Lord of the Dance - Francis’ story
“It always annoys me when I see a report on the nightly news that a footballer is missing a game due to a strained a hamstring when I’ve danced through stress fractures in my feet. I can’t drop on a football field because I’m on a stage. The show must go on and I have to pretend everything’s all right.”
Francis Lawrence ponders the craft at a cafe by the bluestone cobbles of Melbourne’s iconic Degraves Street. At 29, and now headquartered in downtown New York, the one-time northern suburbs boy and Old Paradian of the class of 2004 is at the peak of his powers as a ballet dancer of world renown.
A feted member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Francis is back home having accepted a contract with the Australian Ballet to perform in Nijinsky and Coppelia. The former production sheds light on the tragic figure who was Vaslav Nijinsky - a dancing prodigy whose astonishing leap and provocative choreography earned him rock star status in early 20th-century Paris, but whose shyness and awkwardness impacted severely on his personal relationships, which in turn led to his spiralling mental decline.
The following is a Q and A interview with Francis Lawrence on the afternoon of Monday, September 12, 2016. In it, Francis discusses the incredible physical and mental disciplines to which he has adhered for years to fulfil his lifelong ambition, and he reflects on the chances Parade gave him to dance all those years ago.
Question: Where does the journey begin, and I’m talking pre-Parade days here. You were a northern suburbs boy?
Francis Lawrence: Yes, I grew up in Northcote, having lived with my family in a house on Darebin Road. I have a younger brother David who went to Parade four years after me. Right now he’s studying to become a radiotherapist. He’s got a year and a half to run with his studies and he’s really enjoying it.
Q: Were schooldays good days for you?
FL: Oh yeah, of course. I learnt a lot. It was nice because I was into performing arts and there were avenues at Parade for me to explore. There was an annual musical every year which I always looked forward to, which is was always my favourite time of year. I also remember that Vanessa Fox established Rhythm & Poetry and I danced in that a couple of times. In the final couple of years, Sue Lindsay started Rock Eisteddfod, which was all dancing, and I also got involved.
Q: Were you always a dancer?
FL: Yes. I first danced when I was three, although I never really took it seriously until I got to secondary school. That’s when I realised ‘Oh, I could actually do this for a career’.
Q: Was there something that triggered your interest in dance, or was it inherent in your being?
FL: Well I tried sport, I tried musical instruments, I tried track and running and all that stuff - and after trying all of them it was then that I realised ‘Okay, I have a gift for dancing’. Then, when I was 14 or 15 years of age, I saw the professionals dance on stage and I remember thinking ‘I can do that’.
Q: Was that a lightbulb moment? Do you remember which performance you saw?
FL: It was the Australian Ballet Company’s production of Spartacus at the State Theatre where I’m dancing now. Funny thing, at that moment I was somewhat confused about what I wanted to do because I’d thought of doing musical theatre. But when I got to do ballet I realised I had been given a gift in the sense that not everybody can do ballet. It’s so specific in terms of the demands on your body, so I thought I’d follow ballet through. On top of that I thought I could always do musical theatre down the track, whereas I couldn’t do ballet later because it’s so strenuous on the body - and I’ve learned these past ten years just how strenuous it can be!
Q: It’s terrific to hear you say that Parade presented so many opportunities to you to pursue something that you loved - other than football or cricket.
FL: Yes. Musical theatre had only been in place at the College for four or five years before me, and Rhythm & Poetry and Rock Eisteddfod started up when I was there later on.
Q: Who were your schoolmates?
FL: A guy called James Khoury was a really good friend, and also Samuel Webster and Luis Rivera. There was a big group of us and we still catch up when circumstances allow, which is nice. And I’ve occasionally seen other guys in other levels in different places.
In New York I caught up with a bloke named Scott O’Halloran who was a year above me, but we did drama together. I’m based in New York these days but I am here for five months because the Australian Ballet Company offered me a short term contract.
Q: Beyond Parade, where did the journey take you?
FL: When I was in Year 12 at the College, I auditioned for the Australian Ballet School, and that was quite a big moment for me. To gain admission to the school is extremely difficult and I was one of only six Australia-wide to be admitted in that particular year (2005) after auditions were held in every state.
Fortunately the major school was based in Melbourne also, and I was one of two Melburnians accepted at that time. I remember thinking that if it didn’t work out I’d probably go do musical theatre, but I soon realised how lucky I was because at school we danced six days a week - eight thirty in the morning until six at night for four years until we graduated - and even then people dropped off because graduation was so hard.
By the time I graduated there were seven boys and seven girls remaining from 18 girls and 12 guys, which just goes to show how demanding it is.
