Jason Coleman is a name synonymous with the Australian dance industry.
From performing in shows, to choreographing musicals like Hairspray and events like the Sydney Olympics, to judging on Dancing With The Stars, it would be hard to sum up his career in just a few lines. Jason has since taken his expertise and applied it to an educational setting, establishing the Ministry Of Dance, which has become one of Australia’s premiere dance schools.
With the world shut down due to Coronavirus restrictions, Jason has pushed on, ensuring that almost all areas of the Ministry are operating as close to normal as possible. His children’s show, The Humanimals, has also moved online, with 2 episodes released digitally to keep the kids busy during lockdown. He’s definitely kept busy over the last few months, and I had a chat with him to find out exactly what he’s been up to.
I believe you’re running the Ministry completely online?
We certainly are. We had to close down. I said to my staff to grab their computers and gear, organise remote access to our servers, grab microphones and costumes and just take everything home. We had to focus on what we could do, not what we couldn’t. Within 6 days we had remote classes starting for every level, and for the start of term 2 we had every schedule running. The only classes we’re finding difficult are the group singing classes because of the delays that are involved in Zoom. But other than that, everything’s running. The other thing that we did was that we decided we needed to give a 20% discount to all members in good faith, with the whole schedule being run on a special COVID rate.
How have you found the transition to online learning?
I keep chucking this phrase out there, and a few of my staff have chucked it back to me in the last week. It’s about what we can do. I’m a pretty driven guy anyway, but in those first two, three weeks, I have never been busier than I have in my entire life. I felt like doing nothing was redundant. I just thought… the world’s stopping, and if we do too… And after the third week, I started to sit into it a bit more and see for myself that there could be some real gain by slowing down. It didn’t happen immediately because I was so focused on doing things. We found that dance schools, not just the Ministry, were actually doing more than some schools were. Some of my friends with kids are really struggling because they check in with the teacher at 9am, and get given stuff to do for a few hours, and then not check in with the teacher until 1pm, so the kids are just left there. What we’re doing is if you have a class at 9am, it goes right until 10am when the next class starts. It leaves me questioning why our education system isn’t doing something in the same manner.
And you’ve been producing episodes of The Humanimals as well, for younger viewers?
When I got home in that first week [of lockdown], I tried not to read too much negative news but still stay attentive to the politicians and also the content. I saw what John Foreman did, and I think that the parents homeschooling with kids under 10, no one is really doing anything for them, so why don’t we look at that. I’m proud of the fact that, pretty much instead of the face-to-face engagement, we’re really offering proper full time classes. With the little kids it was obviously a bit harder to lock them into the nature of Zoom, so for them we have prerecorded classes. And I thought look, I’ve got the Humanimals costumes, let’s do it. I almost didn’t post them because it’s not 100%, there are all these things about it that aren’t right… I edited it all myself on my phone [chuckles]. But it was about giving and getting people involved. If that connects kids to singing and dancing in COVID, and maybe give them a path to coming and training, then it’s the right thing to do.
And what have you been doing outside of Ministry stuff during lockdown?
I’ve checked into a few things that I never would have. I recently watched a production of Miss Saigon with Tamsin Carroll! I didn’t realise and when I watched it I thought “Oh, that’s Tam!” [laughs] I’ve somewhat enjoyed the time. I want theatre back, I want events back, I miss it and I’m keen to get going again. But I’m happy to wear the financial loss because shutting down was the responsible thing to do.
As both a creative and a business owner, you’re no stranger to the impacts of COVID on the arts industry. Where do you think we go from here?
You know, just months ago the whole country stopped, and we gave time and effort to support the Bushfires… and now, seven weeks later, we’re still giving our time to create content for free for those at home – but we have not been considered by the Government in regards to our freelance artistry as getting JobKeeper. It’s so disappointing, in a time where our business is stepping up and giving away our craft, we haven’t been considered as essential or necessary. I’m disappointed for our industry and my peers. Especially now that they’ve saved money on the scheme, and that they’re going to let other industries start up but not ours. It’s so scary that they’re talking about turning JobKeeper off because some businesses are going back. Honestly, I had major events in Singapore, Japan… all gone… that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars gone. The dancers, choreographers, costume makers, sewers, travel agents… the butterfly effect of one gig cancelling, the financial impact it has on me as an entity and then how that flows down to everybody has got to be recognised. It’s an interesting time. I’m a glass half-full guy, I try not to worry about it all… But all my business plans have gone out the door, all my financial plans have gone out the door, all the budgets are out the door. I can’t tell you now what’s going to happen in September or how much money we’re going to have in the bank account. All that business planning has gone. It’s a scary time but I feel like it’s going to be okay.
The Humanimals and other dance videos are available to watch on the Ministry of Dance YouTube channel.
Header image by Belinda Strodder