Friday, 12 December 2014

the survival instinct

I often ponder the blissfully ignorant life of our house rabbit, Sadie, with not a care or concern in the world apart from: “where’s my food?” or “where are you, humans?” Life is sweet, lounging on the couch with delicious parsley on the dinner menu; easily forgotten that rabbits in the wild are resilient and thriving survivors. In this luxurious existence, it’s not until poor health becomes a concern that the prey animal’s evolutionary instincts become apparent – that rabbits in the wild must conceal their ailments, because it’s the weak that a predator will target. Rabbit companions are instructed to seek medical attention immediately should a rabbit show signs of poor health, because an outward display of symptoms indicates that the ailment has reached a critical point. The rabbit so toughly persists through the pain until it may be too late.

Is the human animal so different?

The dichotomy of vulnerability and stoicism in dealing with pain or threat; there is a biological basis for this phenomenon in all animals, including us. It stems from the primal instinct for survival, with each species uniquely programmed with a genetically dictated, instinctive reaction to stimuli – such as the “fight or flight” response to a threat. Beyond these instincts, more intelligent animals have also developed traits and, due to a certain level of consciousness, learned certain behaviours that have been conditioned by their unique survival needs, environs and social structures. There’s the mentality of ambition; the innate desire to succeed, or even to be the best. Then, in the most intelligent animals, there’s the conscious ability to alter those genetically dictated instincts – they’ve adapted their behaviours to optimise the outcome of the circumstance. Animals exist within their species’ social structure, which I imagine to be like a ladder, each rung representative of varying degrees of survival success. With the juiciest fruits of the best life at the top of the ladder, we are all instinctively driven to climb there. Obstacles, such as pain and threat from predators, impede our progress along the way. Yet we clamber on. How often have you put on that brave face and gone to work, despite a raging head cold perhaps, because you wanted to prove yourself strong and worthy to a superior; or singularly persisted through a presentation despite debilitating, heartbreaking news about a loved one? Don’t show your weakness, lest you become the targeted prey.

I glance around the studio during class at the other dancers; lithe bodies of ready and robust musculature elongating and articulating with apparent ease. There is intent focus, but not a skerrick of exertion detectable on their finely formed faces. There is something akin to anticipation permanently hanging in the air – a sort of restless energy, a conglomerate of twitching minds and eager souls, always on alert, though calmly composed in their environment. I perform the same exercise that my colleagues have just completed, and only now do I comprehend the hard work that belies the outward composure. Calm faces take on an edge of noble bravery; they belie a rampant internal monologue of minute cognitive cues, the exertion of muscles being pushed to their utmost limit, and the silent protest of aches from the show the night before. I wipe my sweat-sodden brow and observe others doing the same. Some knead their knotted limbs on torturous rollers, with alternate sighs of relief and grimaces of agony. Others lean on the barre with their heads buried in their crossed arms, stretching out their spines as their ribcages heave with gasps for air. And yet when the next exercise is set, we continue.

A herd of deer, having just fled from a pack of wolves, has searched out a bounteous green pasture. There is a quivering buzz of freshly-frantic heartbeats, gradually decelerating to a normal pulse as they cautiously begin to graze upon the grass. Delicately sculpted faces are counterpointed by deepest dark but keen eyes – from afar the eyes appear sweetly at ease, but up close they nervously dart about. Graceful necks arch alternately between the ground, for food, and high in the air, to keep watch. Some are wounded, but that is only subtly apparent in the oddness of a gait, or the discreet nursing of an abrasion. They can’t rest indefinitely, but if they don’t feast now, they won’t have the energy to flee the next predator. They would not survive. There is something akin to anticipation permanently hanging in the air…

For us, it’s obviously not a life-or-death matter, no matter how melodramatic you are. Our survival mechanisms are evident in many aspects of our approach and response in our daily life, even though there is no real predator - at least in a literal sense. There are, however, threats to our progress, if we allow it, that may transpire in our responses to stimuli: the external - our superiors’ expectations, or the audience’s expectations; and the internal – our expectations of ourselves. The ballet world is an environment in which the pursuit for perfection heightens those expectations, in which the disciplined and relentless nature of the profession magnifies those demands, in which, at our worst, we find ourselves pushing through pain in order to prove our worth. To stay alive, in hope to thrive, we must learn to sense the first signs of the predator’s surreptitious stalk and demonic gaze, and flee from it. And if the predator already has you cornered, you must fight, sometimes with every last vestige of that artillery called Self-Belief that you have.

