, but he wanted to meet me.

'I came to class, and afterwards I spoke to David for a long time. He said that he really liked my dancing, but he wanted to see how I got on with the other dancers, because that was also important to him. He saw me with the rest of the Company – people talked to me and seemed relaxed – and I guess he was pleased, because he offered me a contract. I joined as a Principal in 2008. I remember my first show here was Raymonda Act III. I was supposed to dance it with Elisha, but she was ill, so after very little rehearsal, on the day, I ended up dancing it with Nao! After that I did Beauty and the Beast – with a bit more rehearsal.

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'I’ve danced so many roles, you would think it would be difficult to pick a favourite, but for me, my favourite, favourite role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon. I did it in Chile when I was 20 or 21. I love that ballet! I like all dramatic ballets, like Romeo and Juliet and Giselle, but mostly where the man is not just a prince. I always try to put a little of myself into the role and not just do a beautiful, smiling prince. To show something different makes it a little more interesting for the audience I think, and for me as well. If I don’t, I think it can be a bit boring.

'I really love Romeo and Juliet. I’ve danced Cranko’s, MacMillan’s and Nureyev’s now – Cranko’s version was my first. I like Cranko’s choreography. We did a lot of Cranko in Chile because the Santiago company has strong ties with the company in Stuttgard. I enjoy David’s ballets too, particularly his story ballets. I think he is very clever with the way he tells stories, and especially with his humour. It’s very English – sometimes I need to get used to it – but I think it’s very good for the audiences.

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'As for shorter ballets, I like neo-classical stuff, Balanchine for example – Balanchine is amazing! I like Robbins too. One day I would like to do some Forsythe. I know it’s not that modern now, but I’d like to try something like that. I think I can do it, but I’d like to find out. I would also love to have something created on me.

'I love new works, and it would be great to have something to take to galas. Sometimes I’m asked to do a modern solo in a gala, but I don’t have anything made on me, so that’s something I’d really like. Here, when the dancers ask me if they can do some new choreography with me, I really like it. It’s great when someone creates something on you; it’s really cool to see you can do things you didn’t realise and didn’t expect.

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'One of my greatest ambitions was to dance in Vienna, and I finally did in 2006-07, when I was a guest artist with the Vienna Staatsoper. I danced Peter Wright’s The Sleeping Beauty, Nureyev’s Swan Lake and Harangozó’s Coppélia with them, and it was really amazing – the audience waits for you with flowers and pictures!

'I remember the opening of Swan Lake: the Prince alone on stage, reading a book. The curtain went up and when I looked, I almost gasped, because you can see this huge theatre, and it’s full. I’ve also danced in Russia at the Nureyev Festival in Kazan, with Maria Kochetkova, a Principal in San Francisco, which was great. The festival is a week long and they ask different people for each night. It was even in the news, which was a bit weird, but nice!

'It was really scary though – doing The Sleeping Beauty for the Russians, when they have their own Russian style – I didn’t know if they would like me because I was different, but they did, which was also very nice.

'I really love animals, so I’d like to work with them.'

'In my spare time, I like films and I still draw – in a sort of comic book style. I thought about taking up my singing again, but if I did, it would just be for me! I particularly love the films of a Spanish Director called Pedro Almdóvar – his films are crazy but great. I love fantasy movies too. Those and Disney!

'I read a lot – I enjoy history for example. I remember the first book I ever read in English (with a dictionary!) was a book about Hitler’s life. It took me ages! But, I want to know about what has happened in the world, and why.

'I haven’t thought much about what I’ll do when I stop dancing; I find it hard to think about. Maybe it would be easier to continue doing something within ballet – maybe go back to Chile and work in the theatre. I’ve never taught, but I’ve taken some rehearsals and things and enjoyed it.

'That is one possibility, going back home. It would be nice to give everything I’ve learned from travelling and dancing abroad, back to my people, my old school, or something like that. Or, perhaps it would be better to do something completely different. I really love animals, so I’d like to work with them. I’m not sure – it’s difficult. Hopefully I’ve got plenty of years of dancing left yet, so I don’t need to worry about it.'