BWW Dance Interview: Mark d'At-Pace
Mark d'At-Pace was born in Yallourn, 130 kms east of Melbourne, Australia, and commenced his dance studies with Julie Ryan at the age of 9. He later studied at the National Theatre Ballet School and finally the Australian Ballet School, where he stayed one year before joining the corps of the Australian Ballet Company.
Mr. d'At-Pace was later promoted to soloist, dancing among others, the Bluebird Pas de Deux from "Sleeping Beauty" and Lenski from John Cranko's "Onegin".
Mr. d'At-Pace left the Australian Ballet Company to join Béjart Ballet Lausanne, and then Bayerischer Staatsballett, finishing his career with the Ballet de l'Opera National du Rhin. After retiring in 2007 he began teaching dance, leading him to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Dance Education with the Royal Academy of Dance/Surrey University, and a Masters in Dance Science and Education with the University of Edinburgh, attaining Distinction.
Broadwayworld Dance recently conducted an interview with Mr. d'At Pace via e-mail.
Where were you born? Any early influences?
I grew up in an industrial town called Moe, near Yallourn, which was 130 kms east of Melbourne, Australia. The town doesn't exist anymore, as it was demolished to widen the open cut for coal mining.
My dad, a Maltese immigrant, worked in the power station; my mum was a nurse. I was the youngest of six children (four sisters and one brother). Even though my mum loved the ballet and we were taken to musicals, ballets and different performances when younger, no one in the family danced.
I am not sure why I started ballet; my sister's good friend danced, and her sister had a ballet school. I saw their end of year performances and decided that I wanted to start. Once I did, I knew I wanted this more than anything else. So here I was: 9 years old and studying at a small ballet school. I later went to Julie Ryan, where I studied until I was 16. It was difficult being the only boy in grammar school who danced; harder still was high school. I went to a private Catholic boys' school which was very supportive, but I was bullied. Through it all, I wanted to continue my dance studies. I knew one day these problems would be over.
At 15 I auditioned for the Australian Ballet School (ABS), but was not accepted. I was a typical boy, loved to turn and jump, but technique did not interest me. So it was decided that I needed a male teacher, and I went to the National Theatre Ballet School (NTBS), under the direction of Gailene Stock, a wonderful pedagogue and woman to whom I owe a great deal. I studied with Gary Norman, Eileen Tasker and Martin Rubenstein. Gailene and Gary both were former principal dancers with the Australian Ballet Company (ABC), with Gary still dancing with the ABC at that time. I would go to the NTBS over the weekend and during the week kept studying with Julie Ryan. The next year I auditioned for the ABS and was accepted. I was very lucky, as all my teachers pushed me to work on my technique.
Describe your studies at the Australian Ballet School.
It was such a relief to be in an environment where everyone was working for the same goals. Best of all, it was just wonderful to be accepted. Class could be difficult, as I'd been studying since I was 9 and was now with some boys who had been studying only one year. I did not have an easy body; I am not sure if I would make it today as a classical dancer, as the physique is much leaner.
At that time, Robert Ray was the first year boys' teacher; however, I also had Gary Norman as pas de deux teacher. Robert took me back to basic technique, as I did not have an easy body. Even though happy, like any adolescent, I felt only my shortcomings being highlighted, and I was not being challenged. It was only after Gailene came to watch class and saw I was not happy that she pushed me to do my intermediate RAD exam. This renewed my confidence.
I only stayed one year (which at that time was a three-year course), as after that I was accepted into the ABC.
Describe your first dance experiences with the Australian Ballet.
I entered the company when I was 17 years old as an extra in "Coppélia" and then just stayed as people kept getting injured. At that stage, the company was comprised of 60 dancers and performed 160 to 180 performances a year. I really learnt onstage--doing 180 performances a year gave me stage experience that has helped me throughout my career.
