Breaking the mould: Energetiks Model Search Winner Joel Burke
“I wasn’t born with the perfect ballet body,” says nineteen year old dancer Joel Burke matter of factly, and I attempt not to look incredulous. The Brisbane-born dancer is sitting casually beside me on a park bench surrounded by the landscaped scenery of the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens after two days of demonstrating exactly the kind of technical and physical prowess that many an audience member (and fellow dancer) would describe as just that. In December last year Energetiks were thrilled to announce Joel as our 2019 Model Search Winner alongside Dance Informa magazine for exhibiting all of the exceptional qualities we look for in our Ambassadors, and then some.
Grounded, intelligent and driven, Joel’s accomplishments so far suggest nothing but promising things for the future, something that can be attributed to a winning combination of talent, professionalism, work ethic and self-assurance. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also extremely likeable, peppering our conversation with self-deprecating jokes and a cheeky sense of humour.
And whilst there’s no evidence to suggest that Joel started with less than an ideal physique for dance, after talking with him over the course of the photoshoot it becomes clear that he has the willpower and tenacity to overcome obstacles and still end up ahead of the crowd. “It wasn’t something that came naturally to me,” Joel reflects of his first experience with dance, “I wasn’t naturally co-ordinated or anything, and I started ballet late too. So when I joined a proper ballet school for the first time, I just had this drive that was unreal,” He explains. I get the impression he's someone who only becomes hungrier for something the more impossibly challenging it seems; “I would make sure I got to ballet before anyone else, because I figured if I’m there before anyone else, I’m working harder, for longer, than anyone else. And I’m getting better than everyone else at a faster rate… That’s not competitive at all, is it?” he asks wryly.
The commitment paid off, and at sixteen years old Joel was accepted into the prestigious Queensland Ballet Academy (the official training institution of the Queensland Ballet), despite the fact that ballet hadn’t been his initial plan. His first love was tap - which he started at the ripe old age of three - and musical theatre (something that must run in the family with little sister Lily a recent star of Matilda the Musical). Joel’s earliest awareness of dance was watching his older sister’s dance concert on the TV at home. “They were doing a big burlesque routine I think. I remember I used to ask my mum to play it every day and I would just watch it all the time. I think it was that, and seeing my sister dance, that really sparked my interest.” Soon watching wasn’t enough, and whilst attending some of his sister’s classes with his mother the temptation became too great to resist: “I used to run in to the middle of the room and just start dancing!”
Fast forward through several years of classes and ballet finally entered the picture, not from a sudden urge to dance Swan Lake, but from a pragmatic and ambitious decision to further his progress. “I’ve always had the mindset that if you want to be good at something you have to do whatever it takes. And I saw that most good dancers had done ballet, so I thought that taking ballet classes would help everything else,” He recalls. “I actually kept it a secret from everyone for a year or two, just because it was easier that way. Then it got to the point where I was doing really well in cricket and ballet, and I had to decide which one to pursue… I chose ballet.” I’m curious what made ballet the winner, particularly since it’s no secret that boys who do pursue classical dance as a career, even today, often encounter unfair treatment from those outside the industry who still buy into the archaic stereotype of ballet as inherently feminine. So, why then? “I think life can be quite undefined. So much of it is unstructured and without rules. Whereas with ballet it’s very clear; either right or wrong. There’s a strive for perfection, even though it doesn’t exist, and I find that quite addictive.”
He admits there were definitely uncomfortable moments and treatment from those who didn't 'get' ballet that got under his skin at first, but paradoxically the willpower and mental strength you need to pursue a ballet career is an advantageous attribute for dealing with the unfair comments and behaviour it often exposes boys to. “It did bother me a bit when I was younger. Mainly because I didn’t understand why someone would judge what someone else does. Everyone’s doing their own thing, you know. What does it have to do with you if someone has chosen something different with their life?” Joel shrugs, “But you build a thick skin pretty quickly. I realised if someone judges me for doing something, really the only person being affected by that is them. I eventually hit a point where I was like ‘well, I’m happy’, and it really didn’t bother me too much anymore. Now I find it kind of funny.” He grins. “You know even when we were doing this photoshoot some people were laughing about the tights!” He adds, eyes dancing with amusement. I do remember some extended stares from entertained beach-goers and try to protest that they were more likely envious - which only makes Joel laugh. “No, I think they were laughing,” he replies with a knowing smile.
