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Dancing with Purpose - National College of Dance


For almost 40 years, Brett Morgan has been living his dream as a professional dancer, teacher and artistic director. His career has taken him from the western suburbs of Sydney to some of the most iconic stages around the world and seen him perform in front of everyone from the Queen of England to one of the pre-eminent dancers of our time, Mikhail Baryshnikov.


But for the past decade, he has been channelling his passion and experience into a new generation of dancers as the Artistic Director of the National College of Dance in Lambton.

 

The studio has been in operation for 47 years and was founded by former professional ballerina Marie Walton-Mahon. Brett joined the studio in 2011, six years after Marie sold it to Michelle and Anthony Bayliss and a year after she left her ongoing role of Artistic Director to pursue other opportunities.


In 2014 Brett purchased the business, with his wife Vicki coming on board as CEO to make it a true family affair.

Brett said he couldn’t be more thankful for the support of his family and especially his wife, who left behind her own successful corporate career to move from Sydney to Newcastle to chase his dream.


“My family are very selfless,” Brett said.


“My wife had an incredible career as a business development manager for an Australian finance group, she was well thought of as a businesswoman, but she left all that behind and moved my kids here so I could pursue this dream.

“I’m getting quite teary talking about it, but she gave up an awful lot for me to live out my passion of actually teaching dance, and I think that’s amazing and a wonderful thing.”


Family support has played a significant role in Brett’s love of dance from as far back as he can remember.


The story goes that when he was just a young toddler, the sound of music made him so animated that he bounced out of his cot toward the TV, and his Dad suggested he should get involved in dancing.


When he was older, his mother would drive a three-hour round trip several times a week to take him to the best dancing school in Sydney at the time.


Brett said this support played a crucial role in his successful career and the accolades that have come with it, including being given the Centenary Medal in 2003 and being awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia this year for his contribution to performing arts and dance.


“So from four years of age, I started tap dancing, and that was my first love,” Brett said.


“I can still remember saying to the teacher, ‘Look what I can do’, and I was just shuffling all around the studio. It was a very, very long time ago, but I still remember it, I loved it, and that has never stopped.


“A decade later, when I was a teenager, I went to an all boys’ school, loved football, and I was pretty good at playing rugby league. But I had to make a decision about whether I was going to pursue football or whether I was going to do ballet. In Year 10, I decided that I’d chase my dream and go to the tryout for the Australian Ballet School, and that’s where it all started.


“At that time, my mum was driving me all the way from Cabramatta into Sydney because the Saill Academy of Dancing was the best school in Sydney. It was crazy because that was an hour-and-a-half drive there, an hour-and-a-half back, and I was going to school as well, so it was pretty tough, but I was determined.


“For my mum and dad, I’m proud of this latest award, the OAM, because when I look back, without my parents and their perseverance, and particularly my mum, I just simply wouldn't have been able to do what I’ve done.”


The support of his teacher at the Saill Academy, Valma Briggs, was also crucial in the development of Brett’s dance career, with the young dancer working hard under her tutelage to win a place at the prestigious Australian Ballet School when he was 16.


Quickly moving through the ranks to join the Dancers Company and perform with the Australian Ballet Company in the quarter ballet, Brett gained a professional position with the Australian Ballet Company in 1984. During the next six years, he performed more than 40 soloist and principal roles, travelling across Australia and worldwide.


This period in his dancing career brought about incredible highlights, including the chance to meet Queen Elizabeth II at Covent Garden, London, in 1988 following his performance in Sleeping Beauty.


“In the bicentenary year, performing in front of the Queen was a highlight,” Brett said.


“I was doing a little solo in Sleeping Beauty, and the Queen asked to speak to me at the end of the performance. I remember her saying, ‘Oh, I loved your energy’… she didn’t do it for the whole company, but she wanted to make a point of saying that to me.

“And one of my friends asked if they should take a photo, but I was a bit silly, I guess, and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no’ because I didn’t want to be a bother, but it would’ve been so wonderful for my parents and obviously a huge thing to have now, but at the time, of course, you don’t think about it.”


Another highlight happened in Soviet-era Russia during a 1988 performance of The Sentimental Bloke at the renowned Kirov Theatre (now the Mariinsky Theatre) in Leningrad (now St Petersburg).


“I was doing this ballet called The Sentimental Bloke, and I was the second cast; I wasn’t going to get a performance. But 20 minutes before the curtain went up, something happened to the first cast, so I got a shot (at playing the lead role of Ginger Mick),” Brett said.


“It was a performance that I absolutely wanted to do, and I loved it. Then I was on the bus afterwards, and there was this lady who I was watching, she was clearly penniless, but she went and bought flowers and came onto the bus and presented me with these flowers for my performance.


“That really touched me. It was a long, long time ago now, but that was an insane moment because over there, they really do know who’s good and who’s not, but more importantly, I moved her, and that was my intention. I love little things like that.”



Brett and his wife/business partner Vicki


In 1991 Brett moved to Graeme Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company, where he remained for 17 years, initially as a performer before becoming the nation’s youngest Ballet Master. Later, he was promoted to Rehearsal Director and Associate Artistic Director, touring the company all over the world.


Brett got his first taste of teaching not long into his time with the Sydney Dance Company after an ankle injury cruelled his opportunity to perform some much-anticipated roles.


“I hurt my ankle when I was with Sydney Dance Company. I was only new to the company, and I just went over on my ankle, so I really couldn’t dance,” Brett said.


