“I was living a dream and hated every minute of it, but I turned it all around”
Told she would never make it as a dancer, Northern Ireland ballerina Melissa Hamilton was determined to prove her teachers wrong. Now one of the UK’s leading dancers, she talks to Una Brankin about the hard work and physical and emotional pain it took to reach the top
The warren of softly lit corridors backstage in the Royal Opera House is lined with iconic black and white photographs of legendary performers on the famous Covent Garden stage.
Margot Fonteyn and Maria Callas are magnetic; Rudolph Nureyev is even more classically beautiful. There is an absence of contemporary ballet stars — I don’t even see one of Darcey Bussell, now appearing as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing. Currently there’s only one British-born female principal in the Royal Ballet, the dark and tiny Lauren Cuthbertson (34), from Devon. But hot on her dainty heels is an exquisite 26-year-old from Dromore, Co Down, with a stunning talent and compelling stage presence.
Melissa Hamilton, first soloist with the company, has been hailed as the new Darcey and described as “Charlize Theron in pointe shoes”. wAt 5ft 5ins tall, she’s shorter than those two glamourpusses, but every bit as attractive.
“I look taller on stage — people always say I’m smaller than they thought, when they meet me,” she says. “I have huge long arms and size-six feet, which add inches when I’m en-pointe, with my hands outstretched. I have high arches too; they make your feet weaker but they look better. You suffer for the beauty.”
She’s lounging on an office chair in the press department, iPhone in hand and naturally blonde hair piled up on her head, revealing a graceful neck and gamine features. At first glance, she is an even prettier version of the Downton actress Joanne Froggatt, with her almond-shaped eyes, sculpted cheekbones and rosebud pout, but her delicate face belies an immensely strong, muscular body and powerful legs, perfectly proportioned for dance. Today she’s covered up in a slouchy jumper and woollen leggings, and those dextrous feet are hidden in trainers. When I ask her to go en-pointe for a second — just to see it being done up-close — she obliges readily, springing up in a flash.
“I didn’t learn that until I was 12 or 13,” she explains in a strange, mish-mash accent that’s hard to pinpoint. “I started ballet when I was four but it was just a hobby until after my GCSEs. My parents made me stay at home until I’d done them, which meant I was a late starter when I went to ballet school in Birmingham. There were some there who had trained full-time already, from 11, so I was at a disadvantage right away. But looking back I don’t regret it; I believe everything happens for a reason.”
She gained seven A-stars and two AS grades as a result of the emphasis on education laid down by her parents, builder Keith and Linda, a youthful looking pre-school teacher, who most resembles her youngest daughter. Her siblings also did well. Victoria (28) is an architect, now trying to break into acting in London, while David (23) is primary school teacher back home.
Due to conflicting schedules and her fierce commitment to her work, Melissa sees them “rarely”, but caught up with her parents recently when she was in Belfast for the Bolshoi Ballet exhibition at the Crumlin Road Gaol, and when they flew to London to see her in the “dream role” of Manon, in Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet of the same name — her biggest challenge and most sparkling success to date.
Although she is grateful to her parents for their support, there was a time when she resented the enforced delay in her training, an interruption that led to her rejection by tutors at the Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham. She was a 16-year-old scholarship student in her first year when she was told she had no future in ballet.
“My talent came completely out of the blue — there is no history of dancers in the extended family and my parents don’t understand the ballet world at all,” she says with a shrug. “That put me behind the rest and I was judged against the standards of my peers at Elmhurst — who had been training since they were 11 — and not as an individual, and they didn’t think they could mould me into something else.
“But no-one can ever turn round to another human being and say ‘You can’t’. What they should be saying is, ‘I can’t help you do that’. It’s all subjective.”
The rejection devastated the ambitious youngster at the time.
“It knocked me for six, of course it did. I was 16 — when you’re told at that age you’re not going to make it ... I was shattered completely. I listened to people supposedly in the know. If my tutors were saying no, what hope was there?
“I didn’t feel like giving up though — if there’s something I really want to do, I won’t give up. I was determined to find a way. It gave me a fight and definitely propelled me and inspired me for so many years to progress, to prove people wrong.”
