A few words with Juliet Burnett

Why ballet!?

Initially, I was enrolled in ballet classes because the ballet school was just down the road and my parents thought it would be a nice thing to try, especially considering there was dancing blood in the family from my grandmother, who was a traditional Javanese classical dancer. Who would’ve known where that chance beginning would take me!

Of course there were turning points throughout my training as a young student in Sydney, and even up to this day, that have led me to where I am today.

What was the hardest part about becoming a professional dancer? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

The path to becoming a professional dancer is notoriously tough; and it’s true. That’s because the career itself is tough. You need a thick skin. You are constantly being tested. Everyone knows about the immense physical challenges, but undoubtedly the mental challenges are more testing. They’re the ones that should be talked about more openly, but we don’t, because part of being a dancer and having that thick skin is concealing our struggle. We work hard to fine-tune our dancing to make it seem effortless; this too manifests in the way we conduct and present ourselves. It’s about survival of the fittest, and it can be a ruthless world. 

What inspires you to work hard/harder everyday?

At the crux of it, a need to dance. I am inspired constantly by people and the world around me, as much as I am saddened and affected by it. For me the greatest driving force is the pursuit of seeking greater truth in expression, rather than perfection, because perfection is elusive; indeed by definition, the word “perfect” is imperfect.

Favourite ballet to dance?

I love anything with such great substance that you leave the last show wanting for more, and roles that you feel that in dancing them, you discover more about yourself. I’ve been lucky to have so many of these experiences, though my favourites have been Giselle, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, the works of Wayne McGregor and William Forsythe, and a couple of very special pieces that Melanie Lane created on me last year: Re-make and Megatruh. 

What is a typical misconception that people have about ballet?

That it’s not a full-time job or a serious career. It frustrates me no end. My friends who aren’t professional dancers are constantly amazed by the hours I work, the fact that my weekend consists only of Sunday, and by the intellectual investment a dancer has in the career. We are not vapid, ethereal beings who miraculously float onto the stage and then sashay out into the night into our fairytale castles. We are real people with a real passion, and although it is a somewhat extraordinary life filled with magical moments, it is also a visceral, taxing and consuming career. Oh yeah, and we eat very well, thank you! 

How accessible was ballet to you when you were growing up? 

In the eastern suburbs of Sydney, very. I was lucky that my parents gave my sister and I privileged upbringing, however they also educated us about the context of our privilege. A distinct childhood memory: when we would visit our family in Jakarta, Indonesia, I would always notice the vast shanty towns by the Ciliwung River as we drove past on the freeway. When I asked Mum and Dad what they were, and who lived there, they would tell us about the poor people who lived there, that it was very sad, and very common in Indonesia. My uncle W.S. Rendra, who was Indonesia’s foremost poet, playwright and activist, was very vocal about the injustice and great socioeconomic divide in Indonesia; and he had a massive influence on me. Once I was fully fledged in my ballet career at The Australian Ballet, I felt the urge to further connect with my cultural roots in Indonesia, with some traditional Javanese dance lessons. It was on this trip that I had a cultural epiphany, about who I was and why I danced, and also resolved in myself the wish to give back to my second home in some way. Of course the memory of the river in Jakarta came back to me, and I wondered whether I could connect with the communities there somehow. When I was invited to be a Guest Artist in the 1st Indonesian Ballet Gala in 2015, I asked the organisers Ballet.id if they would assist me in setting up a community workshop in which I would teach the kids some ballet. It wasn’t about forcing some western ideal onto them, but rather introducing something to them that may inspire a dream, and I wanted also for us to be able to provide practical means to achieve that. Ballet Goes to Ciliwung was a great success, and the children have since continued attending a weekly class with a volunteer teacher from Ballet.id. The idea is to give them hope, to inspire them to pursue a career beyond what their means might seem. To realise this, Ballet.id set up tuition funds for two promising students. We continue our work there and I try for an annual trip to Indonesia to make contact with the kids again. The idea is to expand the project to make dance lessons accessible for all demographics. Dance is embedded in the culture there, and so the opportunity to make a career of it makes a lot of sense.

Do you feel that all children have an opportunity to participate in ballet? What would you feel are some of the obstacles that children may face?

I wish there were more opportunities for children in lower socioeconomic demographics. Even in a privileged country like Australia, that is a problem. However we are seeing more such projects as Ballet Goes to Ciliwung pop up around the world, and indeed the accessibility of the art form is being taken into great seriousness as the art of ballet fights to maintain its relevance in this fast-paced modern world.

Any advice for young dancers wanting to make it in the dance world?

Listen to your heart, and use your brain! Remember it is an art form, which means it’s subjective. If one adjudicator/examiner/teacher doesn’t see something in you, someone else will. Work your hardest every day, approach every obstacle with truth and an open mind, and you will never have any regrets. And if it becomes clear that a career as a dancer isn’t right for you, persist with your passion in related avenues, like choreography, direction or teaching, as this is by no means a step down, it’s just a step onto a different path. With teaching, for example, this strange idea that “those who can’t dance, teach” is demeaning and untrue; teaching dance is a career unto itself and requires skills beyond what many people perceive. 

I also want young dancers to know they can always message me on Instagram or Twitter - we should be using these mediums for true and meaningful communication rather than superficiality and ego-building.