His ascent through the ranks of the classical ballet world, though hardly without obstacles, would be the envy of most in Mr. Underwood’s profession: Early in his teenage training with the ballet teacher Barbara Marks at Suitland High School Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Maryland, he was awarded a Philip Morris Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet in New York.
Graduating into the company of the Dance Theater of Harlem, he was promoted at the end of his first season to soloist, and joined American Ballet Theater in 2003. Offered a spot as first artist at the Royal Ballet three years later, he relocated to London, and was quickly elevated to soloist, becoming a favorite of choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor.
“I don’t want people to think I’m not grateful,” Mr. Underwood said, “but I always had the belief that it will happen because I will make it happen.”
If there is a consistent critical through line in appraisals of Mr. Underwood’s work, it is his unbridled joy of movement. “The best times in my dance life are when you are simply witnessing me dancing, rather than me performing for you,” Mr. Underwood said.
The often robotic technical proficiency that characterizes certain dancers of his generation comes with a cost to artistry, he said: “I have so much more to offer than a jump and a pretty pirouette.”
He is an easygoing firebrand who tends to flout convention, a performer magnetic in equal measure to choreographers and the fashion flock, and one whose rise to the rank of soloist has upended a number of stereotypes, not all of them about race.
Likening himself at his best to the passionate and un-self-consciously expressive ballroom children battling for runway supremacy at obscure vogueing contests or the tango or waltz aficionados whose passion for anachronistic dance styles has gone mainstream thanks to shows like “Strictly Come Dancing,” he said, “I’m ready for my next phase.”
That phase, as Mr. Underwood explained, involves his goal of being the host of a dance show much like the ones he watches at home, a forum for young people who may have never considered that the elitist world of ballet might give them a chance.
“I never wanted to be the ‘black’ dancer,” Mr. Underwood said. “I wanted to be a great dancer. The challenge was that I was not seeing anyone who looked like me.”
Even early in his professional career, he said, something became clear to him: “If I was not going to take Nureyev’s path or Baryshnikov’s path, I was going to have to find a path of my own.”
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