Whether she is inhabiting the work of Trisha Brown, Akram Khan, Wayne McGregor, Edouard Lock, or Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Juliet Burnett makes the act of dancing a spiritual journey. Currently a first soloist with Ballet Vlaanderen (Ballet Flanders) in Belgium, a position she has held since 2016 after many years with the Australian Ballet and a stint as a guest artist, Burnett is also a writer and activist. We caught up with her to talk about her Indonesian background, learn a little about Javanese dance, and to be inspired by how seamlessly activism is woven into her passionate life.
ON A CREATIVE INHERITANCE
My mom is from Indonesia and comes from a huge family. We grew up in Sydney, but we ended up spending a lot of our childhood there. My grandparents passed away in my infancy and so my uncle (W.S. Rendra) was the patriarch of our family. He is a well known poet in Indonesia but I didn’t realize his influence until I was well into my own career.
Most of my family members, and many of my cousins, are creative in some way, My mother was a dancer and an actress. My grandmother was a Javanese classical dancer. But I was the only ballet dancer, so my uncle took me under his wing to make sure I understood the role of art in society and was following in family’s footsteps.
ON THE ROLE OF ART
My grandmother instilled ideas about art, both spiritual and political, as a voice of the people. And so my uncle often told me, “the role of art is to be the voice of the people.” I have always read the newspaper and wanted to know what else was going on in the world. Knowing this has always given me a bit of an advantage amongst my peers. In a classical company, people tend to be more close-minded — I have found the stereotype of being consumed by ballet to largely be true.
When I am a feeling a bit despondent, which can happen in dance, and feeling a need to re-find my purpose, my grandmother’s ideas remind me of why I need to dance. Even though it is a mute art form, I need to have a outlet, I need to be a voice. I think a lot and tend to overthink about everything, you name it…life…art…
ON BECOMING A CONTEMPORARY DANCER
My first love was always contemporary dance. Sleeping Beauty didn’t speak to me and I didn’t want to be a slave to a system. At Ballet Vlaanderen, all of our repertoire is contemporary or modern ballet. The biggest challenge for me in transitioning to contemporary has been untraining and then retraining. I am excited by new ways of exploring the ballet structure, ballets like Woolf Works. People are reinventing ballet, and showing it can be modernized and be made relevant.
ON LEARNING JAVANESE DANCE
I had a traveling scholarship and so I was able to go to Indonesia and get training in Javanese dance. It is the opposite of Balinese dance. There are slow tempos, adagio, it is more like tai chi. The stance is very regal, and the dances held a spiritual purpose in the royal courts. The stories they told were often mystical. The foundation is also similar to classical ballet: first position plie, presenting the heels, elegant and lyrical arm movements. Studying it, I was finally able to reconcile why I began in classical ballet. I feel at home in classical forms. It made me feel like I hadn’t wasted years in ballet and it reconnected me to my roots.
ON THE WORK OF BALLET.ID AND DANCE AS ACTIVISM
At Australian Ballet I felt different than my peers, I was always thinking about how I could make a difference with my life. I wanted to give back to my country. When I left and was freelancing, Ballet.id contacted me and invited me to an international ballet gala. We also co-presented a master class series and did some community work with people and communities who have been marginalized, and that is how it started. Ballet.id brings the art of ballet to underprivileged children and in doing so, injects a bit of magic. As a half-Indonesian woman I can bridge the gap, and show that ballet is not just white people’s culture. I speak the language almost fluently, though not as well as I should.
We do a little intro talk and show some video footage before dancing. A video of Stella Abrera doing Sleeping Beauty had so many kids transfixed by the magic of her pointe work. Ballet.id is also able to advise communities on how a child can continue dance education if they like it but can’t afford more lessons. The idea is that I am not coming here to say ballet is something you should like, I am just here to introduce you and invite you to understand it from a different point of view.
Words by Juliet Burnett, images by Morgan Lugo, leotard by Cote Cour