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Adam Blanch, the Real Billy Elliot

Today, I’m speaking with my lifelong friend, Adam Blanch. Adam’s story has often been compared with Billy Elliot. He grew up in a tiny town in regional Australia called Weston. It’s about an hours drive west of Newcastle. In this tiny town everyone can always remember that Adam was dancing. And so, at the age of six, Adam’s mum and dad enrolled him in the local ballet class, held in a local hall. He was the only boy. And so, his life in dance began. In this very candid and courageous interview, Adam opens up about his childhood, the bullying he suffered, his sexuality, but also the joys and the adventures he’s had along the way to ultimately create the career and the life of his dreams.

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Transcript

Claudia Lawson: Oh gosh. Okay. I want you to take me back to the beginning.

Adam Blanch: I grew up in a town called Weston, which I normally say is . . . Oh, have you heard of Newcastle?

CL: Okay. So, we’re in Australia.

AB: And I’m between Cessnock and Newcastle in a little town called Weston. The kind of place where the video store, the news agency, and the bank, were all in one little room.

CL: Okay. And so, why there? Why were your mum and dad living in Weston?

AB: Well, I feel like they never flew far from the nest. So, my grandma was in Weston and my aunties were in Weston. I think my other grandma was in Kurri Kurri. I feel like my dad’s side of the family, they came from Wauchope up near Port Macquarie.

Dad was at the aluminum plant and then mum was working at the state bank, the Colonial State Bank at the time.

CL: Wow. So, how did you start ballet?

AB: I feel like I was always mega-active. And when I see videos of myself when I’m three or six years old, I am just dancing around, constantly entertaining. There’s always a wooden spoon in my hand and I’m always demanding everybody’s attention. And so, I think at some point I just got too much and they were just like, put him in dance class.

But I think the way it actually happened was mom had just had my sister and up at the local civic hall, she was taking an aerobics class and next door was a dance class. And I just have this feeling that it was cheaper than babysitting, to just throw me into the dance class. And that’s how it all started with a gorgeous lady called Karen-Ann Thomas. And I think it was Dance Image Studios, and it would have been 1988.

CL: That’s amazing.

AB: Far out. I was really, apart from the odd boy that came and went rather quickly, I was the only one in the dance class for as long as I can remember up until when I was a teenager.

CL: Wow. Did you get bullied?

AB: Oh my God, yeah. I mean being the only male dancer. Oh God, the name calling was pretty horrific. But I think at the time as well, I mean, kids aren’t incredibly intelligent and I always think the kids that said it to me, they don’t know those words themselves. They’ve obviously heard it from their parents. The parents have said it to them and they’re just regurgitating it to me. So, it was the usual things like gay, faggot. I mean, there were little things. I don’t know if I’ve built this up in my head, but I’m pretty sure it was grade five or grade six and it was my birthday. And someone wrote on blackboard, because my nickname was Gay, I mean, not very original, but someone wrote on the blackboard, “Happy birthday, Gay.” In big letters and the teacher just let it stay on the blackboard for the entire day.

CL: That actually makes me teary.

AB: I mean, I used to laugh about it as well now, but at the time it was quite traumatizing.

CL: No adult, no teacher rubbed that off? Nobody said anything?

AB: No, it just stayed there. No one said anything. But I think as well, it was just that generation. Like if someone did that to you and you complained about it or you expressed, “Oh, I’m upset.” The mentality was to say—

CL: Toughen up.

AB: Yeah. Or like, “Don’t let them know that it’s bothering you.” Or, “You got to stand up to them.” I would have been what? 11, 12, and I didn’t even know what that meant.

CL: No.

AB: But do you know what? I think I didn’t come out until I was quite a lot older, maybe 24, 25. And I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t know what these words meant, but I knew there was a lot of hate associated with them.

So, I just always thought, don’t be that thing because everybody hates it. And I think that stayed with me for a long time.

CL: So, who are you training under now, Marie?

AB: Okay. I’m still training jazz class and everything with Karen. She’s fantastic. And then, that thing you spoke about, I knew of Marie Walton-Mahon and I had friends that went there and also the big thing was there were other boy, male dancers. So, I think it was an opportunity to be around them. And so, I was training with Marie in the afternoons as well.

