MY NEW YORK: CALVIN ROYAL III
ABT's Principal Dancer leads us through his most influential NYC spots in the latest episode of "My New York."
ABT's Principal Dancer leads us through his most influential NYC spots in the latest episode of "My New York."
Calvin Royal III enters from stage right. With his chin slightly raised and arms outstretched, he stands in the corner of the American Ballet Theatre with welcome anticipation. Commanding every inch of space, he is at home in the studio. Royal exudes grace and regalness with every body movement. He has an extraordinary affinity for ballet–and it is this innate ability that primes him for the prestigious position of ABT’s Principal Dancer (becoming the third Black man to ever do so). It is no small feat in itself, but all the more impressive when you learn that he had a later start to ballet than his peers. The Florida native began his ballet journey when he was 14 years old in the Pinellas County Center for the Arts. But his natural flair for executing the most complex dance positions, seemingly effortlessly, and command the attention of an audience, was not overlooked. Soon, he earned a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT and ultimately made his way to the global stage and arguably, the ballet capital of the world, New York City.
“I remember when I first discovered my love of dancing was way before I started training seriously,” he laughs. “I was suddenly in a ballet studio and they were putting together a production for the holiday time and I remember seeing all of these dancers moving across the studio to music and it was just so inspiring. I think that was the moment for me when I realized that this is something that I really love to see and be a part of.”
Royal joined the main ABT Company in October 2010 and a decade later landed the Principal Dancer position. His repertoire with the Company includes the title role in Apollo, Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet and most recently, Swan Lake, a recital the V team had a pleasure of sitting in on. The newest episode of V’s “My New York” (out today) sees Calvin gliding, bending and fearlessly tilting off balance all while supporting his partner, Christine Shevchenko. The episode also follows him to Lincoln Center, NYC Center Studios and Central Park – a New York landmark that holds a special place in his heart.
“I think one of my more recent favorite moments in New York was this past September on my 6th anniversary,” Royal shares. “I had a private, quiet morning ceremony with my husband. We got married at Cherry Hill in Central Park which was so special to be able to kind of grow up here in New York and then it culminated in a way of getting married in the center of the city. It was just so special and I’ll remember that forever.”
This emotion and passion that Royal conveys in his everyday interactions extend to the stage as well. Exuding the utmost grace and charisma, Royal beams on stage (and you can experience this no matter how far away from the stage you are). This summer, you will have the opportunity to see for yourself. Starting June 27th, Royal will perform one of the greatest American classics, Swan Lake, which tells the tale of two lovers. And with his debut, embodying the lead role, Royal hopes to inspire awe and wonder.
“On opening night, I hope to bring is a sense of humanity, a sense of love and care for not only my craft but also my partners on stage and the audience that will be there to see us after two years of not being able to come to the theater and see a live performance,” he elaborates. “I think that to me is what connects us all–a sense of community and what we’ve all been through over the last two-plus years, going on three years now.”
And with all he’s accomplished, he reflects that it’s been a long time coming. “Being a New Yorker to me is making my dream that I came here 15 years ago for, come true.”
Check out episode 2 of V Magazine’s second season of “My New York” created in collaboration with Milk Makeup.
Stay tuned for new episodes launching every Friday here on Vmagazine.com, the series will spotlight NYC's movers-and-shakers as they guide us through the formative spots in the city that have inspired and cultivated their craft.
For more insight into Royal’s journey as a ballet dancer and finding a new home in the city, we chatted with the emerging ballet dancer in the latest episode of “My New York.”
V MAGAZINE: Calvin, how did you first get into ballet? Did you find it more difficult starting a bit later than others?
CALVIN ROYAL III: Yeah, starting ballet at 14 was an incredible challenge for me because most of the kids in my class started when they were 2 or 3 years old. So I definitely had a lot to catch up on when I joined. It wasn’t something I thought about in the beginning. But when I had first gotten accepted into the program, I realized how demanding it would be – how many hours go into the training, to perfecting the technique of it and learning all of the coordination. It was definitely a challenge.
V: Do you remember the moment you first fell in love with dance?
