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.

Ballet de l'Opéra National du Rhin is one of the 19 Centre Chorégraphique National Centers in France, created in the early 1980s to expand the new French dance movement.

It was a culture shock, not because of the company, but the city. After Munich, it was difficult to arrive in Mulhouse in 1997. The city had once been a major employer of people in the textile industry, but in the 1980's, like many cities in France, the textile industry moved to China, consequently creating huge unemployment. The city was grey and dull; it did not have the cultural diversity of Munich. However, since then a lot has changed, and the city it much nicer now.

When Bertrand arrived, the company had developed under the former director, Jean Paul Gravier, However, because Bertrand was named late, there were only 30 performances announced for the next season. During his 14 years as artistic director, Bertrand brought the average to 80 performances a year. Works by choreographers such as Godani, Kylian, Forsythe, Ekmann, Bombana, Strongrem, Béjart, and Balanchine were introduced. We worked with people such as Pat Neary, Peter Apple, also performing Maina Gielgud's "Giselle."

Bertrand also did choreograph and had, under the former direction of Jean Paul Gravier, created his "Romeo and Juliet," which was set during the Russian revolution. During his tenure as artistic director he choreographed his versions of "Swan Lake" and Benjamin Britten's "Prince of the Pagodas", Mahler's "Songs of the Earth" and Schumann's "Dichterliebe."

Bertrand's philosophy was also to educate the audience and progress the artist. He was influenced by Béjart, with the boys always being stronger than the girls. "Dichterliebe" was created for Monte Carlo but introduced into the company as an opening ballet before "Giselle." As it speaks about lost love and death, it worked well. He brought a great deal of himself to his ballets: In Bertrand's "Swan Lake," Siegfried falls in love with Rothbart; however, since Siegfried cannot accept his homosexuality, he kills Rothbart at the end. I was part of this creation and, as an artist, was ready to bring a huge part of myself to the role. Anyone who has either performed Siegfried or Rothbart loves dancing the roles; they are powerful masculine roles that ask artists to search and express themselves to the fullest, otherwise the ballet does not work. "Swan Lake" was a huge success for the company, but many people, due its homosexual viewpoint, did not like it. Bertrand based his version of "Songs of the Earth" on a book called "Holding the Man" by Tim Conigrave, a true story about a man, his life partner, and their untimely deaths from AIDS. I loved dancing this piece, but once again the audience and some company members found that Bertrand was obsessed with doing homosexual ballets, even though they were the only two he did. He did a solo called "D960" to music from Schubert, with just one dancer lying on a bed dying of AIDS. However, the bed is standing upright, allowing the audience to see the dancer from another perspective. For me, it is a beautiful piece and one of his best.

Bertrand had a good nose for honest workers. In auditions, someone would be outstanding; however, he would have reservations. At one moment, there was an improvisation workshop and here you could see if the dancer worked well in a group. There were times we did take people, but usually the ballet staff pushed for a certain dancer and then they were the problem makers. I think that's what makes a good director, it's making the group move forward, as then the individual will progress.

Being the partner of the director was not always easy. Bertrand was more patient than I. During the end of my time with the company I became Bertrand's assistant, which really meant I just did the planning, and as we did more performances it was harder to plan, especially when the 35 hour week was introduced by the French government. I did teach and sometimes assisted the ballet staff in rehearsals. However, after three years I stopped, as it put too much strain on us as a couple. We could not turn off at home.

Three years later I retired. One day I was onstage and decided it was enough. I was hounded by injuries that I had when I young. I was 40 and it was time, but it was not easy. I had been part of a group since I was 17 and now felt terribly alone. I did not miss the stage too much, but missed moving. It is only now I have stopped doing classes.

Two years later Bertrand had to leave the company. The opera wanted to take a big part of the ballet's budget away to use for itself. In the end, Bertrand was obliged to leave, with different promises from the Ministry of Culture, which were sadly just promises. A very difficult time, and even though he kept working freelance, creating ballets for the National Ballet of China and continued to work in Shanghai, Bertrand went into deep depression and never really recovered.

