‘Dance or die’: ballet superstar says Australians mustn’t fear ambition

David Hallberg has had a simple, confronting message for his dancers since he officially took the helm of The Australian Ballet late last year.

“I don’t want them to be afraid of the word ‘ambition’,” he says, as he announces six rising stars nominated for the company’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards.

Telstra Ballet Dancers Awards nominees (left to right) Imogen Chapman, Nathan Brook, Serena Graham, Jasmin Durham, Corey Herbert and Cameron Holmes.Credit:Simon Schluter

The newly-imported international dance superstar, intimately familiar with assertive American and ruthless Russian dance corps, says Australians have an inbuilt sense of egalitarianism, a tendency to avoid being tall poppies. That’s nice. But it might not take you to the top.

“I don’t want them to feel like, ‘Oh, I can’t push myself forward, I can’t be hungry for roles and for opportunities’. I think a healthy sense of ambition goes a long way. Here in Australia, I think ambition is actually a really good word to use and a mentality to have.”

He’s stoking a fire that’s already alight – perhaps more than ever, he says, thanks to the pandemic.

“I feel like it whittled out people [for whom] maybe it was just that much too hard,” he says. “To get through hardship there’s a sense of, in a dancer, ‘dance or die’. Dance not for financial benefit, not for public benefit, but just an intensely personal drive and ambition and love for what they do. It’s the calling. It’s a force, that’s stronger than themselves.”

He’s confident pushing the dancers, because he knows that egalitarianism is pushing back.

The Australian Ballet’s new artistic director David Hallberg promised to bring contemporary energy to the company. Credit:Eddie Jim

“I know how fierce competition can be [overseas],” he says. “Though it doesn’t get vicious or violent… in a way.

Left to right: Cameron Holmes. Imogen Chapman, Serena Graham, Nathan Brook, Corey Herbert and Jasmin Durham.Credit:Simon Schluter

“[But] I think it will never go awry in a culture like this because of the tall poppy syndrome. It will never sour. There will always be this balance.

“I’m really pushing the dancers to define what their standard is themselves. And in a healthy way, pushing each other. Using that sense of competition to egg each other on, to set their own ambitions. Not to compare yourself in an unhealthy way but compare yourself in a more of a constructive way.”

It can be a tough distinction.

Cameron Holmes, 21, joined The Australian Ballet in 2018 and is on a rapid rise to the top. On Tuesday the former Sydneysider, who began dancing age 3, was named among this year’s awards nominees.

“You have to have that drive and passion,” he says. “You’re walking in every day and doing plies and drills from 9am to 6.30 at night. You’re looking at yourself in the mirror 24/7 and comparing yourself to others.”

He was doing exactly that the other day, he says, and had “a bit of a down moment”.

“You pick yourself back up but it’s a hard slog.”

The nomination is “a huge confidence booster in itself,” Holmes says. “It makes me more hungry.”

The same goes for Jasmin Durham, another nominee, born in Hong Kong, raised in Canberra, who moved to Melbourne’s The Australian Ballet School in 2009 and joined the Ballet in 2012.

“I’ve really struggled, in the past, with feeling worthy,” she says. “Growing up in a humble home, having to prove myself.”

And then came the pandemic. Stuck alone in a one-bedroom apartment, doing what she could to keep up her skills.

“For me it was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “I feel it’s a fork in the road. In my apartment I learned how I had to cope with it. It made me stronger.”

And Hallberg is a terrifying inspiration, she says.

“It’s quite intimidating. I’m still working on trying to make eye contact with him. His passion and dedication to the art form has filtered through the company. I’m in my 10th year and feel like it’s the first day.

“I’ve never felt so ready in my life. There’s a buzz in the air.”

The winners of the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards will be announced at Sydney Opera House on April 6, at the opening night of New York Dialects. The Ballet returns to the stage this month in Melbourne for Summertime at the Ballet.

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