It’s well known that a professional dancer’s pain threshold is considerably higher than the average person’s (my awareness of this is renewed whenever I straight-faced tell people how pointe shoes feel like house slippers to me), but not so well-documented is the unrelenting challenge in accepting human weakness in the quest for perfection ideals and desire for the top positions, and how that relates to pain perception. Could brave faces just be foolish faces? No, but there comes a point of exhaustion at which sheer guts and grit has to yield to intelligent strategies for successful survival. A smart professional dancer has learnt, with the help of medical professionals, how to distinguish between different types of pain and navigate the grey areas in between. These professionals will also guide the dancer back to full strength in a tailored recovery program, designed to correct the off-kilter biomechanics that may have caused the injury, in a safe and nurturing manner. Dancers often remark that their heightened physical awareness as a result of this rehabilitation enriches their dancing. There is the obvious character-building aspect, too. Here is an example of how, as highly intelligent animals capable of altering our natural responses to stimuli, we can make the pain experience one of courage and growth rather than a perception of succumbing to weakness. This isn’t just the terrain of a professional dancer, nor is this evolutionary intelligence applicable only to physical pain.

The pressure of attaining and maintaining our position at the top of that ladder is an anomaly in that it constantly drives us to better ourselves, to reach for that fruit, but can also potentially destroy us. In a prestigious ballet company we are expected to be amongst the best dancers in the world, and this is extraordinarily difficult to live up to on a daily basis, and in every performance. We are always on edge – anticipation hanging permanently in the air - the day after a season opens, we are in the studio the next morning rehearsing the upcoming season that likely opens only a few days after the current one has closed. There is little time for kudos. And we are rarely satisfied. Ever onwards, sometimes persisting through ailments, often persisting through self-doubt, impelled by the primal urge to succeed, not just survive. The evolutionary instinct to conceal pain isn't exclusive to prey animals like rabbits. One of our closest relatives, chimpanzees, shares more than just DNA with humans. The alpha male chimpanzee will hide any signs of illness or injury, because if he doesn’t, he may be ousted from his position at the top by a feisty young male, who sees the illness as an opportune time to challenge the alpha to a fight for superiority. Then all the perks of being at the top: a harem of mates, royal treatment, the best food, are all granted to him. The most ambitious of animals achieve dominance through physical fitness, special skills, intelligence and aggression. They maintain it by wearing a mask. Powerful and composed, belying an ever-ringing cacophony of fears and weaknesses.

Keep calm and carry on.

The madness-inducing monotony of constantly keeping face and maintaining the status quo. If we are so vastly superior to other species, what has so stunted our evolution and progress as to suppress the essence of being a happy and productive human: to liberate oneself from the shackles of expectation, to be comfortable in our own skin, to have the freedom to honestly express - even pain - without inhibition (with compassion or at least consideration for others of course), to feel with passion, to live without fear? To let our hearts guide us, with vigour and love for what we do, for others and for ourselves – that is courage, and, used with intelligent and decisive strategies, leads to progress. Accepting the easy solution even though it's a compromise, being guarded, deceitful or duplicitous, acting with agenda, lacking perception – this is weakness and indecision that only leads to friction and disillusionment for others. We become static, and no one dares to disturb. 

Are we so blinded by ambition that this conformist, pack mentality is seen as the only viable path to success? Conditioned by societal pressures, the yearning for the top can surreptitiously morph into singularity and greed all too easily. That greedy ambition has escalated in our results-driven, consumerist age: success equals power, and power can be addictive. There is nothing inherently wrong with pure ambition, but pursued with an imbalance of response to the external, rather than the internal, could surely only lead to superficial and transient happiness, and given its often unrealistic pressures, is potentially damaging for our souls. 

