Veteran Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Paul Mathews explains how ballet was a family affair for him, how his female school friends stuck up for him and how he inhabits the dark character he plays in the Auckland Festival feature, The Piano.

1 You're performing the role played by Sam Neill in the movie The Piano. Do you see your character as the bad guy?

I don't. Alisdair Stewart is very much a man of his time. He's quite reserved, a little bit stiff. He makes a bad decision; that it's not worth dragging the piano up to the house. He's wrong, but that doesn't make him a bad person. Ada decides she wants to cheat on him. The way I play it, his actions at that point are not a conscious choice. He sees red and just loses it. I've never experienced that myself but I can relate to his sense of betrayal. You have to believe what you're doing in order to perform it.

2 Do you find it difficult to perform such a dark role?


It is physically and emotionally demanding. Each time Alasdair loses it, I lose it. You just have to go there and before you know it you're standing there gasping for air with an axe in your hand and a bloodied tree stump. When we first performed it in Wellington people were shocked at how scary I became. I think the fact it's so relatable is what people find shocking. It's not like a fairy tale - you can imagine it actually happening. The realism is what gets to people.

3 Of all the bad guys you've played in your career, how does Alisdair Stewart rate?

I played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet last year. It's so strange, Romeo is supposedly the good guy in that play. Meanwhile he murders Tybalt and it just gets brushed over. Juliet is 14, so he's a paedophile as well but because it's Shakespeare, that's fine. People talk about how dark The Piano is, but the only casualty is one finger.

4 You're paired with the Abigail Boyle as Ada. Are you looking forward to performing together?

Yes, we both joined the Royal NZ Ballet 13 years ago and have come through together. We do about 90 shows a year and because we're a small company everybody's on stage most of the time in various roles. When we first joined I was one of the tallest guys at six foot one which worked to my advantage. Abby is five foot eight and needs a tall partner so we know each other really well. Being really comfortable with each other helps when it comes to playing those darker scenes. The Piano has three different male and female leads. Although we switch leads, we try to keep the same partnerships because you do the lifts differently with different partners depending on height differences and what's comfortable for them.

Paul Mathews, the Royal NZ Ballet lead in The Piano. Photo /Stephen A'Court
Paul Mathews, the Royal NZ Ballet lead in The Piano. Photo /Stephen A'Court

5 You'd have to be pretty strong in your job. How much can you bench press?

I don't lift more than my body weight. You can't bulk up because it inhibits your mobility. A lot of lifting is coordination and timing. Most of the explosive power in lifts comes from your legs. We train our legs every day in class so I don't do legs in the gym as well. It's when you fatigue that you get injuries.

6 Have you ever had an injury impact on your career?

No, I've been very lucky. A lot of injuries are just from unlucky slips. You can be lifting a girl above your head and if her dress slips and she falls, you'll dislocate a shoulder.

7 What's your ideal performance weight and how do you maintain it?

Around 78kg. It's hard to stay there all the time, especially now I'm in my 30s. You can't eat a block of chocolate and go mental to burn it off like you did in your 20s because you'll injury yourself. I try to eat three balanced meals a day plus regular healthy snacks. If I'm trying to cut down I'll limit carbs. I give myself one cheat day a week. KFC has always been my weakness.

8 Growing up in Mt Eden, how did you get into ballet?

My two older sisters and older brother all did ballet so I grew up in the studio. I started classes at four. I didn't realise it could be a career until I started doing competitions at about 12. By that age, if you lived overseas you'd go to a full-time ballet school but there wasn't anywhere like that in New Zealand so I had to make the commitment to bring myself up to standard until I won a scholarship to study at the New Zealand School of Dance at 15. I finished fifth form and was good at maths so I was a year ahead in that.

9 Growing up, did you have any male role models in the ballet world?

The movie Center Stage came out when I was 14 and our ballet school booked out a theatre to watch it. It made it cool to be a male ballet dancer and it had love stories - really pretty ballet girls thought ballet boys were cool. As a teenager, that was important.

10 What did your high school friends think of you being a ballet dancer?

It was taboo. My school friends knew I did ballet but they didn't know how to talk about it without teasing me so it was never really brought up. We lived in zone for Auckland Grammar but a ballet friend of mine got badly bullied there so I went to Mt Roskill Grammar instead. Being at a co-ed school, if some of the boys started teasing the girls would stick up for me. They'd say, "He wins competitions. What do you win?"

11 How did you meet your wife Mayu Tanigaito?

When she joined the Royal NZ Ballet in 2012. We just got married in December. We had two ceremonies; one at Parnell Rose Gardens and on in Kyoto, Japan, where she's from.

12 At 31, you're one of the Royal NZ Ballet's longest serving dancers. What have been your career highlights and are you planning to retire?

Performing Giselle in The Giant Egg with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra; doing an open air show in a fortress in the south of France; and having Ethan Stiefel come to New Zealand to be our company director for three years. He was in Centre Stage and one of four superstar male dancers in the documentary The Leading Men of American Ballet Theatre. Having my childhood hero as my boss was really cool. I also got to dance a leading role with his wife Gilian Murphy who was a principal at ABT. I'm halfway through studying for a business degree part-time but I have no plans to retire any time soon.

The Piano is at the ASB Theatre from 8 to 10 March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival