Many people assume that when dancers retire, they become teachers. But really that is not the case for everyone. Former Principal dancer David Jonathan definitely thought he would never be a ballet teacher. Choreography, on the other hand, he loved since his childhood years, but being a ballet master, a teacher, snuck up on him at the end of his career. And to his surprise, he felt right at home.
But we all know that in order to be a good teacher one must be a good student. And experience is the best teacher there is.
David’s story begins in Brisbane, Australia. He’s the only dancer in his family but jokes that he has a musical father and flexible mother which definitely provided him with some useful assets. But his passion for dance came from tagging along to his sister’s dance classes and Sunday movie nights with family.
“My oldest sister started performing when she was two and a half, and I was just a baby. So I was just brought along. Eventually, I began begging my parents to let me do classes too. Another influence came from these black and white, old Hollywood films we used to watch on Sundays. I actually wanted to do tap at first. I would beg my parents, ‘just grab a piece of metal from the garage glue it or nail it to my shoes!’ I loved it. So I started with that. But then, when I wanted to join the competition team, I had to do ballet.”
David went to a ballet school alongside his academic school, but soon, wanting to take ballet more seriously, he auditioned for the Australian Ballet School.
“I actually graduated high school early, when I was 16, and then I went to the Australian Ballet School. But though I graduated high school early, I still joined the Australian Ballet School a bit late, making me one of the oldest in my class at Ballet. So as a ballet student, I graduated quite late. But I knew I needed more training, especially in pas de deux, and just general knowledge about technique.”
After graduating, David joined the West Australian Ballet company, but he had his eyes set on Europe.
“I wasn’t interested in joining The Australian Ballet as it was attached to The Australian Ballet School and wanted to get out of that bubble, comfort zone. But I was happy and grateful to join on the West Coast. I was really lucky to get that job actually! I loved that company. It was very small, so I was always on stage. I was often thrown into lead roles. But as much as I loved them, and loved everything they did, I still felt that I wanted to go on my own path, somewhere else. I always wanted to go to Europe.”
After a year and a half, during a change of directors, David decided to audition.
“I found an opportunity to go to an audition. I took a one-month leave of absence while directors were changing. I told the new director what I wanted to do, but he, being from Europe, said, ‘Okay, go, but Europe is a jungle.’ I think he didn’t expect me to get a job. But he also said, ‘If you don’t get a job, come back and we will work well together.’ Often when you’re in those audition situations, you feel like, ‘oh, maybe I have to lie or make up the story’. But honesty is always best. I still have a good relationship with this director even now! We even worked together. It’s great. But anyway, I got a job at Royal Ballet of Flanders. So I moved there for what turned out to be nine years.”
No one ever really knows what their audition experience will be like. You should be ready for everything and anything. The most unlikely things could happen, just like it did for David. But he was ready.
“When I auditioned for the Royal Ballet of Flanders, I first took class. I immediately loved the class, I loved the atmosphere of the company. One of the Forsyth Ballets they were rehearsing while I was there was ‘Impressing the Czar’. They were rehearsing this section with two guys, then they looked at me and said, ‘go there and learn.’ I’m a fast learner. And I learned the whole thing that another boy that had been learning it for over two years and still didn’t get it. They were impressed. I think that helped me get the job.”
David thrived in his time in Flanders. They traveled everywhere, worked with many amazing choreographers, and performed a very diverse repertoire. But with a change of leadership, the company’s well-balanced repertoire was tipping toward becoming heavily modern. David knew that it wasn’t for him so he began to look for what was next in his career.
David’s next offer came with somewhat of an unusual challenge. But the challenge was accepted and he made history in the process.
“In Season 2016/17 I went to Astana Ballet in Kazakhstan; it was an all-female group! They were just doing national work and neoclassical ballets. But I told them, ‘I’ll come to Astana ballet only if there are men in the company as well. I can’t help put your company on the world map and bring you the repertoire you want; you need men to do that.’ So myself and two other men were the first three men to join the Astana Ballet. We made history that, sadly, will probably be erased. But now it’s a proper company. There’s about 60 dancers; a lot of men and a lot of women.”
