When former Pukekohe local, Joseph Skelton, heads across the ditch soon, he’ll need to be on song and on his toes, as JON RAWLINSON explains.
In the theatre, one might suggest performers ‘break a leg’. However, that’s entirely the wrong expression to use before ballet dancer, Joseph Skelton, takes the stage.
“Probably not for me, at least! he laughs, “People do say that to dancers too, but I prefer, ‘have fun!’ I’ve actually had that joke said to me quite a few times now.”
And here I was thinking myself witty and original!
Fresh from performing the leading role of Count Albrecht in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s (RNZB) production of Giselle, the acclaimed professional dancer will take his place as a guest dancer with the Australian Ballet this month.
However, a timely twist of fate years earlier almost cut his career short. Aged 18, while skateboarding in London, Joseph badly broke his leg during an unintentional encounter with a bus. “It was all a bit of a blur; overwhelming,” he recalls. “I think the first thing doctors said was that I’d be walking with a limp for the rest of my life and would probably never dance again. I thought ‘we’ll see about that!’ I just took it step by step, concentrating on the rehab.”
Rather than halting his ambitions, the injury became a challenge which has driven Joseph on ever since. In some ways, it proved a blessing in (albeit very good!) disguise.
“It definitely made me more determined, but it also gave me a much better understanding of biomechanics, because I had to learn how my body functioned when it comes to movement. It really put things into perspective too. Now, when I face challenges, I stop and think ‘if I could come back from that, I can handle anything!’”
When Joseph joins the Australian Ballet this month, challenges will be par for the course. While excited by the opportunity to dance abroad with another company, despite roughly five years experience with the RNZB, he says the prospect is also daunting. He will need to be at his best.
“Albrecht is my biggest role to date. I’ve had other lead roles – such as the title role in The Wizard of Oz recently – but this is probably the most challenging. It’s technically and physically demanding, especially in Act 2 where the storyline literally has Albrecht dancing to death! It requires a lot of strength and fitness to get through it.”
While being entrusted with such a leading role is thrilling, this high flying performer knows he needs to remain somewhat grounded.
“Lead roles are always very exciting because you’re carrying the story, but I try not to think too much along those lines. I don’t want to get caught up on whether I’m performing as the lead, or whatever else, because I don’t want that extra pressure and stress to get to me. Instead, I just try and stay focused on the job I have ahead.”
Fortunately, Joseph does not have to tackle his demanding role alone. As with RNZB’s performances of Giselle, in Australia, there will be three Albrechts. While this allows younger dancers to draw on the experience of company veterans, it is also essential due to the exertions required, Joseph explains.
“Injuries are very common, so sharing roles is crucial. You’re putting your body under such pressure and into positions that are far from forgiving on your joints, for one, and back problems can easily result from all those lifts.
“With so many shows, it would be physically impossible for one dancer to do them all. You’d pretty much be guaranteed an injury; your body just wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
As with professional athletes, professional dancers cannot perform at premium pace forever. Aged 26, Joseph says he has no firm plans after he hangs up his shoes.
“By my mid-thirties, I could still be dancing professionally, depending on injuries. Because it’s a short career, I do have to keep the future in mind. I’ll probably go back to studying and hopefully something will grab me. But I’m not looking too far ahead right now, I’m just trying to concentrate on what I’m doing; taking things one step at a time.”