[Exclusive] The Dance Over Dinner Series: Kevin Jackson & Benedicte Bemet

Welcome to the second segment of our interviews with 6/8 of the international dancers who were here in Malaysia for the International Ballet Super Stars Gala 2019! We’ve decided to break our interview into three for easier reading, and named our interview series “Dance Over Dinner”, because that was what we did: talking about dance over dinner! In this segment, you’ll be getting to know Australian Principal and Senior Artist from The Australian Ballet Kevin Jackson & Benedicte Bemet a little better, so let’s go straight into it!

Note: EP stands for Expression Platform – our side of the conversation!

Image Credit: The Australian Ballet

Principal Dancer, Kevin Jackson

EP: How did you start dancing?

Kevin: When I was 6 years old, I was taken along to my cousin’s dance concert. And I remember sitting in the audience very vividly as the lights went down in the auditorium and the curtains went up, and the music started, I was just so excited and elated by what was happening on stage. I was taken aback and I wanted to perform. I asked my mom over and over again for a few months if I could take dance lessons (and that was not a normal thing for a boy where I come from in Perth), but eventually she said okay, let’s do it. And I started doing jazz, tap, Highland Scottish dancing, and then slowly a couple of years, I started doing Ballet after that at around 8. I took it more seriously when I was a teenager. And after I moved to Melbourne from Perth to join the Australian Ballet School, did the 3 year course, and joined The Australian Ballet when I was 18 in 2002. And I’ve been there ever since.

This is my 17th year with The Australian Ballet Company. I’m 35 now, and I started when I was 7. So it’s a long time! I don’t want to know how long that is. *laughs* You can ask my knees!

EP: *Laughs* It’s amazing at how much you love ballet and how far you’ve come! But what made you choose ballet over the other dance styles?

Kevin: Ah, I think it was the fact that I could through dance create language. And use my body to create emotion and story without using voice or song. It was a very internal and meaningful response for me to perform dance and give an audience something to *feel*. That’s why I chose ballet. Plus, I couldn’t sing so I couldn’t do musical theatre!

Everyone: *laughs*

Kevin: And at a younger age, I could get over to Melbourne faster. Otherwise, I would’ve stayed in Perth longer and had to do a university course for musical theatre. But I just wanted to be on stage and ballet was the fastest route to do that.

EP: So, what’s the dance culture like back in Australia?

Kevin: When I first started dancing, it was very different. I think social media and the internet has made dance a more culturally accepted thing for Australians. We are a very sports orientated country. We love our AFL, rugby, and…

EP: Grand Slam Open – Tennis?

Kevin: Yes, tennis! Australians love that. So the arts has always been slightly behind but slowly over the years we are educating so people are following dance more and more. And our company is well renowned as a household name, which is great!

EP: Throughout your years in dancing, who would you say would be your greatest inspiration in dance?

Kevin: Oh gosh, David McAllister and Steven Heathcote are both from Perth. And obviously they’ve also been mentors for me in my career because Steven is my ballet coach and David is my boss, and has been the whole time I’m in the company. And people like Nijinsky and Nureyev that I have watched through Youtube and read about them. I danced John Neumeier’s Nijinsky which open my eyes to his life, and his torment – the love of dance and his mental illness that he suffered. Yeah, it was an inspiration to portray his life through John Neumeier’s work.

EP: How is it like being in the Australian Ballet Company? How do you go through your day?

Kevin: We start at 10.30 am for rehearsal period, but I will come in at 9.30 am, work through my body conditioning program that our physios and gym instructors have worked out personally for each dancer for any particular injuries to help us perform better. So I do that for about an hour, and I do a classical class for about 1.15 hours. We then have a 15-minute break before rehearsing from 12pm – 2.30pm and we have a lunch break.

EP: Does that mean 12pm – 2.30pm is a rehearsal for a single piece?

Kevin: No, it can be broken up or it can just be one ballet depending on rehearsal periods. But usually we’re rehearsing at least two ballets at the same time. If it’s a triple bill, then we’ll rehearse three ballets at once. Sometimes we’re rehearsing for the whole six months, so it could lead up to five ballets that we start from the beginning of the year till then perform alternatively throughout the six months.

EP: *nods head in amazement*

Kevin: So from 2.30 pm – 3.45 pm we’ll have a lunch break. And from 3.45 pm – 6.30 pm we’ll rehearse more. For show day, we’ll start the day almost as per usual, but we’ll warm up for the show at 6.30 pmand finish the show at 10 pm or till whenever the show finishes. And you also have to fit in your rehab, recoveries, ice baths, physio, massages… so when that’s all in there, it’s a full time job. Yeah, there’s not much time left for personal life.

EP: What do you do during your days off?

