Kevin Jackson’s potential proved to be stratospheric, but it was nearly annihilated in his very first dance class. A shy seven-year-old, he arrived at a Morley studio to join an all-girl class. The shame that followed almost caused him to flee and leave a Kevin-shaped hole in the wall. “I just remember the girls were doing splits in the middle of the floor,” he recalls, noting he was hopelessly inflexible, far off the ground. “I just remember the laughter and giggles at me”.
Luckily for Australia — and the next generation of ballet dancers — the young, sensitive Jackson was made of stern stuff.
Jackson would go on to have a meteoric rise to fame as WA’s best male ballet dancer: the principal danseur at The Australian Ballet for the past decade.
In this mid-COVID-19 pandemic period, Jackson has made a seismic change, retiring from The Australian Ballet and returning home to mentor children from all around WA.
Teaming up with renowned performing arts studio owner and director Leanna Del Basso a few months ago, they formed the Perth Youth Ballet. It’s a rich pot of young talent that will perform in a show choreographed by Jackson, called Emergence, with a cast of 84 kids.
Make no mistake, among these ballet students, Jackson is akin to deity and will doubtless ordain future stars. He’s the X-factor polishing machine to push hopeful youth in their prime to their potential.
It was thanks to a supportive mum that the young Jackson wasn’t deterred by his disastrous introduction to dance classes. He switched to a studio run by Shirley Farrell, that was essentially a two-car garage. It had a wooden floor, tin roof and for the cool-down a rather biologically active above-ground pool that the kids loved — as did the frogs. Farrell soon branched out to a proper studio in Malaga, teaching a wide range of dance styles and acrobatics.
Jackson was 15 years old when he joined the Australian Ballet School. Three years later, in 2003, he was recruited by The Australian Ballet to perform Swan Lake and went on to become the prestigious company’s male lead. Each new show was learnt in anything from a dizzying two to six weeks, depending on scheduling requirements.
Jackson’s eyes are bright and wide, as he describes the zenith of The Australian Ballet rehearsals and world-class tours.
Artistic director David Hallberg — “the ballet god of our generation”, quips Jackson — was averse to the stereotypical prima donna and peacocking in ballet and forged a different approach, centred on storytelling that transcended knowledge of dance.
The American Hallberg was an important mentor to Jackson, immersing his protege in complex roles that required whole of body and mind artistry. “He spared nothing, he gave everything ... devoted on stage, human off it,” Hallberg would later say about Jackson.
“When you learn the flow of the movement,” Jackson explains, “and the feeling through almost your blood; that’s when you can start creating movement and story on top of that.
“I learn by doing. By working my body, working my mind, working my speech, the feel of the woman, how I need to place her, the feeling of her wrapping around my neck, is how I recall how to do it the next day. It’s the thread of the moment.
“I’m the actor-dancer and that’s what I’ve always strived for ... to tell a story, to communicate and be the supporting role for the woman.
“It isn’t all about me. I’m here to support this gorgeous ballerina — it’s about the two of us. People who come to the theatre, if they don’t know dance and they don’t know the ballet mind, they know what a soul is projecting. What I found from retiring and listening to people’s comments is maybe I was someone who could break that wall.”
Jackson grins as he remembers some thick-set, blue collar larrikins — more comfortable in hi-vis than hifalutin arts — that approached him after a show in Perth. With breathless excitement, one man exclaimed “I really got it!” It was the height of compliments from a bloke attending his first ballet.
The storyline transcended any need to understand dance, Jackson explains. “It’s rhythm, beat and body language down to its core and if you can harness all that because you feel it ... I think in its essence is ... that joining of music and the dancer explodes and creates emotion. That’s where ballet is for everybody.”
Sometimes the emotion and pain and a role are so intertwined that Jackson found himself unravelling — so deeply engrossed in a deranged character he’s “splintered” his actual mind. This happened during an Australian Ballet production of the famed Nijinsky ballet; the lead based on a Russian characterised as the best male ballet artist of the early 20th century. Vaslav Nijinsky was adulated for his intense characterisations but tragically suffered acute stress and was eventually institutionalised, diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Jackson had already pushed himself to physical limits in Spartacus, spending every day at the gym to become the play’s Greek Adonis. Consequently, he damaged his back midway through the season, then suffered a stress fracture in his shin.
Against this backdrop, he began gruelling rehearsals for Nijinsky. “I went into this solo and the weight of the role ... went into my body and I was stuffed,” Jackson says.
“It was almost like I put myself into a depressive state in my real life. I kind of broke, as Nijinsky broke, in my real life as I was performing it on stage. That emotion and physical pain came into my body and I had to go to a psychologist and a physio and ask ‘why did it do that?’”
