Dance Stories: Jake Burden and Ballet Brothers
When we meet Jake Burden we are immediately drawn to his engaging smile and boundless energy, despite him being fresh off an early morning flight from Sydney. Before we even begin our interview we can tell that this is a man who is channelling his abilities and experience into something that he is clearly very passionate about.
We sat down with Jake to chat about his dance life, the challenges he has experienced as a male in a female-dominated industry, and what he plans to do with Ballet Brothers, his new organisation aimed at providing a much-needed support network to boys and men in dance.
“I started dancing at 9,” he begins, “and that’s purely because my cousin was a dancer and I watched her in a show, and after the show I told her I could do it, and she bet me that I couldn’t, so that’s why I started! I started with jazz, I thought it was easier and bit more funky for boys. Gradually I started to do a bit of ballet, because everyone said “Oh you’ve got really good feet.” He starts to laugh, “I mean they’re not the best but they’re ok.” We ask him when he knew that dance was something he really wanted to do in life. “I think by eleven I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue as a career,” he says. “There weren’t many boys out there or men that I knew of that were dancers apart from Michael Flatley, so I used to watch all of his DVDs all the time!” he smiles, “Then when I started high school at eleven I realised I could really do this. And that’s when all the bullying started, because people found out I was a dancer, so that was pretty hard,” he admits.
Unfortunately it’s a story we’ve heard far too often. Studies carried out in the United States found that almost 95% of male ballet dancers had experienced some form of bullying or abuse. “It’s just the general thing that there’s a stereotype that people have that men that dance are either gay or really, really feminine,” Jake says. “I mean some people are and of course that’s fine. I think it was pretty hard, because I had verbal abuse but then it became a lot more physical, so I was getting locked in lockers, or kicked off buses. It was constant fights every day.” We ask him how he coped with it. “I think after all that time my parents just said to me look is this something you want to do, because if this is what you really want to do, maybe you should go to a performing arts school, and that’s why I left home and went to boarding school at 13. Purely dance, drama, acting, so everyone accepted me as a dancer.”
After studying at the Hammond School for a few years, Jake auditioned successfully for the prestigious Elmhurst Ballet School in the UK. Upon graduation he toured with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and guested in the US with Boca Ballet. “Then I auditioned for Magdeburg Ballett in Eastern Germany, and I was lucky enough to get a soloist contract there and I stayed there maybe 4 or 5 years. In my first year, I was awarded the Young Dancer of the Year and I was promoted to Principle at 19, so that was really cool,” he smiles.
He followed this contract with a break from contemporary to perform in some musicals, and says “That’s why I think it’s really good to be an all-rounder because when you’ve had that training, and you’re on a break or out of work, you can do something else to keep you going."
"After that I joined Leipzig Ballett, also in Germany, which is now classed as one of the biggest contemporary companies in Europe, it was amazing.” He pauses for a breath and laughs, “Sorry, it’s a bit all over the place!” We prompt him to keep going and he continues, “Well, I always wanted to live somewhere a bit different, so I thought Asia. I went to Singapore and joined Singapore Dance Theatre, and I was there for 2 or 3 years, and I think that was a really good change because it was a completely different culture, which was amazing. I think that’s what is so good about being a dancer, you can travel the world and meet all different people. I loved it in Singapore but unfortunately that’s when my knee injury started to play up a little bit so I thought let’s do something different, why not move with my wife to Newcastle, settle down a bit, and that’s when I became a teacher.”
Currently teaching at the National College of Dance, Jake runs a boy’s programme there which has given him the opportunity to work closely with young male dancers and draw inspiration from their stories to create his own, independent organisation. “What inspired me to create Ballet Brothers was my own personal story, but also the stories of all the other boys I’ve been speaking to, because everyone has a completely different path,” he explains. “Some boys have grown up and had no problems and been supported but more often than not that’s not the case.” Talking one on one to his students in private lessons has been eye-opening for Jake in the sense that he has realised that he can really help people and make a difference to male dancers who are struggling. “There are not many people out there that these boys can talk to,” he says, “so I want Ballet Brothers to be an organisation for all boys and men, professionals and not, to get together and support each other.”
Jake initially set up a Facebook page for his new venture and the response has been overwhelming. “I had so many messages from people all over the world; from America, Spain, England, New Zealand, and I hadn’t even gotten the website up yet!” he laughs. “It’s good because so many people, professionals as well, are wanting to share their stories, so I think it’s going to inspire boys to just keep going.” We ask him what his plans are for Ballet Brothers in addition to creating this support network. “For right now I’m just going to do some workshops in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Queensland, consisting of a basic ballet class, and probably some sort of male virtuosic technique, a bit of choreography, a bit of contemporary, and then I’m hoping in every state that I go to, that I can get a guest dancer. And at the end of the workshops I want to get the parents in too, because it’s not just the boys it’s the parents, who need advice too.” In addition his website, which is now live, offers news, blog articles, personal stories, top tips (focusing on male-specific topics such as dance belts), and a shop with Ballet Brothers merchandise.
Having experienced discrimination himself, we are keen to know what Jake’s advice is to boys and men in the dance industry. “I think it’s really difficult,” he admits, “because boys are more sensitive than people think, and they think they need to put up this really tough front and exterior. All I would say to them is don’t stop. Don’t be afraid to be different, because there’s not one box that fits all, you can be your own person. Don’t allow someone else who doesn’t understand dance to tell you otherwise.” We mention that it seems like the world is evolving to become more accepting and that with pop culture like Hozier’s music video for the single Take Me to Church, featuring ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, and movies like Dance Academy released in mainstream cinemas, perhaps things are starting to improve. Jake agrees, “Sergei when he danced in that video became a household name, and I think it’s really good that he did that video because normal people saw that and loved it.” He is also excited that the Australian Ballet are featuring Spartacus this year, “I think its fantastic,” he smiles, “and I encourage everyone to go and see it, drag your parents along, because it’s such a male piece. It’s amazing all the men on stage together showing masculinity, showing jumps, turns, power. That’s what you want to see from a male dancer.”
There is clearly still work to be done however, and with initiatives such as the RAD’s Project B in full swing, Jake is part of a movement that is so important for the future of the dance industry both in Australia, and globally. “I’m going to try to get Ballet Brothers out there as much as I can to show the general public that it’s OK to dance,” he says. “And I’m not sure how I’m going to change things, I’d love to change the world, I know I’m only one person, but I will try.” We ask Jake for his final piece of advice, and this time it’s aimed at anyone who wants to dance. “If dance is something you love, or if it intrigues you, do it,” he says. “Go for it, It’s your life. Experience anything you can in life. You can’t put an age on it, or gender, or anything.” We agree with Jake wholeheartedly.
Article & Interview by Emily Newton-Smith
Photographs by Elly Ford