On a dance journey with Juliet Burnett

Juliet Burnett. Photo by Suprapto.
Juliet Burnett. Photo by Suprapto.

Dance Informa had the privilege of catching up with the captivating Juliet Burnett, on all things dance in her world. Burnett has been on a fascinating journey in the last few years, not only as a dancer and creator but also as an advocate for dance in Indonesia, and positive change within dance culture. She is an inspiration. Read on to gain insight into her world, where she has gone and where she is headed. 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Juliet Burnett. Photo by Filip Van Roe.
Juliet Burnett. Photo by Filip Van Roe.

“I was born in Sydney, and have a close-knit family. My mum is Javanese-Indonesian and my dad is Caucasian-Australian, and I have a younger sister Jasmine. My mum has a vast family in Indonesia, full of artists; my grandmother was a classical Javanese dancer, the Sultan’s star dancer in his court in Jogjakarta, and we spent a lot of time there during my childhood. When Mum enrolled Jasmine and I into ballet lessons in Sydney, she was interested to see if her daughters inherited some of the family dancing blood. I trained in the Cecchetti method with Valerie Jenkins and Christine Keith, and contemporary dance with Kay Armstrong.

At 16, I was accepted into both The Royal Ballet School in London, and The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. I tried The Royal Ballet School for a month but didn’t last, so I came home to Australia, and was able to take up my place at The Australian Ballet School, where I trained intensively for three years.”

What is something interesting about you that we may not know?

“I am a total music nerd. I even dabble in DJing.”

Since leaving The Australian Ballet in a rather dramatic fashion, you have been venturing away from traditional ballet. How did you find transitioning from the repertoire of The Australian Ballet into more contemporary dance?

“It’s very interesting to me that it could be seen as a ‘dramatic’ departure, when I was merely not following a conventional path. I made a very weighted decision to protect my well-being, artistic growth and career with care, consideration and full respect for the company I will always remember fondly as my first home, that developed me beyond my wildest dreams. But I had become hugely disenchanted by the cultural norms of a big ballet company, and after 10 years at The Australian Ballet felt the internal toll that took on my health and dancing. I was exhausted from putting on a brave face, and I felt stifled. I wanted to grow and learn more. 

Juliet Burnett in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake' at The Australian Ballet. Photo by Daniel Boud.
Juliet Burnett in Graeme Murphy’s
‘Swan Lake’ at The Australian Ballet.
Photo by Daniel Boud.

I started a freelance career in Australia, while also performing in Indonesia, fulfilling a lifelong dream to do so. I also took the opportunity while there to initiate a community workshop bringing ballet lessons to underprivileged children, a program which still runs today. Whilst freelancing, I relished the creative autonomy to curate my own work and collaborate with contemporary choreographers and artists from other disciplines. I guested with Chunky Move in a new creation by Melanie Lane, and also with West Australian Ballet, initiating its first tour to Indonesia. 

I also travelled around Europe and America, taking classes with various ballet companies, to scope out whether ballet was something I might want to continue while my body was able to. I was offered a job at Ballet Vlaanderen from 2016, where Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was artistic director, which I took due to the variety of repertory, a path to bridging the gap between my many years as a classical ballet dancer and contemporary, with incredible opportunities I would never have had access to in Australia. 

Juliet Burnett in 'Giselle' with Adam Bull at The Australian Ballet. Photo by Georges Antoni.
Juliet Burnett in ‘Giselle’ with Adam Bull
at The Australian Ballet.
Photo by Georges Antoni.

I had to work hard on ‘unlearning’ the deeply embedded ballet technique, retraining myself in a multitude of movement disciplines. Something I find maddening in the elitist tendencies of the ballet world is the premise that contemporary dance is just about being loose and letting go and doesn’t take as much discipline as ballet. This couldn’t be further from the truth; there is so much rigour and meticulous discipline in contemporary dance. Over the past 10 years now, I have taken training in several different traditional Javanese dance styles along with my ballet and contemporary training. Anything that is interesting to me, that expands my movement vocabulary as well as my physical and personal experience can only enrich my artistic practice.”

What has been the most surprising thing for you in this journey?

“When I moved to Europe, I expected a big cultural awakening but nothing close to what I have experienced it to be. There is art and performance everywhere, every night of the week. Living in Antwerp, I am very much at a geographical epicentre of an arts and culture goldmine. I can be in Amsterdam, Paris, London or Berlin in one to three hours. Every week, I am on a train straight after work to go see a show somewhere around Belgium or Netherlands. I have seen more theatre since 2017 than I have in my lifetime, and this is after an upbringing in a family who went to the theatre regularly! I go to see everything from indie poetry readings to rock bands to dance theatre to massive operas. After growing up in the geographical expanse of Australia, I am told this proximal richness never loses its sheen.”