So perhaps wearing a mask is a necessity, to keep everything in life "nice". No one wants to see someone who is placed upon a pedestal show weakness. They are placed there because everyone looks to them for inspiration, as a beacon of their ideals. And yet ruthlessness, or even cruelty, is also an innate animal behaviour. We can willingly tear these people apart - this one's too strong, this one too soft, this one was just right until their vulnerability superseded their heroism. Tall poppy syndrome, celebrity bashing, bullying, backstabbing gossip, sexism, calculating manipulation ... anyone and everyone can be fair game. There is no way to avoid it - everyone is fighting to survive and succeed in their own way, some more evolved in their behaviour than others.

The most successful of us humans, and of all animals, are the ones who have best adapted their intrinsic and learned behaviours to their advantage. Unfortunately, whether their intentions are noble and decent, or conniving and corrupted, is inconsequential in the grand scheme of that metaphorical ladder. This is the nature of the pursuit of power and survival in the modern world, one that is driven by the incessantly beating heart of our primal urges. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and it’s up to us to decide whether we want to emerge from the battlefield with a clear conscience. Life’s trials, and threats, shape our progress and identity, and if humans have the ability to exploit that, why wouldn’t we evolve to coexist more harmoniously with and at the aid of others, and indeed the other animals with whom we share such common traits? Let’s not forget that feeling love and compassion are also instinctive behaviours. We can still achieve the prestigious top rung with grace and humility, along with stoicism and the occasional healthy acknowledgement of our human and animal flaws. We could be unstoppable in pursuit and in flight. The hunted might not become the hunter, but they’d cease to be merely easy prey. A resilient, thriving and successful survivor.

Thank you to Hiro 'Two One' Tsuri for allowing me to use his beautiful art work to illustrate my writing. His art really speaks to me, and I'm sure you can understand why after reading this.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

feeling something

photo by Jo Duck

Tumbling into dark places. It's easy. It's not wrong to continually hunger for stimulation, challenge and satiation. A career in which one's success hangs on the precarious scale of subjectivity continually taunts the dancer's heart strings. Patience. Remember the glorious reward of delayed gratification. The dancing career ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs and we have to learn to dance in time with this unforgiving rhythm, so that when those long-awaited crescendos and climaxes arrive, we haven't missed a beat, and we are ready to take off in perfectly harmonious rapture. 

I've been listening to The Ronettes a lot recently. One lyric that has stuck in my head: "I wish I never saw the sunshine/'Cause if I never saw the sunshine baby/then maybe I wouldn't mind the rain" . Shrouded in my cloud, stinging and low, shafts of light have to force their way through the foggy ether - memories and summons of sunshine. The cloud lifts eventually. 

It's not that we have to be weatherproof (umbrellas are unwieldy instruments). There is a certain beauty in hardship and pain - an inevitable component of the life cycle, just as complete freedom and joy are. I want to feel the pungent plummet of rain as much as I want to revel in the golden sun caressing my skin, reassuring and full of promise. The darkness is there to make the light even brighter. I'd rather exist within this contrasting drama, even with the transient cataclysm of a storm, than the drab monotony of half-sung grey. 

I want to feel something, to gain something, to mean something. I shout it inside. Sometimes it's a shrill scream. I keep it in. If I let it out, I wouldn't be able to listen out for my music. Poco a poco. But keep listening ... it may be gathering momentum for a magnificent crescendo.

Thursday, 20 November 2014


my grandmother, Raden Ayu Catherine Ismadillah, in costume for the Bedoyo
Ketawang dance. The Sultan chose her for this sacred dance at the court of
Jogjakarta. I always stick this photo up at my dressing table in the theatre - a
constant reminder of a family legacy.