When I first joined, I could not partner properly, as in the first year of pas de deux classes at the ABS we only really walked, polonaised and did very basic lifts. Now I was working with seasoned dancers, some of whom did not have the patience to work with me. I am not too tall (172 cm), and since I was sometimes learning six or seven corps roles I would find myself with girls who on pointe were far too tall. Learning ballets in two weeks, rehearsing during the day then performing at night was all challenging, but I loved it. Working with Maina Gielgud, then director of the Australian Ballet Company and the dancers I had looked up to since I was young, really inspired me. I know there were some members of the company and ballet staff that felt I should not be in the company, but I just took the bad comments that were thrown at me. Maybe all that bullying at school had prepared me.
You were later promoted to soloist. What roles did you take on at that point?
Before I was promoted to soloist, I was already dancing soloist roles. I was not a prince, but had danced various other roles, such as Peasant Pas de Deux ("Giselle"); Bluebird Pas de Deux and Florestan Pas de Trois ("Sleeping Beauty"); pas de six and lead Neapolitan ("Swan Lake"); Second Theme (Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments"); Copain (Béjart's "Gaîté Parisienne); Lucentio, Hortensio (Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew"); Benvolio (Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet"); Second solo boy, ("Etudes"), pas de quatre, mazurka ("Suite en Blanc"); and friend (Tetley's "Orpheus.")
I was promoted to soloist during our 1988 European tour after dancing Florestan Pas de Trois and Bluebird Pas de Deux from Maina's "Sleeping Beauty" at Convent Garden during the London season. I never have forgotten this tour, not just because I was promoted, but because it was a great tour. We started at the Kirov in St. Petersburg and then went on to the Stanislavsky, Moscow, following on to Odessa, and then finishing at Covent Garden.
Sadly, shortly after returning from this tour I became injured, spending nearly 8 months off. Like every dancer, having a long injury period is always hard, but I was supported by Maina and the medical team, at that time in its infancy and now considered the best in the world.
I returned from my injury and worked on Lenski from John Cranko's "Onegin" with Anne Wooliams. I think every dancer performing Lenski has a love for the role, even though the solo is one of the most challenging I have experienced. It needs so much control due to the adage quality of turning, as well as the ability to express that Lenski knows he is going to die and his deep emotional regret.
During this time, Gary Norman had returned to dance "Onegin," and I was confronted in rehearsal to dancing with my former mentor. At one time, just before the dual, Onegin tries to reason with Lenski, slapping his face. I remember turning to slap Gary and just could not do it. He had been my teacher and kept insisting that I slap him, and I did. It was a whopper slap. Next time, when I was rehearsing with David Ashmole, I had to slap him and nearly broke his tooth.
What prompted you to leave the Australian Ballet?
I fell in love with Bertrand d'At, at that time Maurice Béjart's assistant, who had come to Australia to produce Béjart's "Le Concours." This was in July, at the same time we were working on "Onegin". For the first time I felt love like it was like a TGV train. Bertrand was cultured, quiet in rehearsals and we just connected. I left the Australian Ballet at the end of that year. I gave up a lot for Bertrand: the company that I loved, my family, but I knew it was right. We were together 25 beautiful, crazy years until his passing in 2014.
You went with d'At to the Béjart Company in Lausanne. Tell me about that.
It was not an easy transition. When I first arrived, Maurice had no free contract, and after I auditioned he said that he was not sure if he could offer me a place in the company for the next season. I did audition for Geneva Ballet for the next season and was accepted but did not accept the contract, as I took the gamble that Maurice would later offer me a place. At that time, Maurice was creating his "Ring um dem Ring," and I had asked if I could just watch rehearsals, so I would sit up in the balcony learning all the corps roles. A few weeks after the Geneva audition one of the male soloists was injured, and I was offered a corps position. I flew to Berlin to join the company as they were preparing to premiere his "Ring."