CR: I remember when I first discovered my love of dancing was way before I started training seriously. I was suddenly in a ballet studio and they were putting together a production for the holiday time and I remember seeing all of these dancers moving across the studio to music and it was just so inspiring. I think that was the moment for me when I realized that this is something that I really love to see and be a part of. It wasn’t until I actually got my scholarship to move to New York City that I was suddenly in the building at American Ballet Theater with dancers that I had seen on DVDs over the years. I was actually able to watch them in rehearsal and see their process, which was so exciting and also intimidating. It inspired me to want to push myself to achieve that level that they were at one day, too.
V: And can we talk about your transition to New York? Why did you want to move here?
CR: Every year my ballet teacher would take a group of students to a ballet competition called the Youth America Grand Prix. It was a competition where judges from the biggest schools, academies and companies from all over the world scouted talent and offered scholarships for dancers to come and train. My teacher took me after two and a half years of studying ballet to this competition and my scores placed me to compete in New York for the finals. I think it was maybe 10 seconds into my solo when the director of the ABT school got up from the judges' table and went to find my teachers because they wanted to offer me this scholarship to train in New York. When I got off stage and got back to my teachers, they told me the news and I was so excited. I didn’t know how I’d get to New York, I didn’t know if I had the money to get to New York but I just knew that it was such an exciting opportunity. As soon as I called my mom, she told me, “Hey, listen, we’re gonna get you there." I competed in April of 2006 and August of 2006 was when I packed up my bags, got in the car and my mom drove me to New York to start my dream of becoming a professional dancer.
V: What initially enticed you to this opportunity and New York City? Was it the energy? The people?
CR: I think the thing that enticed me to New York was that it was a big city and I had always seen it in movies and on TV. Like watching Home Alone: Lost in New York, it was always a dream of mine to get lost in New York! And when I got the scholarship to move to New York, it really inspired me to want to see the city, get to know it, try out all the cool restaurants and see the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time in person. I just wanted to be immersed in the energy of the city.
V: Was there a big adjustment period coming from Florida?
CR: The adjustment was huge because I was 17 when I moved to New York. I was still a senior in high school and I went from being in a small pond to being in a city of 8 million people. I had to grow up really fast. I had to cook my own meals, pay my rent and make sure I was getting good grades in school so that I could graduate. It was a big adjustment but I definitely dove into it and just wanted to see where it would lead me. I knew when I got out of the car and unpacked my bags, that this was the place where I wanted to be.
V: That sounds scary but in the best way! Can you bring us through your progression at ABT, following graduation?
CR: I came to ABT after having only studied ballet for two and a half years. As a student, I came to the school to train and learn as much as I could. In about a year and a half after being in the school, we had our end of the year showcase, and there was no guarantee that I was going to get into the main company or the junior company. So I went away, I did a summer program where I continued to train, learn from different teachers and other dancers. During that time, I got a call that I was going to be promoted into the junior company. So I joined the junior company and I was 18 at the time. It was 12 dancers and we traveled and toured all over the US, the world and performed a lot of the same ballets that I would do if I were to join the main company. So I got a lot of experience on the road, dancing in the junior company.
And after about 2.5 years of being in the junior company, there was no guarantee that I would get into the main company. So I went out, I auditioned for different companies and I got rejected by many of them. I didn’t know what I was going to do after my time in the junior company at ABT. So I went away to another summer program at Jacob’s Pillow, it’s in Massachusetts. I was training and working as hard as I could, trying to figure out what my next steps were. And then I got a call from ABT saying that when I was done with the summer program, I would have a meeting with the director. I met with the director and they told me that I had gotten into ABT as an apprentice. That’s sort of like the lowest man on the totem pole in a ballet company, but I was just so thrilled to finally have a contract. I was 18 and when you turn 18 in ballet, if you don’t have a job, it’s like your world is coming to an end. You have to have a job when you turn 18.
So I got into ABT when I was 18 and I worked my way up over the last 11 years. I went from being an apprentice to being a corps de ballet member, which is someone who’s on every single night. You don’t have any nights off, which is really great because I got to watch so many numbers backstage and learn a lot from the dancers that I admired.
Then in 2017, I was promoted to Soloist with the company which was really really huge because for many years there hadn’t been a Black man at that position in the company in so long. I think that itself was historic in that it provided more visibility and representation at that level in a ballet company. And then fast forward three years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, I was promoted to Principal Dancer with ABT. My director called me and told me that he was lining this moment up for me to be promoted to Principal Dancer but because of the world in which we were living, he didn’t want to wait. He said he felt like it was my time. And in September of 2020, I became Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theater.