CL: So, when we say Marie, we’re talking about the one and only Marie Walton-Mahon.

AB: Oh my God, incredible woman. Very inspiring. Yeah. She’s very special to me. I’m still working with her at the moment. I’m working with her on her program and—

CL: Progressing Ballet Technique.

AB: Absolutely. I feel like she’s been a mentor in my life now since I was 12.

I did thrive there and I had these amazing friends and I was pushed. I think on some level I probably even became more social than focused on dance. I loved the ballet and I feel like I worked very hard, but how good, do you remember just running down and playing in the park?

CL: And the Eisteddfods, I just remember the pure joy.

AB: And then, I get into the Australian Ballet School, which looking back, it was great. I think for me as well, part of taking up ballet and going to the Australian Ballet School was I knew it was the fastest way to get out of my situation of being that country boy, trying to dance in that country town. So, I don’t even know if ballet originally was the best fit for me. I didn’t naturally have good feet. I was turned out, I was bendy, but I didn’t have that classic ballet facility, but I just knew it was the quickest way to get where I wanted to go. So, I go to the Australian Ballet School and I’m there for three years.

CL: Okay. So, you train through their three-year course, you graduate.

AB: I graduate. I think it was halfway or towards the end of my third year, I knew I wasn’t going to get into the Australian Ballet, but I got offers from three other companies. Actually, no, Marilyn Rose said to us, “Queensland Ballet needs a boy. You’re all going to go up to audition.” So, everyone packed, but I just packed like I was never coming back. I was like, “I’m getting this job.”

CL: Wow.

AB: And so, I went, we did the audition and I got the job and I never went back.

Then I start my career.

CL: I had no idea that it even had happened. Okay. So, now you’re in Queensland.

And you said it wasn’t the best fit?

AB: I think I was there four or five years. And at the start, I absolutely loved it. I think it was a job and oh my God, Claudia, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m getting paid $400 a week.” I mean. And I remember telling my dad, “Dad, they’re paying me $400 a week.” And he was like, “Oh my God.” Well, this is back when Brisbane rent was like $70 a week. So, I could save and I mean, it was a job.

CL: I mean, we laugh, but they were the wages, right?

AB: They were the wages. And it was a great gig to start with and I got promoted quite quickly. I mean, I was doing principal roles in my first year and we had some really great international choreographers come out. It was really great. I think it just got to a point, I didn’t love Brisbane as a city. I’m not good with the heat to start with. And maybe I just felt a bit limited there. I started to travel. I started to go overseas on holidays. And I just felt like there was something more and I just felt towards the end, it was like, you know when a casting sheet comes up and you just go, “I know what I’m going to be doing before I even look at it.” And I know the steps that I’ll get to do?

I was a good jumper, I could turn, I was a good performer, so I’d do something theatrical. And I think towards the end I did that thing, which I really try my hardest not to do anymore, I let myself get bitter. And so, I just stayed there and I was getting really frustrated with the scenario. And you know when people talk to you and you just have nothing positive to say, you just go straight into something negative? I was becoming that person. And I was like 22, 21, 22. So, I was actually young and when I think about it now, probably really pretentious. I mean, I don’t know if you want to hear about this, but it was just happening and happening. And I was just letting it go. There were these conversations with people and staff members that it’s like, “Well, this is what you’re going to do.”

CL: Like, this is it.

AB: This is it, and you’re here for life. And I was like, “Oh God.” And then, we were doing a show in Newcastle, just down the road. And it was after the show, my mom had just dropped me off at the hotel. Someone walked up behind me and just grabbed me on the shoulder and they said, “Right, we’re going to kill you. Are you ready?” And I was like, “What?” And classic Adam as well, my mum had just handed me this really beautiful bottle of red wine and then all of a sudden seven people grabbed me from behind and pulled me to the ground. But what’s my instinct?

CL: Save the bottle.

