From Student To Star | James Owen Large | The Royal Ballet

From Student to Star is a Ballet News exclusive interview series featuring graduates from vocational ballet schools around the world, as they begin their professional careers.

James Owen Large. Photography : Amber Hunt

You’ve been studying at The Royal Ballet School. When did you join and why did you train there ? 

I started at The Royal Ballet School, Lower School, boarding at the age of 11. Just before applying there I had competed at the All England Dance festival competition in London. After winning second place in classical ballet against a multitude of girls in the finals, my parents and I realised that a ballet school could be an option for my future. Having watched the Billy Elliot movie as a child, I always saw The Royal Ballet School as a dream but never a possibility. I was so surprised to be offered a place and since then my ambition has become a reality thanks to the high level of training and facilities at both White Lodge [Ed note : the Lower School, in Richmond Park] and the Upper School in Covent Garden. 

Prior to joining RBS, where did you train, and how early did you start ballet ? 

I started ballet with my twin brother and older sister at the age of three at our local ballet school in Southborough. I used to compete with my brother and sister in our local dance competitions. In our first competition my brother and I, aged 5, played the roles of garden gnomes and my sister a frog. We came joint fourth out of five, but at the time we were thrilled and since then I’ve loved being on stage. 

Photo: Amber Hunt

What do you think are the important things to focus on during vocational training to achieve a career as a ballet dancer ? 

From my experience at the school, I have found it helpful and healthier to be in a positive mindset when it comes to negative feedback and failures.

Although it may not seem like it at the time, I feel that it is through making mistakes that we truly learn and build resilience as a dancer and human being. School is a healthy place to grow and to make mistakes and so we shouldn’t be afraid to fail as we are only going to learn more from our own experiences. In some cases it may take a few months to realise what lesson you have learned from making your mistakes, whatever they may be, but it’s only going to equip you with more tools to deal with challenging times in the future. 

Something I have had to keep reminding myself as a student, is to focus on my long-term/end goal. For me this has always been joining The Royal Ballet company and dancing some of my dream roles. This has helped me in difficult times during a lack of motivation or injury. When you are training six days a week, it can be easy to forget why you’re dancing and why you love it. But to picture yourself in the future gives you a visual point of what you want to work towards. 

Have you entered any competitions during your training and if so, which ones, and what would you say about your experiences? 

At The Royal Ballet School, we don’t compete in international competitions but before joining the school, I did take part in local, regional and national All England Dance competitions. I think at a young age it was a good opportunity for me to gain stage time and experience and learn how to deal with the pressures of performing in front of a live audience.

The competitions I have been involved with at the school have been choreographic awards. I have taken part in these each year and been able to nurture and see a development in my choreographic style and creativity throughout the years. I have found this very valuable as a dancer, as I feel it is just as necessary and exciting to be an artist in this art form. Whether you’re dancing an abstract piece or performing a dramatic ballet such as Romeo and Juliet, you’re always going to be telling a story or showing emotion through movement, and so I feel these competitions have encouraged further artistic qualities. 

Photo: Amber Hunt

At RBS, how does your training develop the skills you need as a male ballet dancer, for example with partnering? Any challenges? 

At school, the girls and boys had separate ballet classes and solos classes, tailored to give us the training that each need.

From the age of 16 at Upper School, a lot of the male training was focused on upper body strength outside of ballet class. We had multiple upper body strengthening sessions a week, which gave us the force power and strength that we needed in our part of the lessons.

I faced challenges with a shoulder injury at the beginning of my graduate year, which put a stop to some of my pas de deux rehearsals before the assessments.  However, I made it back in time and am stronger after the injury rehabilitation progress. I often think you need a low to highlight your areas which need improving. If nothing went wrong, it would be easier to become complacent with your training which wouldn’t result in much improvement. With my shoulder injury coming as a shock, I realised that my upper body strength needed to increase to cope with the constant load of regular rehearsals and pas de deux classes. Because I experienced such a low, I was even more determined to make things right and try harder.   

What would you like to say about your graduate year & auditioning for companies & do you have any advice for students ? 

The anticipation and pressure for our final year at the school was high with our final assessments and company auditions being in the first term. However, I really enjoyed the short preparation time as it gave me no excuse but to work hard and focus on achieving the pas de deux and solo that was required for the exam. I was offered my Aud Jebsen Young Dancers Programme contract with The Royal Ballet shortly after the assessments in December, and so I never even sent out my CV or audition videos to other companies, so didn’t experience open company auditions as such.

However, from my experience with the annual school assesments, which are auditions for the following year at the school, I think whether doing class exercises or performing a solo in the exam, it’s important to come across as a dancer and person a director would want to work with. In my case I felt it necessary to be polite, positive and responsive as dancer, particularly in solo rehearsals with Director, Kevin O’Hare before the assessments. 

You’ve accepted a contract with The Royal Ballet which we saw during BBC Four’s Men At The Barre documentary. Congratulations! What was the process for securing the contract & how did you find the filming? 

Thank you! The Royal Ballet apprentice contracts are offered after our final assessments at the school which take place in the first term. In the exam the panel of judges are teachers and our director from the school, Christopher Powney, as well as Kevin O’Hare, the director of The Royal Ballet, and Carlos Acosta, the director of Birmingham Royal Ballet.

