As Birmingham Royal Ballet brings Coppélia to Edinburgh, Kelly Apter meets two of its Scottish stars, Rory and Iain Mackay
It was the opening credits of Fame that did it. Watching TV as a young boy growing up in the Campsie Glen, Rory Mackay looked at the wide split jumps that brought the credits to a climax and said, “I wanna do that”.
Although sending their son to the New York City High School of Performing Arts wasn’t an option for the Mackays, a nearby dance class was. But as Rory’s younger brother Iain explains, the dream nearly ended as quickly as it began.
“Rory started going to ballet lessons at a church hall in Bearsden, and he said he liked it but didn’t want to go back because he was the only boy,” says Iain. “So the ballet teacher said, ‘Well Iain’s old enough – he could come along, too.’”
“So you’re blaming me?” chimes Rory in response.
“Absolutely, it’s all your fault,” retorts Iain.
This trip down memory lane is taking place in a quiet backroom at Birmingham Royal Ballet, where both brothers have been dancing for over a decade. What started as one small boy’s desire to do the splits has led to two men having long, fruitful careers with one of Britain’s premier ballet companies. Clearly blame is the last thing on anybody’s mind.
Having chummed his older brother along to that first class, Iain too got the bug. “Pretty much everything Rory did, I copied three years later,” says Iain. “It was a natural progression. I remember worrying about getting into things and the teachers would say ‘Rory’s brother? Come on in’.”
With parents and grandparents giving up time, money and no small amount of petrol, the Mackay boys moved from local ballet school to the Scottish Ballet Junior Associates programme. From there it was on to the Dance School of Scotland at Knightswood Secondary in Glasgow, along with summer and Easter residentials with the Royal Ballet.
“I also went to Birmingham Royal Ballet Senior Associates,” says Rory. “So my mum would drive me down from Glasgow to Birmingham every second Sunday. I’d do a two-hour class, then she’d drive me back up the road.”
The family support paid off, and after completing their training with two years at the Royal Ballet Upper School in London, both men became professional dancers.
And for the first time, their paths went in different directions. After graduating, Rory joined English National Ballet, while Iain was approached by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director, David Bintley – much to his surprise.
“I was still a student at the Royal Ballet School, and I got a phone call from David offering me a job,” recalls Iain. “I hadn’t auditioned but he had seen me dance. And my initial thought was surely I should be going to English National Ballet like my brother? This wasn’t the plan.”
Plan or not, Iain joined Birmingham Royal Ballet after graduation, calling it “the best thing that ever happened to my career”.
At which point in our conversation he throws a friendly dig at Rory: “And then who was doing the following?” he says, referring to the fact that three years later, Rory left London to join him.
“I had been with English National Ballet for six years when the artistic director changed,” explains Rory. “I was 24 and I thought if I’m going to make a change, I should do it now. I spent most weekends driving up from London to Birmingham to play golf with Iain anyway, and then a job opened up at Birmingham Royal Ballet.”
As they chat amiably over lunch, taking a break between class and rehearsals, it becomes apparent why the brothers have led such a copycat lifestyle: they genuinely like each other’s company.
“Growing up, we did everything together,” says Iain. “Playing golf or football, climbing trees. And even though we were three years apart, the area we grew up in was very rural so we had the same group of friends and hung about together.
“Rory was just the best big brother and really helpful. In the younger years I never felt like he didn’t want me around because I was his wee brother, and once we were older, he was so supportive. Anything that he did wrong – like missing classes or not working hard enough – he’d tell me ‘you can’t do that’, because he didn’t want me to get in trouble.”
Then, when it was Iain’s turn to look out for Rory, he was quick to advise him to embrace all that Birmingham Royal Ballet had to offer.
“This company is amazing,” says Iain. “I was doing things here within a week that I would probably have had to wait two years to do at the Royal Ballet. David Bintley gives you opportunities to see how you get on – and, if you do well, you get more. The work for men here is great, so I said ‘Rory, come on, get up here.’”
With both men dancing in the same productions, it would be easy for sibling rivalry to kick in. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
“We have never been competitive in our roles,” says Iain, “because we’ve never played the same kind of parts. We’re not similar in our dancing – and maybe that’s a good thing.”
As a principal with the company, Iain has regularly played the romantic lead – while natural comedian Rory is more likely to be seen donning a crazy wig and beard in a character role.
“I don’t see dance as a competitive thing,” says Rory. “I see it as an artistic thing, so you try to be the best you can be at it, but it’s more about having your own artistic interpretation. Everybody who dances that role does it differently, so there’s no rivalry in that sense.”
Although he can’t help adding: “but if you give me a football or a golf club, I know I’m going to beat you.” This, of course, is instantly disputed by Iain.
Rory’s love and aptitude for character parts will be fully demonstrated in Edinburgh this month, when the company presents its opulent production of Coppélia.
The tale of eccentric toymaker Dr Coppélius (Rory) who tries to bring a mechanical doll to life – leading to some comic capers with a young couple – the production is as entertaining to dance as it is to watch.
“It’s a lot of fun to play,” says Rory. “Out of all the character roles I’ve been given, it’s one that has a bit more to it. Act Two is hard work, because the costume is heavy, and you’re running around like a mad man, but there’s also a lot of enjoyment.”
Although he won’t be playing the role in Edinburgh, Iain has tackled the male lead, Franz, on many occasions. Like his brother, he’s full of praise for the production and its creator, former Birmingham Royal Ballet artistic director Sir Peter Wright.
“Although almost 90, Wright’s visits to rehearsals are welcomed by all. Coppélia is a fantastic family ballet,” says Iain. “The story is very easy to follow, the sets and costumes are outstanding. And Peter’s so on the ball – the energy he brings every time he comes into the studio, he’s as passionate as ever about his productions.”
• Birmingham Royal Ballet performs Coppélia at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 4-7 February, with First Steps: A Child’s Coppélia on 6 February, www.edtheatres.com