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Lana Jones Gives Back

Episode Two

Lana Jones, former principal dancer of the Australian Ballet, talks about life after dance on episode two of Talking Pointes.

Lana Jones' journey in ballet seems like the dream run for many aspiring youngsters. As a teenager, she won the silver medal at the international ballet competition, the Genée Awards in London, was accepted into the Australian Ballet School, graduated dux and was accepted straight into the company. From there, the dream continued. She rose through the ranks, won the Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year Award, married a fellow dancer and was promoted to Principal.

Known for her incredible stage presence and exquisite technique, she has danced almost every role from Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake” to Aurora in David McAllister's “Sleeping Beauty.” In this beautifully honest interview, Lana talks about her life in ballet, but she talks about so much more. She opens up about becoming a mum, while still a principal dancer, the challenges of returning to the stage after the birth of her son, her decision to retire, and now her incredible journey to finding a new career as a midwife.

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Claudia Lawson: I guess I just wanted to start off by asking, is ballet what you've always wanted to do?

Lana Jones: Oh, absolutely. I started when I was three and I think I was a bit naughty actually in the classes and they were going to take me out. So, the teacher said to my mum, "Oh, we'll put her up a level just to see if we can kind of capture her interest." And yeah, thank goodness she did that, because I think I've always loved a challenge, so yeah, definitely started that beautiful journey of ballet for me.

CL: And you trained with the Australian Ballet School and then went to the company directly. I mean, I think for most students that's sort of the dream run, isn't it?

LJ: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, to have a gift and to work for it and with it, and then to be able to realize it and make the dream come true is very special and I never took that for granted and I always knew how fortunate I was.

CL: Was David McAllister the person who gave you your first job?

LJ: Yes, he was.

CL: Incredible, so he was your artistic director your entire career?

LJ: That's right. My 17 years, he was my artistic director. What it established for me was a trust and a belief that he had in me and I think that is one of the most powerful tools that a director can give to their dancers, is belief in them. And that just gives you so much freedom to be what you desire to be, in a way.

CL: How was it to work with David McAllister?

LJ:He was wonderful. He was really great and I always just wanted more from him. He'd come in and say, "That was great." And I kind of wouldn't believe him, I'd say, "But what about this? What about that?" And I was always really hard on myself as a dancer and he just loved ballet and obviously he was a big fan of mine making me a principal, but I just always wanted to deliver more and bring more to it. And yeah, I think he was just instrumental in me and my belief and my transformation from a corps de ballet dancer, to a principal.

CL: How long was it between when you joined the company to becoming principal?

LJ: I think maybe it was a 10 year journey to get to principal.

CL: Yeah, so I guess people often think, "Oh, it's such a quick trajectory," but you've already been training 10, 15 plus years.

LJ: Yeah, and I think for my benefit, it was great, because I really got to learn the craft of ballet and there's nothing more satisfying than being in the corps de ballet and working as a unison and feeling that energy on stage with all of your cohort and just all working towards that one goal. That's really special and great camaraderie and support. And not to mention pressure, because you can't stand out in the runway. So yeah, in a sense I really respected the fact that I went up the ranks kind of slowly. I did always get opportunity though, so I was very lucky. There were times where I'd be doing the corps de ballet, I'd be doing a solo role and I'd be working on a principal role, so it was a really tough time to get to principal.

CL: Is there competition between the dancers in terms of those roles? I mean, how does it go up? I mean, I think often people dream it is that Center Stage thing where a piece of paper gets attached to a wall, is that how it plays out in reality?

LJ: That's exactly how it plays out. Yeah, there is competition, but it's like anything, there's only a certain amount of roles and certain amount of people that can really do those roles. And you turn up every day as a dancer working towards something, so whether it's that next production or whether it's being noticed, so it is competitive. I think the Australian Ballet has a beautiful, supportive nature.

Of course, there's disappointment and there's times of jealousy and things like that, but that's just because we're so passionate about what we're doing and, I don't know, it feels so intense, ballet, when you're doing it and you're right in the thick of it and everything is just enormous. Any little occasion or event that happens just seems to be exaggerated. But yeah, pretty much they put up a sheet at that time. I don't know, maybe they've gone digital now, but they put up a sheet on the board and you just walk up and you look for your name and you're either walking away happy or you're walking away upset.

CL: It's so public to have that reaction too.

LJ:It is, it is, and everyone knows, exactly.

CL: Obviously David McAllister retired as artistic director end of last year and it was a strange last year for him. And I think what's come out is the changes that he's made obviously to the company in that sort of public sense, but some of the lesser known changes that he made were to policies around body image and maternity leave. He has said that when he came in the maternity leave was six weeks for dancers, which makes it impossible to return, but he changed that so that dancers could work behind the scenes in late pregnancy, work with set design and costumes and have enough time off to be a mom before trying to come back to the stage. And I know you have a little boy with your husband, Daniel, how was that for you?