Those outside the dance industry may find ballet uniforms amusing, but Joel’s rapid progression and achievements to date in an incredibly competitive industry are definitely envy-inducing. His relentless persistence to improve meant that within the space of a year he went from “playing catch-up” to seeking out new challenges. “I started doing things like the Royal Ballet Summer School, where I got the achievement award, and I was like ‘well this is pretty cool’. And then I did it again the next year, and got the achievement award again” he continues, almost sheepishly. By this point Joel had graduated from the Academy and accepted a coveted place in the QB’s Pre Professional Programme, and with nothing but positive feedback to show so far, he was ready to push himself even further, “I decided to film myself doing a class and send it off to the Prix de Lausanne,” he tells me, mentioning arguably the most prestigious international ballet competition in the world. He pauses thinking back to the moment, then explains that was a milestone he never expected to reach; “I never thought I would be at that level of dancing… and then I got in! Now I’m at that point where I’m like, if you can aim for anything, it’s just a matter of how much you want it. Then just keep going for it, relentlessly. It’s like Winston Churchill said: 'The key to success is to fail with enthusiasm'.”
Allowing mistakes to be part of the learning process has enabled Joel to develop a robust mentality towards whatever moments life brings his way, good or bad. When others might feel inspiration waning, this is when he feels most driven. “I think everyone can inspire you. And anything. It’s about the mindset, and approaching everything - especially the negative stuff – not from the perspective of ‘why is this happening to me?’, but ‘what is this teaching me?’. If you can do that then you can find inspiration in literally anything. You’ve just got to look at the world the right way.” I'm no longer surprised that when I ask him to share what motivates him through a challenging day in the studio, his answer is appropriately counter-intuitive – “I think that is what motivates me. The moment something gets hard, that’s when I can’t wait to overcome it,” he responds. “Your mind stops at 40% of its capability. So when you’re at 40% physically that’s when your brain says ‘OK stop, that’s good - we’re good now.’ But what happens when you use that other 60%? That’s the challenge and the growth. That’s where the fire is. The moment you get into that phase is when you realise ‘wow, how far can I go’."
Sheer willpower alone can get you in to an audition room, but as Joel knows, there’s factors outside a dancer’s control that ultimately determine who gets cast. This long-standing preference for uniformity over diversity, particularly in ballet, is something he’s hopeful can continue to evolve. “The amount of judgement on physical aspects [of dancers] that are superfluous to the requirements of dance is something I would like to see change. I think there’s too much judgement on someone’s body shape and other physical features.” He says emphatically, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone go to a dance performance and go ‘Oh that dancer’s proportions were odd’ or something along those lines. I have heard a lot of people come out saying ‘Her emotion was incredible’ or ‘Oh wow did you see the way they did that step there, that was amazing.’ I think very few people would walk out of a performance saying ‘That person on that side of the stage was taller than that one!’ or ‘That person had tanned skin and that one didn’t.’ That to me is the wrong direction, and an unnecessary waste of time and talent.” Joel still feels that the positive aspects of the dance industry far outweigh those in need of change however, most significantly for him is the fact that “we have the ability to make a difference. The demand for entertainment is one of those things that will always be there no matter what, that will never die,” he states, adding that “dance is purely the power of movement and the human body. If you can show the audience something that really moves them, then that’s just you and your body, and that’s an incredible thing.”
After the milestone achievement of competing at the Prix de Lausanne in 2017, Joel returned to Australia in better form than ever, finishing the year as the recipient of the Francois Klaus and Robyn White Award. Yet with an incredibly bright future on the horizon at Queensland Ballet, in 2018 Joel made the bold decision to walk away, sacrificing the security of a company schedule for the daunting freedom of an independent career.
