The Australian Ballet

Ballet Men: Dale Baker

Join us as we celebrate our Ballet Men in all their strength, power and artistry. What better place to start than with Dale Baker? His career spanned three continents (he danced as a principal with The Australian Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Zurich Ballet, and as a soloist with The Royal Ballet) and he is now, as Senior Ballet Master of The Australian Ballet School, one of the most respected teachers in the country. He has trained generations of our dancers, and most of our male stars of the last 20 years count "Mr Baker" as a major influence.

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Early Days

I played a lot of sport when I was younger - cricket and basketball. Both my sisters learnt ballet, and my mother sent me along with them. She said it would be good for the sport. I really didn't know why I was there. I wasn’t particularly interested in it until I saw a performance by The Australian Ballet at the Myer Music Bowl. Bryan Lawrence was doing Le Corsaire with Elaine Fifield, and there were 25,000 people there. He had this massive jump, and you could hear all those people gasp when he took off. That got me excited about ballet.

I joined The Australian Ballet School in 1971. In those days, not many men did ballet, so you would be the only boy at your school. I had nothing to evaluate against; I didn't know anything about anything. I joined the School with Simon Dow [now a teacher at the School] and Ross Stretton [who went on to become artistic director of The Australian Ballet]. It was so great to find people who were like-minded and had similar interests. In those days, it was tough for boys that did ballet. I went to Glen Waverley High School, and the headmaster of the school, thinking that doing well in ballet was something to be proud of, would very kindly announce my results to all 1200 students - that didn't work out so well. It's interesting, I think it's not so different today, even though you'd think that we've come so far. I think there are a lot of talented boys who never pursue ballet as a career because of that bullying aspect.

These days, at The Australian Ballet School, we have a mentor program. In Level Eight, each student is assigned a dancer from the company, and for that year they stay in contact with them. They can ask them anything they like about the profession, they can see them rehearse and perform. That experience is invaluable.

When we joined The Australian Ballet, there was nothing like that. When I was new in the company I was very enthusiastic, and in class one day I danced in front of a soloist. No one spoke to me for three months. I couldn’t work out what the hell was going on. Ross [Stretton] asked around and found out what it was I’d done. So, you learnt the hard way. It didn’t matter if you were the first person to come into class – if someone senior came in, you got off the barre and went to hang onto a chair or something. I don’t think it’s like that these days.

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Aspirations

I always wanted to be a principal artist, nothing else, so I would always watch the principals. If you want to be a principal, no point in hanging around the corps de ballet. I watched Kelvin Coe, Gary Norman, Garth Welch, John Meehan. Kelvin and Marilyn [Rowe] were preparing to compete in the International Ballet Competition in Moscow, and I would stay behind every single day to watch them rehearse with [Artistic Director] Peggy van Praagh. It was a real education. One of the first full-length ballets we did was Giselle, and every night, at the end of Act I, you’d finish being a peasant or carrying on a deer or whatever, and you’d take off your make-up and run out front and stand at the back of the stalls to watch the second act. That never really changed for me; even when I was at The Royal Ballet, I used to go and watch Anthony Dowell or Stephen Jefferies rehearse. That’s how you learn.

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Ballet Men Today

The understanding of biomechanics, of how you get your body to do what you want it to do, has changed dramatically. Technically, dancers today are astronomical in what they can do, they’re so much better. The competition between male dancers is so much more intense. When Baryshnikov came on the scene, he really escalated ballet. Nureyev had done it in one way: before him, the man was really like a prop. He had that electric presence, and introduced far more solo work for the man. But Baryshnikov took it in another direction. He was a gymnast before he was a dancer, and his spatial awareness is different. He started doing things that people had never seen before, steps that had no names, and male dancing became very exciting. It's just gone on and on from there. Men are pretty competitive!

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Partnering

Partnering is supposed to be an art. You’re there to enhance the girl’s technique without the audience seeing it. Nowadays, it’s not so much like that. You often see what the man is doing. Especially with pirouettes: you see the man paddling the girl, pushing her around endlessly. I think it’s just that they want to do more and more turns. But that’s like a circus. That’s not art. The movement still has to have feeling.

When a girl is in a tutu, you can’t see her legs; so the deftness of touch needed to determine whether she’s on or off her leg is a real skill. To do all this without showing it to the audience, and to be involved with the woman, even though you can only see the back of her head – it takes years to learn how to do that.

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Inspirations

I enjoyed the challenge of something like Swan Lake, because I wasn’t a natural prince. The reason that I was vaguely successful at it was because I’d spent years watching other people. I pinched things off them! Anthony Dowell had the best curtain calls I’ve ever seen. He had an ability to make you feel like he’d danced for you personally. I modelled myself a lot on Stephen Jefferies, because he was very versatile, a great actor. You look at people and adapt those things to yourself.

Working with Anne Woolliams on John Cranko's works really opened me up to acting. She came out to The Australian Ballet to stage Romeo and Juliet, and she said to everybody, “I want you to go home and come back with five different ways of saying ‘yes’.” It made you think about the myriad ways you could express things without words.

I worked with Trevor Nunn, the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, on Cats. He was a very interesting man who would sum up everybody really quickly; he’d figure out the way to work with each person. I was Mr Mistoffolees. My son loved it – that jacket with all the lights flashing on and off.

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Highlights

I would never have changed my career in ballet. I think it’s the most rewarding thing I could possibly have chosen to do with my life. It’s been the most colourful life, the most surprising life. I met a lot of wonderful people, danced with a lot of great partners. You meet kings and queens, you meet movies stars, you travel the world.

One of the greatest highlights of my life was being in a class at The Royal Ballet. In this one class were Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Richard Cragun, Anthony Dowell, Stephen Jefferies, Wayne Eagling, David Wall… it was the biggest spinning, turning, jumping contest I have ever seen.

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Advice to Ballet Boys

Ballet is a tough business. It's hard physically and mentally; it's short. You can paint or play an instrument or act or even tap dance until you're 80, but not ballet. It’s one of the reasons I came back to The Australian Ballet from The Royal Ballet. I loved The Royal, loved everything about it, except for one thing – you didn’t dance enough. Even as a soloist, you would only be on stage three or four times a month. How are you going to develop your craft on 30 or 40 performances a year? At The Australian Ballet, we were doing up to 230 performances a year. By the time you’re 40, you’re gone, that’s the end of your career. You’ve got to jam in a lot.

I try and teach my students self-reliance. When you are in a school, your day is structured for you, and people will be friendly to your mistakes. But once you get into a career – if you can’t deliver, they’ll just find someone else. You need to learn to analyse your own dancing, so that you’ll progress.

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