During this time he also worked a great deal in Asia. Can you tell me something about that?

It was a lot of fun, and a learning curve. Take Hanoi. It's a crazy city; just crossing the road was a challenge, scooters everywhere. The dancers were wonderful; many of the older generation of dancers had been trained in Russia and possessed wonderful techniques. But they were badly paid. We were there for a summer, and the studio, thank goodness, was air conditioned. The dancers, many of whom had second jobs to make ends meet and worked after rehearsals, or did not have air conditioning at home, would sleep in the studio during rehearsal. It was disconcerting to have 15 people asleep and ask someone to wake up to rehearse. At first it was very foreign to us, but we talked to them and they explained why. There were a few times there were blackouts, and it was just impossible to work.

You've also had political problems in places.

Bertrand did his ballet, "The Sigh of Love," in China for the Shanghai Ballet. At the end of the week members of the party would come to look at rehearsals. However, they never interfered and gave advice more about the culture, as the ballet was set in Shanghai. In one scene, all the dancers are in a room and the spirits of the dancers dance together. The party members explained to Bertrand that is was bad luck in China's culture for spirits to appear in a closed room, so he opened the whole room, solving the problem. However, they did ask that the heroine of the story not lie down on the same bed, as in the story the couple were not married, so as the soloist dancer approached and placed his knee on the bed, there was a black-out and the sound of a bomb went off. Solution solved and all were happy.

You were set to marry Bertrand, and he died a few days before the wedding. That must have been devastating.

Yes, we had planned the marriage for a year, as we wanted it to coincide with our 25 years of being together. Three weeks before the wedding Bertrand went to do some freelance work, and then headed to Mulhouse to prepare, where he later would meet up with my sister and brother-in-law. My mother was with me in Lille and my brother and another sister had arrived in Paris, with other friends still in airplanes. I finished work on the Wednesday and planned to leave the next day for Mulhouse. On that evening, Bertrand had organized to eat dinner with my sister and brother-in-law and never showed. They then called me to ask if I knew where he was. There was an anxious two hours until he was found collapsed in the apartment. He had died of a ruptured aorta. I walked around the little apartment all night in Lille. The next day with my Mum we caught the first train to Mulhouse, as there was so much to do: cancel caterers, change hotels for guests and organize a funeral. Thank goodness, we had wonderful friends and family members that helped me through all of it. The funeral was a beautiful celebration of his life. It was a performance, but even after three years it still takes my breath away to think it all happened.

However, we did get married in the end, as in France there exists a law that lets you marry posthumously under extraordinary circumstances. Only the president of France can give permission, and in January 2016 I received his consent. So, on May 28, 2016, we were finally married. The date on the weeding certificate is dated the day before Bertrand died July 1, 2014.

Are Bertrand's works still performed Ballet de l'Opéra National du Rhin? Do you stage them?

I did construct, with the ballet mistress Claude Agrafeil, a suite of his" Romeo and Juliet" in January 2016, as once again there had been problems with the direction of the Opera. Then director Ivan Cavalleri needed a ballet that was already in the repertoire to go into a Shakespeare program; at the same time he also wanted to pay homage to Bertrand's 15 years as director, which until that time the Opera and Marc Clémeur, the then director of the Opera House, had not done officially.

After Bertrand's death, what path did you take?

I decided to stay where I was teaching, as I was in no shape to make any decisions. It was such a difficult year emotionally, but, also administratively, so much had to done. One night after a very emotional day I had a dream which seemed very real: Bertrand was next to me and told me all would work out. From then on, I had more faith things would be fine, but it was such a turmoil of a year.

During that first year, our family and friends helped me and made sure I was looking after myself. Bertrand's sister Agnés and family helped me in so many ways with friends from Munich ringing me each week to see how I was; without them I do not know what I would have done.