LJ: Yeah, look, it was fantastic. And I was really looking forward to exploring the company, the different levels of the company in the background as well. I'd always been a huge advocate for good photographs and I was quite passionate about doing some media stuff with them and getting involved in that sense. And we did some archiving, so to have that opportunity is really wonderful. And I always was a huge fan of philanthropy, so I wanted to spend a fair bit of time there and give a lot of time back to the patrons, so that was really interesting for me. And yes, David definitely established a great policy there.

CL: Because it's not that common outside of Australia, is it?

LJ: I don't know the policies of the other ballet companies, but just from good old social media, you can see their return seems much quicker than ours, so I was definitely grateful for that time with my son, Velasco. That was very precious and yeah, I think there's a point, or in my life, I got to that point and I was having a child for a reason. I was ready for that and I wanted to spend as much time with him. Yeah, so it was beautiful. And I think for myself, I just needed to see if I could go back to ballet and if it was all still ignited.

And I mean, to speak quite frankly, I thought being a principal and one of the most senior female principals at the time, that I'd be able to just step right back into where I was kind of thing and it kind of wasn't like that. Yeah, I felt like it was a hard battle to come back in and kind of prove myself a bit. And I thought, "Really, I have to do this now at this point in my career?"

CL: As in the physical or just being recognized that you were still one of the most senior female artists?

LJ: Yes, definitely the latter, I think. Physically I came back no problem. I've always been blessed with this strength in my body, so it was just about getting that strength back. Yeah, it was a really interesting return for me and hard. I found it hard, but I think having a child changes you completely and I think I was undone as a person too, just having a baby.

CL: I've got a four-year-old boy as well, so I feel you. Just because it's so life-changing and most of us don't have to return to leotards, stockings, tutu, such a public return, I think.

LJ: Yeah, and I'm always a bit of a try-hard. I just try so hard to be the best at everything I can, so I was trying to be the best mom and giving breastfeeding a really good hot go, so I'd even be like going to a show performing, come home, breastfeeding at night, really just trying to do so much that I could. And I think in the end I kind of realized I can't do it all, and how it was, something has to give.

CL: And so, is that where your thoughts around retirement started to creep in?

LJ: Maybe, because it's a huge moment for a dancer to kind of recognize that she's having those feelings of like, "Oh, is my time kind of coming," thing. I think it's a brave recognition and it's a tough one, but I just specifically remember, it was like all of a sudden I just admitted to myself, I wasn't loving it like I used to and I was finding it harder than what I was getting out of it, in a sense, which, ballet is always hard, so you always got to put in more than you can kind of get out sometimes.

CL: And how old was your son then?

LJ: He wasn't two yet.

CL: Okay.

LJ: Yeah. Yeah, so I just found the heartstrings really tough. I mean, I remember doing one opening night and at the time my husband and I were really juggling, because he'd already retired, but he was juggling work in Brisbane and we were based in Melbourne and we had a little baby and I was working full time. And so, he was working up in Queensland every second week and sometimes he'd have to take Velasco with him cause we didn't have enough care, no family in Melbourne, except for my mum's cousin, it was like his Melbourne grandma.

Yeah, so I remember this one opening night and the boys were heading back from Queensland and their plane was delayed, so they were still up when I'd finished my show. And I was like, "Oh, this is amazing. I get to go home and I get to see my baby and Daniel." And then they get home and Velasco was, that's the name of my son, he was hysterical and he was crying and he pushed me away.

CL: Oh, God.

LJ: And I got just so upset. I remember walking into my room, just sitting on the bed and crying and thinking, "Nothing I do out there is worth this." So, I think it just kind of shifted a lot for me. Yeah, motherhood really just shifted my priorities and I'd been so fortunate in what I'd achieved up to that point and I was already feeling so fulfilled with my ballet and ballet will always be my first love in a sense, but I got to the point where I wanted to expand myself and challenge myself in a completely different way.

CL: So, you went through this sort of, I suppose, coming to terms within yourself, how long between that and then approaching David to say, "I'm going to retire."

LJ: Well, life events happen and I fell pregnant again and then unfortunately had a miscarriage.

CL: I'm so sorry.

LJ: Thank you. Once I'd fallen pregnant with the second one I was like, "Yeah, that's it, that's it, I'm done." I'm going to be so happy now this is it, all wrapped up. So yes, don't ever plan any life events on a pregnancy, just out there, but what happened was, David was so wonderful during this time. And I went and had to tell him what had happened and he's like, "Just take as much time as you need." He was always so supportive and a beautiful friend as well, which was very special.