Juliet Burnett in Melanie Lane's 'Re-make' at Chunky Move. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
Juliet Burnett in Melanie Lane’s
‘Re-make’ at Chunky Move.
Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Where are you at in your journey at the moment?

“Due to COVID’s impact in Europe, I took the decision to come back to Australia for some months away from it all. I needed some space away on a personal level, just to hit the reset button. I have been dancing professionally now for 18 years, nearly four of those in Belgium. I’m a great believer now in the value of rest. There is a lot of inner trust that comes with rest for a dancer, that your body will build itself back into full capacity. I started on projects in Australia in January, so I have been spending the past couple of months getting back into gear.”

There is an advocate in you, that threads itself throughout your various work. What would you say is the message that is emerging, and what is strongest for you at this point? 

Juliet Burnett with Alain Honorez in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 'Requiem' at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. Photo by Filip Van Roe.
Juliet Burnett with Alain Honorez
in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ‘Requiem’
at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.
Photo by Filip Van Roe.

“I grew up with the influence and inspiration of my uncle, W.S. Rendra, Indonesia’s foremost poet, playwright, actor and activist. His ethos was that ‘art is the voice of the people’, and that the artist has this responsibility. That has always been my central ethos, too, and why I struggled so much with classical ballet at times, because the mirror does not accurately reflect modern life, and is not culturally relevant. I’m a very open person and believe in the importance of de-stigmatising common problems. When you sweep stuff under the rug, nothing can move forward in an honest way, you end up masking and killing your truth in the process. When you share your stories, it can open up connections to others, and I choose to do so consciously because I believe that doing so can help others. We are all so very unique, but humans have common problems, and knowing you’re not alone is vital.”

Tell us a bit about the work you are trying to establish in Indonesia?  

“Dance is culturally intrinsic to Indonesia. Kids of all demographics learn traditional dance, and with Dutch colonisation came western forms of dance such as classical ballet. More recently, this has extended to hip hop/contemporary styles, and with trends quick to develop massive popularity in Indonesia, western dance forms have become increasingly commonplace. Training in these styles is, however, limited to the wealthy, and as a developing nation, this poses the problem of gaping inaccessibility in training and viewing performance, inhibiting the impact the art form can have on Indonesian culture. Traditional dances are performed in temples, outdoors or in the palaces, and only more recently in theatres for forms like wayang wong. 

Juliet Burnett teaching a community workshop for underprivileged children in Jakarta. Photo by Reynold Setiadi.
Juliet Burnett teaching a community
workshop for underprivileged
children in Jakarta.
Photo by Reynold Setiadi.

What I would like to do in Indonesia is find ways to bridge these gaps — between demographics, western and traditional forms, themes in artistic content, and Indonesia extra-culturally. I have started this work with my community workshops, which I will eventually collaborate with Indonesian artists and work to bring in international artists. My mission is to enable these aspirations from the ground up through my new company, A_PART, which is a digital stage and studio connecting artists and communities between Indonesia, Australia and the world, giving a platform for Indonesian dancers and creators with their exceptional and rich talent, to be recognised and seen on the world stage.”

What creative expressions or coping mechanisms have you discovered or explored during the current pandemic?

“Honestly, I have needed this time. I can be a real recluse, and love quiet and introspection. The sort of collective societal anxiety about lack of certainty of the future is, in many ways, a learned social construct. As humans, we yearn control, we yearn answers, we yearn comfort, and I am one of the worst culprits! I have used this as an opportunity to yield to the unknown, to see where my heart takes me, surrender to the moment. It has been terrifying and very painful in many ways, but right now, I am starting to feel the benefits and the seeds of a new sort of liberation and galvanisation. I don’t think I would have arrived at this place without a complete rest. The greatest gift has been to spend this time with my family in a sort of isolated unit. As I said, we are very close, and living overseas, missing this time with them has been really hard for sure.”

Juliet Burnett in rehearsal for Akram Khan's 'Giselle' at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. Photo by Nicha Rodboon.
Juliet Burnett in rehearsal for
Akram Khan’s ‘Giselle’
at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.
Photo by Nicha Rodboon.

What is next for you in terms of performance, creativity and life?

“Right now, I am working toward a new dance theatre-based creation, ‘Kasekten’ (translated ‘power’ from Javanese – particularly one to which we humans are subservient to), with Javanese heavy metal vocalist Karina Utomo and installation artist Michaela Gleave. It looks at rewriting ancient stories, replacing men with women as the protagonists, evoking the mystery and ritual of sacred dance performance. 

If the situation in Europe improves enough, I hope I can return to Opera Ballet Vlaanderen during the European summer in 2021. There are many incredible works that had to be pushed back because of COVID. When Belgium went into lockdown, we were a week away from premiering the Alain Platel opera, C(H)OEURS, which I was so excited for and personally invested in. It was heartbreaking when we received news of its postponement. But hopefully the reward of delayed gratification is on the horizon.”

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa. 

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