By Juliet Burnett
A very wise teacher I had at The Australian Ballet School, Michaela Kirkaldie, urged us endlessly in the studio: “don’t stay in your comfort zone.” In a year of strict training that was one of the most challenging and formative in my life, it was a lesson that sank in deep, and hasn’t left in the years since. From its humble beginning as a correction in class for our dancing, it became for me a greater life lesson.
In fact, perhaps it resurfaced stronger than ever before, about 5 years ago. After 10 years in The Australian Ballet, I was feeling for the majority of the time, comfortable. I was advancing well in my career, getting the opportunity to dance some dream roles, and working hard towards more of those opportunities that continued to come my way. But I could sense the comfort manifesting itself in my dancing; my reactions had become methodical and routine, my choices safe and even mundane. The familiar environment of the ballet centre in Melbourne, which I had been entering to dance for half of my life, no longer transmitted the same exciting air that would jolt me into a place of discovery and wonder. I had forgotten how to truly explore. Then came the inevitable plummet into the troughs, in between scaling the height of the peaks, the yearning for more breadth of experience, and the belittling effect of the rigid politics of the traditional ballet company structure. But worst of all, the state of comfort, and of course the frustrations forming around it, had made me become jaded about dance. I sorely needed to be able to unfurl my wings in a way that felt instinctively right and truthful to me, not predicated or dictated, nor with the tips of my wings grazing on the walls of the structure. I needed space for my full wingspan, and to be brave enough to make that leap into the air with the hope that the years of training my wings to displace the air in such a way, could support me to fly broadly to the discoveries in destinations beyond.
This career, in my mind, is defined by daring, from the practice and process of the dance, to the choices you make to expand, to make possibilities into reality. If you are constantly timid or safe in your approach, progress will remain elusive. If you spend too much time questioning yourself, opportunities will already have moved on. If you speak out the side of your mouth, you won’t be fully understood. You need to be bold enough to speak directly if you believe in what it is that you are saying. And sometimes, you need to be courageous enough to fight.
Dancers already have a somewhat removed perception of that comfort zone; I mean, I am most at home in a studio or on stage, often in pointe shoes, and doing things with my body that I think are quite normal, while others outside of the industry would marvel at its alienness. We have pain thresholds that many find incomprehensible. Really, we are a special breed of people. We devote our lives to creating fleeting, transient moments on stages to take people on journeys, provoke them, or simply feed them magic and beauty to escape. It’s a noble and worthy cause, especially in today’s world. I needed to step out of my comfortable place to remind myself of this; that art is worth fighting for, worth daring for.
Reflecting on my own dancing journey thus far, there’s no doubt that I have heeded my teacher’s advice throughout. It took me a long time to find the right, culminating moment to take off and fly from my first dancing home; but that is because by nature I am also a deep thinker. My life and the processes within it have been defined by an oscillation between my need to think, consider and be completely conscious in my choices, to being brave, instinctive and just a bit wild. Now that I am 2 whole years into the uncharted beyond, I can say two things: firstly, the winding path is not easy, especially when your main compass is your heart (a mostly-reliable instrument, but not always accurate and certainly not available with a failsafe warranty). Secondly, when you dare to immerse yourself in new experiences, nothing feels comfortable. I’ve surprised myself more in the past 2 years than ever in my life. And it’s not just about feeling like I’m dancing better, or achieving more. It’s about seeking stimuli for enrichment, for enlightenment. It’s about living life. While some can find that fulfilment in one place for their whole career, others need to seek it in different environs. I have always been an insatiable and hyper-curious type; from the outset of my career, it was never going to be a question of “if” I was going to move on, but “when”. Perpetual movement, driven by perpetual questioning.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough in my new company home, Ballet Vlaanderen, to work with iconic Israeli choreographer and inventor of the Gaga movement technique, Ohad Naharin. He asked the dancers: “do you like to be overwhelmed?” He continued, “well, I do, I love to be overwhelmed. So, be overwhelming. Be overwhelmed. But don’t try to overwhelm us in the audience. Overwhelm yourselves.”
This advice, to me, captured the essence of what it is to dance, to live. But you can only overwhelm yourself when you’re constantly pushing beyond the edges of your comfort zone. And the possibilities of the journey beyond are only limited by your own level of insatiability.
Header image by Jo Duck.