Posted on August 20, 2013
Graham Watts speaks to Steven McRae about his latest project – on the page, not the stage
“Like most kids, I was surrounded by cartoons and comics and I loved things like Toy Story, The Flintstones and TheJetsons,” says The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae when we meet to discuss his latest project. “And then Sailor Moon, a Japanese animation, came to Australia. I was blown away by the vibrancy of how manga captures action and movement in a unique artistic way. Manga made the two-dimensional jump out for me. ”
McRae now visits Japan regularly. “The Royal Ballet tours every few years, but I also go regularly as an individual to perform with different companies and to teach,” he says. These visits have enhanced McRae’s passion for manga. “I mentioned in a few interviews that I like the manga style,” he says. “I even went as far as saying that perhaps one day I would like to collaborate with someone on a manga project.” This wish was to take a step towards reality when McRae performed in a Tokyo gala in 2012, where, he recalls, “I did a bit of everything: some classical, some tap, the works, really”.
After the show, Takafumi Adachi, an acclaimed manga artist, and his wife came backstage to meet Steven. The artist’s wife is a fan who sees McRae each time he performs in Japan and she had told her husband about the dancer’s interest in manga. “Takafumi was really excited to talk to me and I jumped in straightaway and suggested that we produce a manga together.” The ballet dancer and manga artist exchanged email addresses and batted some ideas to and fro across the globe before their concept for a new superhero with balletic powers finally emerged.
“Takafumi is a very successful artist,” explains McRae, “one of the best. He created the Metal Fight Beyblade manga, which is hugely popular, not just in Japan but around the world. He has a big name in manga.” The combination of his reputation and McRae’s fame captured a publisher’s interest very quickly. The initiative has now been merged with the launch of a new dance magazine aimed specifically at boys.
While Adachi draws the manga cartoons and a partner works alongside him to develop the story (although the early episodes use the pre-existing narratives of the classical ballets on which they are based), McRae determined an over-arching set of strategic principles. “I want the underlying message behind any of the stories to be inspirational,” he tells me. “I came from not a very privileged area. The suburb that I grew up in was full of kids that knew if you wanted to better yourself you had to work your butt off. You didn’t have to be the best at everything, but you had to put in the work. So you would be in class and if a teacher said, ‘right, first two come forward’ there would be ten or 20 of us fighting to go first. This desire to prove yourself appears to be dwindling now. I don’t feel that the same hunger is there, anymore. Instead, I see energy being spent on negative issues. Young people are more inclined to say ‘I can’t do that’ rather than work hard to prove they can. In my manga, I wanted the message to be that you don’t need to be the best, but you can succeed and you have to work your butt off in the effort to try. Each episode will have that subliminal theme.”
The series is called Ballet Hero Fantasy. It will have an initial run of five episodes (each around 45 pages long). The first concerns The Nutcracker and was published in August and the next, featuring Swan Lake, follows in November. “Plans for a further three episodes in 2014 are taking shape and eventually there is scope to create new stories,” says McRae. These episodes will then be unified into a self-contained comic book, which McRae hopes will be produced in multiple languages, including an English version that will be available in the UK. Meanwhile, a Facebook page is being developed and the first story (in Japanese) can be purchased online. “The plan is to progress the project as far as it can go,” he says, adding, “The hope is to produce animated films in due course.”
I ask Steven if he is happy with his manga likeness. “I love what Takafumi has done,” he replies. “Obviously, it is not an exact replication of me because that wouldn’t be manga. My only request was that I had a quiff,” he says with a smile, adding “My hair is a recognisable feature, so it was essential for me to have that.”
“I am myself in each episode,” he continues, “and this young student, Dan, is watching me dance in the studio when he and I are magically transported through the mirror into the story of whatever ballet it is I’m rehearsing. Dan then sees me using my dance powers to combat evil. So, in The Nutcracker, for example, we are confronted by the Mouse King and his entourage of rats and I use dance to defeat them. Instead of picking up a gun and shooting them, I do something like three barrel jumps to knock them over! And I have to teach Dan all the different steps in order for him to be able to protect himself, which is an essential part of the journey. I teach him a step and he falls over and says, ‘I’ll never be able to do it’. I pick him up and say ‘of course you can’ and eventually he gets it. The message is encouraging.”
As we end our conversation, it occurs to me that the moral of Ballet Hero Fantasy is essentially Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes series updated to the modern age. “I have been lucky,” says McRae. “I never had much financial backing but I have always had mentors who stressed that if I worked hard, anything is possible, which is the fundamental message I want to convey in our stories. Not every child has a support system in place and so if I can inspire a couple of kids to persevere and make it, then it will all have been worthwhile.”
This is an extended version of an interview in the September issue of Dancing Times
Illustration © Takafumi Adachi/Shinshokan Dancin’