I have always felt a very special connection with the Indonesian (or, more correctly, Javanese-Indonesian) half of my identity, despite having been born and bred in Australia. I could put this down to Mum and Dad’s at-least-annual visits with my sister Jasmine and I, instilling that connection from childhood with the country and our sprawling family network over there. But that’s not entirely it. There is something that runs thick in my blood, beyond explanation by genetics or family pilgrimages. And I only really became aware of it when I started my career in dance.

learning my grandmother's art with respected Javanese classical dance teacher Bu Rusini at her studio in Solo, 2012

my sister and I with our 'famous uncle' W.S. Rendra, in Jakarta around 1993

During my years as a student aspiring to be a professional dancer, I never thought much about why I wanted a career in dance. I just knew that I needed to dance and couldn’t imagine life without it. Being in a select group as a student in The Australian Ballet School, it wasn’t until I was accepted into the company, where suddenly I was one of nearly 70 dancers performing around 200 shows a year, that I began to feel overwhelmed and was forced to confront the question of why. I was lucky that a huge part of my answer would not only help drive me to achieve the heights I hoped for, but also give me a strong sense of individuality – which is difficult when you feel like one fish swimming in a school of corps de ballet dancers. I had realised that my point of difference stemmed from my Javanese heritage, namely the artistic legacy of my grandmother, Raden Ayu Catherina Ismadillah, who had been the Sultan’s principal dancer in the Jogjakarta court, and of my uncle, Indonesia’s most prolific poet/playwright/performing artist, the pioneer of modern Indonesian theatre and radical human rights activist W.S. Rendra.

... read more of this article that I wrote for Behind Ballet in 2012, in which I learn traditional Javanese classical dance, the acting techniques that my uncle pioneered, and reconnect with the culture that has shaped me.

reenacting childhood adventures on the slope of Mt Merapi, Jogjakarta

Thursday, 30 October 2014

at the barre

me, aged around 10, with my teacher Valerie Jenkins

In this series I want to take you into my mind as I work through the dancer’s daily ritual of morning ballet class. Much like a swimmer’s morning laps, it’s a training essential for professional dancers in all ballet companies and also many contemporary dance companies. When we are in rehearsal periods, it’s for fine-tuning technique, developing artistry, increasing stamina, exercising mental intelligence, and warming up for the day’s rehearsals. When we are performing, while we are still working on those aspects, class becomes a more varied undertaking: a way of checking the body back in after the show the night before, for ironing and evening out a body addled by perhaps one-sided choreography, warming up for the day’s rehearsals; all with measured exertion so that there’s enough energy left for the show that night. Even though we have a different teacher and pianist each day, and the exercises that are set (on the spot) vary, it’s one of the only constant factors in a profession full of inconstants. It’s a daily chance to discover your body and its expressive possibilities. It can be confronting. It can be a meditation. It can be the highlight of your day, a confidence booster, or it can be frustrating and send you off on a low note. But it’s still our oxygen.

Today, the best word to describe my body was ‘discombobulated’. My right hip feels like it’s up by my ear, my ankles feel like they need a good spritz of WD40, and the entire left side of my torso appears to have been left behind in the USA, from where we have just returned after an outrageously successful tour of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake.  I’ve long resigned myself to the reality that a constant sensation of complete symmetry is elusive, but the pursuit of it and the expression of it is fundamental in classical ballet. To me, trying to achieve that equilibrium in the body is more about trying to find a neutrality, a connection from the core so that all movement and dynamics can emanate from the centre rather than the extremities. While it’s important to find a sort of ‘squareness’ and alignment of the torso and hips, this is for the purpose of being able to use it as a home base, a departure point for full movement, not to dance with a rigid frame in a rigid manner. One of our guest teachers, Johnny Eliasen, often uses the visual cue of Da Vinci’s great depiction of the symmetry and proportion of the human body, the Vitruvian Man. Classical ballet should be about purity of form and expression, and too often today, caught up in this obsession with quantity over quality, this purity is forgotten. Many of classical ballet’s pathways move in circles, so the encircled Vitruvian Man provides a perfect reference when executing a simple port de bras, the tips of the fingers reaching and drawing the shape of the circle around the body; or a rond de jambe, which, if you were to execute one at the beach, would leave the trace of a perfect semi-circle in the sand.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