During his time there David had a serious injury that paused his performing, but exposed a new talent and a new passion.
“Just over two years ago I got a hernia in my back. It put me out for awhile. But when I got injured, I started teaching class and taking care of rehearsals. And that’s how I found out I love being a ballet master!”
As David began teaching he started to piece together his philosophy of class. This is philosophy is what his approach, his style, his energy is all based on. His approach towards this daily discipline dancers have of “taking class” is one of liberation, not from technique, but within it.
“When I teach class, my philosophy is that, though I’m an advocate for technique, I want everyone to find the freedom of movement within it, you know, to really dance. We’re supposed to be dancing, not just doing exercises, like at the gym. I know no one intentionally wants to do that, but we can get so bogged down by that and by the demands made by teachers. It’s easy for me to talk about class now. But, say, for example, when there are moments, and everyone has it, that you’re uninspired, whether it be because the current repertoire is not exciting, or you’re experiencing personal problems, whatever it is, let class be a constant in your life. I think just knowing that you have class every day is a stability. If you can find, again, my philosophy, ‘freedom of movement’ within class then you can use it as your psychologist, as your meditation, etc… My younger self would say, ‘Yeah, I know, but I can’t do that’. I used to struggle a lot with class. The night before class I would think, ‘I hope I can do this well tomorrow, or I hope I do this better. Because today, I sucked.’ I had a negative perfectionism. It’s still something I have to deal with. I was so focused on that. It took me many years to find the joy of dance, as corny as that sounds, but I really did find it. Now I love class for that reason. Also, it gets to a point in your career, where it’s, not that you let go of technique, but you trust your body more to know what to do. Some people are lucky to discover all of this from the beginning. But yeah, I would say find the joy in class and make it work for you, while of course, being respectful to the teacher and exercises. If anything, you know, you have that and it’s a constant and that can be a constant joy, at least for one moment in your day. Sometimes you’ll find it can even change your mood for the whole of the day!”
But being a ballet master isn’t the only thing aside from dancing that David enjoys, his main passion actually lies in choreography!
“I’m ready to stop dancing, well and surely ready. Everyone told me you have to be 110% ready, not just 100%. I believe I’m ready. I know I could come back, but not at the level for a company to do all the classics and such. And I have had a big passion for choreography for a long time. I remember when I learned this word the first time, I must have been six years old or something, and I thought that’s such a cool word. Then my sister’s dance school had a choreography competition. So my sister and I made up a dance together. She was the one who initially taught me how to choreograph. I always looked up to her and I still do. Also, our teachers were professionals in the industry of commercial dance. They would dance with the big stars, so we would get cool new choreography all the time. It was a great inspiration.
I was really lucky in West Australian Ballet too. We had a ‘young choreographer’s night’, and the director asked to put my piece in the main-stage program. And this also happened when the director changed. I think maybe that’s also why he liked me, I was resourceful. When I went to Europe, I made a lot of ballets there in Belgium as well, I won a prize for a piece in the Helsinki ballet competition, I also worked with music artists for MTV, and I was invited back to West Australian Ballet to create there too.”
While choreography is David’s main passion, it’s is a very challenging life. But teaching has, in a way, opened up the door for David to move from being a dancer to a ballet master while also freeing him up considerably to take on extra choreographic projects around the world.
“Being a choreographer is tricky. In this day and age, there are so many choreographers out there. I don’t see the reality of living off of that, at least not in order to have a good and decent life. But I’ve discovered through my injuries and such, I love giving class, love helping dancers reach their potential. So even though I thought I would never do this job, I want to be a ballet master.”
As David said, class is a constant, an everyday part of a ballerina’s job. And due to its faithful presence, it has a lot of power in our career and lives. When a teacher understands the value of what he does and puts so much thought and intentionality into that class, as David does, the artists are bound to be transformed in the process. I think many dancers would have missed out on so much had David not made this incredible journey and discovery about himself.