Of the remaining graduates who completed the four-year course at the end of 2008, only one girl and one guy was admitted to the Australian Ballet. I was a little devastated not to have made it in, but the good thing is that there are dance companies all over the world and I wanted to go to New York. So I hopped on a plane, did two weeks’ worth of auditioning in Europe and New York, and three weeks later I got a job in “The Big Apple” - not for the company I’m with now, but for New York Theatre Ballet. I was with the company for a season, but I didn’t really like it there - and yet I couldn’t be picky because this was at the height of the recession, Barack Obama had just taken over, and every dance company had fired numerous dancers, orchestras and staff members in the community
I then won an audition to join a company in Michigan for whom I danced for a couple of years. It was only a small company but it gave me an opportunity to gain lead role experience - and when the economy picked up I heard the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company was auditioning. This was a 50 year-old company with an amazing history in America, predominantly involving Afro American and dancers of colour.
Q: Which prompts the question about your own nationality. Where were you born and from where did your father and mother originally hail?
FL: I was born in Australia, but my father and mother were both born in India - Dad in Calcutta, Mum in New Delhi. Dad arrived really early on, probably around 40 years ago now, together with his father and mother. At the time my Mum had been here for three months with her studies, and she and my father became writing buddies. They really liked each other and they married in Melbourne. Curiously the Loreto Nuns put my father and mother in touch. My Dad, who has since passed away, had gone to a Christian Brothers school in India which is why he wanted me to go to Parade.
The year I auditioned for the Dance Theatre of Harlem I was in an audition room with 200 people and I was the only guy hired. The company had closed its doors for a period due to the financial losses incurred, but when I saw the audition notice I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance and tour the world, and I really wanted to get out of Michigan.
There were four auditions held - one in New York, one in Chicago, one in California and one in Florida. Of those four open auditions only five were hired and I was one of them.
Q: What do you believe gave you the edge?
FL: The auditions involved both contemporary and classical dance. People have often chosen one of them, but I have always taken both seriously - and maybe it was my ballet technique that saw me though, along with the fact that like a lot of Australian dancers I was really well trained.
Q: For those of us who are more familiar with the working lives of sportspeople, can you outline what a typical day’s training entails for a dancer at your particular level?
FL: I’ll outline what initial training involved and, later, the training demands at professional level. When I was at the Australian Ballet School days began at 8.30am with an hour and a half ballet class. This comprised a series of exercises, beginning with the barre, from one minute and three minute exercises through to centre exercises - turns, leaps and jumps - which you have to do so as not to break a foot or tear a calf. I then did an hour and a half pas de deux class (dance for two) in which I learned how to partner women as I have to lift them above my head. For three years I did that after ballet class every morning, and that basically took me through to lunch. After lunch came either contemporary or character class (Spanish), which may have occurred once or twice a week. I also went to gym every day to lift weights and then I learned repertoire, meaning dances for concerts - and there were normally four concerts spaced out through the year that all dancers worked towards. That took me through to 6.30pm and I kept to this routine six days a week growing up.
Now as a professional currently involved with Australian Ballet which puts on seven shows a week, I still get up early in the morning although a little later these days at 10.30am. I complete an hour and fifteen minute class, then rehearse for three hours for the next show of the season. Right now I’m involved with Nijinsky at night, but in two weeks Coppelia opens - so I’m rehearsing during the day for Coppelia. I’ll get a three-hour break from 3pm (during which time I’ll sneak an hour’s gym to do weights or cardio), then go back to the stage at 6pm to warm up for the performance, which runs from 7.30pm until 10.30pm. I usually go home and ice my injuries and then do it all again the next day.
A typical dance day usually lasts six to eight hours, so it begins with a big breakfast of proteins and carbs and a sandwich at lunchtime. I snack on nuts, nut bars and protein shakes during the day and I also take a lot of vitamins, electrolyte powder and magnesium as I often suffer from muscle cramping.
Q: So you’ve adhered to that training regimen for more than a decade?
FL: Yes. It’s what I’ve had to do to survive in this industry.
Q: It’s quite incredible to learn about the physical sacrifices, but you’ve obviously had the mindset to follow it through.
FL: Yes, but don’t get me wrong, I do eat a lot and I reward myself with chips and ice cream, admittedly in moderation. I’ll have chips with a burger, but only on weekends and I promise you that I don’t eat ice cream by the tub like I use too.
Q: But haven’t you ever woken up in the morning and thought to yourself ‘I really don’t want to train today’ and rolled back under the covers?
FL: I’ve struggled with that every day to this day. The mental capacity to get through it, particularly when you know you’re going to have a really physical day, is enormous - especially so because like all dancers I wake up wondering what part of my body is going to be sore today. This can be quiet stressful knowing you have a show in front of 2000 to 3000 people that night and not wanting to disappoint them. You see, dancers are always injured - and it always annoys me when I see a report on the nightly news that a footballer is missing a game due to a strained hamstring when I’ve danced through stress fractures in my feet. I can’t drop on a football field and scream because when I’m on stage in pain, I have to push through my performance and make it look easy. The show must go on and I have to pretend everything’s all right, this is probably the hardest part of my job.
