Adam Bull: Laverton's lord of the dance

Adam Bull tells Robert Fedele about his journey from the back streets of Laverton to international acclaim.

IN A rare moment of downtime, principal artist Adam Bull kindly obliges to a request for a brief tour of the Australian Ballet’s Southbank headquarters.

Cheerful and polite, Bull plays the role of gracious host perfectly,  zigzagging his way through hallways as though he is proudly showing someone around his family home.

At 194 centimetres and with curly blonde locks, he commands attention even when not performing.

Today he’s dressed down in grey tracksuit pants and a white singlet, barefoot but for black socks so his precious feet can take a well earned breather.

It’s not long before Bull is momentarily stopped in his tracks.

‘‘Good to see you back,’’ whispers a woman passing by, her face flushed with admiration.

Bull later unmasks his admirer as Ann Jenner, now a teacher with the ballet company but once a principal ballerina with London’s Royal Ballet and a star of yesteryear.

He goes on to explain how he has just returned home after performing the Sydney leg of the company’s latest ballet, Vanguard.

The passing pleasantries continue and it quickly becomes evident that Bull is somewhat of a big deal around here.

The excursion resumes, passing several identical studio spaces before we stop, peering through a rectangular window at the door numbered six.

Inside is a cluster of teenage boys wearing blue leotards, their taut bodies twisting in unison to the delicate sounds of a piano which is heard but not seen.

For Bull, the picture is like looking through a crystal ball transporting him back to his childhood.

‘‘It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was down there as a student,’’ he beams.

‘‘It’s surreal sometimes to take a look back at where you’ve come from. It’s a big journey.’’

He’s often dubbed Australia’s version of Billy Elliot due to his working-class roots. 

Bull’s story begins in the late 1980s when he was a little tacker at Laverton Primary School. His grade 1 teacher, Janine Kip, the woman he counts as his inspiration, pushed him into ballet.

Back then neither Bull, nor his family, knew anything of ballet and he jokes that Kip presumably must have seen him jumping around the staff room.

‘‘She saw something in me and encouraged my family to take me to dance lessons. I don’t know what it was that she saw.’’

Kip remembers Bull as a happy-go-lucky kid who would dance on the playground asphalt and turn heads.

‘‘He was out there in the elements with an extension cord and the school’s PA system and he did Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror with his little chair and sparkly top.’’

Bull would soon take to ballet like a duck to water at Brian Nolan Academy of Dance, studying under the former Australian Ballet member at his Werribee studio.

He remembers his old stomping ground being wedged between a mechanic’s workshop and a karate school.

Nolan he recalls as strict but fair, a teacher from the school of hard knocks. ‘‘He was hard. He was a really tough teacher for a little suburban ballet school. But he taught me a lot and got me to a level where I thought, wow, I can do this’.’’

Nolan makes no apologies for his methods and reckons a bit of tough love gets the best out of his pupils.

When Bull, a skinny, gawky kid, walked in the door Nolan immediately knew he had something special to work with.

Bull took to it ‘‘possessed’’, he says, and had a unique demeanour, carrying himself with elegance and pride.

‘‘I knew from his very first class at seven years old that he was going to be good. By the following year I remember boasting to teachers at ballet competitions that he was potentially that good that he would be a principal with the Australian Ballet one day. The teachers laughed at me, but I knew what I was talking about.’’

Still, even the naturals need prodding.

Nolan spent 11 years with Bull, honing his craft for a distant tomorrow, right up until he waved goodbye and set off for the Australian Ballet at age 17.

Nolan counts himself lucky to have taught Bull then Valerie Tereshchenko, also with the Australian Ballet, and now Milei Lee, an eight-year-old prodigy he believes will outshine them all.

‘‘It is said that we only get one extraordinary student in our lifetime and I thought after Adam there would not be any more but I was fortunate,’’ Nolan says.

‘‘They all have that special thing about them that one can’t describe and put into words that is envied by all around them.’’