Joining a well-regarded company can be one of the most elevating accomplishments for a dancer. Yet it’s easy to see why some might become disenchanted with their career path once the glamour and novelty of professional life wears off, when after years of training and complete dedication to their discipline many face the prospect of spending years and years in the corps de ballet; wondering whether the highlight of their career will be the solo performance opportunities given to them whilst still a student. Many (in fact most) dancers who dream of holding an audience captive on stage will never make it to Principal status, and rarer still is the number of dancers with the courage to reject those safer, more conventional routes to the top in favour of the less stable pathway of an autonomous career. And it’s easy to guess why; if you find yourself without consistent work or regular opportunities to dance, ballet isn't something you can sideline for a few years for a 'normal' job, and then come back to at a professional level. Eschewing stable company life as a dancer is much the same as jumping from a great height, without a parachute.
With seemingly everything within reach and so many indications of a promising future ahead of him, this is exactly what Joel did. “I think I’ve always had the tendency to do things a little differently,” he remarks, contemplating the decision. “I enjoy doing my own thing. If you can back yourself on your own, that’s when the greatest success happens. I’ve never really liked the idea of following a crowd, so if all the guys were doing football, or cricket, I went ‘Well then I’ll do dancing’.” And unsurprisingly to anyone who knows Joel, he’s gone from strength to strength ever since. Venturing out on his own has opened the door to many more exciting experiences for the talented dancer, who’s also found time to take up teaching open classes (the first of which has had incredible feedback) on top of his own daily training. Joel has plenty more in store for the year ahead (you'll just have to wait and see on that note), not to mention being selected from the hundreds of applicants Australia-wide as the Energetiks and Dance Informa 2019 Model Search Winner. An accomplishment which also includes starring on the cover of Dance Informa Magazine’s current edition, as well as the upcoming honour of representing The Victorian Dance Festival as this year’s Official Ambassador.
None of these experiences would have come about whilst tied up with a company timetable. When I question him about where the independent streak came from that saw him break away from a traditional career pathway, he shrugs. “I think I’ve just always been weird like that,” he says with a laugh. “The most challenging aspect [of this industry] is realising that it’s all up to you; that’s imperative. You have to grasp at a pretty young age that it’s your own motivation and drive that is going to determine your success. A lot of dancers might think it’s an ‘A-B-C’ kind of pathway and that’s the only way you can go, but if you can think a little more unconventionally about it, and not follow the rulebook exactly – that’s when the challenge is greatest, but so are the rewards.”
Talent alone is a flimsy guarantee of ever achieving success. The dancers, choreographers and creatives over the many decades since the dance industry emerged who have (and continue to) leave an impression are always those who are unafraid to break the mould, ignore expectations and take a risk. And whilst he’s still only at the beginning of a very promising career, we’re confident that Joel is one of the remarkable new faces worth keeping your eye on.
It’s almost time to finish the interview, but before we wrap up I have two final questions for Joel. For curiosity’s sake I ask him to share a fact about himself that people may not know. He looks away, thinking for a moment and then turns back with a mischievous grin, declaring: “I’m terrible at roller-skating. Can’t stand up for a second!” This is both amusing, and a little relieving, since it's easy to imagine his competitive streak overriding any preservation instincts on wheels. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, ‘Do you have any words of advice for the young aspiring dancers out there?’ He nods, responding without hesitation. “You know yourself like no one else does. Lots of people know of you, and they might have ideas about you, or stories of you, but no one knows you like you know yourself. You’ll get told to do things, or be someone that you’re not, but only you can decide what you want to do and who you are, so trust your instincts,” he advises earnestly. “And then pursue that; as long as it’s not affecting anyone else in a negative way. We’re so lucky to do what we do as dancers, every day I’m grateful for it. It’s the best job in the world really, so if you can tap into that, and that’s something that you want for yourself then just do everything you can to achieve it: focus on it and work for it constantly.”
For more on Joel see his cover photo and interview with Dance Informa in this month’s magazine here, and keep up with Joel’s dance journey on instagram.
Joel will also be representing Energetiks at this year’s Victorian Dance Festival, as the Official VDF Ambassador for 2019. So get your tickets and come and join us in Melbourne, April 12th - 14th to be part of this year’s amazing event and meet Joel in person.
Article and photography by Elly Ford.