Arts

Co Down-born Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton poised for homecoming shows

Since leaving Dromore as a bright-eyed teenager, Royal Ballet first soloist Melissa Hamilton has danced her way across the world's most famous stages. Now at the peak of her career and ahead of her triumphant return to Belfast next month, she tells Gail Bell she why ballet makes her fly and why she was always prepared to suffer for her art

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton who will be returning to Northern Ireland to dance at the Grand Opera House next month
Gail Bell

ROYAL Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is en pointe for a triumphant return to the home stage when she dances in two special evenings of ballet to be unveiled at the Grand Opera House next month.

The Co Down-born dancer will be performing at the invitation of Birmingham Royal Ballet which will showcase excerpts from The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Peter and the Wolf, with music provided by the company's Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Northern Ireland's Paul Murphy.

Over the course of the two days, there will also be a chance for aspiring ballerinas from the region to perfect their footwork in a series of workshops led by a Birmingham Royal Ballet dance artist and pianist.

Hamilton, now in her 30s and first soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, was once among such a group, taking her first tentative steps as an eager four-year-old with the Jennifer Bullick School of Dance in Lisburn, later joining Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham (after leaving Banbridge Academy following GCSEs at 16) and, eventually, entering the hallowed doors of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in 2007.

But her path wasn't as straightforward as that might sound and in between studying in Birmingham and joining the London elite corps de ballet, she was forced to reassess her dream career after teachers advised she had left it too late, she could never catch up and just "wouldn't make it".

"They were harsh words, but of course, ballet by its very nature is harsh," Hamilton, who grew up in Dromore, reflects equanimously. "But, of course, I didn't listen to them."

Instead, she packed her bags and took herself off to Greece – not for a holiday in the sun, but on the trail of one particular dance teacher, Masha Mukhamedov – who "saw something in me". She followed her mentor to Athens and spent 10 months in intensive training to prove the other teachers wrong.

Recalling those early days when her career was at a potential crossroads, Hamilton says she lived between the dance studio and her apartment, "working ever hour, every day, until my feet bled and my toes blistered and I had to stop to either eat or sleep."

Persistence, hard work and talent paid off and Masha's golden girl never looked back, going on to showcase her classical ability in international competitions and winning the Youth American Grand Prix in 2007. In the same year, she joined the Royal Ballet, rising from back row bunhead to leading lady in 2010 and along the way picking up the Critics' Circle Outstanding Female Classical Performance and a gold mead in the eight International Seoul Ballet Competition.

"I'm glad it worked out because I never had a Plan B," admits the dancer who is now based in London full time and is in demand for solo projects worldwide, most recently partnering with Italy's Roberto Bolle, a principal dancer with La Scala in Milan.

Hamilton danced with Bolle in the 15th World Ballet Festival in Tokyo in 2018 and the pair continue to be a huge draw at prestigious venues around Italy, among them the open-air Arena di Verona where 14,000 people came to applaud their artistry on stage.

And, while it may not have the allure of a majestic Roman amipheatre, at the Grand Opera House in Belfast another exciting duet debut awaits – with Birmingham Royal Ballet male principal, Brandon Lawrence. The two will dance the final pas de deux in Frederick Ashton's The Dream, based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and specially choreographed for the Royal Ballet Company.

"It is a very long piece, one of the Royal Ballet's heritage pieces, but it's really beautiful and I am so excited to be performing it at the Grand Opera House where I used to sit among the audience and enjoy the pantomime," she says. "I haven't been back to perform in Northern Ireland since 2013, when I made my debut with the Royal Ballet at a performance in the Millennium Forum in Derry [part of the city's UK City of Culture celebrations and the company's first visit in 20 years] so this will be a very special homecoming for me."

Her parents are still her greatest supporters – apart from fiancé, Michael Christou of famed 1.61 London luxury design firm – and will again be in the auditorium cheering her on, although there won't be much time to spend with family during this working visit back home.

"This will be a flying visit, literally, but I will soon be back home again for my sister's wedding and can relax then," she says. "Ballet is definitely hard work, but I love it; I may be a first soloist with the Royal Ballet, but I still have to go to training class every day. We can't do our job unless we go to ballet class and as artistic athletes, there is an obligation to produce the best quality of work that you can."

The end goal, she says, is to transport the audience to another world while making her job look so easy that anyone in the audience can believe they too can step on stage and do it. It's about "transcendence, make-believe, emotion, smoke and mirrors and magic", but at its heart is really hard graft – and often some pain.

"You are always seeking perfection; there is never an end point," Hamilton continues. "Ballets continually evolve and life is a never-ending rehearsal. Right now, I have just finished class and then I have rehearsal until 6.30 tonight. The work is constant and that will continue until the day I retire. There are always slight niggles and body aches and pains because, as dancers, we make the human body do things it's not meant to do, but luckily, I have never had an injury that has kept me off the stage."

Now busier than ever, she has decided to give up more of her precious free time to pass on skills to younger students in a series of new Saturday masterclass sessions just started in London.

"I am passionate about passing on skills to younger dancers," she says. "It's also good for dancers like me because by teaching you also learn – and you never stop learning. Ballet is a huge part of my life, but when I get home and close the door and it's just me, my fiancé and my dog, it's a different world altogether.

"Michael is a property developer and interior designer, but he plays the piano, sings and writes music, so he has this artistic side too. I have been teaching him a few ballet steps and he's actually very good – he has exceptional turn-out, but I don't think he'll be stepping on stage any time soon."

:: Melissa Hamilton will dance with Birmingham Royal Ballet in An Evening of Music and Dance on November 8 and 9 at Belfast's Grand Opera House (goh.co.uk).

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