The pivotal moment for Jackson to retire from The Australian Ballet came courtesy of COVID-19 cancelling live performances, annihilating sponsorships and halving wages. Paradoxically, the pandemic offered a surprise panacea and gave oxygen to a desire to explore his own choreography.
“One of the reasons I retired, The Australian Ballet is such a big mechanical wheel of throwing out shows I never really had the time to explore my creativity,” Jackson says. “It’s a conveyor belt of ballet, year by year. You’re learning a lot, and it’s artistic, it’s massive.
“(But) it was time for me to find out that creativity.”
The concept of the Perth Youth Ballet was born when Jackson posted a cryptic thought bubble on Facebook at the start of the year: “What am I going to do?”
Leanna Del Basso, owner of Vogue Performers studio in Osborne Park, reached out to her friend — with whom she shared mutual professional admiration — and began listing a range of options. The very last and most ambitious of all was to form a youth ballet company. It triggered in Jackson a deep yearning to channel his creativity into the young people of WA.
Del Basso, a formidable dancer herself who won the Australasian Ballerina Cup in 1992, has coached thousands of students for the past 34 years. She’s now teaching the children of her first students. For someone so accomplished, it’s surprising to hear her express regret for lost opportunities as an adolescent. It is part of her motivation to mentor youth to reach their potential in dance. “For me to do this with Kevin,” Del Basso pauses, her eyes welling with emotion, “it feels like I’m going to get up and dance. I’m excited for them. This (Perth Youth Ballet) is allowing another 84 ballet dancers, aged nine to 17, to get up there in the State Theatre, professional tutus and costumes, with the bee’s knees, Kevin Jackson.”
Jackson says the partnership offered by Del Basso was serendipitous.
“I’ve come back to someone I respect and know that has been in the business for many years and has not only been a dance teacher but has been able to branch out and do commercial work on shows,” he says.
He knows well how daunting teaching dance can be.
“You go from your tippy-toe to the top of your head and there’s a million things to focus on and learn; that’s why it’s so hard to teach children from such a young age,” he explains.
“It’s like teaching someone to walk. Dance doesn’t come naturally; it’s so abnormal for our bodies. As dancers advance, the best collaborations between choreographer and dancer come with chemistry; a connection beyond compartmentalised instruction, that flows with storytelling creativity.”
Jackson found this while working with Steven Heathcote, “the golden boy of the 80s and 90s”. “It’s almost like the less he says, the more I understand,” Jackson says. “It’s a beautiful relationship that allows the dancer to be free, to develop, to grow, to be the artist rather than just the dancer.”
Perth Youth Ballet feels like a homecoming experience for Jackson. A melting pot, a collaboration, a learning company that welcomes undeveloped kids. “At the moment, the ideas are flying! Wow. This is what it’s like to not be totally absorbed by my body, by what I need to do, what I need to learn, six ballets at a time! I didn’t even know The Australian Ballet existed until I was 15,” Jackson says. “I want to give these kids two hours a week where I’m passing on 30 years of knowledge of the profession; to open those imaginary walls and hopefully create a space where people can come together to create, to learn and discover and put on a show.”
Young diamonds chase dance dream
The excitement is palpable — energy pulsates and childhood dreams are chased at the new Perth Youth Ballet studio classes.
From as far afield as Geraldton, Bunbury, Northam, Meckering and Bencubbin, dance students drive to the Osborne Park studio for 31/2 hours of rehearsals with coaches including one of Australia’s ballet greats.
Kevin Jackson’s studio isn’t just for finely honed dancers — there is room for young diamonds in the rough. Perth Youth Ballet has admitted 84 kids in whom Jackson sees potential.
“I’m starstruck,” says Zachary Gosatti, 13. “I’m dancing for Kevin Jackson — that’s crazy! He really knows how to use the music and portray characters and emotions through dance. It’s cool to watch.”
The three dancers from Geraldton and four dancers from Bunbury, of which Amelia Oddy, 15, is one, have a parent roster for the long return trips each Sunday, for what they see as the chance of a lifetime.
“It’s inspiring to see the time and the effort he puts in,” Amelia says. “He’s working with us very closely ... it makes you feel important to the piece.”
Three years ago, Zachary was a hockey player who wanted to be an actor or astronomer when he grew up. But he was immersed in professional ballet when, aged 10, with no experience, he successfully auditioned for Dracula with WA Ballet.
The stage experience was an epiphany.
“The Australian Ballet is my goal, or maybe to America,” he says. For talent like Zachary, the title, Emergence, couldn’t be more apt.
Emergence is at the State Theatre Centre on August 23-24, tickets from ptt.wa.gov.au