Calvin Royal III: Prince of the City
AMBASSADOR DIGITAL MAGAZINE Editor- In-Chief Musa Jackson has an in depth Q. & A with Calvin Royal III, the ground breaking Principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre.
The remarkable journey from growing up on military bases to helping shepherd in a new age of diversity by becoming one of America’s premier leading male ballet stars.
"My first couple of years in New York was me playing catch up and me trying to continue to lay the foundation that my peers had ten years prior to me. I felt proud of myself that I was able to land a scholarship to come to New York."
MUSA What was life like for you as a child?
CALVIN I grew up in a military family. I was born on an army base in Fort Stewart, Georgia. My dad was in US Army. My parents were High School sweethearts. They met in High school, dated, got married right after High school. My dad went off to the service and I was born. Well actually my mom told me I was her belly at the wedding. ( laughs) I grew up moving every couple of years. We moved from military base to military base. So it was really hard finding my place, my sense of identity and where I fit in. Even though the army was all I knew I also felt inside of me I just longed for something different. I think a big part of that was my grandma used to come ( My Mom’s mother) every Christmas. As many birthdays as she could. When my brother was born she drove up to be there. Whenever she would come she would bring gifts or new music to listen to. Or she would talk about opera, classical music that she would play on the radio. She just loved classical music and the arts. She exposed me to that at a young age. A big part of me always longed for that world she was always talking about. My childhood was very structured. I was the son of a soldier essentially. It wasn’t until my parents separated that my mom, my brother and I moved to Florida to live with my grandmother. She was a point of stability for us. We found a place where could be in the same school meet and new friends. I expressed an interest in learning how to play the piano. So she brought me a keyboard for Christmas one year. I would came home from school and play the pre-recorded songs on it. I would learn it more for note learning on how to play Beethoven or or any of the other pieces. I came home from school one day, on TV, the local news had auditions for the Chocolate Nutcracker. I immediately told my mom that I wanted to see what it was all about and that was my introduction to dance. I remember just loving it. Being in the studio with people from all over the community learning West African dance and jazz.
" You have to prove yourself, wait your turn, pay your dues. It took me about seven years before I became soloist and three years later I was appointed principal with the company. "
MUSA Is that when your passion for dance happened?
CALVIN My love for movement happened. My love for ballet came later. I think doing West African dancing was tied to my heritage in a certain way. When it came time to audition for the High School of Performing Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida I auditioned for music and dance. But I only got into the dance program so that’s when I started my ballet training. I took a ballet class my freshman year in High School. I was 14 years old two hands on the ballet barre just learning the French vocabulary and all the steps. It wasn’t that first year that fell in love with ballet. My ballet teacher at the school loved ballet. I remember when I told her I wanted to try something else she was like, “No, please stick with it.” She encouraged me by giving me DVD’s and VHS tapes to take home to watch. Just to keep me interested with it. She introduced me to summer intensive training programs. I got a summer scholarship to go away to Philadelphia after studying ballet for less than a year. I got back and I saw how much I had grown in six weeks. So at that point I wanted to keep pushing myself, challenging myself and stick with it.
MUSA How did you get into ABT?
CALVIN My ballet teacher, every year would take a group of students to the Youth America Grand Prixe Scholarship competition. It’s essentially the place to be for young promising dancers to compete for scholarships to some of the top schools and training programs in the country and around the world. She took us my junior year to Orlando and I competed there and my scores qualified me to compete onstage in New York in the finals. The finalists then took a trip to New York for a competition. My teachers told me ten seconds into my Swan lake solo as the Swan Prince. Two judges got up from the table and came over to my teachers because they wanted to offer me a scholarship. They wanted me to train at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT. It was the spring of 2006 and I started at the ABT school that September.
MUSA So how did you go from training at the school to principal dancer with ABT?
CALVIN It definitely didn’t happen overnight. ( laughs) When I came to ABT to the school there definitely was no guarantee that I was going to be promoted into the company. It was just another step in my education as a dancer to learn from new teachers. I was also around students who had been training their whole lives. Here I come after only three years of ballet training. ( laughs) So I was trying to get caught up. My first couple of years in New York was me playing catch up and me trying to continue to lay the foundation that my peers had ten years prior to me. I felt proud of myself that I was able to land a scholarship to come to New York. I didn’t want to let myself down but I also didn’t want to let my Mom and grandma down. I knew how much they sacrificed to get me there. So I made a promise to myself I would keep pushing and go as high as I could. I moved to New York senior year. After I graduated I did a summer program with ABT. Towards the end of that summer program I auditioned for college programs. I had submitted and I thought I was going to go off and do the university route. And I found out I gotten an invitation to join the ABT studio company. Which is sort of like that bridge between student and professional. I was in the studio company there was twelve dancers between the ages of 16 and 18. We traveled and performed all over the US. Went on tour overseas and we were performing a lot of the repertoire that the main company performs. It was like getting my feet wet with the experience of performing doing these challenging roles. Maybe one day I would do ABT if I got lucky enough to be a principal dancer. So I did studio company for two and half years. I was appointed an apprenticeship with the main company. I went from doing so much in the studio company performing being featured to now being at the bottom of the barrel again when you join the main company. You have to prove yourself, wait your turn, pay your dues. It took me about seven years before I became soloist and three years later I was appointed principal with the company. This year I was able to do to make my debut with the full scope of role of the Prince in Swan Lake.
