Making history on the road to Russia
If you’re involved in dance in Australia you’ve likely heard the name Jasmine Henry mentioned in dance related articles over the last couple of weeks.
Having moved from Perth to train full-time at the world renowned Vaganova Academy in Russia three years ago, Jasmine recently made history becoming the first Australian to be offered a contract with the Mariinsky Ballet, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious classical companies.
I spoke to Jasmine in St. Petersburg via WhatsApp last week, a few days after her formal graduation ceremony. She managed to fit in our chat while taking a short break from the process of moving from the Academy dormitory to another, while a living space was being organised for her by the company who will put her up, alongside many of the company’s other dancers, in an apartment she describes as a 10 second walk to the theatre.
I called to chat about her road to Russia, her dreams and attempt to discover what led to her historic appointment as a member of the Mariinsky Ballet.
“Their unconditional love and support meant I always knew I was free to fail.”
SERGEY AND JASMINE IN ST. PETERSBURG
Jasmine is quick to acknowledge and respect the early influence of the Charlesworth Ballet Academy in helping build her technical and artistic foundations. Yet it’s Sergey Pevnev whom she credits most with helping recognise and develop her raw talents and steer and support her direction. Sergey is the founder of Pevnev Ballet Academy, a studio situated in Perth’s beautiful south-western suburbs that specialises in offering the Vaganova technique, and I chatted with him first to get an insight into Jasmine’s background.
Sergey himself studied at the Vaganova Academy for 7 years and later, after performing as a Guest Artist, choose to emigrate and became a Principal with the West Australian Ballet. Fast forward a few more years and upon his retirement to become a teacher and Studio Owner he notes that he was instantly drawn to Jasmine. Yes, she had the raw physical potential, yet it was her intelligence, work ethic and most of all because she seemed to exude an energy and light that drew his interest. Later, I repeated to Jasmine that Sergey had described her in this way and she laughed self-consciously, a little embarrassed by his kind words, yet confirmed that the teachers at the Vaganova Academy had come to nickname her similarly: Solnyshkuh [солнышко], which is a Russian term of endearment meaning Sunshine.
Sergey also talks fondly of Jasmine’s parents and two brothers describing them as the, “most lovely people”. Later I learn from Jasmine that both her parents work at hospitals, her mother as a Registered Theatre Nurse and her father as an Orderly. I further learn how incredibly supportive her parents have been of the all the siblings, always putting them first, and how the whole family have supported Jasmine’s progress, encouraging a joy of hard work and dedication yet also, and perhaps crucially, never making Jasmine feel as though there was any overt label of “success” she needed to achieve for them to be proud of her. She explains that she’s always felt genuinely free to pursue whatever pathway most ignited her passion and interests and that meant following her dream always felt like a joy.
Within minutes of speaking with Jasmine I become acutely aware of what I can best describe as a goodness and sweetness that emanates from her voice down a questionable internet connection that drops in and out. It might be easy to perceive such qualities as the clichés of female youth brought up in classical ballet, yet in Jasmine mixed with her sharp intelligence, profound respect for history and others, there is a muscle to her goodness, and a toughness in the sweetness. In short, what comes across is the power of love shining through and I began to wonder if perhaps this is the special quality that exudes from Jasmine and that people feel and respond to in the classroom and on stage.
It’s a love so clearly coupled with a sense of purpose. Sergey describes a certain charisma of Jasmine as though she radiates a healing quality; that those coming in contact with her feel better, uplifted after being in her presence. He explains how there were times when he’d come to the studio, a little fatigued after a long week of teaching or from navigating the usual trials and tribulations of running a small business and yet, after teaching Jasmine’s class he’d be driving home and suddenly realise he felt more energised and refreshed.
This is indeed a rare and special quality in a dancer. Over my 35 years in our industry I’ve come to experience only a few individuals that seem to emit this kind of quality; consistently able to light up any room in almost any context. It’s as though at their core, they’re healers first and dance is simply the conduit they’ve found to touch people, to change them and elevate their spirits. It would seem Jasmine might be such an individual. When I ask what drew her to ballet, she describes the experience of performing the lead role of Giselle at The Quarry in Perth (a dedicated outdoor performance space) and the intense high she felt from moving people, lifting them, seeing the joy on their faces.