AB: Save the bottle of wine. So, I gently placed the bottle, well, I tried to anyway, I put the bottle down, my head hits the concrete and then I’m out. And then, I wake up and I’m lying on the hood of some car, just pinned to the car. And then, they’re just like, “Give us your wallet and your phone or we’re going to kill you.” And I’m like, “I don’t have anything.” And then, they smashed me across the face and I just remember my jaw dislocating. And then, they were hitting me and then I had this real, I mean, it sounds weird, out of body experience. And I just remember standing above myself, looking at myself being beaten.

And then, I remember saying, “Get back in your body quick and scream for help.” And then, I just managed to scream out, “Help.” And someone looked over their balcony and then just, I don’t really remember what happened after that.

CL: Adam, I mean, that’s like-

AB: It was insane.

And then, there was lots of things that happened afterwards. My back was really bad, my ribs, my jaw. But I remember going back to Queensland going, “Oh my God. Imagine if I just stay here all this time and I’ve almost just died and I haven’t really taken a chance or done anything that I actually really wanted to do?”

CL: Okay. So, it was like a catalyst for—

AB: Well, I think you could do it two ways, couldn’t you? You could just be like, I had the crap beaten out of me or I’ve had the sense beaten into me.

And I had to look at it that way. And so, I went to Francois and I just said, “I’m mentally not coping very well since the beating. I just have to end my contract. I can’t come back.”

CL: I’m so sorry that happened. So, you use that as the, for whatever reason, the moment to leave Queensland Ballet?

AB: I did, but I’ve never been unemployed a day. And for a dancer that is just insane.

CL: Yeah. It’s insane. Yeah.

AB: So, when I was, I think coming back from Newcastle, or maybe when I had just gone down to visit a friend, I went in and took a class with Sydney Dance Company. And at the time, Brett Morgan was the rehearsal director and Graeme Murphy was the director.

CL: Amazing.

AB: Amazing. Two incredible, influential, beautiful people. And so fortunate, the day I told Francois, I got a phone call from, I think it was Graeme just saying, “We’re going to China, a dancer’s injured. Can you come with us in two weeks?”

CL: What?

AB: It does not happen. So, we go to China and do this show. And one of the dancers right before we went on tour, injures both their legs, and I want to dance with you. And so, I go over-

CL: It’s literally Strictly Ballroom.

Adam Blanch:

It’s Strictly Ballroom. I think I had a walk-on role, but I was understudying everyone. And so, then I just go on and I do this trio that he was meant to do. And Graeme and Janet, bless them, were just like, “We don’t have contracts, but we’re going to make it happen for next year.”

And then, they found a sponsor and someone sponsored my contract for the entire year. And from then I went on and did another four or five years at Sydney Dance Company. Do you know what? I did my five years there, or four or five years, and I could just feel myself getting a little bit—

CL: That same—

AB: The same energy. And I was like, do not let it take another beating before you move on. I was really honest. I told the rehearsal director and then I had a really great conversation with Rafael Bonachela who was then the director. And I told him I was going to leave. And then, I mean, it was just the weekend before I was a bit shifty. I flew to Adelaide and just met with Garry Stewart. And then, the day that happened, he was like, “Adam, do you want to come and do a four month tour of Europe with ADT?”

CL: Wow.

AB: I’m like, “Yes, I do.” And so, then my connection with ADT started and—

CL: So, that’s Australian Dance Theatre.

AB: That’s Australian Dance Theatre. Garry Stewart’s the artistic director, brilliant choreographer, brilliant group of dancers and completely different in style and something I had never done. Or if you had told me … Because I had friends who had joined ADT when I was in Queensland Ballet and phenomenal movers, just so different to what I could do. And if you had told me at that stage, that in eight years, “Oh, you’ll be dancing with that company,” I was like, there’s no way I would have believed it.

Anyway, I did the tour and I just felt like at the end of the tour, I was like, “I need to move.” I just needed another challenge. So, I moved to London for a few years and then bounced around for two-and-a-half, three years, just doing independent projects. Again, I was so lucky, just never unemployed. The day I landed in UK, my friend, Theo, who had been Rafael Bonachela’s assistant when he had first come out to choreograph on Sydney Dance Company. And we had become friends and he said, “Do you want to audition for World War Z?”

CL: Wow.

