An interview with Juliet Burnett...
"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer"
by Josef Brown
I haven’t seen Juliet for many years, but we met recently at Mex & Co, a restaurant on Manly’s beautiful beach front. And on a clear, chilly evening and over bowl of guacamole and a couple of delicious Mezquilas we chatted about love, art and how the insatiable longing of the artistic spirit might find stillness and peace.
If you’re not already familiar, Juliet is a beloved former Senior Artist of The Australian Ballet who on the cusp of making Principal, took the surprisingly courageous step of walking away from her career choosing to take on the life of a freelance dancer for two years before settling down - as much as this ever bubbling mind and spirit can settle - with Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp, Belgium under the Artistic Directorship of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Juliet’s has long been a fascinating and authentic voice within ballet and I began by digging in deep, asking about her relationship with her husband Nick, who works and tours frequently in Europe (worldwide actually) as a professional musician. I was curious as to how they make that relationship work and how their creative processes have influenced one other.
Your husband Nick is a traveling musician, currently playing and recording in and around Europe. What’s the secret for keeping your relationship? I met Nick at one of his gigs while I was still at The Australian Ballet School. When I told him I was a ballet dancer, he was really excited because he was already a longtime ballet goer, and I have always been a big music fan. So from the beginning, we had admiration for each other’s passion. I remember when I went on my first tour, the Dancers Company tour in third year, and I was away from him for two months or so and when I got back from that he said, ‘OK. Let’s get married’, and I went ‘OK’. [she laughs]
We just knew how hard it was being away from one another and we knew this was something we wanted to do. I think there was a sense of, not urgency about it, but that we need to find a unit together even though it was obvious we were going to have such disparate paths.
We got married when I was in my second year in the company [The Australian Ballet], which was very young. I was 21, but our rationale was that it would give us a lot more freedom in what we pursued individually in many ways, knowing we have such security together. As you know, the path of any artist, dancer or musician is full of ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs and inconsistency and things beyond your control. And we thought if we have something constant, that we can come back to, this bond together, then that’s going to be really important for our happiness.
How often would you be apart? We set limits. That was one thing we decided when we got married. We decided, OK we need to - it sounds funny now - but we need to be very strict about how we manage this. So we decided that three weeks maximum was what we could do, that’s what would be manageable. There’s something about going away from each other, and knowing that’s the timeframe that makes it mentally a lot easier to fathom.
How long have you been together? We’ve been married for nearly 13 years now.
Maybe you’ve found the key to a happy married life? [She laughs] Yeah. The thing is, we knew it was going to be difficult when we moved over to Europe. I would have my work in the company in Belgium - that was the specific reason we moved to Belgium - but for Nick it was a little more like … what’s going to happen to me? As a musician he’s got his electronic music persona, his classical composition for dance persona, he’s got all of these different projects, but which departure point was going to be the one that took off in Europe? That was anyone’s guess. So he took all of this over, not knowing what was going to happen, and as it turns out he’s absolutely flourishing. It actually took for me to come back home, to Sydney on this vacation, to realise how well we’ve both been going. It’s shown me that sometimes you do need to step back to actually get the perspective on how things are going.
What’s your experience of the differences in creative process between the dancer and the musician? I think having been in a ballet company for most of my career, and I can say this now having the perspective of a couple of years of freelance experience and now that I’ve worked in a different company with such a different culture, that you’re generally dictated to a lot more in a big traditional ballet company and so it’s less about your own creative autonomy and more about being told what the steps are and fitting in. The thing I found frustrating - and I don’t think this is just me personally - is that your own creative stamp you want to put on a role, a role that might have existed for two centuries or so like Giselle for example; sometimes you feel you’re being pressured to embody it in a way that you don’t feel is innate. Not in a way that really reflects how I would respond to the character. For me, character development comes from really understanding the story first before the steps. Yet I’ve found that probably due to a lack of time, bigger ballet companies are often compromised in really nurturing this part of the process in each individual. So that’s something I personally found difficult in a classical company environment.
But is that ‘a classical company environment’ or is it a particular classical company environment? Because you could do Shakespeare and it can be incredibly creative and it’s been done for 400 hundred years and actors get given the lines, just like the steps, and might get directed where to go, where to stand, yet they can feel highly creative within that. I would say it’s how you’ve been given them. There seems to never be enough time, and you can’t get along with everyone all the time and probably shouldn’t expect to. I mean sometimes, you just have to put on your professional hat and your mask and get on with things. But then, sometimes for people like me, because I respond to dance so personally and sensitively, especially if it’s a narrative role that I really feel an affinity with, I can find any conflict really hard. When I was freelancing I got the opportunity to work on stuff that, because I could be very particular about the projects I choose, I only said yes to stuff I’d never done before and secondly, stuff that, after sitting on it for a while, I thought, this is really interesting to me. I’d really like to see where this goes. And because of this I started to get more of the feeling for how Nick works. Because he is always so much more creatively invested in his works because he writes all of his music himself. Even when he’s producing for someone else or ghost writing for someone, it’s still his stamp even if they say, ‘we want the beat to do this or that’. It’ll still have his flair, his sound and his fans will listen and recognise it. For our whole relationship, as far back as I can remember, I’ve always sat in the studio and watched him work as much as possible. For some reason he asks for my feedback [laughs] and for some reason he takes it and seems to value it. So you know, we’re not John and Yoko or anything [laughs again], but we’ve definitely got a very collaborative relationship and he’s fantastic in giving me feedback for my shows particularly for things like character interpretation and musicality. His work inspires me, and the people he works with inspire me and quite often if I’m getting a little down about my own work I go and see a music gig by one of our mates and it inspires me all over again. And likewise if he’s having trouble in the studio we’ll go out and see one of our friends in a dance work in Melbourne, and now in Europe, and it’ll inspire him. So we’re inspired by each others work and I guess that’s part of what makes us work so well.
