‘Make it more noisy’: the young dancer shaking up Australian ballet

To launch a major international gala independently, amid a global pandemic, should have been impossible. But 22-year-old Joel Burke is just getting started

Classical ballet has never found it easy to connect to the masses – but Joel Burke, a 22-year-old dancer from Brisbane, reckons inspiration could be found in an unlikely place: the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

As the world’s biggest Mixed Martial Arts league, UFC is a multi-billion dollar global juggernaut, staging fights in 28 countries, with huge sponsorship deals and stars like Conor McGregor pulling in millions of dollars each bout.

Burke thinks ballet could do the same thing. “We want the Conor McGregor [equivalents] coming out here with their brand deals, the yachts, their souped-up cars – because then kids grow up going, ‘Well, that guy’s really cool – I want to be that person.’”

Joel Burke on stage. He is wearing black pants and no shirt
‘[There’s] this strange ideal that ballet dancers don’t do it for the money, we do it for the love. Well, you can do it for both’: Joel Burke. Photograph: Craig Ratcliffe

Burke may be young, but he isn’t all talk. This weekend, he will bring out Italian superstar Roberto Bolle to perform in Australia for the first time for Brisbane’s second Ballet International Gala. It has an impressive lineup staged across two nights, featuring exciting young dancers like Daniil Simkin, Aran Bell and Cesar Corrales.

As the festival’s co-founder and director, Burke – an acclaimed dancer who has a role in Red Shoes: Next Step, a film due out later this year – is keen to shake-up the perception of his artform. “[There’s] this strange ideal that ballet dancers don’t do it for the money, we do it for the love,” he says. “Well, you can do it for both.”

The seed for Burke was planted when he was just 19. After representing Queensland Ballet Academy at 2018’s prestigious Prix de Lausanne, he became disillusioned with the limited creative freedom and opportunities offered by the traditional company system and quit ballet. He found himself deeply depressed and purposeless for the first time since beginning training as a self-described hyperactive 10-year-old.

Then he met the entertainment lawyer Khalid Tarabay and the pair bonded over shared ideals of “what the industry should be [versus] what it is.” So, with Tarabay and his lifelong friend Beck Phillips, Burke devised a ballet gala that they hoped would be bigger – and starrier – than Australia’s previous bills. Befitting their aims and moxie, the co-producers called it BIG, or the Ballet International Gala.

Ballet galas are showy affairs delivering excerpts from famous ballets featuring virtuosic pas de deux and solos; essentially a highlight reel aimed at aficionados and the general public. It’s audacious to stage such an event outside the framework of a ballet organisation – and to do so during the pandemic should have been impossible.

The first thing Burke needed was money. After gleaning expected artists’ fees from industry friends, he cold-called the philanthropist Roy Thompson, whose generous donation kickstarted the project.

“We started without knowing anyone, and must have met a thousand people,” Burke says. They eventually wooed more donors, including Tim and Gina Fairfax and Philip Bacon, and secured government funding and other sponsorship.

Skylar Brandt and Aran Bell on stage next to each other
Skylar Brandt and Aran Bell perform at the first BIG 2022. ‘Yeah, sounds sick,’ Bell said when Burke asked him if he was interested in being involved. Photograph: Craig Ratcliffe

BIG debuted in January at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre, delivering some of ballet’s most recognisable names – such as American Ballet Theatre principals Aran Bell and Skylar Brandt, and Australian Alexander Campbell from the Royal Ballet – alongside lesser-known dancers including Baktiyar Adamzhan and Shugyla Adepkhan from Kazakhstan.

As a mood, it was part ballet gala and part rock concert, with local three-piece Selfish Sons performing original songs set to contemporary choreography, alternating with traditional balletic choreography and recorded classical music – before performing alongside the international artists in a spectacular finale. “You got that energy, and everyone was just vibing,” Burke says, and that camaraderie permeated backstage, where the bandmates were “walking into everyone’s dressing rooms with a boombox playing Michael Jackson”.

“Suddenly everyone’s dancing backstage [and] it was, ‘Let’s go and sit in the wings and cheer on the other dancers!’”

Less than seven months later, and they’re ready for another go. Alongside the crowd-pleasing pas de deux from Don Quixote, La Bayadere and Le Corsaire (an award-winning role for Corrales), Simkin will flaunt his effortless technique in Les Bourgeois; Campbell and Francesa Hayward’s acclaimed pairing in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon will provide a benchmark for Queensland Ballet’s upcoming production; and Bolle’s lyrical duet with the Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi in Three Preludes will be accompanied by Lev Vlassenko piano competition finalist Sheng-Yuan Lynch. (A third performance with a more muted lineup is scheduled for 3 September at Star Casino on the Gold Coast.)

Juliet Doherty and Jordan Polbodetto are sitting on a stool leaning on each other, behind a microphone and a red keyboard
Juliet Doherty with Jordan Polbodetto of Selfish Sons. The second BIG takes place this weekend in Brisbane. Photograph: Craig Ratcliffe

Selfish Sons will be back too – featuring brothers Jordy and Finn Polbodetto and Jonty Carlson, who attended primary school with Burke. Booking a rock band was less about wanting a point of difference, and more the impulsive bravado of youth – which counts for a lot of BIG’s success.

“It was more, ‘This rock band’s really sick,’” Burke says, who invited the trio after seeing a gig, with no forethought of how to actually incorporate them. “Frontal lobe hasn’t completely developed yet.”

Hitting up the dance artists was just as informal. Burke had grown up watching Bell, who is only a year older, and followed him on Instagram. “I literally just messaged Aran: ‘Hey, man, you don’t know me, but we’d love for you to come to Oz.’” According to Burke, Bell responded with, “Yeah, sounds sick.”

Baktiyar Adamzhan and Shugyla Adepkhan performing on stage. The stage floor is dark blue and there is a green glow behind them. Adepkhan is in front of Adamzhan
Baktiyar Adamzhan and Shugyla Adepkhan from Kazakhstan, at the first Ballet International Gala. Photograph: Craig Ratcliffe

Burke wanted to showcase and develop local talents, connecting them with the global stars and expanding their career pathways. “It’s really hard to become [successful overseas] unless you move overseas,” he says. “Pressure makes diamonds … So if BIG can create stars – throw people into the deep end and some will sink, some will swim – then you’ll see [more] Aussies touring around the world soon.”

BIG II’s lineup will expand the local involvement, employing a corps de ballet of 14 ghostly Wilis accompanying Burke and Shugyla Adepkhan in Giselle, and nine commercial dancers from Dynamite Studios in a jazz number choreographed by Joel Murphy – who brings a “wow” factor, Burke says. “We’re looking at any way we can push the boundary, and we’ll be experimenting.”

Burke and Tarabay are expanding BIG’s reach – announcing on Wednesday that BIG III will hit Sydney in January 2023, headlined by Ukrainian-German prima ballerina and philanthropist Iana Salenko.

“We want to highlight traditions in a different way – make it more noisy,” Burke says. “I grew up playing footy and cricket. There’s no reason why ballet can’t be like that; I don’t like the whole idea of going to the ballet and having to be quiet and not cheer. I want people to go, ‘Hey, you going to the footy tonight?’ ‘No, sorry. I’m gonna go grab a few beers and head to the ballet.’”

  • Ballet International Gala II takes place at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre on 26 and 27 August, with a smaller lineup at the Star Casino on the Gold Coast on 3 September. BIG III will hit Sydney in January 2023


Olivia Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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