AB: The movie, the Brad Pitt thing. So, I went to the audition. They said, “Can you do an impersonation of a dog with rabies?” So, I did my impersonation of a dog with rabies. I mean, born for some roles. So, I do my impersonation and they’re like, “You got the job.” It takes months to get going, but in the meantime I have a few other projects and I just meet on the set of this movie, the best group of people you have ever met. So, we dress up as zombies. We’re in Glasgow, dressed up as zombies for two weeks. They’re so far behind on schedule. So, we don’t even do anything. We are stuck in this tiny little room with no windows, dressed up as zombies, bouncing off the walls for two weeks. It was just nuts.

But from that zombie group I made so many friends and for the next three years just bounced around doing jobs with them, operas, more movies, some musicals. It was just nuts. Contemporary shows and yeah. And then, when that ended, because my visa expired, I came back to work with Australian Dance Theatre again. And I’m still conservative, I think. But then maybe by my second or third year, I start to come a little bit more out of my shell. I’ve always been a bit loud.

CL: And so, have you come out?

AB: I came out in not perhaps the best way, but I did it and in maybe my second year at Sydney Dance Company.

CL: And so, you think you just held it for so long?

AB: Well, I feel like … And I think it just got to a point where I was like, I couldn’t hide it anymore. Yeah. And classic me style, do you know what I did before I sent the texts or whatever, or the call to certain people? I just walked around listening to Philip Glass all day, around the park. So, already my … I don’t know. It’s just my head.

CL: But your parents, from what you’ve described, you could anticipate, that mum and dad living in a small country town … But your parents are the most incredible, supportive people.

AB: They are, aren’t they? And isn’t it funny that at the time, I just didn’t feel that way or feel that I could communicate anything like that with them? I mean, again, it was of a different time and they’re a lot more liberated now than what … Or maybe I just see it differently now as well.

CL: So, you’re out now. You more comfy in your skin?

AB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And free. Was in love for a little bit. It was just, it was nice. It was like, I felt very comfortable. I love Sydney. I’m a big fan of Sydney. But I think as well, I went on a holiday to London and then when I was in London, I mean, I fell in love with London. For me, I think it’s my favourite city.

I miss it so much. I love the culture. I love the people. I love its proximity to the rest of the world. Really, it just feels like the centre of the earth. I loved the theatre. I loved the film. I loved how passionate everyone was. I loved that you could go down and get a five pound ticket at the last minute to see the most incredible actors in a show. It doesn’t feel like art for the elite. Anyone could go and see these shows. Because God knows I had no money.

CL: And so, you come back to Australia. You’ve had all these experiences and where’s the head space now?

AB: Well, I think I went back to ADT and I think the physicality of what I was doing in the UK was a lot less demanding than the stuff that I was used to in Australia. So, I think just the strength of my body wasn’t up to where it was when I had gone over. I should have said, during Sydney Dance Company years, I had a really bad knee injury during a rehearsal.

CL: That’s right.

AB: And so because of this, they removed my cartilage in my meniscus in my knee. So, I think one of the reasons I left Sydney Dance as well is, I was in pain a lot of the time. And I had this incredible Pilates teachers, Simone Smiles, and she does, she’s so cute.

CL: She’s a smiler.

AB: So, coming back and then going into ADT, my knee was just kaput.

CL: Okay.

AB: Kaput. So, we get to Canberra and we were doing this show called “G,” which is loosely based around the ballet “Giselle,” but so physically demanding. The whole thing moves from one stage to the other, so you get to one side of the stage and then you have to bolt around to the other side of the stage. So, it’s like running a marathon as well as doing the show.

And then anyway, we get to Canberra and it was like someone had just put rocks into my knee. And so, I was just like, I think I couldn’t even stretch it. I couldn’t stand. I was like, it’s done. Classic Adam style, later that day … Because I was just like … They were like, “Yeah, we’re going to send you home. There’s no point.” And at this point, I had moved from London to Adelaide to do this show. I’m like, I have no home.

CL: Oh, I see.

AB: Where am I going to go? So, I’m like, “Oh my god.”