This was our chance to gain exposure and to be seen as potential dancers for their companies. At the time of the filming for BBC4’s Men at the Barre documentary, we didn’t really know the scale of this documentary or what part we had to play in it. When I was offered my contract from Kevin O’Hare, the camera crew was in the office at the meeting as well, and caught my reaction afterwards. It definitely came as a shock, suddenly receiving the contract from The Royal Ballet and being filmed and interviewed by the BBC, but it was nice to relive the rush of emotions of being “on cloud nine” in December, especially in contrast to being in lockdown at home when the documentary was released. 

When do you start work & how is the Coronavirus pandemic affecting your plans/preparation ? 

We were due to start at the Royal Opera House in August, but that date has now been moved to September. I was slightly concerned with my preparation for joining the company, as I had been training in my dining room for three months. I hadn’t had access to a studio at all while I was at home during lockdown, which was not ideal before joining the company.

However, on a positive note, I have spent three weeks demonstrating ballet classes for The Royal Ballet School Online Summer School at White Lodge. I was so grateful to have been able to use a studio space and to dance with my friends, socially distanced, and to be taught a class with the teacher in the same room.

Having such a long time away from school and a studio has definitely taught me not to take anything for granted, particularly the facilities at The Royal Ballet School, and also the high level of training from the teachers. 

Photo: Amber Hunt

What do you know about the Company & how much have you worked with them as a student? 

I have been involved in quite a few productions with The Royal Ballet during my time at the school, including playing the role of Clara’s brother, Fritz, in The Nutcracker in 2013/2014, as well as a few standing roles in this past season.

At the beginning of the year some of my friends were playing the roles of footman and beggars in Manon. One night someone was ill and I had to go on with without knowing what I was meant to be doing. I had a quick rehearsal with my friends before the show and I mostly had them telling me where to walk during the ballet, which was an experience I’ll never forget! Later in the season I was a court gent in The Sleeping Beauty, a child in Coppelia and a trumpet player in Swan Lake.

I really value the chances I have had on stage with the company, and it has given me a taste of what I can expect in my first year as an apprentice. 

What are you looking forward to about company life and how do you anticipate it might differ from your student days? 

I’m mostly looking forward to being on stage and the buzzing atmosphere before the curtain goes up. I have such a love for theatre, and so to be even just a part of this is such an honour. 

Having been at a boarding school for the last eight years, I think I will enjoy the independence and responsibility that I’ll have. We have always been told at school, that once you’re in the company you won’t have teachers pushing and encouraging you in the same manner that they do in a training environment.

However, I feel that this time spent in lockdown has given me a taste of what it’s like to have to push myself without the exterior motivation of teachers and other students in the same room, and so because of this I feel I will be more acclimatised and prepared for this. 

What are you your best achievements as a student? 

I would say so far, one of my best achievements as a student was performing the lead pas de deux couple in Alistair Marriot’s Simple Symphony created for Matthew Ball, which we performed for our end of year shows last year at the Royal Opera House. As well as loving the choreography, I felt it gave me the opportunity to stand out as a romantic lead, and gave me the chance to dance my favourite, more natural lyrical style.

Another achievement I am quite proud of is being successful in a few choreographic competitions and emerging choreographer awards at school. I think as an artist it’s important to develop other artistic areas to become a well-rounded performer, actor and creator. My last choreography at the school, Missing Pieces, focused on my grandmother’s dementia. I really feel that the creative process helped me put dementia and the effects it had on our whole family into perspective and, perhaps begin to come to terms with it as well as treasure my grandmother and my memories all the more. It was obviously such a personal project for me at the time, and particularly since my dear grandmother died this April, I am so grateful I took the opportunity to dedicate something to her, and make something I am really proud of. 

Why ballet ?

I love theatre and I love the arts. I love the feeling of getting lost in a role and commanding the audience’s attention whilst on stage.  Some of my favourite moments have been when I have been watching a performance whether it be a ballet, musical or play, and just getting completely lost in the story and taken to another place. Live theatre has the power to transport you, and for me, ballet is my way of being involved in the industry and part of the magic. There are elements of ballet, like the perfectionistic technique and attention to detail needed, which I find very satisfying, but ultimately, I know I need to be part of the theatre in some way.

Before I started at White Lodge, I wanted to be a set designer for the stage, later an actor, followed by a dancer. I still intend to be all of those things at some point in my life, and ballet will and has given me the opportunity to fulfil my dreams. 

Do you have a dream role and/or dance partner and if so what/who are they? 

My dream role has got to be Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. I love the dramatic and romantic storyline to the ballet and how it’s equally a piece of theatre as well as a technical ballet. I remember saying many years ago, that my goal as a dancer was to “make people cry”, and I feel the heartache of this role does just that.

Some of my dream partners for the future are not already established prima ballerinas, but some of my best friends from school. I think it’s so important to have a connection with your partner especially in narrative ballet, and to see the progression from students to professional dancers with my friends would be so special and a real dream. 

Where would you like to be this time next year and how will you measure your progress over the year? 

In a years time, I would love to be dancing with the company, and hopefully settling in. With regards to tracking my progress, I think I will judge it on how comfortable I feel on stage and my well-being. In the past few years there have been times when I have let stage anxiety get the better of me, but I intend to become more relaxed with the increased stage time I can get with being in the company. We are all unsure about when we can start performing again “normally” in theatres, so I hope that in a years time we will have eased back into routines of regular performances. 

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