Ballet

Ballerina Juliet Burnett Brings Her Javanese Roots to Dance

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Like many young dancers who are recruited to train endless hours through their pre-teen and teenage years to be auditioned for international ballet schools, her talent was spotted by her dance teachers, Valerie Jenkins and Christine Keith. Her graduation from The Australian Ballet School led to the beginnings of her career in 2003. As a dancer with The Australian Ballet, she embodied Odette in Swan Lake, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, and La Sylphide.

In 2011, Burnett was awarded the Khitercs Hirai International Scholarship, intended to allow members of The Australian Ballet companies to travel internationally. She used the scholarship to visit Indonesia to study her grandmother’s art of Javanese dance and to initiate workshops for Indonesian kids — particularly those in underprivileged “slums” along the Ciliwung riverbank in Java. Burnett also trained in the theatrical, dance, and meditation techniques as pioneered by her uncle, the actor, poet, and activist, W.S. Rendra.

“When visiting my Mum’s side of the family in Indonesia, we’d arrive in Jakarta and there’s this big fly road that was built during Suharto’s time, and you go across this modern freeway and you peer down the side and there are all these shanty towns,” she recalls. At a young age, Burnett was struck by the financial inequity in such a big, prosperous city. Her parents were very open about the fact that many children didn’t have access to clean drinking water, but “then I’d go to my aunt’s place and have a beautiful home-cooked meal and watch their big screen TV and everything’s clean and they’ve got their maid cooking for us.” Once her dance career started taking off, she “wanted to go back and try and reconnect and bring something back to [those children].”

“Ballet dancers can live in a bubble,” she says. “The level of training, rehearsal and performance becomes more than work, it’s a lifestyle. I knew, from early on, that I would have to work to maintain my curiosity for other cultures, other forms of dance, to ensure I was not losing my own spirit.”

There was no sudden event that resulted in Burnett’s choice to leave The Australian Ballet. In fact, Burnett says she had been open with the Ballet from the beginning of her tenure about the fact that she found the hierarchical structure to be outdated and felt that it clashed with her values, and saw the system of promoting dancers destroy careers. Since leaving The Australian Ballet, Burnett has been more creative and vocal in demonstrating how dance can be a political and social statement, and provocation to limited perspectives on culture, poverty, justice, and gender. She created and shared “Injustice: a short film” on her website last year. To get the clips seen in the film, Burnett made a call out on Instagram, inviting people to submit videos of themselves following her choreographic instructions.

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