Finding a time to link up with Calvin Royal III, the newest principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, isnt easy. It’s not because he’s a flake: In the run up to the ABT summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which began on Monday and runs through mid-July, Royal was in rehearsal for almost 12 hours a day, where he was working on five performances simultaneously: gearing up to dance as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (which he performed as the ABT’s first Black Romeo in 2020, alongside Misty Copeland) and the anchor in three other ballets. But Royal was able to spend half of his hourlong lunch break—usually spent running off to Chipotle to refuel—catching up with GQ about the physical work and nutrition that go into being a ballet dancer in his prime.
Royal started ballet at 14—late for the discipline—but he clearly has a body that was made to dance. (He was selected for the ABT’s scholarship program to train with the company at 17, less than three years after his first ballet class.) It’s no secret that high-level ballet is seriously physically demanding, but for Royal the hardest part—and the The most satisfying challenge—is the expectation that ballet dancers show none of the effort that carrying and twirling their partner requires: “I’d like to see other athletes smile like we have to,” he laughed.
GQ: What’s the average day in the life of a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater?
Calvin Royal III: Right now we’re gearing up for our summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. The lead up for that is usually the most intense part of the year. On any given day we start our day with a warmup class that’s a mixture of barre exercises and center exercises to line the body up for the day ahead, then from noon until 7 pm every hour we’re working on different productions.
Today, for example, at noon I started working on Swan Lake with my partner Christine Shevchenko—we’re making our debuts together. Then from 1:00 to 2:00 we were working on a completely different production with a different cast in a different studio. Every hour on the hour you’re putting on different hats. In total I’m in five different productions this season in just five weeks.
How do you prepare yourself to switch roles like that all day?
We usually have just five minutes between each rehearsal, to not only change mindset but also change out of our sweaty clothes so that your partner doesn’t get upset that you’re all sweaty and smelly. So what I try to do between each rehearsal is leave the last character in those clothes, and mentally prepare. Like, in this next rehearsal we’re working on scene 2 in Romeo and Juliet, so before going in I imagine: What’s happening in scene 2? What’s my motivation? Where am I emotionally and mentally stepping into the scene? I tap out of whatever I was doing and tap in to the next piece.
What kinds of things are you eating to fuel this? People tend to think of ballet dancers as incredibly ascetic—is that true?
Oh, not really. I start my day at eight with oats—hot in the winter and overnight cold oats in the summer—with chia, hemp, and flax seeds. Some fruit and nuts too. A multivitamin, zinc, vitamin D. I’m not a coffee person so I have some decaf chai or herbal tea. I just am focused on fueling my body enough to get to the studio and still feel like I have a lot of energy. Sometimes lunch isn’t until 4 or 5 so I make sure to have a protein shake somewhere.