My appreciation for the purity of classical ballet can be accredited to my training in the Cecchetti method. Enrico Cecchetti was famously Anna Pavlova’s personal teacher, and ballet master of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. His syllabus (I completed all the exams from Grade One to Advanced) was designed to develop expression and sensitivity but with a hallmark simplicity of style. There is no affectation of port de bras that so taints some other training methods. It’s honest dancing. Valrene Tweedie, who taught my teacher Valerie Jenkins and who also took me for special coaching, instilled in me a mantra that is still of foremost pertinence for me: “simplicity and sincerity”. I apply it to all my work, from class to rehearsal to performance. I think it has also become a bit of a life mantra.

Maestro Cecchetti and Anna Pavlova

So when, like today, my body feels like a slackly strung marionette, I go back to basics. More Pilates in my warm-up to reawaken the core and strengthen and lengthen the muscles. If the choreography favours one leg (Graeme’s choreography tends to favour the right leg), then I try to even out the load on the body by repeating the exercise twice on the unfavoured side. I start at the barre with more subtle movements and carefully measured exertion, to find the connection in the joints and gently ease the points of tension. In all the exercises, the focus is on placing the energies back into the centre of the torso, as though my body were a hive and I was summoning the bees, buzzing nearby but somewhat haphazardly, back home. After the long flight from LA, my neck was unbelievably stiff and my left shoulder seemed to only want to roll forward instead of rotating backward and gliding downwards, as is the ideal classical ballet posture. Even after a series of scapula placement exercises before class and a wariness of that placement and release of neck tension throughout class, any rotation of my head was restricted – kind of made spotting for pirouettes a frustrating ordeal. And so it was off to the physio room to book myself in for what seems to be transpiring to be a routine post-flight neck and upper back release.

It will take a few more days before the body reacquaints itself with its connections. This may be aided by the repertoire we are rehearsing: La Bayadére, with its stylised but still very classical ballet technique. When we perform classical ballets, whilst exhausting, they do help the body to feel 'more ballet' - pulled up and with an established equilibrium - in class. It is then that class will be about ensuring that my movement doesn't get too stiff, too precious or worst of all, contrived. But we have to travel to Sydney – yes, barely a week after our return from the US – first.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

real ballet, real dance: Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Max Waldman

Every time I read an interview with Baryshnikov I am reminded of how much I resonate with his philosophies about the art form of ballet. He is perceptive, restless, and daring. His dancing was the definition of raw, unaffected masculinity and brilliance. But despite his technical prowess - his technique was often described as "flawless" - he understood even from a young, precocious age that technique and fireworks is at the service of the dance. Artistic integrity comes first.

"I am interested in the emotions under the skin that a dancer can have to be simply honest, you cannot act it out."

My parents took my sister and I to see him dance with his White Oak Dance Project in Sydney when I was around 12, and even though he was already in his 40s and perhaps not as mobile as he once was, I was greatly affected by the power of his dancing despite its subtlety and artful restraint - a supreme stillness unlike anything I've seen since, as though he were a god dancing on a celestial stage. Power from purity.

Even though, like Madonna, he only really needs to be referred to with one name, he is a super level-headed guy. "Have a life besides dance. Go to see works in the galleries, go to music concerts, and read a book. You know, bunhead, it's bunhead. But there should be something in that bun."

Don't forget to share your favourite images of real ballet and real dance on social media. Check my previous "real ballet, real dance" post for the lowdown. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

climate action

climate refugee in Bangladesh, by Munem Wasif: "Flood waters remain logged. The people have adapted to
this aspect of climate and continue to exist in waist-deep flood waters, sometimes even inside their homes."

Take take take, more more more. The consumerist world that has been created for us by the rich and powerful is like a bubble, with little connection to the Earth that gives us life. We’ve become conditioned to accept that meat comes in packets, expect that clothing should be super-cheap and have unlimited stock, and that fuel just comes out of a convenient metal tank at a service station. How can we have harmony with the environment and have a moment to question where these products come from, when everything is moving so fast that we want them NOW? Reconsidering our habits, lifestyle and consumer choices are changes we can effect within us, and it’s never too late to do so. With so many resources at our fingertips on the internet - whether it be switching to green power, conscious eating, or recycling - it’s easier than ever to be green. Even the smallest actions count, all amounting to one great, powerful effect. It all starts with a thought.

