Welcoming James Butcher to The Royal Ballet School’s Artistic staff
This week, we welcomed four new ballet teachers to The Royal Ballet School’s Artistic faculty for the start of the 2023/24 academic year.
James Butcher, a former student of The Royal Ballet School, has joined our Artistic staff as a ballet teacher, teaching Years 8 and 11 boys at White Lodge. James has enjoyed a diverse and varied career, dancing with The Royal Ballet before starring in West End shows including Billy Elliot, An American in Paris and The Phantom of the Opera. Following a successful performing career, James shifted his focus to supporting the next generation of dancers, most recently working as a third-year ballet tutor at Central School of Ballet.
We were thrilled to sit down with James to discuss his new role at The Royal Ballet School and where his career has taken him since leaving the Upper School.
Can you tell me what you were doing before joining the School?
I was the third-year teacher at Central School of Ballet. Like the Upper School, they do a degree programme and study for a BA Honours. I was teaching the whole year group, which finished with a UK tour from May onwards. My job title was half ballet teacher, half rehearsal director, which is going to be great because I’ve just found out that four weeks into my job here, The Nutcracker starts!
How did you first start out as a dancer? What do you remember about your early experiences with dance training?
I started out as a tap dancer. I used to love the rhythm and musicality of tap dancing and how anything could make a sound and rhythm. I remember my teacher persuading me to take up ballet because I had a natural movement quality and musicality from tap dancing.
It turned out that because I’ve done so much tap, and I used to compete in tap as well, my feet were so loose, so it made my foot and leg line really pleasing. Obviously, I enjoyed that everyone loved that I had good feet, so it made me work hard in ballet!
My first experience in ballet was recreational ballet. The emphasis was fun, and there were no assessments; that came later when I did my exams. I had a really positive experience, and I remember it being enjoyable. Then, I went through the grades and worked my way into vocational training. I still keep tap dance on the side. I teach it now, and I sometimes go to adult dance classes just for my own enjoyment as well.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
As a dancer, I was extremely lucky to have quite a broad career. The Royal Ballet was a huge highlight for me. I was in the original cast of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Christopher Wheeldon and Jackie Barrett. During my West End career, Christopher Wheeldon choreographed a Broadway show called An American in Paris, where I was lucky enough to be cast in the original West End production, which was again Christopher Wheeldon and Jackie Barrett as a team. It was nice to work with them at the Royal Opera House, in a ballet, and again in the West End world.
The other thing that stands out is when I was in Billy Elliot. Tom Hazelby, a recent graduate of the School, was my younger Billy, and I was his older Billy. What used to always amaze me was how talented they were at that age; they would be able to dance circles around me, and I always would sit back and appreciate their talent.
What’s the best advice you were given when you were training?
The best advice would be to be versatile and have the ability to be adaptable to any sort of situation. I’ve worked a lot in musical theatre, and after I was a dancer with The Royal Ballet, I went into the West End and musicals. With that came extra skills that I didn’t need at The Royal Ballet, like singing and a different type of acting.
Being as versatile as possible, whether that’s within the ballet genre through different styles or whether that means different genres of dancing. Don’t lose what you may be interested in because everything helps. You might not be able to link it directly to classical ballet immediately, but any skill-based or art-based hobbies will help your understanding of the arts in general. I think it’s really important to stay true to those things that you did when you were younger.
Outside of your career, what are you particularly proud of?
Going back into education as an adult learner. I am really interested in education and continuing my understanding of the world around me. I became a personal trainer; that was my first experience as an adult learner. I became a fellow of the ISTD, which required a lot of learning, studying, and exams, and I got a Master’s degree. To come through that and say that I got my Masters, I hope that pushes through onto my students that just because you’ve gone to a ballet school doesn’t mean you can’t become an engineer if that is what you want to do. What The Royal Ballet School will teach you is grit, determination and autonomous learning.
What are you most excited about in your new role at the School?
I think I’d be silly not to be excited about the end-of-year Summer Performances at Opera Holland Park and the Royal Opera House. I’m also excited about The Nutcracker because I have just heard about it. I think just the small wins as well. It’s easy to be excited about the big benchmarks and events coming up through the year, but if I can help a student understand something, maybe I’ve said it slightly differently than someone else has in the past, and it’s clicked for them. There are teacher moments where you’ve taken a student from a vague understanding to really nailing something, and they’re really confident in what they’re doing in the studio. I hope I will have a few of those small wins to celebrate with the students.
What advice would you give to young dancers starting their dance journey?
To trust the process. If you want excellence in your own classical ability, then you have to trust the pace and steadiness of your training. You can’t run before you can walk, so trust yourself and the process, as not everything happens overnight.