MUSA But going back it took you ten years with uncertainty. Without a road map.
CALVIN I do remember getting to ABT early to just watch from the doorways sometimes. It wasn’t because I didn’t see someone that looked like me in the room I just had this feeling inside of me that I really wanted be in there one day. That was propelling me on the days where there no points on that road map to get there. I just knew I wanted to be there that pushed me all those years.
MUSA Was it not seeing yourself not represented that also pushed you? Was that a part of the equation?
CALVIN It came later. I had come from the military where it was very culturally diverse. My performing arts high school was inner city. Black and white boys in the class. But when I got to ABT there were so few of us in the room in the company. Because I didn’t see myself represented in those roles I dreamed of being there one day. I could envision myself doing that one day. I didn’t know it could happen but something inside of myself wanted it to happen. And here I am fifteen years later in the roles I’ve wanted to do as a young person.
MUSA You were set to perform as Romeo alongside Misty Copeland as Juliet then the pandemic hit. Which would of been historic. What was that like for you?
CALVIN I was a soloist still trying to prove to myself, my director and the company that I could take on these big challenging roles that principal dancers perform. As a soloist I was cast to perform Romeo which for me was huge. Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet that’s one of the classics. ( laughs) Alongside Misty Copeland. She had danced the role many times before but it was going to be our debut dancing together. It was going to be huge it was going to be historical and all the things.Then the pandemic hit. It was confusing and shocking. All the theaters had closed and we didn’t know when would be returning the stage. We just didn’t know what the future was going to hold for us. And here we are two years later. So I didn’t get the chance to perform with Misty but I finally did make my debut as Romeo last season with ABT. So the pandemic in the beginning was very confusing, very uncertain. It was a testing ground for me to heal my body because I had gotten injured shortly before the pandemic. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take care of myself if we were in a full season. When I did get back on my feet I was able to really do a lot of research I wanted to do on the role. As well as the upcoming roles that I had. I was also able to travel to the Royal Ballet. I trained with one of their esteemed coaches Edward Watson, who was a former principal dancer with Royal Ballet. Royal Ballet and ABT do the same production of Romeo and Juliet. It originated at the Royal Ballet. So I was able to go get a lot more information and layering for when I was able to interpret the role here for my debut.
MUSA After a long hiatus. You are busier than ever. You’ve mentioned the Prince in Swan Lake and Romeo. The title role of ABT’s latest production Love & Rage. You had more on your plate than you did before the pandemic with all those title roles. How did that feel?
CALVIN It felt like a great challenge. But I thought back on the fifteen plus years it took to get to this point. All the challenges I had to break through and overcome. To believe in myself and feel like I’m standing on my own two feet. All the interpretations I want to do onstage and all the research and preparation I put into it. I felt like it finally came to my moment where I can put all of that experience into playing and practice on stage in real time. With my partners and the various characters in the show. To be on the stage at Metropolitan Opera House and to have the curtain rise and the rush of air that comes onto the stage. ( sighs) Performing at Lincoln Center is everything. It’s the center of dance and music and theater here in New York.
"It’s always important to have someone in your corner. Whether it’s a parent, a teacher. Someone that sees you and can guide you. "
MUSA You have had a fabled career. Besides ABT. You have trained with some of worlds great choreographers from Twyla Tharp, Alonzo King, Mark Morris. Trained at the great houses Royal Ballet,Morinksi Ballet, Danish Ballet. Won numerous awards as well as mentored young dancers. You have literally done it all. What’s next after this for Calvin.
CALVIN I’ve been thinking about my life and all of the experiences that I’ve had. The educational component, the inspirational components of my journey that have inspired me. I want to be able to pay that forward to the next generation that will come after me. I don’t want it to be Calvin making history and it ends with me. I want to be able to swing open that door of opportunity to inspire next generation that can see themselves in me. To be able to share my story and inspire those that come after me.
MUSA What advice would you give that young Black boy wanting to seriously dance ballet?
CALVIN It’s always important to have someone in your corner. Whether it’s a parent, a teacher. Someone that sees you and can guide you. Even when you don’t know the way. For me that was my mom, my grandma, my teacher. But it’s ultimately from experience. It’s not waiting for someone telling you what to do. It’s taking that initiative and taking control of your journey. And having goals for yourself. Had I not called my mom that day and said I wanted to go to the audition I don’t know if I would of ever gotten exposed to dance. Which led to all these other things that came out of that. I encourage that young Black boy who may be interested in dance to reach out to a friend, a teacher who may be able to get you there. Because for me that’s what made the difference.
Talent: CALVIN ROYAL III @calvinroyaliii
Creative Director: @iammusajackson
BTS / video @courtneydouglasphotography
Special Thank You to N.Peal @npealcashmere
Locations: Lincoln Center, Madison Avenue, Fifth Avenue and Harlem
Founder & Editor In Chief:
Musa Jackson @iammusajackson
Creative Director: Paul Morejon
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