Kevin: Sundays are our day off. On my day off, I make sure I get out into the sun. I have a dog, so I go on a walk. I take my dog to the cafe and I see friends. On Monday nights I always go see a movie, whichever is out. I catch up with a friend, go for dinners, and have a social life like this. *hands gestures to his surrounding* But of course it’s resting, having massages, or going to the pool, and just trying to relax my body.

Image Credit: The Australian Ballet
EP: What do you think your best moves are?

Kevin: I pride myself in being a good partner. *smiles* So pas de deux is my strongest.

EP: At what age were you introduced to pas de deux?

Kevin: The Australian Ballet School has a pas de deux class twice a week. And in our final year, we’re basically doing pas de deux every day by learning classical pas de deux such as The Nutcracker, Le Corsaire… prior to that, I have learned a little partnering but nothing major. So I really honed partnering from the age of 16 to 18. And in the company, we only partner in the repertoire. But in The Australian Ballet, we have choreography led by Graham Murphy that is very partner orientated and we have a lot of contemporary work as well. So there’s a history of good partners being passed down from generations throughout the history of our company. So, it’s something that we pride ourselves on as male dancers in our company.

EP: Do you think being introduced to pas de deux at a young age will help a dancer?

Kevin: Absolutely. I think a male has to be at an age that he’s strong enough to do lifts. So you don’t want a 10 year old that doesn’t have the strength to start doing lifts. But certainly to be understanding where weight is for a girl. And you know, dancing with a boy and a girl at a younger age is not a normal thing. So getting that comfortability together is a good thing. I think once you’re a teenager and you start getting strength, that’s when they need to start doing it every day.

EP: Did you ever felt uncomfortable dancing pas de deux in the beginning?

Kevin: *chuckles* You can’t tell  now but I was very thin as a teenage boy so I felt very weak. But that gave me the drive to be a good partner. There were also boys in my year that were 2-3 years older than me that were stronger and more developed, and then there’s me. I looked at them and said to myself I needed to be like them. So I did a lot of gym work and learned how to lift.

EP: What do you love most about dancing with a partner?

Kevin: I love having the connection with my partner the most, whether that person be a man or a woman. The process from studio to stage as well as the relationship you create with someone is very intimate, raw,and open. And when you can be so open with someone you’re not romantically involved in, that you’re giving your complete soul to and trust to… when that connects and works, it feels like magic. And that’s what I love about dancing with a partner on stage.

EP: Which would you say is the hardest pas de deux?

Kevin: Graham Murphy’s Swan Lake is the hardest partnering I have ever done. You’re basically partnering two women for four acts in a three piece suit, and it’s very hard. Honestly, my back just turns into a gorilla! You’ll have nothing left by the end of the ballet.

Image Credit: The Australian Ballet
EP: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions for male dancers?

Kevin: People thinking that male dancers dance en pointe. I think a lot of people think that it’s a feminine thing for male dancers. But once people come in to watch our shows, they realize how athletic it is. We have AFL people that come to watch our shows and it completely changed their mindset on how physical and masculine it actually can be for both male and female. But I think the stigma is changing in Australia, and I hope for around the world as well.

EP: Based on your “glance at dance”, how has dance impacted your life?

Kevin: My life would have been completely different if I wasn’t in dance. I have met royalty, danced on the MET stage in New York, danced in Royal Ballet studios, and been in amazing countries coming from a poorer background I would have never experienced. It has totally opened my life and developed me not just as dancer, but a human being. And I don’t take it for granted at all that I get to do it every day.

Senior Artist, Benedicte Bemet

EP: How did you start dancing?

Bene: I started when I was 3. And my mom used to dance when she was growing up, so I think she thought I should give it a go, and I loved it. 

EP: Did you start with ballet or with other dance styles?

Bene: Always ballet. I tried jazz and contemporary but I wasn’t very good, so I just did ballet.

EP: At what age did you take dance seriously?

Bene: I think I was 9-10 years old. I always loved dancing. My mom said that if I really loved dancing, she could audition me for The Australian Ballet School. They had an interstate program that was really cool. It was very serious and there were a lot of girls. I realised it was quite competitive and difficult. So I guess that was the turning point where I told myself I have to take it seriously.

EP: How was the audition like? Did you feel nervous around girls who you felt might have more potential than you?

Bene: I think I was really nervous. But I was like just try your best and work really hard so that if at the end I don’t get in, I’ve tried my best. But if I do, it’s because I worked really hard.

EP: How was it like being a dance student in your schooling years among your non-dancer friends? Did you ever felt like you were missing out?

Bene: Definitely. High school was hard. My friends would call me out to play sports or have dinner but I would have to answer them saying I had to go for ballet class. But my mom always told me it’s my choice and what do I want to do. I think sometimes I was like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to ballet class.” But you know, there’s sacrifices.

And also moving away from my family at a young age was really hard. But once again if you really love dancing, it’s okay, you’ll do it. I was very lucky I had very supportive parents that would let me go and do this. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of sacrifice but if you love it, it’s worth it.