Bull leapt across to the Australian Ballet in his teens and has remained a staple of the company, which is held in high regard worldwide.

The tight-knit group of 70-odd dancers performs about 180 shows a year.

In 2008, Bull was promoted to the highest ballet rank in the country, becoming a principal artist with the Australian Ballet.

Even now, five years on, he’s still both chuffed and humbled by the title.

‘‘You never rest and go ‘yeah I’ve made it!’. Where I am now, people go, ‘Oh, my God, you’re a principal of the Australian ballet’. But I don’t sit back and say I’ve done all the hard work. Every day it gets harder and harder.’’ 

True to his word, Bull’s schedule seems like the very definition of hard work.

It is mid-morning and he’s already taking a break from pilates and stretching in the upstairs gym.

There’s a ballet class from 10.30am to noon, rehearsals from noon to 2.30pm, then lunch and more rehearsals until well into the evening.

This routine takes place six days a week and intensifies even further during a performance’s season – not that dancers always have the luxury of concentrating on one performance at a time.

Right now Bull is rolling out Vanguard while also preparing for Swan Lake just around the corner.

Is it worth it?

‘‘It’s too much work for it not to be,’’ Bull retorts.

‘‘If you didn’t love it you couldn’t put your body through what we do.’’

With the company, he has travelled overseas regularly, performing in Paris, London, Tokyo, and a week in New York last year when the company performed Swan Lake.

Bull is reluctant to pluck out a highlight from life on the road but says the New York show stands out.

‘’My mum had never seen me dance overseas before. She came over and saw me. It was really emotional. The audience response, as soon as the curtains went down, they all went crazy.’’

Asked about the feeling on stage, Bull says each performance produces a different vibe.

‘‘I still get nervous. Twenty years later, before every show, I still get butterflies. There’s always doubts in your head. But once you hit the stage you just lose yourself.

‘‘Sometimes you’re on a high and loving it. Sometimes you’re sore and injured, but you still have to go out and deliver to 3000 people.’’

Bull concedes ballet is a cut-throat world but says for the most part dancers are supportive of each other, even though there is always someone who can step into your shoes.

‘‘The pressure comes more from within yourself. You’re always so hard on yourself. You come off stage and you can always do better. You’re never happy.

‘‘Even though they’re all beautiful people [fellow dancers], there is a silent competitiveness. We’re all pushing for the same roles. So there’s all these things behind your shoulder but not in an evil, scary way.’’

For Bull, it is time, not other dancers, with whom he must compete.

At 31 he is nearer to the end of his performing career than the beginning, the wear and tear on his body making its presence felt.

‘‘We’re so reliant on our body and being able to be in peak form. And, just like that, anything can go,” he says.

‘‘It’s always in the back of my head. If I have another five years – great. If I have 10, that would be ridiculously good. I take every day as it is and hope it’s not my last.’’

Pressed about the future, Bull reckons coaching at the Australian Ballet wouldn’t be such a bad gig.

‘‘I push it out of my head sometimes, but I do have to think about it. You have made such a commitment at such a young age. It’s all I know. It’s quite scary.

‘‘Just to pass on what I’ve been taught would be a great gift.’’

Outside of ballet, Bull is a travel and adventure junkie.

He’s already visited the Antarctic, and the Galapagos Islands are next on the horizon.

Who knows where life will take him next.

What is certain is that the boy from working-class Laverton grew up to be a star, as many had predicted.

But at home he’s just the same old Adam.

‘‘I’m going to mum and dad’s tonight,’’ he smiles.

‘‘I haven’t seen them since I’ve been back. Mum and dad always put on a spread. She asked last night, ‘What do you want for tea?’ I said, ‘I don’t care, mum. Whatever you’re making is fine’.’’

The Australian Ballet’s new show, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, runs from June 21 to July 1 at the State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road. Tickets: $39-$196. Bookings: australianballet.com.au

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