The Australian Ballet Soloist Natasha Kusen hangs up her ballet shoes after a successful 16-and-a-half years with the company. Following the applause of her final performance, she walks down the aisle to marry her husband-to-be in Bali, where she will be applauded with a shower of newlywed petals.
From her first introduction to the art form at the early age of four, the love for music, movement and structure was naturally reciprocated and created the foundation of a lifelong dream. It was here that the ever-so-chic ballerina started her story.
From the early years competing as an aspiring dancer to then dancing and inspiring others, audiences in Australia and abroad have watched Kusen evolve into the artist she is today. Known for leaving her own mark on the stage and her interpretation of the roles she danced, Kusen’s humble, hard-working, stylish and graceful qualities have attributed to her success and will contribute to the success in her next chapter.
Here, Dance Informa catches up with Kusen to reflect and celebrate her journey as a ballerina.
As 2019 comes to a close and you relax by the pool on your honeymoon and you reflect on your journey, how do you feel right now?
“Right now, I feel like I am on floating on cloud nine and in a bubble of love, content and grateful for what’s surrounding me and how my path has played out. This last week has been unbelievable, and that is probably the biggest understatement I will make this year. Last week, I had an overwhelming shower of love and celebration from my ballet family as I retired from the stage after 16-and-a-half years with The Australian Ballet, and three days later, I was walking down the aisle for the biggest performance of my life marrying my love in Bali, surrounded by my family and friends from all around the world. It was the most exceptional week of celebrations, one I will never forget!”
You started ballet in a little church hall at the young age of four. What was your first impression of ballet, and how did it make you feel?
“I followed my sister’s footsteps in joining ballet classes, and I took it like a duck to water. My teacher, Nicholina Kuner, spotted my potential, and although she was strict, I secretly enjoyed the discipline, structure and slowly acquiring the control of movements and shapes I asked of my body. I believe I had found my calling when I noticed my body responding to the music and discovering a unique way to express myself through the ballet language.”
At what age did you decide to pursue ballet professionally, and what was your journey to The Royal Ballet School?
“Growing up in Sydney, I started the eisteddfod circuits quite young, so my first taste of dancing a solo on stage with the full ‘performance ritual’ was when I was about nine years old. After this, I knew there was no turning back. My parents wanted me to finish high school, so we worked out a way to add extra private lessons around this so I could stay in school and keep up with the standard needed to pursue my dream.
In 2001, my teacher persuaded me to attend the Prix de Lausanne competition in Switzerland, and this was a pivotal career moment for me. I was exposed to all the talent scouts of all the prestigious schools and companies. I was the only Australian to get into the finals that year, and through this, I won a scholarship to The Royal Ballet School in London. I was only 16 years old at the time. The late and great Gailene Stock, who was the director then, took me under her wing and extended my scholarship for another two years so I could graduate. I will always be incredibly grateful for what she saw in me.”
Describe the moment you joined The Australian Ballet as a company member.
“It was an absolute adrenaline rush! The Australian Ballet has always been a company I wanted to dance for. Watching the company as a student, I have always regarded The Australian Ballet as one of the most hard-working and inspiring places to be. It was a humbling moment when I was offered my contract. As you can imagine, after all those years of sacrifice and dedication from my family and myself, just for that chance to dance professionally, it actually came to fruition! When I walked in, I knew I was part of something special. The friendly camaraderie this company is known for certainly made me feel like I was part of the family from day one.”
From the transition of being a student to a company member, what were three challenges you encountered? How did you overcome these, and what advice do you have that may benefit aspiring dancers?
“Fortunately, I had a taste of company life as a Royal Ballet School student dancing in a few seasons in London, and touring with The Royal Ballet company to Australia and Russia. This experience made my transition from student to professional a lot more seamless.
But to share some insight and advice for aspiring dancers who wish to embark on a professional level, you must learn to work for yourself. There is no hand-feeding of information. Use morning class as a place for your own ‘self rituals’. Constantly hone in on your technique so you can be ready to leap into any opportunities that may come up. Work on your weaknesses, but most importantly, know your strengths!
You can craft yourself and carve your own path. Be a team player when dancing in the corps, and never forget your special qualities. This essence is what makes you stand out; no one can possess or teach your individual artistry. Be present in each performance. My director used to remind us it is not just our duty but a privilege to be able to perform and transport an audience of thousands each night!”
What was your first role in the company? How many times did you perform this role?
“As I joined toward the end of the season in 2003, I faintly remember quickly learning and jumping into two roles in the ballet, The Three Musketeers. But my first full season in 2004, which was also a highlight, was the MR B Program, in which I was the poster girl for the Balanchine season of Serenade and Symphony in C. I performed every show of both ballets. I think we may have done around 50 shows around Australia. It was an incredible season. We were exhausted, but I danced on sheer adrenaline, and it was a rewarding season.”
You were a recipient of the 2006 George Garratt Scholarship, and later a nominee for the Telstra Ballet Awards. How did you prepare for these?
