Harrison James is a Principal Dancer at The National Ballet of Canada. Harrison was interviewed by Raina Ng, who is WDCD Project manager for NZ.
Growing up in the Kapiti Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, Harrison James, was always known as ‘the boy who does ballet’. He once said, in an interview with Dance Informa, Australia, that it weighed heavily on his mind that he did not exactly fit the mould of the Kiwi bloke: ‘a guy in stubbies, gumboots and a singlet, drinking beer on the porch and watching the All Blacks.’ Being teased as a child was a part of his life growing up but Harrison’s love for dance did not let that be a deterrent, and as he became more comfortable in his own skin, he allowed dance to take him places. Harrison took some time during the Covid-19 lockdown to answer some questions we have asked him about himself, about being a dancer and about what dance can do.
You were born in Paraparaumu?
Yes, I was born in Paraparaumu, although this was only because the town where my parents lived didn’t have a maternity ward for my birth! I grew up across the river from Paraparaumu in Waikanae Beach and didn’t leave until I moved into Wellington (city) when I was 15.
Tell us what is the earliest memory you have about your childhood?
I think my earliest memory is from one of our family’s many camping trips. I must have been about 4. I had gone exploring, and had picked my way very carefully past gorse and wild blackberry bushes to reach the top of a hill in the campsite. When I turned around to head back I couldn’t find a way down!! I was blocked in completely by the spiky plants and stood there crying until my sisters came up the hill to save me.
Do you have any memories in your school years that you think have particularly impacted, or shaped your perspectives and who you are today?
I certainly do. Children can be cruel and being a boy in ballet did not make things easy for me at school. For a long time a big part of my drive came from a determination to prove to those early peers of mine that there was value in who I was and what I did, that it didn’t make me ‘less than’. It took a long time before I was able to let go of those feelings and to try, to strive and to succeed for me and me alone, but those formative years definitely shaped my work ethic and determination.
What sparked your interest in dance and ballet?
My mother has often said about me that ‘I could dance before I could walk’. We had a dress-up box in our house, which I loved and I was always putting on improvisation performances for which ever family member I could force to watch. At one point I even made fake money so they could pay to see me perform. I clearly felt very strongly about my value in those early days! My Mum came up with the idea for ballet classes and I was in love from the beginning, both with the movement and the discipline.
Do you remember your first dance class?
Probably not! The school I attended used the RAD syllabus so some of that early vocabulary training and the phrases my teacher used have stuck with me to this day. I clearly remember running in a circle to practice our ‘character runs’. We were pretending to run on a giant pavlova (a classic Kiwi desert) and my teacher would say “Strawberry, Strawberry, Creaaaaam!”. ‘Cream’ was when we had to pause and plie on one leg.
What motivated you to keep dancing?
I’m not sure. I think it was more that I just never felt like I wanted to stop! As difficult as it was to continue sometimes, quitting dance was never something I seriously considered because it felt so natural for it to be a part of my life. There was always a new level of achievement to strive for and I enjoyed that challenge.
Can you remember a defining moment when you realised you wanted to take on dance professionally?
I think the biggest moment like that for me was deciding to attend the New Zealand School of Dance. I had been pretty adamant about finishing high-school before I made that commitment and then something shifted for me mentally and I was suddenly ready to take that leap of faith. Dance had already been consuming most of my life and cancelling out all my other extra-curricular activities so it ended up feeling like a really natural decision to make. From then on it was all go!
When did you start identifying yourself as a dancer?
Dance was always part of my identity, although in early years I’d often wish people didn’t know it. I was very much ‘That boy who does ballet’ in my home town. Getting my first contract with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was a defining moment though. Suddenly, my passion for dance was earning me money!!! I didn’t really grasp how awesome that was until it happened. That was when being a dancer became the most real.
Would you like to share your experience training in dance and your journey towards going to the New Zealand School of Dance and becoming a professional dancer?
Sure! As I’ve already mentioned, my decision to join the New Zealand School of Dance was a bit of an epiphany for me and I’m very grateful for the time I spent there. The school has both a contemporary and a classical program but all students take classes in both styles and I think this has served me incredibly well in my career. The next step for me was the summer courses I was able to attend in the United States, both at Jacob’s Pillow Festival and the San Francisco Ballet School, the latter offering me a spot in their year round ‘trainee program’ run by Jean-Yves Esquerre at the time. Looking back, my two years in this program was a vital part of my training. Jean-Yves is an incredible teacher, not only because he taught a great class and gave us better technique, but because he encouraged a sense of agency within us as dancers. He taught us to ask ‘Why’ and ‘How’. To explore questions for ourselves and discover our own solutions. In a world full of dance schools that teach right and wrong ‘Because that’s the way it’s always been’ and ‘Because I say so’, I will always treasure these years in San Francisco. San Francisco Ballet offered me a contract at the end of these two years but my work permit to work in the US was declined and this is how I got my first contract with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. At the time I was absolutely devastated to be leaving the friends I had made in San Francisco but ultimately, it all worked out in the end!
Do you remember your National Ballet of Canada audition at all, and what was going through your head then?
I remember my audition vividly, except for the actual ballet class. I landed in Toronto at 11pm the night before and couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous. The class was in the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts on a dark day before the company opened their ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the next day. I don’t remember much about the class but I remember talking to Karen afterwards and appreciating the directness with which she spoke to me and explained the situation and shared her thoughts. I was back on a plane to Switzerland that evening. Needless to say, I was offered a contract two weeks later.
