Young Australians Alexander Koulos and Jordan Micallef of The McDonald College of Performing Arts have much to look forward to as they prepare to compete in the internationally-renowned Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) in New York City this month. Competitions like the YAGP are often seen as stepping stones to a professional career in dance, offering students the opportunity to be recognised at the international level and to be seen by directors from top schools and companies around the world. Here, the boys tell us about their love of dance and their experiences so far as young male dancers with big ambitions.
When did you start dancing, and what drew you to dance?
“As a student at The McDonald College, I was introduced to dance at a young age, but I started to think seriously about dance as a career toward the end of year six, just leading into high school. It was then that I decided to give up my weekend soccer and other interests, and pick up after-hours classes to improve on my technique and allow me to participate in various group Eisteddfods with other school students. I love dancing, as it allows me to express myself artistically and creatively, but as a male dancer allows me to also show my strength and control. Watching ballet dancers like Baryshnikov and Acosta inspires me. I know ballet is what I want to do professionally!”
“I first started dancing at the age of seven because I was bored waiting for my sister every Saturday and decided to pick up tap and jazz, which I thoroughly enjoyed! My teacher told me that taking ballet would be beneficial, so I started and fell in love with it. I now participate in ballet, jazz, lyrical, contemporary and tap, and my favourite genre is ballet, as my style is more suited to ballet.”
You are competing in the YAGP in NYC this month – the best of luck! How have you been preparing?
“Thank you! Being chosen as a finalist for the YAGP in NYC is amazing! A feeling beyond words. To me, it’s validation that hard work really pays off. It represents an opportunity to compete at an international level, to be amongst peers who have the same dreams and aspirations, and, potentially, to move one step closer to achieving my goal of getting into a finishing school. Preparing for something like this requires just as much mental effort as it does physical effort. Learning the variation or the routine is the easy part; executing it to the best of your ability, however, requires many hours of rehearsals, and both my ballet teacher, Ms. Jane Kesby, and my contemporary teacher, Adam Blanch, have been working with me to help me achieve the best possible results.”
“I haven’t been to YAGP before, but I love that I’ll get to go overseas, meet new people from other countries, and be seen by directors of overseas schools and companies. A lot of preparation has gone into my classical variation, and I’ve been learning a new contemporary solo for the YAGP. In addition, I’ve been doing classes every day to build up my technique. As Alexander said, it’s an amazing opportunity, and I’ve been counting down the days ever since I found out I’d be competing!”
Both of you clearly enjoy competing. Do you think competitions in general are beneficial to young dancers? What are the pros and cons?
“I enjoy competing, as it pushes me to become a better dancer and helps me learn from fellow competitors and choreographers. Nothing can replace the buzz of performing in front of a crowd and being recognised by applause! In my view, however, competitions should be only as a stepping stone toward someone’s ultimate goal. The pros are that the training builds you as a dancer and the live performances inspire you to train more. The cons, though, are that you risk letting the competition overshadow your personal fitness or allowing a defeat to drown your ambitions. Dance is an art form; your performances may appeal to many or none. Some days you will win, others you won’t! For me, it’s a great opportunity to showcase my ability to do something I love and that I’m passionate about. It’s not just about winning and losing.”
Both of you are also members of the semi-professional McDonald College’s Premier State Ballet. How long have you been a part of it, and what’s it like being a PSB company member?
“I’ve been part of the Premier State Ballet, or PSB, since I was in year five – this is my fifth year. In past years, I’ve been a junior member and associate, but this year I am a senior member, which I am very excited about! It’s such a wonderful experience and very beneficial, as you get to experience what a company is like and learn different ballets. My favourite experiences as a company member are definitely the performances, as it’s what we have been working toward the whole year. It’s a lot of fun.”
“Being part of it is such an amazing experience! I have been fortunate enough to be a member for almost four years now. Like Jordan, I began as a junior member of the company, taking part in The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and have progressively worked up to the senior troupe, performing major roles in ballets like Don Quixote and Coppélia. I’m excited to be performing as a senior member in this year’s production of La Bayadère. Getting to perform on stage as a dancer in a full-length ballet is a fantastic experience. My time with PSB has allowed me to experience what it’s like to be part of an ensemble, appreciate the hard work of putting together a professional production and, most importantly, do what I love!”
What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your biggest dream?
“To get the opportunity of dancing with major companies around the world, learning from my peers and being the best dancer I can be! I would like to make my family, teachers and friends proud of me. My biggest dream would be to make the stage my place of ‘work’, to inspire people to dance, support the arts and enjoy the ballet!”
“My dream would be to go to The Royal Ballet School in London and then gain a spot in the company. After that, I’d like to go to university and get a degree in either law, medicine or pharmacy, as a ballet career is only a very short one.”
Being a male dancer can be tough. For instance, some young male dancers experience bullying or other kinds of poor behaviour from their peers at school or elsewhere. Have you come across that yourself? If so, how do you deal with it? Do you think attitudes are changing?
“When you mention ballet to the masses, they think of tutus, makeup and ballerinas. The male dancer is always in the background. Fortunately, I know that’s no longer the case! I’ve been fortunate to pursue ballet in an environment that has encouraged all the arts and looks after and protects you as an individual – your persona, your mental well-being and your health as a dancer. As a result, I haven’t experienced poor behaviour or any bullying. I know it exists, though, and I have witnessed it outside of school. It’s sad to see that it does exist. When people are ignorant, they will judge you regardless of what you do. So, part of my role as a ballet dancer is to show those people what being a male ballet dancer is about and help educate them to appreciate dance. Attitudes thankfully are changing as more people are getting access to ballet and as the art form is fusing with other forms of dance, which is a positive thing. It also helps that the male dancer is becoming more prominent.”
“Back when I was only attending The McDonald College’s after-hours program, I never told anyone from my old school that I did ballet in fear of bullying, as the students were all very much into sport. But when I started attending The McDonald College during school hours, it was a completely different atmosphere. Everyone was extremely supportive, which is why I love the college so much.”
Have you ever received any dance advice that has inspired you when you were feeling uncertain or low?
“It’s almost impossible for me to feel uncertain and low when I’m dancing – quite the opposite! Some of the best dance advice I have received is that ‘you are your only competitor, and if you realise that, you will keep beating yourself until you become the best version of yourself’. If I was to offer a piece of advice to younger aspiring dancers, though, it would be to be a sponge, and try learning as much as you can from everyone around you. Enjoy, and never give up!”
“Yes, I agree that a very important piece of advice would be to believe in myself. I know it sounds cliché, but it is crucial in order to progress further. I know that sometimes I hold myself back from doing classes or competitions because I think I can’t do it, but thinking that way just holds you back. Your biggest competition really is yourself!”
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.