Charlotte Kasner talks to the recently retired English National Ballet soloist
It is difficult to believe, sitting opposite Daniel Jones, that he has turned twenty, let alone that he has just retired from English National Ballet after more than two decades of performances, workshops and two outstanding filmed documentaries. He is still brimming with infectious passion for ballet and his many other interests, and is a true ambassador for the life to which he, slightly surprisingly as it turned out, has dedicated himself. He still seems rather amazed that he made it to White Lodge, never mind that he danced for five artistic directors at ENB. Although his parents were performers and his mother founded and runs a successful dancing school, Daniel’s early love was for football. Like many lads whose heads are turned by dance, it was suggested that ballet would improve his footballing skills and he caught the ballet bug badly enough to endure the inevitable bullying that followed at his school in the non-ballet-orientated Potteries.
The major achievement of being accepted at White Lodge did not lessen the pressure as each successive year brought the possibility of rejection. This of course continues once in a company, not least as different artistic directors exercise their personal preferences with casting and indeed employment. The dancer’s life is insecure throughout as no one is on a long-term contract and the ever-present threat of injury can cut short any career in an instant. Daniel explained that he took on the challenge of the constant introspection and external criticism from teachers, choreographers, directors and the like and used it as an incentive to improve.
He described the changes of artistic director over the years at ENB as being similar to working with five different companies as each sought to put a personal stamp on things. It could have been all too easy to have been buried by the maelstrom, yet, fortunately for us, Daniel was able to rise above the internal policies and politics that exist in all such communities, maintaining an equilibrium and continually developing. He did mention though, that he worked out that he needed to remember a whole series of contradictory corrections so that he could apply the appropriate one, depending on who was sitting out front!
In the latter end of his career with ENB, he even finally found a way of allowing himself to be pleased with the occasional performance – a rare luxury – and it is perhaps why he seems so grounded and still so enthusiastic. Of course, his audience has often been delighted with the depth and intensity of his work in a wide variety of roles; something that has also not gone unnoticed by critics.
Dancers can easily become focused narrowly on the ballet world and they now have even fewer opportunities to experience other art forms or indeed much outside class, the rehearsal studio and the stage. A fading scrap of ticket stub provides a clue to the inspiration that Daniel has nurtured along the way to maturing as a fully-fledged performer: June 22nd, 1989 was a special occasion for him as, being one of the winners of the Sir Kenneth MacMillan Award for choreography at White Lodge, he sat in the royal circle at the Dominion Theatre, London. Little did he know that it would be his first experience of the company that would become his long-term home a few short years later. This was the ballet section of the prize (MacMillan chose to take Daniel, Christopher Hampson, Christopher Wheeldon and David Fielding to an opera and a concert too) and they saw “Anastasia”, “Swansong” and “Etudes”. It was a revelation of what ballet could communicate and achieve. Who could fail to be hooked for life after that!
Daniel cites Diaghilev as another source of inspiration and is re-discovering Cecchetti and “The Manual”, thanks to his workshop commitments. On a rare break from performing in Italy, he and his wife Kei Akahoshi (also a dancer with ENB) undertook a brief trip to Venice and, quite by accident, found themselves in front of Diaghilev’s and Stravinsky’s graves where they were able to pay a personal homage. Serendipity.
Daniel has always had an eclectic and wide-ranging approach to garnering inspiration and also drew on his knowledge of film when creating characters. He has danced some meaty roles, not least of which was his interpretation of the Gaoler in “Manon”, in part influenced by Quentin Tarantino!
This intensive approach stood him in good stead when, playing Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet”, where he once saw first Romeo hobble off stage injured and then Mercutio! Now lesser performers would have panicked at the thought of having to improvise Shakespeare, especially without words, thrown in their swords and ‘hied them hence to yon apothecary’, but not Daniel: his first thought was “Right, that’s them sorted out, who’s next!” The corps must have been quaking in their character shoes. Of course, his second thought was for his injured colleagues, both of whom made a full recovery, glad to tell.
Daniel’s concern for his colleagues is always to the fore and he has done much over the years to ensure that they work under the best conditions possible. Indeed, he was a founding member of ENB’s Dancers’ Committee that looks after dancers’ welfare. Ballet is a notoriously hard life and constant touring multiplies the hardships. Young people can be very insulated and are vulnerable in their first weeks and months of professional performing. There must be countless dancers who have come through the ranks at ENB who have benefitted from Daniel’s kindness, wisdom and experience. He could probably write a textbook on character make up and is definitely the man to talk to about how to find the dwindling sources of really excellent products such as non-run mascara!
Film, and particularly documentary film, is a long-standing and abiding love. Daniel has many, many hours of archive images from his earliest days at ENB that enhance written diaries started at the beginning of his training. He did of course create the wonderful educational programme that was filmed as “Men in Tights” and more recently, the warts-and-all depiction of ENB on the road in “Agony and Ecstasy: A Year with English National Ballet.”
Community involvement has always been a mainstay at ENB via its Learning department and Daniel, perhaps also because of his background, was thus well-placed to feel comfortable working with ex-shipyard employees to create a public performance. “Men in Tights” had a strange birth in the kitchen of his digs in Bristol, when a chance conversation with his landlady led eventually to a commission from ITV. Something of a fairytale beginning for a work that ended in an ex-shipyard! It is obvious from seeing the piece that the dancers who were involved were also inspired and the extraordinary level of trust that participants and producers invested in Daniel is a tribute to his commitment to ballet. His sheer hard graft is apparent too, not least because the rookie recruits often underestimated the skill, effort and commitment required to create a performance. In these days of revelations of fakery in all sorts of documentaries, it is good to hear from the horse’s mouth that no one knew quite what would happen as the cameras rolled to record the culmination of weeks of work. There was certainly not a dry eye in the house at the end, a scene probably echoed in homes across the land!
Daniel paid tribute to the various artistic directors and the management at ENB who have supported him in both of his films. The current television ethos is keen to exaggerate for maximum effect and while “Agony and Ecstasy” did not shy away from the difficulties endured by any company, it is to Daniel’s credit that he did not allow it to distort the situation either. There are few opportunities to get a glimpse of the real working life of a ballet company so this is a real treasure.
Daniel has so many strings to his bow that there are many directions in which he could choose to go in the near future. He is an accomplished guitarist and formed strong opinions based on this musical technique as to various ways of using rhythm in dancing to create character and produce exciting performances; something that he feels not all dancers (or choreographers) share. “If you are a soldier, of course you dance exactly on the beat, but other characters can choose either side.” Obvious when you hear it, but really the product of distilling years of study and practice.
He has been busy organising DJDanceDay choreographic workshops, one of which was in Japan. The first UK workshop will be at Tring Park on February 19th. ENB has toured internationally since their inception (as Festival Ballet) and, together with friendships from the wide range of dancers that the Company has employed, this has created a pool of people who are keen to snap up his talents, whether as a workshop leader, choreographer or film-maker. He seems to have barely begun his quest to bring ballet to everyone, so watch this space! His days as a dancer with ENB may be in the past but thankfully, he is a long, long way from retirement.