Do you think that if you went back now, to a company like The Australian Ballet, that it would be very different? Because hearing what you’ve said, I wonder if it wasn’t so much the company structure, but who you were at the time? Because if you went back now you’d feel more comfortable, stronger, to put your own stamp on things; and isn’t that the process? You’d fight for it and that fight would be part of the creative process? Yeah, yeah absolutely. I’ve earned the courage I have now. The risks I’ve taken have given me more confidence. I wouldn't go so far as to say, that there are environments of fear in ballet companies - certainly not the ones I’ve been in - but you can create environments where you risk becoming complacent, and I hate saying this, but my experience is that does happen in Australia. And I think it comes partly from our geographic distance.
What do you mean by ‘complacent’? The only reason I say ‘complacent' is because I can’t think of a better word right now. It doesn’t cover everything I’m meaning to say. Perhaps comfort is a better word. I think it’s just, when you know you’re the best in a place and there’s no other competition - not that I’d know that because I’ve never been the best [laughs] - but I can imagine if you were that type of person you could sit at the top and be really happy in your castle at the top of the hill and happy with your achievements. And maybe you’re not as pushed to discover something new. And I’m not talking about standards, because Australian dancers are still hailed. People look at you with a certain wonder when you’ve been an Australian Ballet dancer because that is really respected.
So what are you talking about? Trying to discover something outside. A ballet company in Australia can be quite safe in its repertoire for example. It doesn’t necessarily need to find a point of difference, to push so hard to look for other choreographers, to find new ways to excite the audience all the time.The Australian Ballet for example, are right now, the best in Australia. They are, arguably, the pinnacle of classical ballet in Australia and one of the best in the world. But I would also argue that they need to keep striving to find new ways to present ballet to the audience and push the boundaries of the art form. As the leaders, I have always believed they have that responsibility, especially for the continued interest of their younger audience. My passion for that certainly kept me there for as long as I was.
And you believe if there was heightened competition, like they have in Europe, that might push them to be more daring, take more risks? Yeah. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Heightened competition in the industry would then push the dancers even more, but I’m mostly talking about the bigger artistic picture of what classical ballet, or what hybrid forms could be like.
But they are closing. They are smashing together. It’s getting better. For example, working with Chunky Move last year and people know each other from all over, from quite different worlds and then they meet and collaborate on something. They meet up, exchange ideas and then make something new because of those meetings. Anyway, I really notice that sense of comfort here, but not so much in Europe. In Europe the shows are happening all around you. Of course you can chose to stay in your little classical ballet bubble, or contemporary bubble, but everything is right there on your doorstep and tickets are affordable, on any dancers budget [laughs] …
Do you think what we’re talking then is simply a case of population density? When you have 400+ million relatively wealthy Europeans living in what is the size of Queensland, it means you’ve got so much more potential? You’ve got companies that are only 50kms away, or 100kms away that are touring and promoting, eager for eyeballs … the competition is what motivates increased risk and innovation? Yes and no. I mean I probably don’t know enough about that yet as I’ve not been there that long, but the main thing seems to be the accessibility and the normalcy of art; it’s embedded in everyday life. As an example, people go to the Opera House in Antwerp wearing casual clothes. It’s more of an everyday thing. I think Australia can learn a lot about making art more accessible. And I know The Australian Ballet are working on exactly that. They’re working on reaching out to different demographics, to more rural communities, everyone. And it’s wonderful they’re trying to do that. They’ve got the Out There program and the smaller touring company. But what remains missing, is that ticket prices remain exorbitant. I don’t know how you fix that. I don’t know, but it’s a massive problem. I know that when I was in the company people might want to see me do Odette or Giselle, but they couldn’t afford to come and I would only get X number of tickets that would always go to my family so … I can’t expect all my girlfriends to pay a B Reserve ticket price of $150 or so.
And then there’s parking, baby sitting, you have a glass of wine or perhaps dinner and all of a sudden it’s a $300+ night to come and see a show that in the end, you may or may not like. And you can go to the cinema and it’s $18, or see some local music and if it’s terrible it doesn’t really matter. But then that puts enormous pressure on a big company to ensure it’s not too much of a risk and that it is successful. Exactly. And that’s why I worry because I know due to budget needs that you have to repeat certain, bigger works for a couple of seasons or so, but that cycle is a little too embedded. I’m not just talking about the companies I’ve worked it, but also other ones around the world. I worry whether that business model is good. Of course I know everyone’s doing it, but isn't the most dangerous thing to do what’s always been done and what everyone else is doing and not question it? To me, I often think it would be better to invest in current choreographers, not necessarily recreating classical ballet works. Maybe you balance out the current creativity that’s available, and I'm thinking of all my friends who are choreographers who would kill for the chance to work with the The Australian Ballet; to work on and with those amazing bodies, personalities and artists. But they can’t get a look in because it’s all the big, bums-on-seats stuff that’s going on …
But then they’ve only got a few windows of opportunity for choreographic experimentation and they want to give it to people they’ve already invested some time in nurturing. So you might only get one or two a generation that get to really explore.