CL: How amazing.

LJ: I know, we went to Italy and I had to really think about it. Do I want to just kind of creep away at that point or do I now go back, finish the year and have a send off, you know what I mean? And we're in Italy and I was eating a lot of pasta and [inaudible 00:14:09] with the beautiful food and we decided before we went to Italy that financially too, it was a good choice to go back to finish the year. Little did I know I was going to be doing Spartacus in a midriff and coming back and they're like, "Oh, actually you're going to be doing opening night."

And I was like, "I thought I had like at least an extra week up my sleeve to kind of get in shape." But anyway, so we did Spartacus and then I'd made the decision to finish the year. So I think after that I just embraced every performance and I really felt like I wish I had kind of had this freedom years ago to perform, because I just let myself be out there and be open and trust myself and that was really exciting. So I had some really beautiful shows, very special times. Yeah, and it was just that...

CL: You just got to enjoy that last year.

LJ: Yeah. Yeah, I did actually. The last shows, the last six months, I just made it a point to kind of be present and really absorb the shows and my friends around me, because I love them so much and they're all a big part of my life and I knew that I wasn't going to be around them every day and that was going to be hard. So it was just about kind of seizing the moment and making the most of what I had and also celebrating what I'd done and achieved and where I was at. And even still to the end, making little discoveries. And I was like, "Yes." It was really special.

CL: And so, I feel a lot of athletes go through a real grief process once they retire, sort of well-documented, and I suppose when something has been so all consuming, it's not just your job, it's your body, it's so personal, how have you managed that step into retirement?

LJ: I thought I was so sure of my decision. I was so positive with my decision. And because everyone has spoken about this hard time that you're going to go through and I was like, "No, I'll be fine." And I moved to Brisbane, had a two-year-old that was absolutely challenging. I was home full time with him, never done that before. I had no friends and I was a complete mess.

Yeah, I kind of just didn't do any exercise for a bit there and that was probably the worst thing that I could have done, because it has to be so much a part of my routine and my mental health. Yeah, it was scary to be honest, and it was the freedom that I craved and then that's what was scary, because I just remember taking Velasco to the park the first day Daniel went to work and I was like, "There's not a single soul around. Oh my God."

CL: And those parks can be lonely journeys when there's no other mothers to talk to.

LJ: And just so much time to think about things and be by yourself and have thoughts running around. Yeah, and I'm a pretty proud person, so I didn't consider getting help at that time. I just was like, "I'm going to work through this." And I did, I found my own rhythm and groove and then I'd always known that I was going to do something with my time next and I knew it was going to be midwifery, so I just tried to pour a lot into establishing that, getting that going.

CL: How did you know it was midwifery?

LJ: I'd always loved nursing and I've always been fascinated by nursing and kind of caring for people and things, so I knew it was going to be something in that line. I knew I probably didn't want to teach ballet full time, but I definitely would dabble in it and love giving back. And then when I had Velasco, I had such a good birth and it was such good experience, amazing midwives and my obstetrician was awesome. And I thought, "That's it. That's what I want to do." It was just really clear.

CL: Wow. And so, you're in the park by yourself in Brisbane with Velasco, and then how long before you start studying midwifery?

LJ: So I had that year, I had that year to kind of get my stuff together to apply and then get accepted. So, it was a year of, I don't know, finding myself and my new identity, I suppose, it's always been Lana the dancer, so it was now just Lana.

CL: And, I mean, I don't know, but most people who have a career in ballet, obviously the training starts from sort of mid-teens really quite full time. And so, most students don't really, some don't even finish high school, let alone go into tertiary education. How did you transition from, I assume, was education pre the Australian Ballet, before studying midwifery?

LJ: Yeah, there is this big stigma that, I don't know, and ballet dancers feel like you don't have the qualifications to get in anywhere after ballet. And I did my year 10 up in Canberra and then year 11 and 12 in Melbourne. And through the Australian Ballet School, you end up with an advanced diploma and and that was graded. And I actually got honors for that, so I really sat well to get in to midwifery.

I didn't have any science, so that kind of depicted which unis I could apply for, but I was so blown away when I got that email back, because I said, "Oh, can I even get in, I don't know where I stand. This is what I've got." And they're like, "Lana, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to do except for medicine."

CL: I do think that there are a number of well-known dancers and even not so well-known, but Miko Fogarty And I think there's a dancer out of the States who is a principal, I think with the Boston Ballet, who also has a PhD in physics. And I just wonder if you think there is that natural affinity, because I do actually think that ballet has that focus and that organization that actually quite easily transitions over to study?