CL: “I’m homeless. Oh my God”

AB: “And I have go back to Cessnock. Oh God.” But later that day I get a phone call from the incredible and my dear friend, Sarah Boulter, who I met when I was in my early 20s, at an audition. But hadn’t seen since then. And she was like, “I run this school called Ev & Bow and we’re doing a two week development, Larissa McGowan is…” Sorry, everyone. I touched the table. I just got a face because I touched the table.

CL: The mics are like wobbling off the table.

AB: Okay. Sorry. Me trying not to talk with my hands is the hardest thing ever. Okay. Sorry, everyone, if there was a loud noise.

CL: So, Ev & Bow.

AB: Ev & Bow. Larissa McGowan, who I’d worked with at Australian Dance Theatre as well, they were like, “She can’t do the second week. Are you available to come in and choreograph something next week?”

CL: What is this luck with you and work?

AB: I know. I am a bit lucky like that.

And I had never choreographed anything … Well, okay, this is how I said it before. In my head, I was like, “I’ve never choreographed anything. Like a show, a piece of work.”

CL: So, you had never had dreams to become a choreographer?

AB: No. In fact, when people asked me about it, I just went, “No, I have no interest. Never.”

CL: Because I would have said from the moment I knew you, that you were going to be a choreographer of musical theater.

AB: Really?

I feel like I’ve always wanted to do something … No matter what, I’m always going to be involved in dance. That was never a thing. And I probably always would have done something creative. I’ve done some weird things as well. Okay. You’ll find this funny. So, when I was leaving London, I maxed out my credit card, maxed it out, and went to LA because I was going to be an improv comedian.

CL: You were not.

AB: I was. So, I go to L.A.

CL: Oh, Adam.

AB: Literally on the last bit of money I have on this credit card.

CL: You did not do a comedy show.

AB: No, I auditioned for The Groundlings. You know that improv comedy group? Oh God. Claudia. And in my head I was like, “This is it.” Because I think I was obsessed with Tina Fey and all that. I’d been watching 30 Rock.

CL: Too much 30 Rock.

AB: Too much 30 Rock. I was like, “That’s the life. I love Kristen Wiig. I want to hang out with them.” So, I go to L.A., I do the audition.

CL: What are you talking about? What jokes are you telling?

AB: I didn’t tell a joke. It was improv. So, they give you a scene and then you just have to go for it. But I was paired with this guy, you know those people that automatically take stuff to the toilet? They’re like, “All right, you’re picking daisies in a field,” and he’d be like, “Oops, you’ve stepped in something.” And I’m like, oh God, okay, we’re here already. But in my head, I’m going, “What am I doing? I have just struggled being a dancer for the past 15 years and now I’m going to be going to improv comedy.”

CL: It’s the life of the tortured artist.

AB: Oh my God. So, I do one day and then I’m like, no. And then, I go down to Del Mar, which is an hour and a half down the coast. Because again with Simone Smiles, the amazing Pilates teacher, she had just done a course with a guy called Julian Littleford who was—

CL: I’ve heard that name.

AB: Yeah. He’s a Pilates guru who really worked with Martha Graham. And I knew that he lived in Del Mar. So, I just messaged him and was like, “Can I come down to Del Mar and do Pilates for a week with you?”

CL: So amazing.

AB: So, I go down and do Pilates for a week with Julian Littleford and I’m like, “Oh, this is more me. This is more me.”

CL: But I guess what I want to know is, how have we moved from Adam professional dancer, Sydney Dance Company, you’re in World War Z to now, you’re asked to be a choreographer for Ev & Bow.

But when did your head space be like, Hmm, choreography?

AB: I think it was more like, “Ooh, paycheck.”

CL: And so, you need to pay your rent.

AB: I need to pay my rent. Well, no, I don’t have to pay rent because I’ve got nowhere to live.

CL: Okay. You’re hanging in Del Mar.

AB: I need to pay off the credit card, that’s what … Anyway. So, I go and live with my parents for three months in Cessnock, which was nice, because I hadn’t spent much time with them and I would go to Sydney every couple of days and stay with my sister. This was a really fun time actually.

CL: And also just to reconnect as an adult with your parents, I think is sometimes amazing.