Changing our own lives is important. But the biggest changes must come from above. Calling to account our governmental leaders to reflect their people’s concern for the environment presents a problem that apparently isn’t as straightforward as taxing big polluters and investing in renewable energy sources. Agendas are riddled by back-room handshakes from greedy magnates and vested interests. It’s maddening to watch their thumb-twiddling, head-scratching and back-and-forthing as the news tells us that people are already suffering, their lives at risk, as a direct result of climate change. The increasing occurrence of natural disasters has been linked to it. Human greed has contributed vastly to the problem. Take take take, more more more.

We all know the Earth is dying, now at an urgent rate. It's up to the individual whether that is accepted (or worse, dismissed) as inevitability beyond repair, or whether deep concern for future generations translates to hope for change. One thing is certainly unanimously acknowledged: saving our planet is no longer an alternative mandate. The science has spoken, people are galvanising, and world leaders should be taking notice.

amongst 30, 000 Melbournians in the worldwide People's Climate March

I was proud to be one of approximately 30, 000 citizens marching in Melbourne today as part of the worldwide People’s Climate March, preceding the UN Climate Summit of world leaders in New York this week. We want our leaders to know that we want immediate and real action on climate change, with an economy that works for all global citizens and of course the planet we live on. It was a glorious sunny day, with a humbling vibe of goodwill. I don’t think I’ve ever high-fived and smiled at so many strangers before. Kids, uni students, adults of many ages, the elderly, people on wheelchairs, a rainbow of cultures: a broad representation of impassioned Australians. If any commercial news channels only choose to give airtime to the most stereotypical-looking of 'hippies' at the event, please consider that this is likely due to a subconscious prejudice and blatant information control; provision of fuel for those most opposed to the issue at hand, who will readily bah-humbug this as an uprising of smelly stupid hippies misguided by lefty idealism. Questioning the reliability and twisted intentions of our news sources is not only another important step in progressing the issue at hand, but also in opening up our acceptance of others.


a little post-march snooze in the sun wearing House of Riot and The Future eye

I am also proud to represent The Future, a new climate justice group that originated in the UK and has just commenced operations in Australia. Ollie Henderson from The Future has a clothing label called House of Riot, and she generously gave me one of her cool and succinctly-sloganed t-shirt designs for me to wear today. It was a tough call with so many great slogans, but I chose “SAVE THE HUMANS” in the end. It got a fair bit of attention, but my favourite was from a delightful elderly man who stopped me and said “I just love the message of your t-shirt. To me it is the most important reason that I am here today. I'm not sure that the politicians realise that is what it's about, too - their people.” We also painted circles around our eyes – the defining visual campaign for The Future, which is a statement to our leaders: “we are watching you”.

And I will be. Very closely.

Friday, 29 August 2014

real ballet, real dance

Endless photos of dancers in leg mounts/splits/backbends have saturated ballet-related hashtags on Instagram. I'm not just tired of it, I'm concerned. The power and influence of social media is undeniable, especially amongst the younger generation. Plaguing social media with misrepresentation of the art form is not just doing a disservice - it skews and even cheapens the public's perception of what ballet and dance really is, and engenders a warped set of values for young dance students. Ballet is ballet, just as contemporary dance is an entity unto itself (albeit in countless forms), for example, and both these art forms are a world away from gymnastics and other sports. But if you were to peruse one of these hashtags, you would see that there is confusion. 

There are of course some Instagram accounts that I follow with beautiful performance and studio shots (try @nikolairusser and @balletandphotos for a start) but I wish these types of accounts weren't so scarce. There seems to be zillions of accounts which are focussed on more 'likes' and 'follows'. This is part of a broader concern of mine that in an effort to gain a sense of worth - and increasingly so in this fast-moving age of the internet and social media, through the dangerous trap of seeking out more likes - art is being quantified. Quantity, not quality. Quantifying art is of course impossible (the idea of scoring a performance out of ten baffles and enrages me - more about that in an upcoming blog): art is subjective and every one responds differently to its endless manifestations. That is the greatest thing about art - it is a true reflection of the diversity of humankind. 

