Steven McRae looks small, sitting in the corner of the Royal Ballet’s biggest rehearsal room. With its wall-to-wall mirrors, the dancers love it because they can see what the audience sees. Every leap, every move. Ballet is all about striving for perfection. McRae is the star of the Royal Ballet’s next big season but is fighting an injury. His wife, soloist Elizabeth Harrod, danced Swan Lake yesterday. Twice. And is about to do it again. She doesn’t seem tired at all. She’s trained her whole life for it. This is their home from home. They have the unspoken comfortableness of a couple. Lucky really, in a world where you’re only as good as your last dance.
They met at the Royal Ballet School. Elizabeth from Yorkshire and Steven from Australia. Both were homesick. Steven always liked her but it wasn’t until they graduated and Elizabeth went to Oslo to perform that she noticed. “Finally the lightbulb went off!” Steven laughs. “I wasn’t flying out to visit her just to be her friend.” They both laugh. Thirteen years on they have two small children. Audrey aged three and Frederick aged one. (Elizabeth did the splits every day of her pregnancies – including the days she gave birth. Old habits are hard to break.)
Steven has just finished his pilates session. Such is the modern world, you can follow his recovery on Instagram. It’s a gruelling and inspiring watch. “There’s an amazing team here,” he says. Their sports psychologist works with the British Olympic teams and is used to elite athletes. “You’re always trying to find that extra little bit,” Steven says with his soft Australian accent. Mental health as well as physical health is now of prime importance. “It’s very easy to slip into a world of self-doubt when there are all the pressures.”
And the pressures are growing. Performances are now streamed live to sold-out cinemas across the country. Pressure and pain is the norm. “It takes its toll I won’t lie,” says Elizabeth, putting on her ballet shoes (she wears out a pair a day when performing). “I didn’t think I would feel this physically exhausted at 33. There are times when we want to run around the playground, and Audrey’s like ‘Come on Momma, chase me’ and I’m thinking ‘I need to limp really but I’m just gonna go for it’, you can’t wrap yourselves in cotton wool can you?’
So what do they eat in a day? Gone are the days of a cigarette and a coffee. “That dancer diet has vanished,” Elizabeth explains. “People would be horrified at the amount we consume. A lot of plain food. A lot of jacket potatoes.” Steven laughs. “You don’t want anything repeating when you’re up close and personal. Mid Romeo and Juliet.”
Elizabeth stretches out her toes and feet and describes their routine with the kids. Juggling the two worlds of kids and ballet is a challenge. “It’s very hard to not get frustrated with them when we’re so tired. I have to give myself a calm talking to and say ‘It’s not your fault that I come home from work at midnight; that’s entirely my choice; it’s entirely my choice to go and do it all again today.’’’
Elizabeth loved ballet from a young age and won a place at the Royal Ballet School at 11. Dancing was not on Steven’s radar. “My family is a motorsport family from Sydney, my Dad literally had his hands in an engine every single day. When I was 7, I said I wanted to try dancing, my sister and Mum and Dad both said ‘Great, OK go!’ I was a shy kid so I think they thought it would be good for me.”
We are interrupted by a teacher and another principal dancer. They need to work. Their colleagues, their friends, their biggest competitors. They tell me that the final rehearsals in this room with their peers are much more nerve wracking than any first night on stage.
They can’t carry on dancing forever. “You know that at 18,” says Steven. “I think that’s a good thing. There are so many different routes in life.” They’ve both got qualifications in other things in their free time. Where will they be be in ten years, when the standing ovations, sprained muscles and late nights end? “Maybe we’ll go and live on an island for a year. Who knows?” Until then they’ve got a schedule to keep, audiences to please, new heights to reach. I can’t wait to get my ticket.
Photos by Sandi Friend