The way forward came through sheer grit and the arrival at Elmhurst of husband-and-wife teaching team Irek and Masha Mukhamedov, former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, who spotted Melissa’s potential. After a year, when Irek left to become director of the Greek National Opera Ballet, Melissa upped sticks and moved to Athens for intensive one-to-one coaching with Masha, who became her mentor.
“I went with my gut instinct; I always do. I believe in fate. I think when something’s right, then as human beings we know it. Masha was creating me, just as much as I wanted to be there. We found each other completely and it worked.”
Her confidence regained, Melissa went on to win the Youth America Grand Prix in 2007 and was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre. Her ultimate dream, however, was to join the Royal Ballet in London, so she sent a DVD to the company’s director, Monica Mason, and was invited to take class with them. A position soon followed as an ‘artist’, the lowest rank in the corps de ballet.
“I was a workaholic for years after I joined,” she admits. “I was hungry for it and I revelled in the long hours. I push myself on, whether I’m tired or not, as a test to see if I can.
“I worked constantly. Once I had a blood test and discovered I had glandular fever, but I worked my way through it. If something doesn’t agree with me, I ignore it. Another time, I tore two of the three ligaments in my ankle in a freak fall during rehearsals and the pain was the worst ever. I was told by the physio to rest it for six weeks, but I got a second opinion and iced it like a maniac because I didn’t want to miss the performance I was in at the time. I looked up the internet and read about these American basketball players who had snapped all three ligaments and managed to carry on. I thought, if they can do it, so can I. And I did.”
That ferocious drive is discernible in her strong speaking voice — part Birmingham; part Ulster; part transatlantic — and visible in her forthright, self-assured manner and unflinching gaze. She looks like a teenager but has the wisdom of an octogenarian (tellingly, she says her friends have always been quite a bit older than her). She had the sense, therefore, to recognise the signs of a meltdown when her self-imposed workload became too much.
Her disregarded glandular fever had given way to a fever, which forced her to miss a performance.
“I just hit a point where I had to turn my life around,” she says, contemplatively. “I was drowning in my own lifestyle, living in a tiny box flat in Covent Garden and never leaving work. I mean, I was living such an amazing life, on paper, living my dream — and I hated every second of it. I had no appreciation for it; I was drawn in and didn’t feel it.”
I tell Melissa that it sounds like some sort of reactive depression.
“I think I was depressed for a good lot of years, on and off,” she agrees. “You find depression in a lot of ambitious natures and successful people. I lived for six and a half years in that tiny flat in Covent Garden and I couldn’t cope any more. I was living in a bubble, never left work, couldn’t breathe. I worked on Sunday, too — it wasn’t good for me.
“I even dyed my hair dark brown at the time — it made me feel like a different person. I didn’t see myself in the mirror. But it was a fake escape. Unhappiness is down to yourself, nothing else. I hit a brick wall and had to stop.”
She stretches languidly and rests her head on her hand, pointed elbow on the office table. She does look quite different in photographs of herself as a brunette, a bit like a younger Carla Bruni, with those slightly slanted blue eyes. The dark tresses didn’t last for long, ditched along with her pokey flat in a “complete reassessment” of her life, a path she took instead of a course of anti-depressants. She moved six months ago to a bigger one-bedroom apartment in a leafy part of Hampstead in North London, a half-hour commute to Covent Garden.
“I stopped fighting and took a different perspective, and got a much better sense of self — you lose sight of who you really are if you live life only for others to validate.
“I love my new apartment; it’s close to Hampstead Heath and I have friends nearby, and I love having the time on the tube to send emails, or listen to music or just people watch. I couldn’t have afforded a bigger place in central London; it’s far too expensive, even though I’ve saved a fair bit by working so much that I didn’t spend anything, for so long. I’m able to enjoy life and afford things better now. I’m much more positive.”
With an impish grin she admits to being very untidy, despite her good organisational abilities, and to being happy living on her own. Currently single, she is in no rush to settle down.