I love that so many people are enthusiastic about ballet and dance; wonderful. But I would love to communicate to them what it's really about - not immediate results, more 'likes', winning competitions, boniest bodies, higher legs, bendy backs. Let's turn that enthusiasm into something healthier, and more fulfilling in inspiration.

So, I have an idea to address the imbalance, with photos of 'real' ballet. Photos highlighting the art, the emotion, the depth, the drama, the beauty, the humanness, the rawness, the joy ... DANCING, not posing. I plan on making this a regular feature on my Instagram, and I will also feature the photo here. Follow the hashtags #realballet and #realdance. 

I will kick things off with a photo of my inspiration to become a dancer: Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri. This is her as Juliet. I had this photo on my bedroom wall as a young student - my imagination and dreams captivated by the truth of her joy and effervescence. Until I saw her dance, when she guested with The Australian Ballet in Onegin, I had no idea that ballet could have such dramatic and expressive possibility. That is when the tune within me changed.

Alessandra Ferri as Juliet, photographer unknown

I had a video of an American Ballet Theatre gala in which she and Julio Bocca danced the famous balcony pas de deux from MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. It was a very, very well-worn tape. Some ballet experts would criticise her classical technique in this photo - that her supporting leg is turned in, that her attitude leg is also turned in. I don't give a damn. To me, she is perfect. 

Please use the hashtags #realballet and #realdance on Instagram, or you can send me your favourite photos of real ballet or real dance either via Instagram message or even Twitter (both @julietburnett) or by leaving a link to the image in the contact form at left. Let's show the world the richness and integrity of the art of dancing! 

Oh, and if you follow any Instagram accounts that fit the bill, please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Thanking you all in advance!

Sunday, 24 August 2014


ballerina Nora Kaye by Gjon Mili, 1947

I’ve always hated numbers.
Time is a wicked friend.
Not enough…too much.
Tempus fugit. Hurry, hurry! Get it while you can! Limited time only!

Time dictates life. Its miserly measure tempers our freedom. Our frustrations, dilemmas and destructors are borne of a lack of time, ill-timing, or poor time management. How can we find happiness when we are unfairly allocated such scant time in which to achieve success and find fulfilment?

I am constantly asked “what is the lifespan of a dancer?” Lifespan. As though life stops when I will stop dancing (one less eloquent person enquired “what is your expiry date?”). It’s true that in the context of our lives, the lifespan of a dancer is short, and that knowledge perennially taunts us in the periphery of our consciousness. Dancers are prisoners of time not just in the broad sense. We can work our guts out towards a role and yet there never seems to be enough time to rehearse - “we only have enough rehearsal time to put three casts on” – the opportunity passes. Maybe next time?... We want all this rehearsal time, and we also want to use some of our spare time in between for body conditioning such as Pilates, but that imposes on our rest and recovery time, so we risk exhaustion and muscle fatigue. In the rare instances where we feel as if we have too much time to prepare for performance, we easily become agitated by the lack of fresh stimulation or seemingly soulless repetition. We dance within the framework of the music. We must keep with the beat. Our movement prescribed by the time signature. Plié on 3, jeté on 4, land on 5. Keep in time. Stay with the music, or you’re screwed, we are told. Finding freedom of expression within parameters. Daring to push or even nudge boundaries. Can we challenge time?