“I had a series of solo performances that I was meant to do in certain works, I had some excellent opportunities, and I couldn’t do them.


“But at the same time, Graeme was putting on Nutcracker for the Australian Ballet, and Janet (Vernon) said to me, ‘We need someone to teach’ because our ballet master was in the show.


“I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do it’ even though I didn’t have any experience. But it was from there that I started and for that whole tour I taught the company every day, I got to be out the front, and I started taking notes. In about three or four years, I got offered the role of assistant ballet master.”


It is these formative experiences and the incredible knowledge he picked up during his time with both the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company that Brett now channels into his students at the National College of Dance.


“I really did work with arguably the best. Some people came from overseas for the Australian Ballet; I got to work with wonderful directors and then of course working with Graeme and then Janet was incredible,” Brett said.


“So all that knowledge, everything I’ve learnt in my professional career I’m able to bring to any students that I come in contact with, I’m able to pass on this knowledge, and it gives you a great sense of purpose.


“And I think purpose is an incredible thing in life. While you feel like you’ve got a purpose, it keeps you going.


“Then the reward is to see our students head off to all different parts of the globe and get placed (with dance companies). You feel incredibly vindicated that you’ve been able to help them, along with the rest of the staff, and give them a platform to be a dancer.”


Since its beginnings under the guidance of Marie Walton-Mahon, the National College of Dance has been renowned for producing versatile and technically well-trained dancers in both ballet and contemporary dance.


Since taking the reins at Lambton, Brett has remained committed to continuing that legacy, maintaining its reputation as a regional studio that provides world-class training.


This, in particular, has been a major focus for Brett. His own three-hour round trips during his childhood made him all too aware of the need to allow students to remain close to home rather than having to go to a capital city to receive outstanding opportunities.


“That’s the most important thing of all, and I guess it stems from my background in Cabramatta and the travelling I did to go to the best dance school,” Brett said.


“When I stopped dancing, I used to go and teach out in Campbelltown, which is further west, just to give them a taste of the professional world.


“I really believe that our school is equal to any in the country, and I think the results prove that. So that’s my mission, that all the kids who go to this school feel like they can get training here equal to anywhere in Australia. And that sets them up then for life overseas.


“The kids have the best teachers... the staff that I have here would get a job anywhere in the country, they would be very comfortable teaching at the Australian Ballet School or anywhere like that.


“It’s really important that the people of Newcastle realise that they can be home and can learn from the best and from there they can feel confident that when they go overseas, they’ve got excellent training behind them.”


The National College of Dance’s full-time college offers Certificate III, Certificate IV, Diploma and Advanced Diploma programs, with pre-professional dance students training every day of the week. The students are given a range of performance opportunities such as stage productions, music videos, runway, performances and openings and are considered in the top 10 training schools within the country, in the company of Australian Ballet School and Queensland Ballet Academy.


The full-time college specialises in classical ballet and classically trained contemporary dance training. During the last three years, it has recorded 100 per cent placement of students into junior companies or finishing training programs all over the world.


The quality of training is certainly paying off for students with some fantastic opportunities, including having four students qualify for the prestigious Prix De Lausanne International Ballet Competition.


Numerous other dancers have continued in professional careers, including Simon Jones (Theatre Dormund, Germany), Rhys Kosakowski (Sydney Dance Company), Caleb Durbin (Houston Ballet Company, Texas), and Chloe Reynolds (Aalto Essen Ballet Company, Germany) while Grace Humphris is currently training with the Dutch National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam.


But it’s not all about creating the next generation of professional dancers at the Lambton studio. The Junior Academy, a registered Royal Academy of Dance training school, caters for more than 300 students aged 18 months through to 18 years.


It has a large Tiny Tot program offering ballet, jazz and ‘acrodance’ for three to five-year-olds, while there are after-school classes for six to 18-year-olds in ballet, contemporary, jazz, acro, body conditioning, musical theatre and performance groups. The Junior Academy also offers adult dance classes for beginners to intermediate levels.


Exceptional Intensive Training/Transition Programs are also offered through the Junior Academy, which supports students who show the passion, talent and potential to explore the option of becoming a professional dancer. This program lets students come to dance classes instead of sport at school on a Wednesday and provides the chance to pre-register into a full-time program and attend for one-and-a-half days a week in conjunction with their academy school. This allows students and parents the opportunity to experience a full-time dance program without leaving school.


“It’s not only about ‘what company am I going to go to overseas’, and ‘what am I going to do for my career?’ I think it’s vital for young people to have an outlet, and dancing to music is a wonderful outlet,” Brett said.


“I want people to know that they can come to this place and get the best training, equal to anywhere, but not only that, they can actually have fun.



“Of course, it’s important they get taught correctly, which they do. But I think up until someone’s 13 years of age, it's all about having fun. After that, if they start feeling like they want to dance seriously, it’s no different from any other sport.

“You start thinking about it differently, and then there are some stepping stones that you can go through if you want to join the full-time college.


“But otherwise, you can keep dancing here until you’re 16, 17, 18, and just be part of the night school and enjoy dancing.

“I love for people to think that they’re safe here, and they can leave all their troubles, literally, at the front door, come in, express themselves, and feel like they’ve had a wonderful afternoon of doing what they love.


“I think honestly, that is the most important thing.”

For more information about the National College of Dance, visit www.nationalcollegeofdance.com




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