Ballet dancing can be a short-lived career – you can only push the body so far, for so long. So to be forced to take more than a year out is nothing short of a disaster; even more so for a young dancer who is trying to make his mark.
It’s no wonder then that Nathan Brook seemed to have more than an little extra spin in his pirouette and height in his saute when he returned to the stage of the Sydney Opera House for the Australian Ballet’s first performance since the pandemic, New York Dialects, on Tuesday night.
That would have been enough to satisfy Brook – but there was an encore. The soloist took out both the Rising Star Award and the People’s Choice Award in the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards announced after the show. The awards have identified the cream of Australia’s dancing crop for nearly two decades, and together have a total prize value of $40,000. There were 240,000 votes cast for the people’s prize, the highest number in the history of the award.
“So many incredible principals, soloists, artists have won this before me, who I look up to. Even to be nominated, to be recognised by your peers is such a special thing, and to win it is just the cherry on top,” the 26-year-old said.
Brook, who was born and raised in Sydney’s northern beaches and spent lockdown in Melbourne, said there was a silver lining to be found in the challenges of the past year.
“It acted like a slingshot for me,” Brook said. “Having a year taken away from your career in an already short career, I was like ‘it’s over in a flash’. I missed dancing and performing so much, I thought ‘I have to make it all count’. I have to be myself and be the best that I can be and push myself further and be all consumed by it again.”
‘As a child in the playground, anyone who has the slightest point of difference, it’s mentioned, it doesn’t go unnoticed.’Nathan Brook
Australian Ballet artistic director David Hallberg said the six nominees for the award had bounced back from their time away from the stage with a fresh outlook on their careers.
“I have watched Nathan grow as an artist in previous years and his commitment, drive, dedication and ambition make him a great advocate for this award. The future is very bright for Nathan in the world of dance,” he said.
And while his two older brothers embraced beach culture and became competitive surf boat rowers, Brook swam against the current. He is passionate about encouraging young boys to learn ballet.
“I know that it’s hard when you’re young to go against the grain; my dad and my brothers were so supportive, saying ‘dance to the beat of your own drum’,” he said.
“As a child in the playground, anyone who has the slightest point of difference, it’s mentioned, it doesn’t go unnoticed. That was the thing, just breaking the mould and breaking the stereotypes. But I had a really supportive group of friends around me and amazing family, I was one of the really lucky ones. I think it’s changing and the pendulum is swinging.”
It was some eagle-eyed neighbours who first recognised Brook’s potential. When he was a child he would turn on music and dance around the house, and his neighbours would watch him from their back deck. They spoke to Brook’s mother and she enrolled him in a boys jazz dance class in Avalon.
“And I never looked back; I became obsessed with it.”
At 14, Brook moved to Melbourne to study at the Australian Ballet School and, after graduating, he worked with the Queensland Ballet for two years. He was accepted into the Australian Ballet in 2016.
Brook enjoys both classical and contemporary dance – for the artistry of the former and the fun of the latter. He says his most difficult part thus far is The Nutcracker’s Prince; and, partnering wise, Orion, in contemporary choreographer Stanton Welch’s Sylvia.
“It’s really fun to work on a character and make it readable to the audience. It’s almost a bit of a carthartic experience, to step into someone else’s shoes and character.”
As for downtime, Brook doesn’t have a lot of it. “Rudolf Nureyev said it: ‘One day off you notice, two days off the audience notices’. I’m like, yeah, that’s true.”
For that one day, he likes to get away to the beach and the countryside with his partner, Calum, and his short-haired German pointer, Jonathan. But for now, it’s hard to imagine ever growing tired of the joy of being back on stage dancing before an audience.
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald