By Nicole Saleh.
It was never going to be an easy task to find a new Artistic Director for one of Australia’s leading performing arts schools. Brent Street has long been known for its high energy dancers and cutting edge performances. It has established over the years a strong reputation for producing some of Australia’s finest talent. At any given time you’ll find Brent Street artists performing in musicals around the world, working as commercial dancers in the entertainment industry or even winning the title of Australia’s favourite dancer on the popular television show,
So You Think You Can Dance.
Excited to be taking on the responsibility of leading Brent Street into the new decade is the newly appointed Artistic Director, Cameron Mitchell. With many high calibre applicants vying for the role, it was Cameron’s passion, coupled with his teaching experience and award winning choreography, that made him the frontrunner. In addition to this Cameron has been part of the Brent Street journey as a teacher for the past 17 years whilst working professionally in the industry choreographing for major artists including Natalie Bassingthwaite, Kelly Rowland, and the popular kids group Hi-5. He’s also performed in the Australian productions of West Side Story, Hot Shoe Shuffle, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge.
I caught up with Cameron to have a chat about his artistic vision for Brent Street and his passion for developing the next generation of Australian performers.
Brent Street is recognised for producing exceptional talent. What’s Brent Street’s secret?
At Brent Street the teaching staff are working professionals who are currently in the entertainment field. Whether they’re a singer, dancer or actor, it’s important that we hire people who are working in the business. We have to be current in everything we teach, and we always try to be a step ahead and never ever complacent.
When the kids perform on stage it needs to come across in their performance that they love it. There is a certain amount of discipline that you have to have, but it’s still really important to keep that enjoyment level. In order for it to look believable, they have to enjoy it!
How important is it to study a full time course?
There is a different level of importance for different dancers. I think it’s great because for a lot of kids it’s like a finishing school. It’s taking all the tools that you’ve learnt, and really honing in and tweaking your skills so you can become a better performer.
A lot of the time the kids that enter the professional world straight from a dancing school aren’t versatile enough because they’ve always learnt from the same teacher. I think it’s especially important in a full time course to have many different teachers and be exposed to different flavours so that you really become a unique dancer, and a quick learner who is able to adapt. When I moved to Sydney there were no full time courses so I went to Melbourne. I remember learning from all these different teachers – that’s what I loved the most. I really encourage people to do it. Yes, you are a great dancer but you can be an exceptional performer if you do full time.
Who are some of the professionals that Brent Street has produced?
Matt Lee (Mary Poppins the Musical, So You Think You Can Dance judge & choreographer), Sharni Vinson (Step Up 3D), Nathan Foley (Hi-5), Charli Delaney (Hi-5) and a majority of the So You Think You Can Dance contestants. I remember the first year of So You Think You Can Dance we had three dancers in the top twenty, the second year we had six and the third year we had nine. They studied at Brent Street in some capacity, whether it was through the part-time school, high school or full time. Charlie Bartley in the second season came runner up, and then last year we got first and second because Robbie and Jess both came through the high school and part-time school, which was pretty incredible!
Can you tell me any interesting stories of when they were students at Brent Street?
I distinctly remember Matt Lee always being the first person in the classroom at a Wednesday night jazz class. He always wanted to learn and would put himself centre front before anyone else could get into the room. I think that’s a lot of the kids all the time now. You never have to drag them into a class at Brent Street.
What’s unique to Brent Street is the Talent Development School. Tell me about the success of this program.
The school started seven years ago because there wasn’t a program for kids in this country where they could do academics for half a day and perform for the rest of the day. At other schools it is factored in as a subject, so you have jazz, then you have maths and then you may have ballet. The academic program is unique because it’s done through distance education, so the students have one-on-one mentoring in their academics, and they have the same intensity of training in the performing arts streams. The calibre of the tutors and teachers that we have is so high it’s invaluable. Some kids are going straight from high school into the business before even doing full time. They always plan to do full time but for example last year, Mitchell Woodcock went straight into Westside Story and Robbie and Jess into So You Think You Can Dance. Now Robbie is in Burn the Floor. Briden Aspinall and Nancy Denis went straight out of high school into Hairspray The Musical. It’s amazing!
What attracted you to take on the role of Artistic Director?
I didn’t think that I could do it at first, but it was the fact that I knew the heartbeat of the place and I didn’t feel Brent Street was ready for somebody else to do it. The Artistic Director is responsible for overseeing all artistic facets, from the teachers to the students, and the development of all the curriculae across all the styles. I felt that I could help the school flourish and take it to the next level. There were also some great people already on the Artistic Council before I was appointed. I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to learn from their wealth of experience and knowledge, and I just applied for the role like everyone else and had the interviews.
What is the new Artistic Council?
The role of the Artistic Council is to work with me in developing the four different aspects of the business. Caroline O’Connor is musical theatre and dance, Stephen Heathcote is ballet, Wayne Harrison is acting and drama and Kellie Dickerson is singing and also musical theatre. They are amazing! I’ve been friends with Caroline for 17 years and we did many shows together; Westside Story, Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and I choreographed her own show. It’s great to have someone of that calibre who’s still a working professional as part of the Council.
What is your artistic vision for Brent Street?
The big vision for me at Brent Street is to see it grow especially in the areas of drama and singing. I want dance to continue to flourish and always be ahead of its time. I want people to pick up a programme from a musical and see that more than half of the performers are trained at Brent Street. I want Brent Street to be the first choice for people who want a career in the performing arts and for it to be well recognised like WAAPA and NIDA.
Who have been your greatest influences throughout your career?
I still learn from my own dancing teacher, Barbara Ford, in Adelaide. She’s a great influence on me and has always remained current, especially in jazz. As an adult, Caroline O’Connor and Kelley Abbey have influenced me. I thanked Kelley at the graduation last year for proving to us that if you love what you do and you give 100% all of the time, you’re guaranteed longevity. From Caroline I learnt what it’s like to be successful and to still have so much class. No matter what you do, the next time you just have to be better. I also learnt from her that you always have something to learn as well as to give.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the performing arts?
Do it because you love it. If you want a career in the business you have to really want it. If you love to perform then this is the job for you. You have to give 100% all the time and also make sure you are always learning. It’s so important to keep training and evolving.
What aspect of your role at Brent Street has given you the greatest satisfaction?
What I’ve enjoyed is what I’ve learnt over the years and how I’ve grown as a teacher and choreographer. My dream was always to be a choreographer, and I wouldn’t be the choreographer I am today if it wasn’t for my time here at Brent Street working with amazing students and staff in developing my skills. I’m lucky enough to now have the role of Artistic Director and still continue to be a professional choreographer.
My greatest satisfaction is the students and the pride in watching them soar. There’s nothing like it! People say, ‘you don’t have any kids of your own?’ and I say, ‘I’ve got hundreds!’ You feel like the students are your family. It’s the pride that you have when you see them doing so brilliantly and you feel like you’ve had a part in their success. I just love it!