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'I wonder how I've lasted 22 years but I still come in every day and want to be better'

He may have been gracing the stage with the Royal Ballet for more than two decades but Edward Watson tells Lyndsey Windship he's no intention of retiring

"I'm not a natural performer really," says Edward Watson, despite being the highest-ranking British male ballet dancer. "I don't really get off on the idea of being the lead in the show." It's a strange career path he's chosen then? "I know, it's really weird. The thought of it makes me terrified. Sometimes I don't even know how I get from the wings to the stage. I can wind myself up so much: I'm going to be rubbish, I'm going to go wrong, I'm going to forget what comes next. And then you're on, you're doing it and you're, 'Oh, OK, I've done this for long enough to know what I'm doing'."

Watson has indeed been doing it a long time — 22 years at the Royal Ballet and 37 years since he first went to ballet class aged three with his twin sister in Kent.

He defines, in a way, the modern identity of the Royal Ballet company, excelling in the psychological storytelling of 20th-century choreographer Kenneth MacMillan and the ultra-modern mechanics of Wayne McGregor.

Watson is the opposite of the Carlos Acosta-style, high-leaping, save-the-day hero. He doesn’t play the prince, unless it’s a mad or suicidal one.

He prefers to disappear into the world of the work rather than come to the front of the stage and do a million pirouettes to impress us. And his elastically mobile body has the ability to twist and torque in ways others can’t, with a talent for giving exterior shape to inner angst.

Watson himself, however, doesn’t seem a tortured soul, despite his tendency to pre-show nerves. Sitting in an empty office after a long day’s rehearsals at Covent Garden he’s entirely uncomplicated. I have to bring up the last time he was in the papers, when he called out a critic for dissing his ginger hair, but he remains unprovoked.

“I never had any thoughts on it,” he says. “They tried to make a boring interview I gave less boring and it ended up being a drama. There’s no drama.”

He looks way younger than 40 (note to self, must ask about his skincare regime) but he admits the milestone birthday seemed a huge deal in the run-up to it happening, 40 being more like 70 in dancer years. Once it passed, however, “It was like, okay, more of the same then,” he says. “I think I’ve always struggled, and I’ve always found everything quite hard, so this is no different. Sometimes you do look around the studio and think, ‘God, I’m twice your age’, but I feel good. I feel better than I did at 30, that’s for sure.”

Just because Watson doesn’t dance the Nutcrackers and Sleeping Beauties that form the Royal’s Christmas rep, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.

He’s currently deep in rehearsal for a new production of Philip Glass’s dance opera Les Enfants Terribles at the Barbican later this month. It’s the story of a dysfunctional sibling relationship, based on the novel by Jean Cocteau, and has a cast of ballet dancers, contemporary dancers and opera singers, sometimes all playing the same part.

“We’re finding our way at the moment,” he says. “Because there are lots of people playing the same person, people have different ideas about who that person is.” Is he duking it out in the rehearsal room? “Hopefully it won’t look like a bunfight,” he laughs.

He’s also preparing for the return of Wayne McGregor’s award-winning Woolf Works, inspired by the modernist author Virginia Woolf and her novels.

Watson plays the shellshocked Septimus Smith in McGregor’s version of Mrs Dalloway.

“It was really interesting to physicalise the descriptions Woolf wrote. To feel those things through being one of the characters. I’d forgotten how much I loved that piece, actually. It’s a lot to make three acts in a short space of time, you just get it done. Coming back to it a second time is always better.”

Watson has been somewhat of a muse to McGregor, first working with him 16 years ago and appearing in all his major ballets since. His ultra-expressive and flexible body is perfect for the inventions and contortions of McGregor’s choreography.

“There are times when I’ve thought that if there weren’t any of Wayne’s ballets in the rep I wouldn’t have had anything to do this year,” says Watson. “So I’m hugely grateful for him basically giving me a career!”

From the first time Watson saw McGregor’s work, “I wanted to be on his wavelength,” he says. “I didn’t really understand it but I was fascinated and wanted more of it.” What he’s learnt from dancing for McGregor is that “there’s no comfort zone. There’s no such thing as ‘that’s as much as I can do’, or ‘that’s as dynamic as I can be’. There’s always something else to be discovered within myself.”

Watson has a habit of saying yes when interesting projects come up, whether that’s rolling around in litres of treacle in Arthur Pita’s The Metamorphosis (“It was disgusting  but it washes off surprisingly quickly”), or partnering American ballerina Wendy Whelan in Other Stories, a show they’ve performed in London and New York.

Someone on Twitter recently suggested Watson should star in a David Bowie ballet (it’s the ginger hair thing again) and he certainly has the chameleonic abilities, but he is bemused rather than enthused by that idea.

Still, there are lots of potential projects in the works for 2017 and certainly no plans to retire — actually no plans full stop, not even for what he’s going to have for dinner tonight. “I’ve never made a plan in my life,” he says.

He’s happy at the Royal, a company he thinks is “on it” at the moment, and he likes it for welcoming a mix of dancers who don’t all look the same. The Royal buys in the best talent from around the world, unlike, say, the Paris Opera Ballet, which prefers identikit dancers from its own school.

Last week, comments from the former director Benjamin Millepied surfaced accusing the Paris Opera of racism when a black dancer in its corps de ballet was called “a distraction”.

“That’s why I love London so much, even with the whole Brexit thing,” says Watson. “It’s accepting, it’s inclusive. I find it much more interesting that not everybody’s body is the same in this company, that you can see five different casts and they’re all going to look completely different.”

What wisdom has he acquired as a figurehead of the company? “I’ve got better at not giving up when things go wrong,” he says. “I wasted so many shows when I was young, writing them off. But now I know I can bring it back in the third act. Cry over someone’s body and bring it back — that’s often where I find myself.”

After 22 years is he institutionalised?

“I must be,” he laughs. “But it doesn’t feel like that. I’ve had my eyes open the whole time. If you’re going to be institutionalised I’m glad it happened here. I think: ‘My god, 22 years, how did I last that long?’ But I still come in every day and want to be better.”

Les Enfants Terribles is at the Barbican Theatre, January 27-29

Woolf Works is at the Royal Opera House, January 21-Feb 14

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