To become a dancer, you have to give it everything. So, what happens when you have to give it up, due to injury or other reasons? What if you still want to have a career in the arts, or a creative outlet, but don’t know yet where to channel your energy? Here, Dance Informa chats with the uber-talented Jacqueline Clarke Mitchell, who made the choice to give up performing, due to injury and circumstance, and found her passion in photography, which she now has much success in. We talk about what it was like to make the decision, and how she came to choose the next great thing.
Tell us a bit about your training, and about your experience as a professional dancer?
“In the small town of Newcastle, I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the best in the game! Tessa Maunder O.A.M was the first person to really believe in me. Like so many others, she taught me the literal meaning of blood, sweat and tears, and instilled an unshakable sense of discipline and work ethic in myself and all of her students. Her devotion to detail and sensitive approach to artistry is something that I am so proud to be able to pass on to my own students.
I was also gifted with Marie Walton-Mahon. Among many things, Marie taught me about the anatomy and activation of correct muscle groups and how to dance academically, rather than superficially with pure technique.
My career was exactly what I thought it wouldn’t be, sustaining two major injuries in my final full-time years. This de-railed the course of my classical career, which at the time was devastating. Ballet was causing me a lot of pain, and I was very uncomfortable with my parents investing huge amounts of money into a dream that was quickly becoming unrealistic. So, at the ripe old age of 18, I accepted a contract with Royal Caribbean and jumped on a cruise ship, which saw me in 12 countries across the course of 10 months. I learned and improved so much throughout the course of this contract and was constantly surrounded by inspiring artists and industry professionals. Despite the stigma that unfortunately still exists around cruise ships, I consider it to be a wonderful opportunity and would recommend it to all dancers.
From there, I moved to London and travelled across Europe performing with contemporary companies, musicians, fashion designers, corporate companies, choreographers and visual artists. The highlight being Paul McCartney! Because I was versatile, I was able to support myself financially by booking jobs of a diverse and dynamic nature week after week. It was a very exciting time, and it will forever be a huge highlight in my life.”
With so many awards won in your training, and what looks like quite a successful and interesting dance career, what made you want to switch focus?
“I had always loved dancing, and I knew that I was capable of more, but something in me switched when I returned from London. There wasn’t much work in Australia at the time, and I grew tired of the instability of freelance life, spending every cent on keeping my body in condition for a job that may or may not be around the corner. I was in constant pain from lingering injuries and forcing my body to do what it simply wasn’t meant to be doing. I knew that if I wanted to keep going, I’d have to go back overseas, borrow more money and say goodbye to my loved ones again. It broke my heart and all of my teachers, mentors, friends and family to make the decision to stop dancing, but I knew in myself that I was done, and I couldn’t keep leading a life for the sole reason of pleasing others. I was ready to start the next chapter, and in hindsight, it was the best decision I ever made.”
How did you discover that photography was also your ‘thing’?
“Do you remember Tumblr? Just like every other teenager, I had a major obsession with it. I would take my camera everywhere and upload photos of my friends, dancers, parties, bands, architecture, nature, selfies before they were even ‘selfies’…everything! People started complimenting me on the images, and it motivated me to keep creating. From there, it evolved into a legitimate appreciation and passion for photography.”
What kind of shoots do you like to do, and how do you see the world through your lens?
“I think I see the world through a ’70s rose-colored lens, where everyone is colorfully dressed (or undressed) and permanently on holiday with a cocktail in hand. Teaching ballet full time and running a business on the side is very demanding, so I think I subconsciously shoot ladies and men of leisure in the most relaxed, fun scenarios as possible.
Shooting outdoors or inside old buildings where I can play with shadows and textures is my usual go-to. I’m still working on a distinct photographic style, but for now my constant is film. I love the grain, nostalgia, tone and tactility it brings to the image and overall experience.”
Being a dancer/choreographer/teacher yourself, you have this unique perspective on how the dancer’s body works, and what it is capable of, so much more than someone who has only observed the dancer. How does this inform your work?
“Absolutely. This is such an amazing skill and education that compliments my photography in ways that I am so grateful for. Being able to identify the dancer’s strengths and exploring movement from there is a very rewarding experience. I never have a concrete plan of how I want the image to look, so it leaves a lot of room for experimentation and fun throughout the process. The other huge advantage of having a dance background is being able to correct any technical issues on the dancer’s side, which saves a lot of time and money.”
What do you like best about working with dancers, and what does the choreographer in you find the most challenging or rewarding in a shoot?
“I love being able to say things like, ‘face croisé, open your shoulders, think of an effacé line’, and they immediately move into position. Dancers are also so relaxed and confident with the way they move their body, which makes for a fast, efficient shoot with minimal direction needed on my part! In saying this, the biggest challenge I have with dancers on creative/fashion shoots is making them not look like dancers! I often find that the natural moments in between the poses are the most special.”
What are you tips for dancers wanting a really top-notch headshot/creative shoot?
“Find a photographer whose style you absolutely love and book them! Most photographers have a makeup artist they frequently work with, so enquire about that and then book them as well! Invest in yourself and trust in the value of quality photos.”
What other kinds of photography/creative work do you do?
“Mostly fashion, lifestyle and some music. I love to experiment with double exposures, expired film and film soaks. This year, I would like to explore medium format and set design. I wouldn’t mind adding to my ever-expanding plant collection, too.”
From your experience, what would you say to young dancers considering a career in the performing arts?
“Be grateful every day to be in a position where you can even consider a profession in the arts. Tell your amazing, athletic and healthy body how much you love it even though it may not be ‘perfect’. Soak up every word of advice, correction, criticism and compliment that is brought to you by your inspiring mentors and peers. Be honest and humble. Know your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. Take that (insert style here – be courageous and try something new!) class and then do it again weekly. Knowledge is power. Versatility is your best friend. Be realistic and create a plan B that inspires you. Not because you should, but because you want to! There’s a huge vibrant and diverse world outside of dance.”
For more on Jacqueline Clarke Mitchell and her photography, visit jacqjacqjacqui.com.
By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.