Queensland Ballet’s plea for help: ‘We need more blokes’
When Queensland Ballet soloist Vito Bernasconi was playing rugby league as a boy nobody made fun of him for being a ballet dancer. Because he was big and could tackle. Boy could he tackle. Ballet taught him about anatomy and he used that to his advantage on the footy field.
"I could tackle people so well," Bernasconi says when we chat between classes at Queensland Ballet's headquarters at West End.
"I could zero in and find their hips, lean my shoulder in and bring them down hard. I took a few hits from time to time too but that just helped me build fortitude."
Bernasconi, 27, says being a boy doing ballet did, however, have its uncomfortable moments when he was growing up in the beachside Sydney suburb of Coogee.
"I did get a bit of stick at first," Bernasconi recalls. "They'd say … you do ballet? You're a girl, you're gay. I got some bullying but not too much because I'm not small so not too many people really wanted to pick a fight with me. Besides, I just got to a point where I ignored it."
Bernasconi has a younger sister, Pia, who took up surfing while he did ballet.
"It was this weird anti-stereotype," he says. "We broke the boundaries."
Bernasconi, whose partner is well-known dancer and artistic director of the Australasian Dance Collective Amy Hollingsworth, is the son of a gay couple and points out that he grew up with two mums. One of his mums, former SBS TV producer Joy Toma says her son announced at the age of five that he wanted to do ballet.
"I was cooking dinner for a friend who was a choreographer and Vito came up and said to him - I'd like you to teach me ballet," Toma says. "I thought that was great. So he went to a ballet school at Randwick and he was one of only three boys in the class. They were very light on for boys."
More than 20 years later, things have changed somewhat but getting boys into ballet is still a struggle. Girls flock to ballet schools everywhere. Boys, not so much.
But Queensland Ballet has a concerted drive to change that and this month it is mounting a campaign to attract more male dancers.
That begins with a Boys Only Workshop at Queensland Ballet Academy's state-of-the-art home at Kelvin Grove, where the young dancers of tomorrow train and go to school.
The academy's inaugural workshop for boys aged 10 to 17 will offer ballet, contemporary dance and repertoire training. Leading up to next weekend's event, Queensland Ballet Academy will be showcasing the many talents of its male dancers, faculty and alumni through Facebook and Instagram to celebrate the male dancers in our community.
Currently Queensland Ballet has nine boys in a pre-performance program, six in the Jette Parker Young Artists' program, 10 in the senior program and 30 male dancers in the company.
And while that's something to celebrate, artistic director Li Cunxin says he is keen to recruit more danseurs (the common term for male dancers) to keep the company's contingent equal to the bevy of 30 ballerinas.
There have been some extraordinary male ballet dancers. Most famously there was Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev and Russian-American dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and more recently Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, who has guested with Queensland Ballet.
And of course there's Li Cunxin himself whose memoir Mao's Last Dancer, also a Hollywood film, made him one of the best known ballet stars of his era.
Li, 59, says there is still some resistance getting boys into ballet.
"There is still a perception that ballet is for girls," Li says. "But we know that's not true.
"Where does that notion come from? Maybe it has something to do with tutus that makes some boys think ballet is a girls' thing. The number of girls who want to do ballet is overwhelming.
"I don't know why boys should be reluctant considering there are all these beautiful girls they get to dance with. And how many other professions are there where you get to be loved, cheered and have a fabulous career that can take you around the world?
"And ballet teaches you discipline and many other things. I encourage parents to do their boys a great service and get them into ballet young. They can learn new skills, gain confidence and fitness and it can really help them in life."
The Boys Only Workshop is just one of a number of strategies Li Cunxin and his team have come up with to attract male dancers.
"We have summer schools most years for boys and we want to have more training camps," Li says. "We have scholarships too especially for country kids from rural Queensland, that's a priority. That's for girls and boys but particularly for boys because we have a shortage. We want to increase participation."
Li Cunxin says he didn't face any gender bias as a child learning ballet in China.
"For me there was less prejudice," he says. "It was an opportunity to do something other than being a starving peasant boy. We didn't have all the preconceptions that they had in the West about ballet."
Macho culture in Australia has often regarded ballet with suspicion. If you want to see how it was regarded a few decades ago, go on YouTube and watch the Fosters beer ad comedian Paul Hogan made. Hoges was in a box watching a ballet while sipping on a coldie when a male dancer in tights springs onto the stage in full flight.
"Strewth, there's a bloke down there with no strides on!" Hoges splutters in shock.
Hopefully we have got past that and one of the things that has normalised ballet for blokes is regarding it as a kind of elite sport. Ballet is athletic. Very athletic.
Nobody knows that better than the Queensland Ballet Academy's strength and conditioning coach Tony Lewis, 52, who works with young male dancers every day. Lewis, a former principal artist with Queensland Ballet, is a sports loving boy from Ayr in North Queensland.
He came to ballet via karate. "One day at karate I noticed one of the guys I was training with had improved quite a bit," Lewis recalls. "I asked him what sort of secret training he was doing on the side and he said - don't tell anyone but I've been doing dance classes."
Lewis wanted to improve his karate so he took up dancing, more modern styles at first but then ballet.
He was a late starter beginning the discipline at 16. He went on to train at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne and danced in Europe during his career.