Béjart taught me the importance of artistry over a dancer's technical capabilities. Before that it had mainly been the classical ballet repertoire. However, working with Béjart dancers such as Jorge Donn and Gil Roman, both of whom had impeccable ballet techniques, I saw artists that used breath, musicality, movement and the use of dynamics to connect with the audience. Consequently, I experienced how an audience connects deeply to artists that use the fundamentals of movement technique, rather than just technical capabilities. Even though Béjart insisted on the best ballet academic teaching, he required that it was more than just about dancing ballet's vocabulary--it was about creating emotion through one's technique. I'm thinking of what the critic John Percival once wrote: "Béjart's great skill was giving a character to ballet academic steps, and then developing a rapture and ambition in his performers," which he did, using aspects of ballet's codified vocabulary in his choreography with the aim in performativity to bring raw emotion to the steps. He completed it with emotional meaning and a multi-cultural influence of ethnic or primitive dance, which gave the movement an unusual concentration and strength.
Why did you leave Béjart?
Sadly, I did not dance a lot of challenging roles with Béjart. Maurice liked me and trusted me as a dancer, but I was not his sort of dancer; let's say I was not special. However, I loved performing his "Sacre de Printemps," one of most powerful pieces I have danced. It was the first time I had danced in an all-male corps de ballet, and it was overwhelming. There is a section where the boys are on their knees and come powering downstage as if they are about to jump into the audience. To this day, I still remember the feeling of losing myself in the movement. But I missed the variety of different repertoire and wanted to return to a classical ballet company, where I knew I was best suited. I auditioned for quite a few companies and once again my height and body were against me, but Konstance Vernon took me and I joined Bayerischer Staatsballett.
Betrand, who also joined, was a different story. He had been with Maurice since he was 17, first joining Mudra and then the company. He stopped dancing early, around 26, when Maurice asked him to become his assistant. In his thesis for his master's degree, Bertrand explains that it was a hard transition, as many of his colleagues did not agree with Maurice's choice. But I think Maurice saw a cultured and sensitive young dancer who was more apt to being a ballet master than a dancer. With Maurice, Bertrand toured the world, producing Maurice's ballets with the Berlin Staatsballett, Paris Opera Ballet, Vienna Staatsballett among many others, and working with some of the biggest stars in ballet.
What was it like at the Bayerischer Staatsballet?
Konstance Vernon was then director; she had a force and determination that is needed for a director's position. She achieved the company's budget independent from the opera house, as before it was the opera intendant directing how much money was given to the ballet. With her and the ballet staff I developed as an artist, dancing wonderful repertoire such as Colas from "La Fille mal Gardée," 3rd movement soloist ("Symphony in C"); Balanchine's "Tarantella"; Béjart's "Trisch Trasch Polka"; 3rd movement ("Before Nightfall"); Kylian's "Les Noces" and "Sinfonetta"; Puck (Neumeier's "Midsummer's Night Dream"); first movement soloist (Scholz's "Jeune Homme"); and Twyla Tharp's "Brief Fling."
Now, being more mature and dancing again the Cranko ballets and the classical repertoire, was enriching. With the education I learnt from Béjart, I tried to find the emotions of a step, even though I adored working on technique; I realized it was not an end in itself. Evelyn Hart was in the company at that time, an inspiring ballerina. I remember watching her in John Neumeier's "Nutcracker." The barre pas de deux and the Sugar Plum Pas de Deux are two of the most challenging Nutcracker pas de deux versions I know. Yet her use of the music and dynamics expressed emotion and ease. Her dancing Kylian's "Nuage" with Rex Harrington was like watching wind: the breath, dynamics, musicality, she took the audience on her journey. She was a generous artist.
However, after six years Bertrand was named director at the Ballet de l'Opéra National du Rhin in Mulhouse, France. The direction in Munich was changing, and I could see that I would not be dancing as much. I respected the change--each director has their own vision-and with Bertrand being named the director in Mulhouse, it was the right timing.
Tell me about that time. You spent many years there.