That’s right, exactly what I was about to say. But there should be more, and branching out beyond those who are Australian Ballet School or company alumni. David (McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet) took a big chance in creating the Body Torque season and I thought that was fantastic - it was great to see choreographers like Phillip Adams and Narelle Benjamin getting to create on the company. He also took a chance asking Graeme and Janet to do Swan Lake and look at how incredible that is. It’s like a fricken No.1 Gold, Grammy hit. And what an amazing legacy that is and I think The Australian Ballet should continue that. An amazing ethos that was started there, that kind of risk taking is important in all art. We can’t keep recycling things over and over. We’ve got to stay relevant. That will inspire mainstay audiences, and the audience of the future, to want to keep subscribing.
So what is the value of dance, the meaning and importance of dance for you? [She laughs again] I ask myself this question every day! The thing that I keep thinking of when I consider the context of dance, is how people are connected beyond National boundaries by culture. For example, when I’m travelling I’m constantly trying to find things that I connect with. Quite often because they remind me of something or someone back home. In a kind of ego way, you’re trying to find your self in that place. And I think that through dance, painting, music, these more audio and visual mediums, that you can really find your self in a different place. I’m thinking of recent discoveries of my own; finding myself in 1950’s American post-modern music. And I’m really into street art at the moment.
Why? I’m drawn to it. It’s speaking to me about stuff that worries me in the world. The issues. Or something I find peace in. Or it’s quite different from something I understand myself and so it challenges me. So you are finding your self in different cultures and it’s through art that you do that; much more than just speaking. Now I’m thinking of times when I’ve tried to converse with people in another language, yet end up using my hands and body using gestures to communicate and it becomes this strange kind of dance. So you can say things with your physicality, across cultures, more so than with language. The physical language can be so binding across cultures. The really stark moment for me was, a couple of years ago I had this experience where I initiated bringing classical dance to a small community in Jakarta. The reason I wanted to do this was, when visiting my Mum’s side of the family in Indonesia, we’d arrive in Jakarta and there’s this big fly road that was built during Suharto’s time, and you go across this modern freeway and you peer down the side and there are all these shanty towns.
From when I was very young my sister and I would ask; who lives there? Why are those people there? Mum and Dad would be very open about telling us that there are many poor people that live in Indonesia, lots of kids your age who won’t be able to go to school and maybe they won’t be able to access clean drinking water. I mean, this is happening in the middle of a big, prosperous city. Then I’d go to my Aunt’s place and have a beautiful home cooked meal and watch their big screen TV and everything’s very clean and they’re got their maid cooking for us, and I used to think from a young age how strange it was.
And that’s why, when I started to become a little successful in dance, I wanted to go back and try and re-connect and bring something back to them. And so I initiated workshops with Ballet.Id, an organisation I work with in Indonesia, and it was wonderful.I didn’t want it to be, ‘OK, we’re just going to bring you some Western culture because we think it’s superior.’ No. Because dance is very embedded in Indonesian culture. These kids would grow up, even in the poorer communities, they’d grow up still being taught all the traditional dances. You learn them along with nursery rhymes. So they know how to dance. But I wanted to give them the opportunity, to show them that maybe they could train in their dancing to such a degree that it could be a vocation. That they could use it to work all over Indonesia, or all over the world. So it’s not me going in just teaching ballet classes and taking photos. It’s about building something that’s sustainable and ongoing; a relationship. And we try and find stories that cross over, or have similarities so we’re both able to learn more about one another.
OK, but I asked you about what the value and importance of dance is to you and then you’ve told me a story about something that, to be honest, probably takes up about 1% of your dancing time; this experience in Indonesia. It’s an interesting story, but you didn’t tell me about the everyday classes, rehearsals and performances you spend the vast majority of your time on. This story is obviously what resonates when I ask about the value of dance. So is it the soft cultural power of dance that you really love, getting stories and ideas across in a more subtle way than words might? But this is the moment that comes to me. This is the story I think about a lot. And don’t get me wrong, I love the barre, but if I’m having a moment, an existential crisis wondering what it’s all about, it is moments like this that come to me: this power of dance to communicate cultural ideas across boundaries, beyond the proscenium arch. This is the epitome of what dance is about. And it might not just be across National borders, it might be getting ideas across race or class culture: even Northern Beaches versus Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. The reason I chose to leave The Australian Ballet is because I felt like I was on the cusp of many different things. I don’t mean that in terms of, I’m going to stop dancing and go and study or I’m going to stop and teach. It wasn’t that at all. I was on the cusp of, who am I, what am I doing here and what is the meaning of it all? And the thing was, I didn’t have the time - or the energy even when I did have a little spare time - to really process all the wonderful things and the bad things that were happening to me, and I was kind of lost. The other main thing I knew was that I was alsovery under-stimulated. The main thing for me is that I’m always needing to learn something new. I’m always needing to challenge myself and I get really bored, really fast. And these are the things you start to think about, particularly as a classical ballet dancer once you get around the 30 years mark and start to notice your body not being able to do the things it used to do, or that you want it to do, or that it takes you longer to recover if you have an injury - not that I’ve had to worry about that too much, touch wood. So it forces you into this urgency when you’re feeling unsure about things. And that’s when the stark moment hit, when it became clear to me that I really needed to be in another environment. I needed to not be there [The Australian Ballet].