LJ: Well, I'm not academic, let me just put that out there right now and I really thought that I could immediately transfer and translate all my skills from ballet to uni. But I was sideswiped when I started uni, absolutely one of the toughest things I've ever done, because I had to brush up, I hadn't looked at, written an essay, nothing for at least 20 odd years. And so, I was brushing up on simple things, grammar, and all my energy, everything was taken up on just how to navigate this beast of uni.

CL: Wow.

LJ: Yeah, it was full on for me. Put me in front of 10,000 people and no problem. Sit me in front of a biology exam and I am a mess.

CL: I think so many people would just absolutely relate to what you're saying, let alone with a 20 year break between say formal education. And so, where are you now in your studies?

LJ: So, I'm in my second year, beginning of my second year. I made it through, made it through the first year.

CL: Wow, congratulations.

LJ: Thank you. Yeah, I surprised myself to be honest. And awesome support from my husband and family, obviously, he was like, "Come on." And I remember him helping me with the biology study one session and I was putting up all these walls and he was just so patient and breaking them down and, "What's this?" And he goes, "Okay, so your physical." So he started doing this pathophysiological pathway all this hand motions. He tried so hard with me.

CL: Have you got any advice for people trying to make that transition from something that's been such a passion, so all consuming, to try and sort of redefine your life?

LJ: I think that the key in that is finding something, which is probably one of the hardest struggles after ballet, when you've poured everything into it, or being an athlete, the same kind of situation, finding, that something else that resonates with you and that you're passionate about, because if you're not passionate about it and you don't love it, it's really hard to learn it.

CL: So many of the ex-dancers go into teaching or start studios. It's just really incredible to hear that you've made this change into midwifery.

LJ: Yeah, it's crazy. Yeah, I don't know. I'm not afraid to... I mean, no one likes to be uncomfortable and I definitely don't like to be uncomfortable, but I know it's not going to be forever. And I just saw it as such a positive outcome and a positive ending, and it was completely different to ballet and I loved that. I wanted to just do something that was to give back, was not about me at all, and was going to expand me, my intelligence and push me and yeah, I'm getting all that. Definitely.

CL: I bet, and what a privilege to be there when life begins and to be with people as they become parents.

LJ: Absolutely. I think it's so special and it's just having that impact on one person's journey. And if I can bring something positive to that experience for them, then that's it for me. That's what I want to do. I don't need to change the world with midwifery, I just want to do it one woman at a time.

CL: And if your son goes on to study ballet, would you give him any... I don't know if he will. You're laughing as though he may not.

LJ: Well, he has to ask first if he wants to dance. We'll wait for him to say, "Mum, I want to dance."

CL: Would you give him any advice or would you have done anything different in your journey?

LJ: The only advice I would give him is if he really wanted to do it, is that he has to be prepared to absolutely put in the hard yards. There is just no shortcuts with ballet and there's no taking it easy. It's just all in. If you want to do it as a career. Different if you just do it for fun.

CL: And are you excited to watch David Hallberg? For those listening, David Hallberg is now the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

LJ: Absolutely. No, I'm really excited for him. I think it's going to bring a great new injection of life into the company and his contacts, what he's going to bring it's going to be wonderful. And I think especially the hardships that the company have gone through and every ballet company in the world, my hats go off to them all for maintaining that discipline and working at home in the lounge rooms. That would have been so challenging.

And like I said, I feel so lucky and fulfilled. And I always wanted to finish when I could still dance. I didn't want people to be in the audience going, "Oh, she should just retire. She looks brittle." That would be the worst for me. So yeah, I mean, the only time I miss it is when I see a really beautiful pas de deuxs and hear beautiful classical music and that kind of takes me away a bit. Or I've started running now, when I'm running and the wind is like right through my face, it reminds me sometimes of being on stage, because when that curtain goes up, there's this gush of wind that kind of comes out onto the stage. So yeah, I reminisce, but I don't miss the nerves, the pain.

CL: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. It's just been an absolute pleasure and I can't wait to hear what happens as you become a midwife and...

LJ: Oh, I hope so.

Lana now lives in Brisbane with her husband and her young son. She continues to teach and mentor young ballerinas and dancers, and will soon graduate as a midwife. To continue to follow her incredible journey, you can find Lana on Instagram @lana_jones_.

I called Lana from Newcastle, 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 my great friend, Adam Blanch.

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.

Claudia Lawson

Claudia Lawson is a dance critic based in Sydney, Australia, writing regularly for ABC Radio National, ABC Arts, and Fjord Review. After graduating with degrees in Law and Forensic Science, Claudia worked as a media lawyer for the ABC, FOXTEL and the BBC in London, where she also co-founded Street Sessions dance company. Returning to Sydney, Claudia studied medicine and now works as a doctor. She is the host of the award-winning Talking Pointes Podcast.


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