"It seemed more acceptable to be a male ballet dancer in Europe," Lewis reflects. "There was still a stigma attached to male dancers here when I started out. Even I thought only effeminate men did ballet until my first class when I thought, hang on, this is tough.
"Most boys who have done ballet have experienced name calling but I like to think that things have improved now."
Lewis works predominantly with the male dancers and says there is nothing effeminate about ballet. "Some of these boys I work with are seriously strong and have been training consistently for several years," Lewis says.
"And with the boys there's a real sense of camaraderie and team spirit. I enjoy working with these young guys, helping them develop. We spend time in the gym squatting and pressing and doing the sort of training that football codes put their players through."
Head of senior program and Queensland Ballet Academy resident choreographer, Paul Boyd, 59, says that male ballet dancers are incredible athletes.
"That's evident on stage," Boyd says. "I know a lot of men who have been dragged to the ballet unwillingly by their wives, but they are really impressed by what they see the men doing on stage, the power, strength and masculinity of it."
Boyd regards the ballet boys at the Academy as "like my sons".
"I see more of some of the boys here than their fathers do," Boyd says. "'I'm as tough as nails with them. I want them to grow as good men, teaching them about respect and other values, not just ballet."
Boyd, who is from Wagga Wagga in country NSW, also danced with Queensland Ballet and says being a dancer is a privilege. He describes danseurs as "elite athletes".
"To really train a young man properly for ballet it takes 10 years," Boyd says. "So it's better to get them starting young."
He started as a four year old.
"My first teacher saw me dancing in the bank when I was there with my father one day," Boyd recalls. "She was a family friend and she approached my father and said - why don't you bring him to some dance classes and I'll get rid of some of that energy for you."
Boyd's wife Glenda is also a dancer and they have grown-up children. Their careers took them to Europe and he retired from dancing at the age of 43 after 25 years on stage.
He was with Queensland Ballet early in his career, rejoined the company in 1996 and is enjoying helping prepare the next generation of young blokes for their careers in ballet.
Many prospective young dancers are lost to sport at the expense of ballet and 24-year-old Queensland Ballet company dancer Ari Thompson could have had a career in sport quite easily. At 193cm he's the tallest dancer in the company. He's a big bloke who looks a little like a classical Greek statue.
On the morning we chat I watch him rehearsing first and it's amazing to see how effortless he makes it look. When you see his stature and strength you think he could well have been an athlete, which he was.
Thompson, who is from Ipswich, started dancing at 13 when he was still a keen sportsman. "I was a sporty boy and played soccer, did athletics and cross country," Thompson says.
"I went to the state titles for the 800m. When I was running my coach said to me, 'You need to get more flexible to increase your stride.' Mum was like, 'Oh you should try some ballet.' Which I did but I didn't like it at first. I didn't think of it as sporty but I grew to love it because it's so challenging. I wanted to be a professional soccer player or the next Usain Bolt." But he ended up being a ballet dancer instead. Go figure.
Thompson was a pre-professional at Queensland Ballet and then joined the company as a young artist. But when he didn't get a contract with the company proper he went to Western Australia for a year and then came back, auditioned again and was given a job by Li Cunxin.
He says there's a good camaraderie among the male dancers.
"The things we get up to in the change rooms," he says and leaves it there. What happens in the change rooms stays in the change rooms and that's the way it should be, be it State of Origin or the ballet. I raise an eyebrow as he heads back to class.
Alexander Idaszak, 27, a senior soloist withthe company is another of our ballet boys.
He's from working class Rooty Hill in Sydney's west. He has brothers also involved in ballet, one of whom, Daniel, is currently with the Australian Ballet.
His older brother, John Paul, who also danced, paved the way and paid the price.
"I remember him getting into a scuffle at high school once because he was doing ballet," Idaszak says. "He was in school and there was a scuffle but he won the scuffle. He just pinned them up against the wall and that was that.
"At school I didn't go around telling everybody I was into ballet. I played a lot of sport and was very athletic. But ballet is more difficult than any other sport because we have to look good while were are doing it. It's an art."
Idaszak was last on stage in Queensland Ballet's production of The Nutcracker late last year.
That's also the last time we saw 22-year-old company dancer Mali Comlecki on stage. He is performing at the Powerhouse this month in the Lights On at Brisbane Powerhouse series and will partner on stage with his girlfriend, fellow company dancer Paige Rochester.
Comlecki, from a Turkish family in Sydney's western suburbs, started dancing at 10 and wanted, at first, to be the next Michael Jackson.
"I was more interested in hip hop and the commercial scene," Comlecki recalls.
"I did everything but ballet. The studio where I danced didn't encourage boys to do ballet because they didn't want them to get bullied.
"But I wanted to take my dancing further and moved to a studio where they made all the boys do ballet. And I loved it. I continued doing ballet when I went to a performing arts high school in Newtown. I really enjoyed ballet and I realised you could actually make a career out of it. And I'm loving it. I'm getting paid but it doesn't seem like a job at all."
That would make Li Cunxin smile. His cunning plan is working.
For more information about the Boys Only Workshop and Queensland Ballet: queenslandballet.com.au
Originally published as Queensland Ballet's plea for help: 'we need more blokes'