V: That’s quite a steep progression that you’ve made! In your opinion, what does it take to perfect a role?
CR: To perfect a role in ballet takes time. It takes research. Before even getting into the studio, I like to read up on the role. Who is the character that I’m going to be playing? What is their story? What are they going through at certain moments in the story? When I learn that I can better bring the story to life because we’re storytellers. We want to make sure that we’re not just getting on stage and being a robot and doing the technique. How do we make someone who has never seen ballet before experience something that’s so magical and transcendent and make them feel connected to it? I think it just takes a lot of time and a commitment to wanting to bring the story to life. I think that is what propels me, it’s what drives me. It’s what makes the work interesting for me. It’s being able to know that at the end of the day, I was able to tell a convincing story that’s valid on that day at that time. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
V: And where are you in this process for rehearsing for Swan Lake? How are you slowly crafting that story?
CR: Christine, my partner, who I’ll be debuting Swan Lake, with this summer at the Metropolitan Opera House have only just started laying the groundwork for our debuts together. Christine has performed it many times before in previous seasons but this is our first time working on it together. It’s been such a joy to know that I’m going into this one with a partner who has had the experience before. I’m also working with Max [Beloserkovsky] and he’s so inspiring to work with. He brings so much passion, love and joy to the whole process. The Swan Lake is like the pinnacle of classical ballet and getting the opportunity to perform Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House for 4,000 people—it’s a huge moment for me. It’s a huge moment for my career now as a principal dancer with ABT. It’s one of those ballets that really defines you and what you can bring to the role, so I’m really excited about it.
V: And as a follow-up to Swan Lake, what do you hope to bring on opening night?
CR: On opening night, I hope to bring is a sense of humanity, a sense of love and care for not only my craft but also my partners on stage and the audience that will be there to see us after 2 years of not being able to come to the theater and see a live performance. I think that to me is what connects us all – a sense of community and what we’ve all been through over the last two-plus years, going on three years now.
V: It’s definitely going to be a moment, for sure. Now, having been in New York for 15 years, what does being a New Yorker mean to you?
CR: Being a New Yorker to me is making my dream that I came here 15 years ago come true.
V: That’s beautiful. And what is the importance of New York to the history of dance? Do you believe it is one of the cultural epicenters of dance?
CR: I do believe New York is one of the cultural epicenters of dance. It’s sort of the center of it all. Many art forms—you have Broadway, you have theater, you have dance, you have music. Moving here felt like I was moving to the center of the dance world where so many great artists have soared across the same stage that I get to perform on. It’s really really exciting. Every season I step back out there on that stage, I just remind myself that so much history has gone across the same stage that I’m now dancing on.
V: What’s your favorite memory of New York since moving here?
CR: I think one of my more recent favorite moments in New York was this past September on my 6th anniversary. I had a private, quiet morning ceremony with my husband. We got married at Cherry Hill in Central Park which was so special to be able to kind of grow up here in New York and then it culminated in a way of getting married in the center of the city. It was just so special and I’ll remember that forever.
V: Can you elaborate more on your relationship with Central Park as a couple?
CR: In the earlier days of the pandemic when it was harder to travel, my friends and my now husband—we would all get together on Sundays and go to Cherry Hill and have potluck cookouts. We didn’t set a time, we’d just say, “We’re gonna meet in Central Park!” Cherry Hill became such a special place for my friends and the love of my life and that’s when we decided we wanted to get married there on Cherry Hill on our 6th anniversary. So, it’s pretty sweet.
V: Very, very sweet. Last question - what do you love most about New York City?
CR: I think the thing that I love the most about New York City is that it’s a breeding ground for opportunity. It’s the place where I moved to 15 years ago as a young kid, a young student, and I’ve seen so much grow out of that. Going from a student to a young adult and professional in what I do, there’s just been so much opportunity to meet new people, collaborate with other artists who are at the top of their field. It’s become such a huge part of my life. So I think New York is definitely a great place for opportunity.
Series creators: Sam Tracy & Czar Van GaalDirector: Joshua Charow Executive producer: Kala Herh First AC: Kelley Grade Video editors: Nick Freeman & Joshua Charow Grooming: Bamike Ogunrinu Production assistant: Carlos Chinn Special thanks: American Ballet Theatre New York City Center Purple PR