Leotards, ballet bars, and the familiar mantra of five, six, seven, eight - is the world inhabited by the enigmatic Eric Underwood. Growing up in a poor Maryland suburb, Eric was a real life Billy Elliott in the international dance community, joining the London Royal Ballet in 2006 and becoming a lead soloist just a few short years later.
When he is not performing front at centre at the Royal Ballet, Eric Underwood is seen at the front row of London Fashion Week. Recently collaborating with the great Vivienne Westwood on a fashion film for climate change, Eric Underwood is a multi-hyphenate with no creative boundaries. We shadow Eric during one of his rehearsals in the storied halls of the Royal Ballet, the fluidity of his movement and the ease in which the music flows through every fibre of his body is mesmerising. It is easy to see why he has been embraced by both the dance and fashion worlds. A rare creative - and unapologetically individual, Eric Underwood is truly one of London’s brightest stars.
You are often compared to Billy Elliott, making your way from the projects onto the stage of the Royal Ballet. Tell us about how you fell in love with dance?
We lived in the projects but I came from a very loving home, and my mom was very encouraging of me. Coming from that, having dance in my life was a ticket for me to get out of a difficult situation. I saw my career as a dancer as a way to change the things that were around me. I was from Washington, and I had auditioned at a performing arts school. Going to that audition, I kept thinking that I can’t disappoint my mom. I knew I had to change my circumstances, and being accepted to the dance program was an opportunity for me to have something else.
What was it like starting out as a young dancer in New York School of American Ballet?
I was there with other likeminded children — so it was all very exciting. However, it was also a massive culture shock for me. Just overhearing a girl say that the elevator in her house was broken, was just something that I couldn’t really relate to. The whole experience was great as it taught me that it’s not about what you have, it’s about what you create for yourself. I didn’t have lots of money to buy new dance clothes and gear, but I found out that I could be a good dancer by working harder than everybody else.
You joined London’s Royal Ballet in 2006, and became a soloist in 2008 - performing lead roles in several high-profile productions like Swan Lake, Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, and Romeo and Juliet. What does it feel like being at the top of your dance career?
I wouldn’t say that - I don’t think my career is limited to just dance, I think I have so much more to offer! I have the opportunity to dance and do all these amazing things and go to amazing places,and I am really grateful. At the same time, I also don’t know what opportunity would come next for me - I don’t want to be just a dancer. I would love to do television or give writing a shot.
Being one of only You are a strong advocate for diversity in the dance industry. In what ways does your career challenge the status quo?
I think that things are slowly improving, but there is still a long way to go. People see me and the cogs start working in their brand and I guess it helps them view things differently. I never thought that my identity would evolve into being the black ballet dancer — this has been a new development and was not originally something that I had set out to achieve. People often say, why is ballet not diverse enough? But ballet doesn’t really reflect the times that we are living in — when I ride the tube and do mundane things like that nobody recognises me, I’m just another face in the crowd.
Fashion has always been a recurring interest of yours, being a constant presence in front row as well as having a David Bailey shoot under your belt. Would you ever consider shifting careers?
Absolutely! Working with David Bailey was amazing. I want to do things that are creative, so it’s not just limited to being a dancer. I have always loved fashion; and as long as I have an outlet to be creative, I would be happy to shift careers and explore that side of me.
You’ve been living in London for quite some time now, would you consider London your home?
London is definitely my home. When I go to New York, I feel like I am visiting, but going back to London always feels like home. The creative energy, culture, and individuality of London is really special. It is a place that is booming with unique individuals, and a place that celebrates their creativity - I think that is wonderful.
Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
The idea of being a perfectionist, means that you know every answer; and I think that frame of mind leaves no room for growth. I’m constantly changing my perception of what perfection is, so no - I don’t think I’m a perfectionist.
What was it like choreographing a climate change film with the legendary Vivienne Westwood? Tell us about this experience?
Working with Vivienne Westwood was such a fantastic experience, and the cause we were working towards was absolutely amazing. Climate change is something we really need to work on; everybody should do their part and get our whole world together.
Choreography is really different to performance. Working on the Vivienne Westwood film with models and dancers was something that fascinated me endlessly. I recently did a film for NOWNESS, and choreographed a dance film for Hackett. With ballet, there is a really regimented way of doing things, but there are people who go outside the box and do things that are contemporary. With fashion, you have other elements to consider; it’s not necessarily about the performer, it is more about the clothing. It is very exciting for me to look at dance and movement in another way — and also to transfer those skills to someone else as I’m often doing the movements myself. Taking a good fashion picture, is not usually a good position for ballet.
What is next for Eric Underwood? Any exciting new projects or collaborations in 2017?
I’m in talks about hopefully doing some television projects but nothing official yet.
In what ways do you think young creatives like yourself are changing the creative scene in London?
I think London is a place that is a hub for creativity and individuality. Rather than changing the scene, I’m just grateful to be on the scene and able to put my ideas forward. I don’t think you can change something that is already incredibly creative
Portraits by Chris Baker
Worsd by Hannah Tan
View our Gallery of Eric Underwood