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Amanda Dunn
The Age
March 14, 2010

 

How does a working-class boy from Beechboro make it to the top of the ballet world? Amanda Dunn meets Kevin Jackson, Australia’s own Billy Elliot.

KEVIN Jackson is bent double with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. He has just danced a solo from the Australian Ballet’s new work, The Silver Rose, for ballet mistress Fiona Tonkin, who today is in charge of his rehearsal.

It is early afternoon and the studio at the company’s Southbank home is hot and stuffy, the air heavy with sweat. Without the benefit of costumes, lighting and a polite distance from the dancers, it is possible to see, and hear, what tremendous hard work it really is. Jump, jump, stretch, turn, jump some more.

”That’s very good, very good,” Tonkin reassures, walking towards Jackson with her hand on her face, preparing her corrections.

The Silver Rose is the company’s big-ticket item for the year: it is the first ballet of the season, choreographed by one of Australia’s most eminent dance makers, Graeme Murphy. Jackson dances the key role of Octavian, the young lover of the Marschallin, a famous actress who in this cast is danced by principal artist Rachel Rawlins.

In the way of classical ballet, the lovers are headed for disaster, as Octavian falls for a much younger woman, Sophie. This is further complicated by the fact that Sophie has been given the eponymous silver rose, a symbol of betrothal, by the lecherous Baron Ochs, a man, by all accounts, not to be trifled with.

Dressed today in a red Lycra bodysuit and sleeveless white T-shirt with a skull on it, Jackson has an ideal physique for a male dancer. Tall but not too tall, muscular and strong, he is lean enough to be able to leap with grace and ease, but solid enough to cope with the constant lifting of his female colleagues, slender though they are.

As he works through the rehearsal, his face is unfailingly expressive – he switches to ”on” the minute the music starts, or Tonkin gives her instruction. This is an aspect of his dancing that particularly appeals to the company’s artistic director, David McAllister, who has just promoted him and two other dancers from soloist to senior artist. McAllister talks of Jackson’s ”plasticity”, his ability to transform himself into whatever the role requires. ”He can tell the story through his body, he’s just so expressive,” he says.

At 25, and after seven years in the company, Jackson is a star in the making. His rise to its second-highest rank (only principal is higher, a rank that, barring catastrophe, he seems assured of obtaining) has been relatively rapid, but it has not always been easy.

As is the case with many boys, Kevin Jackson came to ballet more by accident than design. He grew up in the working-class Perth suburb of Beechboro with a younger brother, David, and – 10 years after him – a half-sister, Emily. Like cinematic ballet boy Billy Elliot, his talent seemed to emerge from nowhere – there were no dancers, or even theatrical types, anywhere in the family. ”I knew nothing about (ballet),” Jackson’s mother, Annette, says. ”I had never been to the ballet.”

It all began when six-year-old Kevin watched his cousins perform in a ballet concert. He vividly recalls the feeling when the lights dimmed, the music started and the curtain rose. ”I remember just sitting there and … exploding with all this energy,” he says. ”I remember thinking, I want to be up there and do that.”

So he did, and just two years later his mother realised that ballet would be more than a passing interest for him. At a dancing competition when he was eight, Annette Jackson was astonished at the change that came over her son, a naturally shy boy, when he walked on to the stage: ”His face was just, ‘Here I am, look at me!”’

There was the usual teasing from other kids: ”poofter” and ”twinkle toes” were thrown at him on a regular basis. But he was not particularly bothered by it: ”I knew that what I was doing was something I loved, so I didn’t [mind] what anyone else thought.”

Crunch time came at 15, when he was accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, which meant leaving his close-knit family. His mother remembers it as a difficult time, especially as her work commitments meant she could not bring him to Melbourne herself, so her mother came with him instead.

The years at the school were hard on them both. He battled homesickness, while she worked two to three jobs at a time to help pay his fees. Working in an office during the day, she would stack supermarket shelves at night, and sometimes, between the two, squeeze in a third job helping people with their tax returns. Although on a scholarship, which the family say was a great help, there was still Jackson’s tuition, accommodation and living expenses. ”When you have to do these things, you do,” she says matter-of-factly.

It paid off: Jackson was accepted into the company in 2003, and he has not looked back.

Now, as he sits in an interview room with a salad sandwich in front of him, he says he was shocked at life in ballet’s elite ranks.

”I didn’t actually think it would be quite as demanding,” he admits. Everyone had told him that his final year at the school would be the hardest, but ”then I got into the company and realised that actually, no, it’s not – it’s as hard as that and harder.

”And it gets harder every year because your body gets a little older. We tour and perform so much, so that’s demanding on your social life and outside friendships and family. In that respect, I think it’s a lot harder than I ever thought it was going to be.”

