The Royal Ballet's Reece Clarke – Don Q and Me
The Royal Ballet's principal dancer Reece Clarke talks to Culture Whisper about his coming debut in the 'fun' role of Basilio in Carlos Acosta's Don Quixote.
If, like me, you like your stage heroes tall, dark and handsome, you’re in luck: the brand-new Basilio, the lead male role in The Royal Ballet’s boisterous production of Don Quixote, is Reece Clarke.
In his 10 years with the Royal Ballet he’s danced all the danseur noble roles. He looks the part.
Reece Clarke as Albrecht in Giselle © ROH 2021. Photo: Alice Pennefather
And as he showed in his debut as the duplicitous count Albrecht in Giselle, his dancing is sublime. This is how Culture Whisper reacted to his first Albrecht:
‘Tall, supremely elegant, the epitome of the danseur noble, and possessed of a strong technique, Royal Ballet first soloist Reece Clarke was mesmerising…His tour-de-force dancing as commanded by the Queen of the Wilis took your breath away, his long sequence of entrechats so sustained and perfect it earned its own enthusiastic applause.’
And to top it all he has become the preferred partner of the Royal’s Russian superstar ballerina, Natalia Osipova.
So, there was a lot to unpick when we met in an office at the back of the Royal Opera House. Clarke had just come from a Don Quixote rehearsal and was still buzzing, his face lit up by a contagious smile.
'It’s been one of the most enjoyable rehearsal processes I’ve had in a long time,' he said. 'I haven’t laughed so much in a rehearsal process as with Zenaida [Yanowsky], my coach, and Natalia! It’s been such a warm, happy process – I can’t wait to get out there and see what happens.’
The irrepressible, fun-loving Basilio, a penniless Spanish barber, is the very opposite of the danseur noble characters Clarke has been dancing; but for that reason he feels his debut in the lead role of a ballet that dancers often refer to as ‘Don Q’ comes at the right time in his career.
‘I feel like I’ve done lots of nice male leads in three-act ballets – the princes, Romeo, Des Grieux in Manon – those central very classical figures, but Don Q, still obviously in the classical repertoire, is in a different kind of style. It’s got a Spanish style: more out there, in-your-face, explosive…
Reece Clarke in rehearsal for Don Quixote. Photo: Andrej Uspenski
‘Basilio for me, he’s charming, he’s witty, all those things you see in Acts I and III; but I also like to look at Act II, which took me by surprise because it’s for me the most romantic moment in the ballet, especially the pas de deux with Kitri.
‘It’s a great role. I’ll be honest: it’s been challenging for me – the speed, and the physicality (it’s one of the most physically challenging male roles), but it’s been great.’
He may be debuting as the lead male character, but Reece Clarke is no stranger to Don Q:
'I’ve performed different roles in this production throughout different seasons. I did Espada [the ballet’s second male lead] last time, and when I was a student I did one of the innkeeper’s men sweeping the stage and cleaning the cups…’
From small beginnings… we both laugh.
‘Also, when I was at school, I performed a variation of Don Quixote for some competitions.’
And there is an interesting family connection, too.
‘When I hear the Don Q music it takes me back to my childhood. I used to fly to America to watch two of my oldest brothers perform Don Quixote with Arizona Ballet, and in the same evening one was Espada and one was Basilio. I have happy memories of leaving the theatre singing the music.
‘So, it’s almost like a full circle, to come back and do it my way; but unfortunately, they won’t be able to come and watch me.’
Basilio’s love interest is the village belle Kitri, danced by Natalia Osipova. She, of course, is a veteran Kitri, a role she first danced with the Bolshoi Ballet almost 20 years ago and with which she took London by storm – never had we seen such a force of nature, airbound, stage-devouring Kitri.
Theirs is now a steady partnership; but it started by accident five years ago, when Clarke, then a relatively junior dancer, was called in at the last minute to replace Vadim Muntagirov as Osipova’s partner in Cranko's passionate ballet Onegin.
Natalia Osipova as Tatiana and Reece Clarke as Onegin. © ROH, 2020. Photo: Tristram Kenton
‘To begin with, it was a bit of a shock. I’d admired her for her whole career, she’s an incredible artist and performer, she’s very intelligent and she commits 100% to each role, which I think is very admirable. But I’ll be honest: the first few rehearsals I had with her were slightly nerve-wracking. She’s this superstar and I was the newbie for her and I wanted to live up to her standards.’
He clearly passed the test – and then some! He’s now become Osipova’s ideal stage partner, as well as a good friend off stage. What does he think she likes about him?
'Natalia needs to feel free and she likes to be spontaneous sometimes on stage. This doesn’t faze me. I’m able to let her be as free as possible. She likes to do things her own way; I can adapt to that last minute and on the spot.
‘I’m able to read her very well, her preparations, her musicality, so I’d like to say she feels safe with me, especially for a role like Don Quixote: there’s lots of big one-hand lifts, so you need to have that trust.’
Off stage Reece Clarke is exploring a new world as a photo and fashion model – for obvious reasons – not something that should surprise us.
‘As a principal dancer our schedules go in waves, so there are moments when I’m very busy here in London, and there are times when there’s more of a down period, more free time. So I’m at the point in my life and my career when I’m saying “yes” to a lot of things, even if it’s out of my comfort zone.’
Unprompted, though, he stresses:
‘Dance is still my main passion, my main focus.’
Looking ahead, Reece Clarke, principal dancer, has a handful of performances in the Christmas blockbuster The Nutcracker, and early in 2024 something to look forward to for him and indeed for us: Des Grieux, partnering Osipova for the very first time in his favourite ballet, MacMillan's Manon.
As for Reece Clarke, model and man about town, who knows?
Reece Clarke and Natalia Osipova dance the leads in Don Quixote on Saturday 11 November at 1pm and Friday 17 November at 7.30pm