The Australian Ballet

Mum knows best

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Jessica's mother Leisa and daughter Asha
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

This Mother's Day, Behind Ballet talks to former company dancer Jessica Thompson about the special bond she shares with her mother and daughter through dance.

Your mother Leisa, is also a dancer, how influential was she in your decision to make dance your career?

Some of my earliest memories are of being in the studio playing on the floor while my mother took class. She would hang toys from the barre when I was a baby for me to admire while she danced and later, when I was around six years old, I would copy her and the other adults in the studio, imitating their movements and dreaming of dancing myself one day.

My mother has always been deeply supportive of my desire to dance, especially when it became a serious pursuit, but she never ever insisted I dance which I remain grateful for. I sensed dance was my path from a very young age, independent of her influence. She made it absolutely clear that she loved me regardless and inclusive of success and failure in the dance industry. My paternal grandmother was also a vaudeville dancer in Perth in the 1930s so dancing is definitely in my blood.

You moved from Perth to study at The Australian Ballet School at only 15, did your mum come with you?

When I was accepted into The Australian Ballet School, I was very young and made the move from Western Australia alone to begin full-time training. Mum didn’t come with me as she and my dad had their own established careers in Perth, and my younger brothers also had their lives there. For the first six months in Melbourne, I lived with family friends, and then at almost sixteen I moved into an apartment with another girl in my class. It’s only now that I understand just how huge a sacrifice mum made in letting me leave home so young. She placed huge trust in me. Though I felt quite competent and assured in my choice to leave and follow my dream, it was hard for her to watch me grow into a woman from afar. She would send me beautiful handmade cards and leaves from our garden, and small gifts and photographs in the mail with updates on what was happening at home as a way of mothering me from a distance. I loved receiving these special parcels. They sustained me through some intense homesickness in the first two years and throughout the entire four years of training which could be gruelling at times.

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Jessica Thompson in her final year at The Australian Ballet School
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

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Jessica Thompson dances at age six
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

After an extensive dance career that saw you travel the world and perform for the most renowned companies, you decided to retire to become a mum. Was that a difficult decision to make?

It both was and wasn’t. The decision to have children was very easy for me. Around thirty I was increasingly overcome with the longing to have a baby. I had been married for three years but living apart from my husband in Sydney while dancing with Sydney Dance Company (he was working in Melbourne). When a few close girlfriends began to have their first children I realised with shock that I was quite envious! It was something that I had always known I wanted, to be a mother. I knew instinctively it was the right time physically and in the context of my life. It was a grief filled process to walk away from my career and in particular, my place within Sydney Dance Company which had bought me very deep fulfillment as an artist. I also needed a rest from the physical, mental and emotional intensity of being a full-time company dancer at that time too. Little did I know how intense motherhood would prove to be!

You returned to The Australian Ballet in 2023 for Alice Topp’s production of Paragon, what was it like being back on stage with former The Australian Ballet alumni?

Returning to The Australian Ballet for Alice’s Paragon was a dream come true. It was a full circle moment that allowed me to reflect and honour how far I had come as a person and dancer, and it also helped me to discover how much I still have to give. To be back in those studios at the ballet centre and within the Sydney Opera House with precious people who have shaped my life and career was indescribably special. The dancers in the company are like family and in this way, it was a homecoming for me.

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Jessica Thompson, Paragon (Topp) 2023
Photo Daniel Boud

You’re currently teaching The Australian Ballet’s adult ballet classes, does your mum ever take your class?

I love teaching The Australian Ballet adult classes.

Ballet is complex and difficult, and the beginner students come with so much commitment and openness. They are so remarkable and brave! My mum does take my class occasionally. It’s beautiful to share the space with her and quite natural, she has been beside me for so much of the journey even when there was geographical distance between us.

What’s it like offering her direction (and corrections!)?

I don’t tend to correct her or offer her personal direction in class if I’m teaching. I let her dance as she does. We do have many, many fascinating, hilarious and nourishing conversations outside of the studio though regarding technique, training and culture. We often compare experiences and share our knowledge on the massive changes that have taken place between her upbringing as a dancer and mine.

Today there is a huge emphasis placed on sports science - functional technique, sustainability and safety in training. I was raised on these principles, but for mum it was a very different experience. In the 70s when she was a young dancer, the attitude was ‘just get on with it, get your leg up and dance through injuries etc’.

You mentioned your daughter has also joined your classes from time to time, how would you feel about her deciding to pursue a career in dance?

Asha, my daughter has expressed interest in dancing and has come to some kinder classes at The Australian Ballet School. She enjoyed these, but she is also heavily into gymnastics and animals right now so I’m not under any assumption she will dance. She is her own soul and person, quite aside from me and she makes that very clear! If she decides she wants to dance I will be behind her 100 percent, but she will likely have another calling in life which will be my privilege and joy to support too.

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Jessica's mother Leisa and daughter Asha
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

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Jessica Thompson in rehearsal for Paragon (Topp) 2023
Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

Do you get many mother/child duos in ballet class or is it quite unique?

It’s not uncommon to meet dancers who had parents who danced. I think it’s similar to families that become acting dynasties. Both are immersive careers that can influence children with their magic if they are exposed early on.

Both also require a huge degree of devotion and sacrifice, and I guess many parents who danced understand this drive and longing. This shared wisdom helps when things are uncertain, demanding and tough going.

It must be wonderful to be able to share your love of dance and art with both your own mum and your children. How important is it to you to have these connections that date back generations?

The generational thread that extends back through my own experience as a dancer, through my mother and grandmother, and forward into my daughter is precious to me. Asha has reminded me of the free, unconscious joy of dancing, before any formal training takes place, and how valuable natural instinct is when protected, preserved and paired with technical refinement. My mother reminds me of the power of sustained intent, and that love is at the heart of dancing.

My grandmother’s spirit, her delicacy and warmth lives through my unique expressive quality.

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Jessica and her mum Leisa
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

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Jessica dancing with her daughter Asha
Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson

What are you looking forward to most this Mother’s Day?

The cuddles and homemade cards, and their smiles as I read and admire what they made are the best part of Mother’s Day for me. Waking up to their small faces reminds me every day of how blessed life is by its very nature. It’s such a breathtaking, humbling, evolving journey. I love being their mother.

Jessica teaches adult ballet classes at The Australian Ballet through the Studios program.