EP: What do you think of the quest for perfectionism in ballet? Do you think is it good, bad, or should we change our perspective?

Bene: I mean, ballet is a very aesthetic art form so it’s all about the visuals in its origin. But I think nowadays we move away from that. We don’t expect to see one idea of a piece. We want to see someone’s interpretation.

For me, I love when someone that doesn’t necessarily have everything perfect, but their movement quality, or something that they have thought of or worked hard for, I love that. I love seeing how someone crafted their body and movement quality to be good at something. So I think for me, that’s more important than being perfect because perfect can be so boring. I’m much more interested in watching personality and quality of movement. Something you can connect, or tell a story, you know what I mean?

EP: What are the hardest lessons you had to learn in ballet?

Bene: Well, two years ago, I had a very bad injury where I had a year off and I couldn’t walk for six months. I thought I had to retire because I couldn’t imagine getting over it. I didn’t know who I was throughout the whole process. Ballet was my everything and how I valued myself. Like who am I?  My body didn’t feel like my body and I couldn’t do anything.

Overcoming that really taught me a lot of new things about myself. Like perspective, self worth, and what’s important. And also leaving my family at 13, that was pretty hard!

EP: Could you explain how you view dance in general? Is it an art, sport, or discipline?

Bene: It’s definitely not sport. It’s an art. It’s also a discipline in a sense that my body has to do certain things every day to maintain my body such as doing pilates and ballet classes every day. But for me, it’s expressing what you’re feeling.

Sometimes you give the audience something so special, especially when they’re going through a hard time, and that’s really important. Sometimes in the studio we forget that, and we keep thinking about what’s not good enough. It’s always about me and I, and we forget about the people watching.

I think it’s all about expression and uniting people. It’s about sharing a feeling that can’t always be expressed through words with the audience. If you’ve given them everything, they’ll be like, “yes!” That’s more important than perfect things.

EP: Is this your first time dancing in Malaysia?

Bene: Yes! This is my first gala! *smiles widely*

EP: Awesome! What do you think of the Malaysian dance scene?

Bene: Amazing. The dancers in the ballet school have so much potential! And the audience is so lovely and encouraging. Honestly, I had the best time. It’s so inspiring to see the other dancers. And working with students that look at you go, “Ahhh!” And of course I remember that because I was just like that, but now I’m here. Like how did this even happen? It’s such a beautiful thing.

EP: What do you think is more important? Having innate talent for ballet and suitable ballet features or hard work to succeed in ballet?

Bene: Oh, this is a tough one. But I find it more interesting when someone doesn’t have facility, and they make it work. That is amazing because someone has thought how to make it work. Whereas some people has the requirements, and it’s beautiful, but not everyone has the ballet body. There are so many people that don’t have the facility and they work so hard to find their quality, and I have so much respect for that.

It’s hard because you see Svetlana Zakharova do Swan Lake and you’re just like *mimics a blown away expression* And she works so hard to make it amazing too. But there’s also other dancers that are equally amazing in their own way. I think it’s important that we don’t compare the two. I think we don’t have to compare, because why does one have to be better? Can’t it just be different? But good question!

EP: Based on your “glance at dance”, how has dance impacted your life?

Bene: Especially after being injured, nothing lets me express myself as much as dancing. The physicality of ballet and sharing that with your partner and the audience… it’s very cathartic.Whatever you experience, you can bring it into your dancing. And that’s a very beautiful thing.

Because when I was injured I tried so many other things, but nothing gave me goosebumps like dancing. You know what I mean about this feeling? And to hear beautiful music, because I get emotional when I hear them, and to come back to dancing, and to be able to do all that… that’s the very simple, important thing.

We had loads more time with Kevin & Benedicte, so we managed to get pretty much a full-length interview! The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All images courtesy of  Benedicte Bemet & The Australian Ballet. 

Once again ladies and gentlemen, Australian Principal Dancers and International Guest Benedicte Bemet & Kevin Jackson ! Thank you for putting on two spectacular shows for us, and for speaking and sharing your stories with us – we’re sure all our readers have gained precious insight as a budding dancer! We hope to see you again in Malaysia soon!

Follow Benedicte & Kevin on Instagram for their dance adventures:

@kevin.j.jackson & @benedictebemet

Kevin & Bene danced the Grand Pas Classique and Cinderella in the Gala. For more information on the classical ballet items in the Gala, click here!

Special thanks go to KL Dance Works Production (@kldanceworks) for organising the Gala, as well as for hosting the dinner which provided this opportunity for the interview to happen!

That concludes part 2 of “Dance Over Dinner” series! Stay tuned for next week for the finale as we introduce the Cuban Principal Dancers, Adiarys Almeida & Taras Domitro!

Author

Grace Rundi

Continuously searching for an artistic voice, spotting muses, and drawing inspirations.

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