“I’m not really interested in having a boyfriend unless he’s literally going to inspire my life and improve it,” she declares. “I find it very hard to compromise and to find someone who fits in with me. There have been people for periods of time, but it’s a very difficult life for someone to share. I don’t think about marriage or kids — if it happens, it happens. I’m not fussed. I hate the fact that weddings are such a parade. It should be between you and that person — I’d be much happier running off to a beach or wherever, not putting on a show for other people. I don’t need an audience!”
At the moment she’s in rehearsals for a world premiere of Don Quixote, which is due to take place this Tuesday. Her working day begins with rehearsals at 10.30am, followed by class from noon to 5.30pm, sometimes with no time to eat. Curtain-up is usually 7.30pm-10pm, with bedtime at midnight. Although she’s only a dress size six, she looks healthy to me, but with a schedule like that, and such competitiveness among dancers, I wonder if eating disorders are an issue.
“When there’s no time we’ll grab a high-sugar snack — you’ll see us running about in class with a Mars bar or something, but we burn it off. I have to fuel myself correctly: this is an aesthetic art and if you put crap into your mouth, you feel crap and you look it. We probably eat more than average for girls our age but we don’t go to McDonald’s every day. We are very aware of what we eat — it could be seen as an eating disorder but it’s more of a hyper-awareness.
“The thing is, my body is my tool and I have to look after it. I believe the body can heal itself too; mind over matter is a part of that. I have Reiki regularly — it’s amazing. People dismiss it because they don’t understand it and that makes them insecure. I find meditation useful also.”
She still gets nervous before a performance, and sometimes the pressure is increased by the presence of celebrities, watching her performances from the wings.
“They sometimes don’t want to sit out front. Jude Law is a regular, and I met Gwyneth Paltrow very briefly back stage. Cara Delevingne was in the other week — she’s beautiful but Naomi Campbell is the most stunning person I’ve ever met in the flesh. She told me she always wanted to be a dancer.”
Pressed to name which VIP guest she was most impressed by, she opts for England rugby player Jason Leonard.
“He made a serious impression on me. To see such an amazing, humane person unaffected by fame is inspiring.”
She’s non-committal on Natalie Portman, who landed at the theatre in the wake of her Oscar-winning performance as an unstable ballerina in the dark movie, Black Swan (“I wasn’t fussed on the film but what it did for ballet was amazing”).
She hopes to do her own bit to promote the art, as a cultural ambassador with the insurance company Allianz, and is supportive of the campaign to save the Ulster Orchestra. It all goes back to her own experience of growing up in a society where Irish dancing was the only real option for classes and training in the field. Clamped by her sides in a jig or a reel, those beautifully fluid arms would have been utterly wasted.
“Ballet needs to be developed in Northern Ireland and encouraged,” she emphasises. “It’s entertainment — and when people face hard times they turn to that to give them joy and to lift the community.
“Ballet just doesn’t have enough exposure there and I want to help change that — that’s why I became an ambassador for Allianz. The resources aren’t there. If I can possibly do something to help young people onto an easier path than I had, I’d like to do that, to give something back.”
Currently in talks with the Royal Ballet Association to bring workshops over here, she’s keen to stress that young hopefuls don’t have to fit the stereotypical petite mould of the legendary Margot Fonteyn, pointing to the ground-breaking, leggy Darcey Bussell. As for natural talent, she believes hers is a gift, even if she’s not sure of the source.
“I don’t know about a divine gift but I’m definitely gifted — I have natural line and arched feet and body proportion which look good on stage. And I do have good inner and mental strength. As I said, a lot of it is down to mind over matter — funny, my parents aren’t like that at all. They listen to me going on about all this stuff and it’s all over their heads!”
She’s interrupted by a PR girl poking her head around the door to remind her of her schedule, but takes time to do our Favourites Q&A, and to recommend an anti-stress 10-minute app she swears by. Then with a charming smile, she’s off, back to the barre for her plies, arabesques and pirouettes.
Melissa Hamilton will appear in the magical Royal Ballet Live Encore Screening of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, starring principal ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson in the title role, on December 16 at the Odeon cinema, Victoria Square, Belfast. Tel: 087 1224 4007 or visit odeon.co.uk/cinemas/belfast