I have moved on and met a new person: he does marathons, teaches law, and has no idea about ballet. He sees when I am not good, as grief never goes away-it just gets easier. So when I am not good I return to my own apartment. He understands I need the space.

Any teaching philosophy? What technique or guideline do you follow?

I aim to develop a growth mindset that encourages students to work hard so they realize their own potential to the fullest. I explain to the students that it is about our own individual progression--don't compare, as we all have different strengths and weaknesses. Look at your mistakes as opportunities to progress, not as failures. I aim for them to feel the satisfaction of pushing themselves to their limits of their growth potential. In this way, they will continue to strive to progress.

I do not really follow a technique; I am a real mongrel when it comes to following a specific technique. I studied with Stanley Williams, David Howard, and Serge Golovine at the Paris Opera Ballet School. I did RAD while I was with the ABS, since the teachers there followed the Vaganova method. So now, whatever works best for the student is the best. Having a body that was not easy taught me to have a mindset that was about always looking for ways to make it work.

What prompted you to go back for your bachelor's and master's degrees? Do you find that these have helped you in your teaching?

Absolutely. I had attained my Diploma d'Etat (State Diploma, which is obligatory to teach dance in France) and then in 2006 passed the Certificate d'Aptitude (CA, one of the highest diplomas a dance teacher can attain in France.) However, after retiring from dancing and leaving the Ballet du Rhin in 2007, I started teaching in a small conservatoire outside of Paris. I realized that I lacked a lot of pedagogy knowledge, not just in ballet, but also in education. So in 2011 I decided to start a bachelor's, which I did by distance learning with the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). My BA aided me to understand the whole child in front of me, it taught me to understand that dance education is not just teaching steps--it's letting the students own the material they are learning, consequently motivating the young learner.

Motivation is the key in our work; once the young learner is motivated, the rest is easy. This is why I decided to continue and do an MSc with Edinburgh University. My research stemmed from my own life experiences, where I had a secure attachment, first with my own parents, then Julie Ryan, then Gailene and then Maina. Additionally, talking to colleagues I found they also had certain teachers that inspired them and gave them confidence to dance.

My research has helped me understand the young student in front of me. Dance is collective, however this "selfie" generation is creating a young generation that has less empathy, but that's another whole article in itself.

What activities are you engaged in at the present time?

I am currently teaching in the school with the Ballet du Nord, Roubaix, under the direction of Oliver DuBois, who has announced only after three years that he is leaving. However, the director of Pedagogy is my actual director, Pascal Minam-Borier, a fabulous and passionate director. He has a vision and a project for the school that is about teaching dance as a whole, and with my colleague Georgina Ramos-Hernandez, a former dancer with the National Ballet of Cuba, the team places its focus on the student. I suppose that is strange to say, but I have seen too many teachers put themselves before the student. Working with these two excellent pedagogues has taught me a lot.

What would you say was one of the more memorable experiences of your career?

When I was assisting Davide Bombana for his creation with the Paris Opera was one of the biggest learning curves, to work with such stars as Jose Martinez, Agnés Letestu, Delphine Poussin was daunting; however, they were true artists, and it was a wonderful experience. At that time, Kylian was there working on a creation and his advice was, if something does not work, don't scream. Discuss and then a solution will be found. I have tried to apply the same principals wherever I work; sadly, a lot of the times not always successful, but I have learnt through experiences that this way works the best. I am sure they're a lot of people reading this whose jaws would drop.

What can we expect from you in the future?

Firstly, I still need to be more patient with people, my main fault. Secondly, further personal and professional developments have always been in my philosophy; I suppose that comes from Maina, so the next step is a Ph.D., if I ever find a university to accept my research.

Photo: Bertrand d'At and Mark d'At Pace.

Photographer: Jean-Luc Tanghe.

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