WITH HIS flame-red hair, Steven McRae is one of the Royal Ballet’s most recognisable principal dancers, and that’s not the only thing that makes him stand apart. While he admires the likes of Fred Astaire (McRae was also a tap dancer in his youth), his real inspiration comes from the world of motor sport.
He grew up in Sydney, where his father was an automotive engineer and drag racer, and he recalls childhood days spent driving to tracks in the family’s Ford Falcon. “People sometimes watch drag racing on a screen and they just don’t get it,” says McRae, 32. “They think, ‘It’s all over in a flash, what’s the point?’ But when you go to the track, you smell the nitromethane, you feel the earth vibrate, you feel the heat from the cars as they fly past, I think that’s a sensation that, once people have experienced it, they open their eyes a bit more. It’s the same with the world of dance.”
It was watching the love that his father, Phillip, poured into the sport that gave McRae the drive to pursue his own passion. He was seven when he went to his elder sister’s dance school and was instantly hooked. “I just loved the way it felt. I was a really shy kid so I don’t think my parents thought I would last five minutes but, the following year, I did my first solo.”
The western suburbs of Sydney “were definitely not a place where ballet was a typical profession”, but McRae brushed aside any jibes. “I think my passion for it, and the determination about what I wanted to achieve, was kind of a bulldozer going through any pathetic little comments.”
He left Australia for the Royal Ballet School aged 18, having won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne dance competition. “It provided me with a scholarship, otherwise there was no way my parents could have afforded the fees.”
My father and I often talk about the parallels between dancing and drag racing.
Back in Australia, he had spent a year learning to drive in a Nissan Pulsar but had not yet taken his test. “In London I didn’t need a car. The focus was solely on dancing and I spent years relying on cabs and the Tube.”
He has remained at the Royal Ballet throughout his career, originating roles such as the Mad Hatter in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011, and the Creature in Liam Scarlett’s ballet of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2016. This autumn he will star in a revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.
He married fellow dancer Elizabeth Harrod in 2011 and they have two children: Audrey, 3, and Frederick, 18 months. It was the imminent arrival of his first child that prompted McRae to take his driving test. “I cut it a bit fine,” he laughs. “I had to do an intensive course and had no option but to pass first time.” He did. Then he bought a Volvo XC60: “We wanted something safe, but we went for a second-hand model; my father always told me never to buy new.” More recently, he upgraded to a second-hand XC90.
In 2008 McRae tore his Achilles tendon and for a while it looked as if he might not dance again. But, inspired by his drag-racing heroes, he fought back to fitness. “My father and I often talk about the parallels between dancing and drag racing. There are so many. The second the curtain is going to go up, for example, the rush of adrenaline that I get and all the expectation sitting on your shoulders, it’s the same as what my father was experiencing when he was waiting for the lights to go down the ‘Christmas tree’ before he set off down the track.”
Steven McRae will star in Mayerling at the Royal Opera House in October. Tickets are on sale now: roh.org.uk
Steven McRae: my life in cars
- 1993 Ford Falcon
- 2002 Nissan Pulsar
- 2014 Volvo XC60
- 2017 Volvo XC90
- My dream car “An original Ford Mustang because it’s so connected to the roots of drag racing”