Coffee With…Dana Jolly (Part 2): Choreography, Casting and Compassion
If you couldn’t already tell from part one of Coffee With…Dana Jolly, she is a superwoman. From overcoming genetic conditions through sheer dedication and discipline, to becoming one of Australia’s most wanted choreographers and teachers, Jolly has proven herself time and time again as a force to be reckoned with.
In part two of our interview, we chat about delving into the choreography world, the importance of establishing a routine, and being on the other side of the casting table.
You have overcome your fair share of adversity. When you were training you spoke about several teachers that used the ‘old method’ of teaching, primarily through fear. How has your experience shaped your teaching methods?
[Being told I couldn’t dance] scarred me, and I don’t want to be on the opposite end of that now. We have to have felt like we’ve come so far from those days. [Of course] there were lots of good aspects that I brought through with me – discipline, the focus, the commitment – but I left out all the bad stuff, and hopefully the next generation will take all the good stuff from now, and if there was anything that was negative, they’ll get rid of that too.
You have such a nurturing teaching style, and I believe everyone appreciates it when they attend your class.
I don’t believe in fear factor. You do have to be a bit of a psychologist, and know that with some people, you need to push them in a certain way, and with other people, you need to be more nurturing. I want everyone to feel included, that anything is possible if they’ve got the heart and the mind to work with what they’ve got. Even if it doesn’t work out at the end of the day, you’re not [leaving the students] psychologically damaged! Best-case scenario, they’ll achieve work and employment, and they’ll be able to look after themselves safely whilst they’re employed. Ultimately, my interest is them getting the jobs, but also having them being able to walk afterwards when they decide to retire!
I think if people achieve something when they’re scared, they’re not really learning, they’re just doing. In this industry I believe you need to be vulnerable. You need to expose yourself, take on different genres and styles and feelings and expressing that to an audience. You can’t do that if you’re bound with fear.
What qualities do you believe young performers need today?
Self awareness, which is what I’ve tried to teach people so they can listen to their bodies – how they’re feeling and what’s going on internally to look after themselves. They need drive, determination and initiative, because I think that’s been disappearing in this generation. For example, even if you don’t have much money for classes that week, work out how can you still train yourself and be productive – that’s initiative. You need to be confident, but not cocky in where your abilities are and knowing that there’s always work to be done. It’s also very important to be resilient. You’ve got to be passionate about it and prepare to sacrifice. There was many a time I would have no money to do anything, but if I had a spare $10, I’d get to class before I’d do anything else with it. I had to be in class, doing my training, gearing up to be the best I could possibly be. Partying, going out, all of that is the secondary. You have to be quite single minded about your goal, but at the same time not be obsessive. You don’t ‘need’ this; you just ‘gotta have it’. It’s a bit different. Needing something is confining.
How did you spend your time in the inevitable spaces between work?
It’s very hard. I studied. Every time I felt like something wasn’t happening I’ve taken on a new study.
[I went to] university and did external courses in London. In winter it can be very depressing, so rather than bringing myself down, I gave myself another challenge to tackle! I put myself through photography school and became a qualified photographer with the Royal Photography School in London. I studied tourism for a bit, studied some of my anatomy and then sports nutrition/psychology. I had another focus point because [performing] can become too self-obsessive. It didn’t mean I didn’t want to do what I was doing, but there was an outlet for [my creativity], somewhere else to channel [my energy] and that would be enough for me. It’s all about keeping motivated. I always need a challenge, and if there isn’t one, I set one myself. It’s good to do that, to set yourself challenges because it keeps the drive ticking over. It’s very easy to lose drive, especially between jobs or when you’ve been going at it for a while [getting into the industry]. [It’s easy to] drop back and wallow on the couch, so for me the best thing was to go ‘ ok what else can I do’ and by doing something else it kept the dream alive. One fed the other.
How did you make the transition to choreographer and teacher?
I never wanted to be a choreographer! [laughs] It was quite funny because I never had choreography or teaching on the radar initially. I remember when I was in London as a performer and I was assisting the choreographer and doing dance captain and someone asked ‘Wouldn’t you like to be a choreographer?’ and I said ‘No, I’m quite happy cleaning other peoples work. I don’t need to do that’. Then, choreographers I’d be working with would be doing too many jobs and they’d disappear from rehearsals to go to the next job, and they’d say ‘Dana could you just fill in those counts of eight’, so then I’d fill it in and then they’d rely on that a bit more.
When I came back to Australia I’d be doing residencies on a show and I was given a corporate job, and that was my first choreographic job in Australia – I was petrified! Anyway, I did it, and that led to something else, and eventually I got my first Production Company show (Anything Goes). The teaching started of as a means to earn some money, and I realised I really loved doing that as well. It’s a different high that you get from performing to teaching. It’s a less selfish one! It’s a very fulfilling, and you can go home and sleep at night knowing that hopefully you’re helping people on their dream. It’s a nice, positive, giving thing to do, where as when you’re a performer, even though you’re giving to the audience, we’re getting such a buzz out of it individually that it becomes kind of a selfish thing as well. Both of those things I fell into, and now I absolutely love doing it.
How being on the other side affected your skills as a performer?
I wish I were performing now because I’m much better than I was! You see it so clearly once you’ve been on the other side. When you’re auditioning, you don’t know why they pick certain people and you’ll try to go over it in your brain ‘Why did that person get through and they didn’t even get through that double pirouette?’ and you try to make sense of it, and you never can. It never works out in your own mind because you don’t understand that from the other side there are so many different factors that are involved. If you’re replacing cast members there’s heights, fitting costumes, how you fit in the line up, is there an understudy attached, a physical look? There are so many factors. Even if it’s a new show there are still 101 different reasons. You can do your head in as a performer, but when you’re on the other side it becomes so clear, and for me when I’m watching I know pretty quickly who can do my work and who can’t. It’s a certain type of dancer who suits my stuff and I can see it quite quickly. But I wish I knew all these types of things when I started performing.
What I try to do in my teaching is give that insight to the students a whole lot more in class. It’s not just ‘train the body, get the technique and performance out’, it’s ‘let try and look at things other than just steps’. That’s what I’m trying to do within the class structure, so then when people go off and get jobs it fills me with so much joy.
Do you have any advice for fresh grads as they enter the industry?
Love what you’re doing, and really know it’s what you want to do. Commit to it, but don’t make it the be all and end all. You just need to know that the dream is there and that you’re committed to it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have something else going at the same time. If you’re too bogged down in it all it can become depressing. Keep your options open of doing other things as well.