What would you say is the most valuable takeaway, whether it is a memory or a lesson that dance training has given you?
This is a hard question to answer. I feel like I’ve learned so many invaluable lessons through my career in dance. As time goes by, I feel like one of the most important lessons is to treasure the moment. Dance is so fleeting! Dance careers are short, the moments on stage compared to the time spent rehearsing is minuscule! It’s all over before it begins. This profession is a lesson in taking the time to absorb those special moments, on and off the stage and to get all the good you can from them.
Can we talk bout the challenges, perils and hardship of being a dancer – can you share the things you’ve most struggled with?
I could talk all day about the challenges of being a dancer! Ha ha!! The ridiculous physical demand and the ensuing wear and tear on our bodies, how we see and hate on our own bodies (especially in ballet), the competitive nature of our industry and trying to find time to have a life outside of such a consuming passion and love for our art form. I’ve struggled with all of these on different levels, but I’ve never struggled as much as I am struggling now, during a pandemic that takes dance away from me, with all of the beauty and joy and purpose that it brings to my life. The lesson being, all these struggles are worth it.
Can I ask you about the ego, and how you have struggled with it (either with your own or others’) as a dancer?
Sure. I think there’s a fine line between ego and self belief. In a profession where all critique is personal because it’s a critique of your self expression it’s important to have an abundant supply of self belief, but this can often tip people over the scale. I know I’ve certainly gone there!!! I’m not religious or even that spiritual but I do believe life gives you signs. Whenever I fall over or mess up on stage, or don’t get cast for a role I really want I try to take it as a reminder to stay humble!
What does dance mean to you?
Dance is my life. It’s who I am. Even when I retire I know I’ll still be connected to the world of dance, even if I’m just the worlds biggest fan of the next generation of dancers, cheering them on from the audience. Dance means everything to me.
Do you think dancers are always pursuing perfection. Do you identify with that? What are you pursuing with each performance?
I might have identified with that once. I was attracted to the idea that within ballet there was a right way and a wrong way to do anything but a lot of my biggest issues and struggles came from trying to be the ‘perfect’ ballet dancer. Problematic image issues aside, even within the very specific world of ballet, technical ‘perfection’ is still up for debate. Just get French, Russian, English, Danish, Cuban, Italian, American and yes, even Canadian dancers in a room to discuss this and see if there’s a consensus!!! A more positive pursuit for me has been to try to be the best me I can be, because no-one will ever be perfect and I don’t think people should try to be! My favourite dancers in the world right now have all taken the ballet language and structure then stretched it and morphed it into an authentic and beautiful form of self expression true to themselves. I think that’s what makes them so exciting, moving and incredible!
How has dance and the discipline of dance and performing arts shaped you as a person, and how has it helped you with life?
The amount of application it takes to be a dancer is insane. That lesson in dedicating yourself so fully to one goal is invaluable to life. It helped me early on in my studies at school, then with leaving home and living on my own, and then later, when I had a to learn how to do my taxes!!! Why did I never learn how to do taxes in school?!?!
Why do you think the arts are important?
I think the best answer to this question is another question. Can you imagine a world without art?! No music to motivate you through your workouts or romance your dinner date. No art to hang on your walls to liven up your living room or make you stop and think for a second. No dancing around the living room or out at the club. No binge worthy television shows to get you through a pandemic! The arts are important because they make life worth living.
Is dance and theatre important as an art and why?
Absolutely. I think every art form is relevant and has it’s own strengths. Theatre and Dance are both wonderful in that they’re live, in the moment, person to person mediums. There is an energy in an audience at these performances that can never be matched. One of my favourite things about dance is the absence of spoken language and the freedom that gives. Spoken language is such a specific way of communicating, so it’s absence in dance allows us express all those feelings and ideas that we can’t quite put into words.
What is your favourite ballet a) to watch, and b) to perform? Were there any performances that you say has ‘changed your life’?
Too many to choose!!! My answer changes every time I’m asked. Today, I think I’m going to say my favourite one to watch is Jewels. I know, it’s an old school choice but I’m captivated from beginning to end every time. I last got to see it performed by Paris Opera Ballet in their opera house when National Ballet toured to Paris in 2016 and I’m treasuring that memory still! I’ll pick two for my favourite to perform. The first is Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘The Dream’. One of the hardest ballet’s I’ve ever performed, I’m simultaneously terrified and in love with this ballet. I love the English style, the musicality and the theatricality plus I get to wear a cape!! The second is Crystal Pite’s ‘Angels’ Atlas’. I treasure every moment I got to spend with Crystal in the creation of this work!! I felt transformed by this ballet and taken to another world every time we performed it.
I will be forever changed by the role of Des Grieux in ‘Manon’ by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. It was one of my first huge roles with the National Ballet of Canada and these performances alongside my ballet soulmate Jillian Vanstone were very special to me indeed. Watching Sofiane Sylve take on Sylvie Guillem’s role in William Forsythe’s ‘In The Middle Somewhat Elevated’ when I was a student at the San Francisco Ballet School in 2009. The power!!!! My jaw was on the floor the whole time.
Interview by: Raina Ng
Photo credit to: Karolina Kuras