“This scholarship was a wonderful opportunity to explore and visit other companies around the world. As a dancer, I never stopped learning or wanting to learn more, right to the very end. Through this, I was able to bring back what I saw and learnt to enhance my own skills. I was also nominated by my peers and artistic team for the Telstra Ballet Awards twice in my time with The Australian Ballet. The recognition was so special, as they are the ones who see me work every day and know how much I put into my career. The only preparation for these opportunities is just being yourself. Your work ethics will be noticed if it is approached with full integrity.”
In 2013, you were promoted to Soloist. What was that moment like?
“I had been in the company for 10 years by then, and I worked my butt off to get to this stage. I was immensely proud of myself, and I remember the season was so memorable. It was a triple bill season, and I danced in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura. Both are me to a T. I’ve always flourished in the Balanchine and Kylián works, so the timing was just perfect and worth the wait.”
Do you have a particular ballet or role that remains dear to your heart? Why?
“Kylián’s Bella Figura. I remember watching this ballet when I was younger, and it sparked a career goal to dance it. Dancing in Bella Figura was liberating and an experience on stage I will never forget. The rehearsal process was one of my fondest memories, and the performances each night were unique, sentimental, and I have never felt more united as a cast before. I felt like I was delivering something so sacred, and for once in my whole career, I felt like I really left a piece of myself on that stage every night.”
Name three highlights you’ll forever remember?
“Our New York City and LA tour and the overwhelming standing ovation at each of the opening nights of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. We understood the sheer importance of the international tour, and the energy was palpable onstage from curtain up!
And also the occasions I got to dance with my best friends in featured pas de deuxs — Kylián’s Petite Mort and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV with Brett Simon, Forgotten Land with Andrew Wright, Murphy’s Gershwin pas de quatre, Suite en Blanc as La Sieste, Études’ opening night and leading the arabesques down the ramp in Act 2 Shades in La Bayadère.
And finally, my last show at the Sydney Opera House in December. I felt so much love on stage, side stage and from the audience.”
As ballet dancers, the friendships we make in the studio are for life. What is your sentiment toward this?
“That’s so true! The friendships I have made throughout my journey as a dancer is one of a kind. No one understands me on the same level like the dancers I work with. We have seen and supported each other through the highs and lows, and the bond is like no other. I will miss the social interaction and backstage banter the most, but I also know the friendships I have made are for life.”
There are so many benefits of ballet that are applicable to other areas of life, including body awareness, mental stamina, musicality, work ethic, connection with the soul and humanity, perseverance, and persistence. Including these, or aside from these, what are your top benefits, and what insights have you gained in these areas?
“The benefits of ballet and what I have learnt and will take from it are undeniably life-defining. Besides all the above you have mentioned, the actual experience is incomparable.
Watching my colleagues bear their soul every day hasn’t numbed me at all. If anything, it has heightened my sensitivity and empathy toward everyone I meet. I feel very lucky that I was able to pursue my lifelong dream career as a ballerina, and I do believe with all the qualities of tenacity, dedication, concentration in an elite level, acute awareness of my body and mind and self-management skills, it will propel me in my next endeavours.”
How have you evolved from the beginning of your career until now?
“Personally, over the past 16-and-a-half years, I have really grown and come out of my shell. My self-confidence has been something I have always had to practice and didn’t come naturally. Now I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin, I am not afraid to speak my mind, not afraid to try and go for things and much more aware and trusting of my own intuition. Over the years in my career, artistry has always been just as important as the technical side. I have been told that the legacy that I leave behind is that I have always found a way to imprint my own mark on the stage and roles I was given, and I am extremely proud of the fact that I could be memorable in that way.”
Tell us a little about your blog. How did ‘Studio to Street’ come about?
“I created ‘Studio to Street’ as a secondary platform to explore my interest in my two passions — dance and fashion. Through my blog, I have been able to partner and collaborate with different brands and artists to create content on a unique level. So far, it has been a wonderful way to branch out of my comfort zone and be able to explore and learn from other industries.”
What does ballet mean to you?
“Ballet and dancing will always be a part of my life. It has and always will be pumping through my veins; it has shaped my life and the person I am today, but it isn’t the only thing that defines me. I am eternally grateful for the career I have had, and I have sacrificed a lot to have achieved what I did. It will always have a very special place in my heart.”
As you move onto new adventures, what life lessons has the ballet world taught you, that you will you carry with you in the next chapter?
“Practice does make perfect, and preparation is the key. I have a huge appreciation of putting time and effort into the finer details. But most importantly, to be in the moment and just enjoy it!”
What exciting things do you have planned for 2020? And what are you most looking forward to?
“Looking forward to the fact that the world is my oyster right now! I am looking forward to just being normal and putting my feet up for a little bit and getting used to being a new wife and being able to spend quality time with my patient husband who has been waiting to go on proper holidays with me! For the last 20 years, I have never once gone on holidays without my pointe shoes or fitting in some sort of ballet training! I am so excited to be able to plan holidays when I want and chase the European summer because I can. 2020 will be a year of reinvention for me. I know I won’t be able to sit still for long, so I am already excited about establishing my own projects in the future.”
By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.