The problem was I had all this great stuff coming up. Graeme and Janet told me I’d get to do Odette in the coming Swan Lake season and I’d been waiting 11 years, for that. I’d been understudying the damn thing for 11 years so yes, I wanted to do that! I did the poster shoot for Giselle, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get to dance Giselle, but then my name came on the casting. You still don’t quite believe it until your name goes up on the grid and you see what show you’re going to do at the Sydney Opera House, but I thought, ‘OK I might actually get to do that’. And so I saw my name on there, and I was on the poster and yet something inside told me I had to go. I had to go away and work out if I wanted to continue dancing. So I went away. I kept doing classes and I’m endlessly grateful to Rafael Bonachela at Sydney Dance Company for letting me do their classes. But I needed to take some time out to assess; do I need to dance? Do I really need to dance, or have I just been doing this to get to a certain point ...
Climb that mountain? Exactly. I mean a lot of classical ballet dancers will enter a company and just want to be Aurora and be a Principal Artist. But I was never that kind of dancer.
That hierarchal structure is part of the classical ballet culture. Get in this school, then a better school, then maybe The Australian Ballet School - or something like it - then a company as a Corps de Ballet and climb the ranks. It’s a little like the military, Private through to five star General, or starting in the mail room and working your way up the corporate ladder to CEO. There’s a similar structure. And yet that might not work for the life journey of the artist. Yes, it’s true. I got to the end - or near - the rainbow and was looking for the pot of gold. I remember something David McAllister said to me; that, ‘Senior Artist is perhaps the hardest rank’. I never fully understood what he meant by ‘Senior Artist’, and I still wonder if it is just a blanket term for anyone at that point in their career, whether you have those letters next to your name or not. In retrospect I think I understand where he was coming from because at that point; most people are thinking, all you want is to make Principal Artist because you’re so close. And I felt that I was close, that it wasn’t impossible, yet I also started to wonder whether that was something I actually wanted, but mostly, what it meant for me. I’d never wanted that status before. I never even thought about being a Senior Artist. It just wasn’t something I hungered for. It all seemed arbitrary. What I really wanted was just to be challenged in what I was doing. And then the opportunity came to be in the Gala in Indonesia, which was just after I left The Australian Ballet, and I said, ‘OK ... I’ll get back in shape and I’ll dance there’. I still hadn’t danced there and had always wanted to, and this was a great opportunity to pick up some cultural ties and see where that takes me, where it leads.
Preparing for it, taking myself into the studio and working hours and hours alone - I mean, I’ve always been very self-driven. When I was in The Australian Ballet, I would often take myself into a studio and do my own class, which was a little naughty and probably frowned upon. Sometimes I’d be in there three hours and I’d be like, "Oops, I’ve missed a rehearsal or something’ [laughs]. I’ve always been a bit of a hermit like that and so the freelance life actually suited me very well. I know that doesn’t happen for everyone. A lot of people have said that one of the hardest things about being freelance is getting and staying motivated and disciplined about your daily class. That’s never been a problem for me; my problem is I might stay in the studio too long. [Laughs] But it was after that gig that I understood the cultural importance of what I was doing, the context of being re-connected to my second culture. The reason my parents put me into dancing in the first place is that they wanted to see if there was some blood from my Grandmother who was a dancer; a traditional Indonesian dancer. So that feels like another reason I keep dancing.
So that propelled me to where I am. I initially went over to Europe just to check it out, to see what was happening. I did audition for a few places, but I was, not half-hearted, but it was just to get a feel for whether I really wanted to be in another classical ballet environment, make sure I’d exhausted those possibilities until I could rest in my decision fully.
What came out of that was that I got a job in Ballet Vlaanderen. I’d heard so much about the amazing work of their Artistic Director, Sibi Larbi and he seemed like a really amazing person to work with and the repertoire that was coming up in the following seasons was Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Merce Cunningham ... stuff that I’d idolised from afar for so long and though I knew I loved it, I wondered whether I could do it. But then I thought, well they’ve offered me the job so they obviously believe I can, so why not. I should seize this opportunity to find for myself the belief that I can do it . So I said to Nick, ‘Do you mind moving over to Europe for a while, that thing we’ve been talking about for the last 12 years’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, come on, let’s do it.’ And that all happened within the space of about three months.
So I now find myself at the end of the season, and now I’ve got time to sit back and think about all that has happened in the last year and I have no regrets. It’s been the best thing. Everything has worked out in exactly the right time that it needed to. Because if I’d gone straight from the Aussie Ballet into Ballet Flanders then I would have been left thinking; did I miss something?
I wouldn’t have had the Indonesia opportunity for example, or working with Chunky Move with Melanie Lane and so much other great stuff that happened and that I needed to happen; the Dark Mofo Festival and this dance film Nick and I made. And if you’d asked me back in 2014, ‘So Jules, what are you going to be doing for the next 3 years?’, I would have been like, ‘I don’t know’.