He was also given a wake-up call by McAllister. ”[He] kind of gave me a kick up the arse. He said if you don’t come in here and work your hardest, you’ll be out. And it really gave me the best start I could ever have hoped for in a company because I walked in here and I wanted to improve every day. I’ve been able to keep that up and it’s sort of gotten me to where I am today. It’s been reasonably fast and I’m very thankful for that.”

Now he is, in McAllister’s words, ”at the most glorious point of his career”, which can be expected to last for another decade. After 35, even the fittest bodies struggle to cope with the demands of professional dancing.

For now, though, dance consumes a great deal of Jackson’s life, an arrangement with which he seems perfectly content. Last year he bought a house in North Melbourne with two other company members, Rudy Hawkes and Dimity Azoury, but he says the friends are careful to keep their lives separate when they are at home.

He also has some non-ballet friends, but it can be difficult to catch up with them because the dancers tour constantly and their hours are long.

At any rate, he says, ”I suppose socialising and going out isn’t really something that you can do too much in this industry because it takes a toll on your body”.

The state of their bodies is, of course, a constant concern for professional dancers – a serious injury can instantly end a career. Jackson is acutely aware of how careful he needs to be, having had an awful run of injuries. He has had stress fractures in his feet, numerous sprained ankles – the worst of which required a month off dancing, which in itself creates problems for such finely honed bodies – and a back that gave him constant problems.

It was a serious enough injury that even David McAllister was worried. If a male dancer can’t lift, he can’t partner, and that really is the end of a ballet career. It’s harder now too, McAllister says, because ”the girls are getting taller and there isn’t so much of an emphasis on [their] being so waif-like”.

Jackson now does pilates each morning before ballet class to build core strength and support his back.

But the injury he considers to be his most serious came in 2008, and it happened in the worst possible place: on stage. He was dancing the Jerome Robbins comedy The Concert at the Sydney Opera House, when ”I guess I got too into the character of the shy boy and I kind of ran … and as I ran I twisted [my ankle] in my shoe.” He heard a snap and felt his foot throbbing, but with no one available to replace him, he continued with his last 15 minutes on stage.

”I knew there was pain there, but I really took myself out of that pain and rose above it,” he recalls. It turned out he had broken his foot, and he could not even bear weight on it much less dance.

While Jackson’s body has been relatively easy to mend, his homesickness has been a different matter. Because of time and money, he is able to return to Perth only every second Christmas (alternate Christmases are spent checking out ballet companies overseas), and for the same reasons, his mother and sister are able to come to the east coast to watch him perform only about twice a year.

Seeing him on stage, his mother says, is ”overwhelming”. ”When he comes out, the tears just flow,” she says.

When Jackson left Perth at 15, sister Emily was just five, and he had played a significant role in raising her in her infancy. ”I miss them,” he says. ”I think one of the biggest regrets I have in choosing this life is that I didn’t get to see my sister grow. She’s now 16 and it’s crazy, every time I see her it’s, ‘Wow, you’ve completely changed’.”

He has the name ”Jackson” tattooed on the inside of his left wrist, in honour of his late grandmother. The tattoo has to be covered with special make-up on stage, but, he says, ”I like it, it reminds me of who I am and where I come from”.

Providing he can keep his body intact, the road ahead looks to be paved with great things. His ambition now is to become a principal artist and later, when his performing career ends, he is interested in choreography and teaching.

The popularity of dance at the moment, largely through television shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, means that many people are interested, and impressed, when he tells them he is a professional ballet dancer – a long way from the schoolyard teasing he contended with as a child.

”I think all these shows have been really good for it and hopefully it continues to happen so that people come and watch,” he says. ”Because obviously that’s the only reason any of us are doing this – to perform for an audience.”

 

A dancer’s life

1984: Born in Perth.

1991: Begins ballet lessons.

2000: Accepted into the Australian Ballet School, Melbourne.

2003: Accepted into the Australian Ballet.

2007: Participates in classes with the Paris Opera Ballet, Bavarian State Opera, Dutch National Ballet, English National Ballet and Royal Ballet as part of the Khitercs Scholarship.

2007: As a soloist with the company, performs the title role of Apollo in 2007, his first ”break-out” role.

2008: Wins the prestigious Telstra Ballet Dancer Award for Australia’s most popular dancer.

2009: Renowned choreographer Graeme Murphy creates the role of Prince Ivan in Firebird for Jackson.

2009: Creates his first choreographic work Enter Closer, which is performed in the Bodytorque program.

2010: Promoted to senior artist.

Copyright © 2008 Fairfax Digital

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