This is not to deny or in any way minimise her consistency, drive and passion for hard work. In fact, as Jasmine explains it, she was drawn to the Vaganova technique precisely because it seemed to offer her the hardest, most arduous challenge. That it would be the most demanding, exacting of her the greatest sacrifices and call on her to make of her choice nothing less than an obsession. And it has.
For the last three years she’s lived in Russia, barely able to come home or have family visit, exacerbated due to restrictions caused by the global pandemic during the last 18 months. She’s needed to learn the Russian language as that is all that’s used in class [she was fortunate that Sergey taught her a little before she left] and has breathed, slept and ate ballet. While she’s made many good friends at the Academy and explains that – contrary to what many might imagine and Hollywood films and shows like “Dance Mum’s” would present – the atmosphere, while intense and concentrated during class, is very supportive and nurturing amongst both her teachers and peers. And yet Jasmine is deeply connected to her family. They’re her rock and being without them has brought her to tears on many, many days. She laughs as she explains how grateful she is that her parents accept her 3AM phone calls when she just needs to hear their voices. I have to admit it’s hard to imagine Jasmine being sad after talking with her, hearing the lightness, joy and positive energy in her voice, yet of course it’s good to be reminded she’s human after-all. We all need support, even those who dedicate themselves to the service of others.
BACKSTAGE AT THE MARIINSKY PHOTO: ANDREW LUSH
The other part of Jasmine’s story I find intriguing is the power of finding the right teacher for the right student. Arguably, it doesn’t always happen. Yet when it does, it seems almost anything is possible. Sergey explains that Jasmine doesn’t possess some “perfect” ballet body, born as though it were inevitable that she’d succeed. She’s learnt to disguise and convert any perceived “flaws” into assets, the clever alchemy of forging weaknesses into strengths, while also maximising those qualities that were already benefits. This is the influence of good teaching. Further, combined with Jasmine’s intelligence and willingness to absorb information, Sergey was able to both offer her the foundations to climb the ladder of success and simultaneously help provide the ladder through his own connections to the Vaganova Academy. Sergey, Jasmine and two other students made a trip the year before she started as a full-time student, participating for a week as an exploratory visit. While success is never a given, it’s this delicate balance of the right student, with the right temperament meeting the right teacher that makes it more probable.
And yet, success cannot so easily be packaged by simply describing Jasmine’s status and progress on some company ladder or timeline. What really seems to describe Jasmine’s success is not merely that she’s a young woman following her dreams and making history, but that in doing so she would appear to have sharpened those qualities that have drawn people to her; a force of goodness in the world, a compassion that reaches out as a power for joy, and a want and willingness to appreciate that what she does is, first and foremost a service to others. This attitude confers on her a maturity far beyond her years.
When I talk to her about success Jasmine says there’s a saying that was both coached into her through her family culture and a slogan reiterated at the Academy:
“It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it."
The idea being that it doesn’t matter how big or small the role, or how important or significant others might consider your input. It’s how you approach the work that matters; that’s what counts, and what defines us.
PHOTO: ANDREW LUSH
Ultimately Jasmine doesn’t appear to have been drawn to the Vaganova Academy and Mariinsky as though it were the only game in town, the only dream. She also fantasised of dancing with The Australian Ballet and loved engaging with their Interstate Training Program. Yet she cites a number of reasons that perhaps galvanised her direction.
The first is her deep appreciation for the Vaganova method. She always loved barre most and revelled in the slowness of it, the detail, the gradual piece by piece building of the method, which picks up pace in the final years once the foundations are firmly established. Jasmine credits her lack of injuries to this technique. And even though she had to navigate working on raked classrooms and the Mariinsky stage, her strong foundations meant she was soon able to adjust. Indeed, the only time she’s become seriously injured was while running to keep fit during a Summer break. She further cites the appreciation of Russian culture for the arts that attracted her, that dancers are revered more like Rugby stars are in Australia, and that the scale is so much bigger.
Yet the determining factor anchoring her path appears to be that the dream of being accepted into the Vaganova Academy seemed so much further away and therefore a dream and challenge so much bigger to go after. Clearly, Jasmine is one that likes to aim as grand as possible, or as the saying goes; to shoot for the stars, to perhaps hit the moon.
In Jasmine’s case however, it would appear she actually managed to hit the stars.
Despite all she’s managed to achieve so far, obviously we’re only at the start of Jasmine’s journey. I’m sure we all look forward to following her career and enjoying every moment she brings us.
You can follow Jasmine on Instagram: @jasballet_