Nick suggested to me before I came back here just a couple of weeks ago that perhaps I needed to think of a 5 year plan. And he knows I hate this, but it is important. But I’m really the worst person, because I’m still like, ‘I don’t know’. I can’t imagine myself not dancing, because I’ve now found so many reasons why I need to keep dancing, but I’ve also found reasons for needing to do other things. I know that the Indonesia/Australia relationship is waning, that things haven’t been great since John Howard was Prime Minister. So that’s something I feel very strongly about wanting to part of. As someone with dual nationality, I can be someone who might be able to be a bridge. And I’ve found that I need to do that. And I need to be there for Nick, helping him with his music, and I need to be there for my parents.
So many things that I realise I need, and places that need me, that you can’t really see until you step back and go, hang on, this is what’s happening. And they’re things I’d missed out a lot in being part of while working with a big, busy ballet company where my focus was very much on only that.
You said recently, ’by nature I am also a deep thinker.’ Explain what you mean by that because I expect most people see themselves as deep thinkers in their way. So, how do you define that? Yeah, that’s so true. It can sound so pretentious can’t it?
It can, but it’s not necessarily, and I just want to know what you mean by it? For me; I think too much about everything. From like, tiny daily interactions. Some people, people who know me, might call me an over-empathetic person. If I’ve ordered a coffee and I didn’t say ‘thank you’ clearly enough, then perhaps I’ll be running that over in my mind later. These kinds of things. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily an anxious person, though I have suffered from little bouts of anxiety here and there, though I suspect lots of people in this profession get little bits of anxious behaviour.
What’s driving that? What’s driving worrying about that person who served you coffee? Cause I’m just really empathetic. [laughs]
So you can’t help seeing it through their perspective and how it may have come across? Absolutely.
And yet, you can’t really see it from that person’s perspective. You have no idea what they heard or saw or how it made them feel. They may not have even noticed you there. So what are you really doing when you do that? Yeah. Probably not. That’s a good question. I think constantly. And I guess I just want to be a good person. The people I look up to in my life, they not only make their lives good and ensure their own happiness, they also seek to make a positive difference in other peoples lives. And that’s something I’ve always aspired to. I’m lucky to have many great examples in my life, from my parents to my uncle who got put in jail three times for being a voice for oppressed people, for wanting to be the good guy [laughs]. So I guess I was doomed from the beginning. So that’s something that I like, that as an artist you can really perpetuate that. It’s perfect actually. If I was working in the corporate world I’d still be thinking constantly about what I wasn't doing properly by other people. Whereas I can bring all that to my dancing. It's catharsis. Even if you’re feeling edgy or hypersensitive you can really bring that into your physicality. I love days that if I’m feeling tense or worried I can lock myself into a studio and just improvise or try and do a classical ballet barre and shake out that feeling; try and bring something from that feeling and somehow focus it into good energy.
So is this part of what’s driving you; this wanting to transmute the world through you into something that’s more positive, so that the world is slightly better by your presence in it; though your art? Sometimes Nick says, you know you’ve just been staring at that person. I can just sit in a cafe and watch people all day. I see people, and it’s not that I’m trying to guess what they’re thinking or feeling, but I look around and I wonder what it is that I can do to make everything better. Even if it’s just something small. A lot of the choices I’ve made with my lifestyle, like being Vegan and trying my best to be environmentally conscious in all my decisions; a lot of that is because, even if they’re small things, I’m helping to make a difference. If I’m thinking about all the little ways I can help, I will, but I also don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of the ‘preachy Vegan’ because I know that’s not helpful. I have a rule for example, that if I’m out to dinner I won’t say why I’m not eating what everyone else is not eating, unless someone specifically asks me. But I’m constantly thinking of ways I can re-think the questions and answers so that I can share my journey in a way that will resonate. I mean, I’ve got so many carnivorous friends; how are you going to say, ‘no more meat for you’. So now I just tend to say, this is how I’ve done it and it’s working for me.
Inception. How can the seed be planted deep enough that it seems like it’s their idea rather than something they’re told to do, or made to feel guilty about? The idea has to feel like it’s come from within. Exactly. It can’t be laid over. And I’ve found that in other areas too, like with the relationships and programs I’ve been part of developing in Indonesia and with the West Australian Ballet: how can you get these things going, yet not have them stamped with your authorship so they can have a life beyond your energy and presence? You just have to be part of planting the idea and then strip your ego out of it, walk away and maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to water the garden to help out from time to time.
Listening to you I want to ask; how do you deal with what must sometimes feel like the weight of the world on your shoulders, because of the way you take things on? Because you keep trying to make the world a better place and let’s face it, a lot of the time the world just slaps you back and says, stuff you, I’m just going to be exactly what I am. I think Donald Trump was like my, ‘What am I doing?’ moment. I actually stopped reading the news for about three months. Nothing. Because you know what, it was killing me. I said to Nick, because I had this terrible habit of waking up, grabbing my phone and scrolling through the news and I just went, ‘OK, no more news before breakfast. No more.’ News must come later in the day, after I’ve established the broader context of my day i.e. I’ve got class then rehearsals, then there’s this performance coming up, got to call Mum and Dad to check up on them ... and now world news. You think of ways of course, that you can contribute and I have started reading the news again. I know there are ways to be a critical thinker and I know people might call them ‘living room activist’ but you can be active in even small and seemingly mundane ways.
You’ve got to start in your living room. If you don’t start there, you’re probably not going to do it anywhere else. Yes, I have problems with that terminology. There are ways to keep having conversations, like on Facebook and Twitter. If you do post things that are confronting and that people don’t necessarily agree with, there are ways to have a civil and dignified conversation about it. And I say ‘conversation’ and not debate, because even if they are things people feel strongly about there are ways to get into your position of empathy and see it from the other persons point of view to be able to have a conversation. So if you can post something and then show by example that you can be adult enough to talk about it civilly, to actually engage, rather than name call just to prove how intelligent you are, rather than actually listening. Of course this all subject to people’s ability to express through words on Facebook.
And that’s true, because while most people can write, not everyone is a ‘writer’ and can express themselves as well through words. Yes. I mean, I’ve said to a few friends who tagged me on an article to factory farming and I said, ‘No, I don’t talk about this sort of stuff on Facebook anymore.’ I’m happy to post a lovely cat video and say let’s all be nice to cats, but I’m not going to engage in this because I’ve had too many experiences of people who’ll talk about it rudely on Facebook, which in no way reflects how they’d talk about it in real life if we were sitting across a table. So I’ve said to several friends, let’s just talk about it over a drink sometime. That’s me trying to work out how to be an activist, but also be empathetic about it. How can I enter into the other person’s mind and understand why they think the way they do. And then, what can I say that will just plant the seed without the interaction needing to be combative. So it’s not just about winning the argument.
You’ve written that you’re always about, ‘Perpetual movement, driven by perpetual questioning’. So where's home for Juliet? Can you see a place of ease and stillness down the road; a place where it’s OK just to be and not long for more, different and change? Where I’m dancing at the moment, at Ballet Vlaanderen I’ve found so many kindred spirits there. I’m not about to say it’s where all these outcasts go [laughs], but there’s so many people there that have such a point of difference, people from so many different backgrounds. Not just Nationality, but also different training. Such different training and personalities and so, touching back on an earlier comment, it makes it so much harder to get complacent because there’s so much stimulation around. I can’t be physically complacent because I’m always inspired by those around me as they’re so different. And this is something I really needed in my life. To know that I can be unique and yet not feel like the black sheep because of the decisions I was making, or because of needing to challenge the status quo. If there was one thing that disappointed me working in a big ballet company, and I’m careful as I say this because I know it’s not just The Australian Ballet, because other friends in other companies have also felt it - it’s just institutions and it happens in corporate too - where there are a lot of personalities all under the same roof: I felt if you were someone who wanted to do things a little differently, or not how most people had done it, that it was wrong.
But it’s hard to have that kind of flexibility in a system where you have 80 or 90+ different people. It’s hard to cater for that diversity if they all want to be unique and different. How would you accomodate for that? So as an organisation you have to try and find a way of getting 90% or 95% of what people do into a system, into the same mould, while trying to allow for a little bit of individuality. Whereas what you seemed to hunger for was 90% individuality and 10% system. If we’re going to talk in dry terms of getting from point A to point B there are so many different paths; let’s look at Google Maps - this route will take 1 minute longer and it’s maybe more scenic and this route is more direct, but perhaps boring.
But to be honest you’ve gone away from the question; which was about this feeling of perpetual movement, questioning and change and where is home? Where is peace and stillness? It’ll be after I’ve done all this stuff. [laughs].
You sure? No! I can’t even see one year into the future. The five year plan is already five different options. And I get all stressed thinking about it sometimes. One thing we do know is that one day we’ll retire to this big communal farm on the South Island of New Zealand. We’ve got friends interested. Nick’s Mum is from New Zealand, from Dunedin, and we went there on our Honeymoon and we both really connected straight away with the land. I immediately connect with Australia and Indonesia, but Nick didn’t come to Australia ‘til he was 10 and so that was a difficult time to move as a kid, and he never really felt a sense of home in Australia until he met me. So he’s always said he could be anywhere. But when we went there (NZ) we both felt it was somewhere we could both be. But who knows, anything could happen. We’re still perpetually questioning it! But for me, if I don’t have a head that’s full of a million questions something feels wrong. There needs to be something to think about, something to challenge me. That’s part of the reason I started writing as well because I had so many questions and I needed to find another outlet. I was dancing, but at the time I felt I was being dictated too much and so writing became my other outlet. I was a Soloist at the time, at an in-between point, and I also just needed something where I could find my worth outside of my dancing and that’s why I started. But it turned out to be incredibly therapeutic, because if I had this muddling question in my mind I could write it down and slowly sort my sh*t out on paper. I don’t try to necessarily answer stuff, but the process helps, and one of the things that I try to do in my writing is not necessarily to provide answers, but to leave the reader with questions of their own. Because I haven’t always concluded what a piece is about and so the reader is just part of my process of questioning and trying to find something that makes better sense than what I’ve got now. So maybe that leads to a Part 2...