Patience and impatience are virtues that reference how we deal with time. Finding the balance between the grace of patience and the yearning of impatience is one of life’s ongoing and hardest lessons. Patience: being satisfied, perhaps complete; impatience: dissatisfied and incomplete. Oh how well acquainted and unreconciled we all are with the latter. The human condition is shaped by the pace of the perpetual movement of life in which it exists, so in this age of fast-tracking, technology and immediate results, finding the stillness of patience is immensely difficult. When we are taught to constantly strive for our goals, that hard work will be rewarded, that our success is in our own hands, how can we reconcile within ourselves the notion of just letting go, and waiting in hope for opportunity to impose itself on you?! The unbearable starving in between. Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock…

Patience has something up its sleeve, though: the reward of delayed gratification. Teasing, tormenting, tediously delayed gratification. The great pay-off for all that waiting, working, waiting. The knowing reminder that the cliché is right (succinct clichés, not wasting time with roundabout ruminations) about the journey being more important than the destination. Because those are the minutes and hours and days and years in which you grow and learn purely for yourself, not in addition to moulding yourself towards an endpoint. Your experience of the essence of living and happiness boils down to how you choose to use that time.

Time can be beautiful. Its fleetingness incites us to hold it close to our heart (beating: measured in beats per minute). The dreaded news that your time with a loved one has been estimated as a matter of days before they depart this world hits like a sickening punch in the gut. But an inexplicable part of our human resilience instinctively kicks in, steering you from a wallowing, dispirited mess towards courage and an open heart. You give all of yourself in the hope of creating beautiful memories of those final precious moments. When unfortunate circumstances arise, we have an increased capacity to optimise our time, and, once the pain has passed and the light is in view, inspire us to take on life with renewed vigour. Are these bittersweet life lessons designed to force us to confront our vulnerability so that we may strive more urgently for solace/gratification? Is the lesson that there actually may be no gratification, no destination, or that those things are as humble as simply living, when the one we love has to die?

Beethoven's Sonata No. 4 (Opus 7) by Jorinde Voigt, 2012

The cold, hard mathematics of time is the means to an end. Art needs the stringency of parameters to channel rampant expression into a clearly articulated art work. All artists need to practice their technique - taking their time - to optimally communicate their ideas. The precision of technique is the means to the end. Dancers need the structure of music to truly express the intention of the dance work, using the rhythm and accents of the music as stimuli for punctuation in the sentence of the movement phrase. Dance with the music, dance in time. Plié on 3, jeté on 4, land on 5. The endless possibilities of expression with that phrase transcends words.

Time: the great organiser of the dizzying cacophony of life.

Life’s too short to fully contemplate this stuff.

Tempus fugit. Carpe diem.

Tick tock tick tock…

Monday, 18 August 2014


I’ve created this blog website to share. I spend a lot of time in the studio at work thinking, then over-thinking. I am perennially curious about the nature of things; I struggle to just do, just let things be as they are (my parents will attest to baby Juliet's habit of touching and handling everything. Inordinate amounts of time were exhausted in tidying up the fascinating debris on my path of destruction. I refer to it as early research).

Why write? Yes, to share my thoughts so they may provide insight, in the hope of eradicating misconceptions about my profession and lifestyle. But also so I can focus my fervently oscillating mind, then, through the cleansing ritual of laying my thoughts bare on the page, be released from them so I can be free to dance uninhibited.

Artists are sharers, by proxy. Onstage in performance we are divulgers of ideas, projectors of beauty, provocateurs of questions. The art form of dance is mute, yet dancers have a voice - speaking manifests in the language of the body. What we can say onstage, however, is framed by the dancer's role to fulfil tasks: the choreographer’s intention, telling the story, interpreting the music. On occasion we have opportunity to lose ourselves in a ballet with which we resonate completely, that affords us that cherished moment of abandon and oneness in dance. As a restless artist, I have a need to explore beyond the framework. Using words, my second medium of expression, I want to share with you my journey into understanding dance, art, life, and their confluence in this turning (ever-changing, wondrous, beautiful, maddening, decaying...) world.

Dear Thoughts, 

Please don’t cloud or trap me. Inform me, define me, but in an 
harmonious dance with awareness and spontaneity: the flux of living.

To be conscious is not to be in time ...

Allow me to temporarily relinquish the temporal.

Help me search for the still points.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Consciously, yieldingly, sincerely,

Poetry excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton | photo by Thuy Vy | styling by Nadia Barbaro | make-up/hair by Olivia Still