Q: I suspect you’ve just earned a legion of admirers from the sporting fraternity.
FL: It’s really funny. In many respects I think I have one of those bodies that’s not made for dance, but I look after it very well. Not only do I dance eight hours a day and go to the gym at night now but I also do extra things like pilates, yoga and icing to keep my body in the best shape I can to prevent any injuries.
Q: For all the sacrifices, is your love of ballet still as great as it was when you were first accepted into ballet school?
FL: Yes. When I mentioned how people dropped off along the way, it was because their hearts were only half in it. You have to be 100 per cent committed to make it and to that end I’ve always considered myself a self-motivated person - and once you become a professional you’re on your own. If you don’t turn up for class you get injured, if you don’t turn up for rehearsals you won’t get cast in ballets and if you don’t go to the gym to work weights you won’t be able to lift girls above your head. It’s a self-motivating art although I have turned to a couple of older dancers as mentors if I need help.
Q: How long have you got in terms of your ballet career?
FL: I’m 29 now, but I’m considered old in the dance world. In saying that, people tend to dance until 33 to 35, and in men I would say peak time is between 25 and 33. This is the period when you’ve had the most stage experience and your body is also still in shape, so right now I’m in the middle of my peak period in ballet. I’ve got a good four to five years to come and with medical science advancements we didn’t have access to 20 years ago, who knows how long I’ll be in this industry for.
Q: What’s been your career highlight?
FL: I danced Black Swan pas de deux in Israel on debut in the Israeli Opera house and that was really nice. It’s vigorous and exciting to watch with a lot of jumps and turns. I’ve always loved overseas tours and it’s crazy to think I’ve travelled to Turkey, Italy, Honduras, Canada and many other great places. It’s amazing that dance has taken me around the world and that I get paid to do what I love.
Q: Has your mother had the opportunity to see you dance in recent years?
FL: She just saw me dance in Nijinsky, which made her happy. The last time before that was four years ago was when she saw me perform in my first season for the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the Lincoln Centre. That was a really nice moment - my first big season with a big New York company.
I’m not about being famous, but what’s great about dancing with the Harlem company is that they put posters all over New York. I remember three years ago when the second season was being advertised, for one day I was one of the dancers featured on the billboard in Times Square. I never knew I was going to be on the billboard, and only found out after I was told to get down there and handout a few flyers. I couldn’t believe it. Everything I’d worked so hard for had paid off in that moment.
Q: What are your plans beyond this season with Australian Ballet?
FL: I’m on a five-month contract with Australian Ballet, which is pretty amazing because I never got in when I graduated - and I’m so happy to come back from New York to be able to dance for my family. I’ll be in Melbourne for a couple of months, soon I’ll be dancing in the Sydney Opera House and I’ve never danced there, and then in January I go back to New York to complete my Dance Theatre of Harlem contract. I’ve always loved musical theatre, so my goal now is to get into a Broadway show over the next two or three years.
Q: So New York will be home for the foreseeable future?
FL: I think I’m addicted to New York now. The Australian dancing scene is great, but it’s so far from the rest of the world. I love the fact that I’m with a company that goes from state to state, country to country, because I feel that I’m being seen by the world. On top of that, there’s not a lot of musical theatre in Australia. If you think about it, there’s only ever two or three professional shows on at any one time, whereas on Broadway you have 30 shows. So for at least the next ten years I’ll be in America.
Q: If you think back to the Parade days, what do you believe the College gave you?
FL: Everyone at Parade knew that I could dance and I would say the teachers were always supportive. It was nice that Sue Lindsay introduced the Rock Eisteddfod when I was in Year 11 because I remember thinking in Year 7 how good that would be. I didn’t think I was that talented, but the people at Parade really gave me an opportunity to play lead roles in musicals which in turn gave me the confidence to think ‘Maybe I am good enough . . . maybe I can do this’.
In Years 7 and 8 I was really scared to tell anyone that I danced. By the time people found out I did ballet I was in Year 9 or 10. So many guys I grew up with who did ballet were bullied or teased when kids at their schools found out. Of all the kids at Parade I probably got s… from only four or five who did so under their breath, but I was never cornered. I remember one big guy came up to me and in this big booming voice said; “I think it’s really cool that you do ballet”.
I also remember that Vanessa Fox made me perform ballet when I didn’t want to because I feared how everyone would take it. So I did a hip hop dance to Usher, but put ballet jumps and turns in it - and all the boys thought it was cool.
Francis Lawrence performs in Australian Ballet’s production, Nijinsky in Melbourne until September 17, then Adelaide from October 14-19 and Sydney November 11-28.