Have you considered the possibility that the perpetual questioning is a paradigm, a way of being that you’re feeding, making it stronger, and that it then needs more questions to satiate it? These big mammalian brains we have that need constant stimulation, constant entertainment: is it a trap? You know I’ve thought about this very thing a lot; where is stillness? Basically I find it when I’m home with my family and with Nick. That’s something that is very important to Nick and I, that our home is our sanctuary together and that’s why we bought a home as soon as we got married - very 1950’s of us - and moved into it right after our Honeymoon. So our home is sanctuary, and I’m very close with my family. That’s me being still. In fact, I’ve just spent two weeks doing not much more thanjust watching Pixar films with my family. And on the plane I can’t ever watch anything over stimulating or intellectual, I just have to switch off completely. And this whole trip back to Australia has been about switching off, because this whole season I just haven’t. I have been terrible at switching off. Because sometimes I’d get home after being in the studio all day and after performances, and I’ve got emails to answer and writing to do, so it been very full on and I needed a break. On top of that, right now Nick and I are both looking at studying next year so... But when I do switch off I switch off really well. I sleep well, which is great and I can be a sloth at home. I say it’s the Indonesian in me; you see people lying by the side of the road in the heat, and that's me
Something else you’ve said: ‘And the possibilities of the journey beyond are only limited by your own level of insatiability.’ Another way of saying ‘insatiable’ is to say, never satisfied. Is that what it is? What is it you need, what’s missing, the hole you’re trying to fill with art? Could you live a life without art? Oh god, that question is so loaded. [Laughs] No. It’ll never be enough. I’m already anticipating the day that I retire. I don’t know if it’ll ever actually happen. I don’t think so. I’ll be one of those wonderful, crazy 80 year olds still doing my barre. I’ve just said I’m a sloth, but I am also hyperactive. I’m often the last person left in the studio. You know I’ll look up at the clock and it’s two hours past when I was supposed to finish. I have zero perception of time.
So what is that; what are you trying to find? It’s either that it’s not good enough, or I’m searching for a way to make it more me. If I’ve been taught choreography for example; I’m fast picking up. I can get it and I get the sketch, the framework of the choreography really quickly, but then I have to fill in the gaps. That’s what takes the time. Sometimes I’m still filling in gaps at the last performance.
And sometimes you leave the last performance thinking you’ve filled in all the gaps...
... and you realise you haven’t. That’s there are still more. That it’s never enough. And this is what defines me as a dancer, because I’m all about the process. I actually don’t love performing. I’m not a performer. The show, the performance is not an end point. It’s just part of an on-going process. I mean, yeah, I knew deep in my heart that when I did Graeme’s Swan Lake at The Capitol a couple of years ago that I would probably never do that again, but it was still part of a process. I was learning. I did my last curtain call and I knew I had learned so much. And even though part of me was like,
‘Wow, that’s amazing that I achieved that’ and I felt that intensely, I was also thinking, ‘What can I do next?’ And that’s just me. Damn it! [Laughs] That’s just me. That’s who I am and I have to accept that. And that can be hard, but otherwise it’s anxiety. I have to accept I’m not perfect.
But as you said it’s all a process; an endless process, so there is no ‘perfection’. And there is a joy and freedom in that. There is no finish line. And you can spend as much time looking at something as you like and the more you look the more you’ll get out of it. Absolutely. It’s like Einstein’s quote, ’It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer’. And I love this quote and it sums up how I feel. I know that even if I were to have a horrible accident and I was to stop dancing, that I would find a way to have that same ethos, that thing that is ‘me’ and how I look at the world and my self in it. That I would find a way to do that, even though I wouldn’t be dancing. For now, this is just what I need to do while my body can do it.
To go back a little … what drives me; my body is only going to be doing this for so long and I need to eke out as much as I can. I’m not saying I’m trying to replicate what it was doing at 25, I’m just trying to find out what my body is interested in doing at this point. And I’m learning so much about what it can do and what I can do expressively in a different environment, doing different choreography where I’m asked different things about how to respond to a role and developing a character. Working with the Pina Bausch dancers - and I was the strangest bun head ballerina kid because I was obsessed with Pina Bausch growing up - really epitomised everything I’ve wanted to find out about being a dancer in this world. Why we push through all this heartache, and blood, sweat and tears. Because, with all this heightened training and this suspension of reality, you can often be more real than you are in the ‘real’ world. And how do we do that? Because we go through this training and this process of confronting ourselves, and dancing can be confronting, and asking how do I find a way to be relevant and real and communicate something that is going to prompt people who are watching to think in new ways about their lives/politics/religion? And it was the process with those dancers where I really found that and found what was possible. And I needed to find that sooner rather than later and that’s why I needed to move. And now, if I were to do another full length classical ballet I know I could bring all of that back into the roles. And physically I know I could do it. But I don’t know for certain if I’d be interested in that opportunity; it would really depend on the ballet. But it’s good to know I have that, even if it is that I get to coach someone down the track - I could impart all this precious information that’s been passed on to me.
So let’s head to the future … like all activities and art forms - and dance is both and more - dance is constantly changing. Genres are crossing, over-lapping and morphing. Dance in competitions is getting bigger, dance on TV comes and goes in waves, but is typically very popular. People talk and have talked about the death of classical ballet for years. Where do you see the future of dance moving? What would you like to see happen? What concerns you and what excites you? Like I said before, I have major concerns about the model of a major classical ballet company, the way repertoire is chosen, and the values that are promoted when the art is forgotten. There is too much about quantity, and not quality. I think it’s so important, and I’m hearing my Uncle’s voice in my head who had a theatre company in Indonesia and would translate Shakespeare into Indonesian, and present it in traditional ways but with an Indonesian context. And just as Bell Shakespeare presents many classics in different eras, with different interpretations ...
