Max Westall, dancer
*The* iconic modern male dancing role is the Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - so what does it take to make it? Max Westwell reveals all.
Dancer and Actor Max Westwell is currently the Principal in Matthew Bourne’s iconic Swan Lake, playing the Swan. It comes to the Bristol Hippodrome Tues 12 – Sat 16 March 2019.
HOW HE DOES IT
9am I get up at 9am for breakfast – usually eggs of some description, maybe avocado, and a coffee with cream to get me started. I’m not big on carbs, I do better on protein and fats. We do so much physical activity that I churn through my fat stores! I have a shower, and then do a bit of meditation for 10 minutes. I started around four years to help with my stress levels. It sets me up for the day, puts me in a calm mindset.
10am I head off to class. If we’re touring we’re never sure if we’ll be practising in a studio or on the stage, but dancers tend to prefer the stage – you get to acclimatise, familiarise yourself with the space as they can have a very different feel, even in terms of what you see looking out in terms of the auditorium. It can be very disorienting if you haven’t practised on that stage – like there are too many components to juggle on the night.
I start with warm up exercises personalised for me – rolling it out for 20-30 mins, depending on how stiff I am, getting rid of the tension in my body, working out how I’m feeling. Dancing the Swan is a massive undertaking and your body starts to hurt a bit when you’re past 30! I’m 32 now, and most principals will go on to around 35 so I’ve a few years left. Compression in my back is my main problem after years of lifting so I warm my back up massively.
10.30am Warm up over, the company – around 35 of us – will do a class together for an hour or so, practising moves, warming up. Everyone on this ballet wants to be here because it’s such a great piece, so we are very comfy together. Matthew (Bourne) made a point of getting everyone together to have a drink and meet each other as friends when we started too so we all help each other. I came from 12 years at English National Ballet which I enjoyed too – I liked Tamara Roja and had a great time though you’ll always find some dancers who will say otherwise wherever you are!
Now we’re performance ready we don’t need to kill ourselves in class, but before the shows we’d do a class in the morning and then rehearse from 12.-30 to 7.30pm, 6 days a week for 5 weeks. It’s a killer, particularly for the Swan. But you know, everyone has to move as a ‘flock’! It’s an iconic ballet we’re referencing so it has to be right. Matthew was in the studio every day with us, giving feedback, adding stuff, taking out bits he didn’t like. This version is a revamp, and something we’ve made our own.
12 midday Class is over so those not involved in the matinee might have some time off, or maybe there’ll be a working notice rehearsal, going through notes from the night before. There are only two Swans so we don’t get any time off between class and matinee – we have to cover each other in case of injury.
2pm After a quick bite to eat, my mindset starts to change. The ritual of the make up and outfit; the half an hour call; the warming up; it’s all part of getting into the zone. I’ll go through the notes from the show before, telling me the things to work on. I’ll think about the character. Physically the adrenalin kicks in and I’m awake and ready to go.
2.30pm My first dance entrance is Act 2 – before that I’m kind of a statue – and I do a surprise leap from the back of the stage to the front. The music is taken from my lead. I over in silence with the other swans, and can do this as much as I like and settle myself before I take the leap. It feels amazing, a fantastic sensation. As we come off the stage between scenes, it’s frantic – we’re diving in and out of the shower, having make up reapplied, costumes changed, listening to the tannoys telling us when to get out on stage again. It’s high octane stuff.
All dancers will tell you that their bodies can really hurt during a performance, but it’s amazing what you can do with an audience in front of you! And it’s such an enjoyable experience that you want to do it more than anything. Playing the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has been my biggest achievement – it’s the modern iconic role though I also like classical ballet and have done my fair share of classical princes. I’ve been in musicals before this too. I like acting so I might push that more in the future. I went to Tring Park School of the Performing Arts, where it was a really rounded training and very welcoming, positive place, and I think that’s stood me in good stead.
5pm After I come off stage I’m on a massive high and starving – we don’t eat much before performances as they can repeat! During a performance I’ve had water and electrolytes, but afterwards I’m a human dustbin with protein shakes, green powders, and whole foods – the problem is getting enough into my body. Definitely no junk like MacDonald’s, as you get fitter and fitter you naturally lose the taste for crap food, though on after Saturday night’s performance we may go out for a drink – though you have to treat yourself like an athlete rather than a rock star in this business.
Then it’s the evening performance and I’m either rested or prepping, depending on whether I danced the matinee.
10.10pm The evening show ends, and I’ll be at the apartment I’m renting by 10.30pm. I prefer to stay in apartments rather than hotels – there’s more control and I’m able to cook for myself. I have problems sleeping as performing leaves me very awake, so I’ll have a bath, try to relax my muscles and my mind and drift off. My long-time girlfriend is a dancer too, based in Glasgow, so on weekends I’ll often drive to see her before the week starts all over again – it’s a 14-month tour, and everything I hoped it would be.