AB: And I moved out of home when I was 15 and never went back. So, we hadn’t really spent much time together. So, I just fall into it like that and I do the thing for Ev & Bow. And now I think back about it, it was just probably not very good, but I was like, “Just make something.” And then, do you know what? When I was in London, I started teaching for Rambert, the school. I had started to, just start to do the odd job teaching here and there. And I loved it when I was doing it at Rambert and I was doing that for the last four months that I lived in London, the contemporary school.

It was a great gig. And then, so I feel like I felt more comfortable teaching. And then, Ev & Bow offered me a permanent teaching job. And from there it happened so quickly.

CL: It really has.

AB: I’ve got this amazing friend called Christine Denny and she set up a few things for me. She offered me a workshop in Bundaberg. And from there I have never … Just, the teaching just exploded and I do love it. I love, love, love teaching. I love the kids. Nothing makes me happier than when someone gets better. And you see someone who improves and invests and I love that it takes time. Some kids can do it in one step. But some, I love that it’s four or five years and then you finally see them blossom into something, and I get a real kick out of that. So the teaching, I just loved. From that though, I guess it’s funny you say I’m a choreographer because I mean, I love it—

CL: You still don’t feel that . . .

AB: I don’t feel it. I know I’ve created so many things. I choreograph all day, every day, whether it be a little film clip or a music video, or it’s an Eisteddfod solo or I’m preparing a group or it’s someone’s audition video, it never stops. But maybe I just don’t feel like I’ve had that gig that solidifies it.

CL: Do you think that’s close?

AB: I would hope so.

CL: Incredible. So, what I want to end with, I want to ask, do you think it’s different for boys going through now?

AB: Yes. I mean, one, the family support is super different. I think maybe people are just more educated about it as well. It’s everywhere now. Social media, TV shows, films. It’s more in your face and more accepted. I mean, some of the children that I teach who are 10 and 11 and right through to teenagers are so incredibly comfortable in their skin. I’m just like, holy moly. And even the parents … I almost think sometimes, it’s almost too far—

The parents are so supportive and they’re like, “He’s gay, he’s gay, he’s gay.” I’m like, “He’s 10 still. He doesn’t know.” This might be the first generation where people have to say, “I’m sorry, mum, but I’m straight.”

CL: You go back in the closet.

AB: Yeah. You’re like, “What?”

CL: I mean, it’s crazy to even think about that, but I can see what you’re saying, it’s like the support is there, but is it to the point where that person doesn’t even get to determine their own sexuality or their own path?

AB: 100%. I just think it’s so weird. Maybe we need to talk about homosexuality, you just talk about sex so quickly. It’s so quick to just jump to sex—when I don’t think it’s about that, is it?

CL: No. It’s so fluid.

AB: 100%. So, you can only imagine the head space of someone 10 or … But I know bullying is still an issue. But that just comes from … It’s just more like a reflection of what someone’s feeling inside themselves, isn’t it?

CL: Hopefully we’re all talking about kindness, inclusivity, diversity, more.

AB: 100%. And as a teacher to these boys and things as well, I hope I give them a space where they feel comfortable to be themselves and they feel that they’re not judged and they’re supported no matter what they do.

CL: Yeah. Adam, thank you so much.

AB: Thanks, Claud. Should we go for a wine?

CL: Yes.

AB: Okay. Yay.

Since we spoke, Adam has been named as Australian Associate Choreographer for the brand new Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill.” It’s a lifelong dream. Adam continues to teach and to choreograph for the rising stars of the ballet and contemporary dance world and he’s also the Director of Progressing Contemporary Technique. To sign up to any of his courses and to find out where he teaches and choreographs, you can find him on Instagram @adamcblanch. Adam and I met in Newcastle to record our interview on the land of the Awabakal people to which we pay our greatest respects. Talking Pointes is produced by Fjord Review. Remember to subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as they’re released. And if you like us, please leave a five-star review.

On the next episode, you’ll hear from worldwide teacher and the founder of Progressing Ballet Technique, Marie Walton-Mahon. Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson. Additional production by Penelope Ford, with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.

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