Like Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker … To me Graeme’s Nutcracker, and his Swan Lake, are two works of total genius. And I don’t understand why he’s not more well known overseas. That he was able to make the Nutcracker story, that is so European and so relevant to Australian audiences was incredible. I mean, most dancers groan when they see a traditional Nutcracker come up on the repertoire. It’s very old fashioned, and actually quite racist. It’s entrenched in these white, Colonial, old European ideals. Quite frankly, it’s horrible. One Nutcracker I did, while very aesthetically beautiful and with very tasteful decor; the Chinese dancers still came out with faces painted yellow and with fingers like chopsticks and you think, ‘come on, it’s 2017 and this is what is being presented on stage?’ And these are the moments when I’d be asking myself; ‘what am I doing here? What is this all about?’ But then you look at what Graeme did with that. He made this beautiful Tai Chi presentation as Clara is touring China. I tell people around the world about Graeme’s Nutcracker, about what he did. And I think if The Australian Ballet were to be taking a ballet around overseas then it should be Graeme’s Nutcracker. When I think of the crescendo of the Grand Pas De Deux when the Solider/Lover is shot and falls down the bodies, and then later when the older Clara comes on ... I mean, I get goose bumps even now thinking about it. I would always run out from my quick changes side stage to see those moments and I’ve very rarely done that with any other ballet.
It’s interesting what you said about wanting to take Nutcracker overseas, as it ties in to what we were talking about earlier and the soft cultural power dance wields so well and how amazing it would be to see the reactions of non-Australian audiences to that work. I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t taken. We did Graeme’s, Swan Lake overseas for many years and it was very well received in many places. But you can do that Swan Lake anywhere and it’s not such a risk as it’s not so idiosyncratically Australian. But Nutcracker is so quintessentially an Australian work which would make seeing the reactions that much more interesting.
So what are the main things that concern you in dance? The main thing is, that classical ballet, to stay relevant needs to keep reinventing itself. Of course it’s important to present the traditional classical ballets, but also the reinventions and innovations, as an antithesis. I think getting to know Maina Gielgud was very important in my re-thinking of this, and now I’m thinking back to one of my first mentors, Valrene Tweedie, who taught me. She really instilled in me an appreciation for the origins of the traditions of classical ballet. So it’s not just something you put on stage to prove something about the technical side of things or as a measure of how good you are ...
The risk is that they can become like museum pieces, where you come to learn about history and understand context, but not actually be moved or entertained. You have to be very discerning about it. And it’s partly how you market it. Being honest about what you’re doing.
You don’t put on Checkmate and say ‘this is an amazing piece’ because it’s really not now. But it can be interesting if you’re engaged in the historical context of dance. I’m actually a bit of a history nerd and I loved the way The Australian Ballet did the whole Ballets Russes project over a long period of time. They always marketed it as part of a broader context, which was understanding the history of the Ballets Russes and the creative, developmental role that company played. Graeme created a new Firebird, but we also had three Ballets Russes ballerinas stage Les Sylphides. And you couldn’t get any more direct in the transfer of information than that and it was an amazing time. To me that’s equally important; maintaining that direct transfer, continuing an historic legacy.And the Ballets Russes was so instrumental in fashion and even in interior design and the visual arts.
So might it be better to do works like those, do them really well and then film them really well and then lay them to rest? So it becomes a museum piece that is really well captured for it’s historical power, yet - due to finite resources - say we’re never going to do this again and move on? You could then put them on at IMAX in 3D for special screenings if you like? Maybe. That could be interesting. Just recently at Ballet Vlaanderen we did Martha Graham’s, Chronicle, which was choreographed during the rise of fascism, choreographed in 1938 I believe, which eventuated in World War 2. At the time she was experiencing the effects of fascism in America, in New York. We performed it as part of last season that had a very political message. The season was called ‘Borderlines’, so Larbi’s Requiem was all about people being confronted with the spectre of death; looking at it through the prism of the stories of refugees moving across lands. So we had all of these philosophical and politically tinged works. That was the context and so in that, Chronicle made sense. But if we were to do , Chronicle more randomly, if the whole season hadn’t been thought through and contextualised in this way, then of course we wouldn’t perform it because it could appear to be a museum piece. Of course as a dancer there was something interesting about learning that movement, as there often is with any movement, but it needed the context Larbi developed in order for it to be publicly presented.
OK … last question. If you could give one piece of advice to young dancers what would it be? [Laughs] Answering this I try to think back to what a younger, more impressionable Juliet would have wanted or needed to hear. I’d say to her; don’t be afraid to be true to yourself. If you feel that something’s not right, speak up. Even if you doubt whether you are right or wrong, speak up and ask questions because you’ll learn better. I wish someone had said to me earlier that’s its OK to speak up, that it’s OK to ask. And I wish that every young dancer would remain true to themselves, especially in the age of social media where they can watch all of these YouTube videos and it’s Instagram everything. They can be so saturated with information that might not be right for them to be exposed to. They need to listen to their own instincts as to what’s right. Respect yourself.
Thank you Juliet. It’s been a pleasure.
Addendum; There are times in your life when you know you’re in the presence of an authentic artist. And it’s not because they title themselves that way. For we know this word ‘artist’ raises all sorts of issues over it’s possible definition, as it should. But with her blazing intelligence, profound questioning over every aspect of her life and that unyielding search to want to uncover more, dig deeper, come back and look at things again and again, you know that, even with all she's done and achieved, that Juliet’s best, most productive, most fascinating years are still very much to come.
HEADER IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY; THUY VY