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Pivot Pointe
May 12, 2023

Career Transition With Jessica Thompson

Self-employed Dancer & Ayurveda Practitioner

Born in Perth, Western Australia Jessica graduated from The Australian Ballet School and has worked with The Australian Ballet Company, The Royal New Zealand Ballet, and the Sydney Dance Company. She is the recipient of an Ian Potter Cultural Trust Grant (2009) and The Australian Ballet Society Scholarship (2003), both of which allowed for artistic enrichment opportunities undertaken in India and Europe. She has depth and diversity of experience working with a wide range of internationally esteemed choreographers and creatives. Jessica is committed to expanding her capacity and understanding as an artist through varied collaborations and exploration. Throughout her career, she has danced the major traditional classical ballets as well as more modern choreography such as George Balanchine, Alexander Eckman, Rafael Bonachela, Jiri Kylian, Jacopo Godani, Andonis Foniadakis, and Krzysztof Pastor. Her passion is the celebration of the human condition through movement and the endless possibilities of the open, expressive body.

We asked Jessica to reflect upon her career transition.

Q: You had a clear ballet trajectory: study at the Australian Ballet School, then dance with the company. Despite fitting the ballet ideal, you often struggled with this fit. Can you share more about that?

Jessica Thompson: I was blessed with physicality and innate artistry that aligned with balletic ideals, so I grew up feeling very comfortable as a ballet dancer.

I was extremely well supported and nurtured as a student at the Australian Ballet School, and I was gifted to receive a position within the company when I graduated.

I think that in becoming a professional dancer, through that glorious refinement and devotion, I also sacrificed aspects of myself that are pretty wild. My appearance is that of a graceful and sweet woman, but in my heart, there is a fierce interest in finding the truth, authenticity, and sincerity in myself and my dancing.

The professional setting was difficult for me, where I felt the pressure to produce a consistent product and deliver technically exceptional performances. I felt technical consistency was valued above expressive freedom and development, and I found this difficult to cope with and navigate personally at the time. In large part, my ability as an individual to maintain my inner assurance without constant external approval had a long way to go. I struggled to feel confident in the subtle gifts I held as a dancer, and in my ability to embody my potential in a large group of very competent mature dancers. I found it stressful to be constantly engaged in proving my worthiness to perform or to be cast. The ideal classical perfection is unforgiving. If one buys into that too heavily, which I did, it becomes difficult to remain healthily connected to the heart of why you’re dancing and sustain an inner assurance of your own path.

My choice to leave The Australian Ballet (AB) surprised many people, including me! But I really needed to go to remember myself and what I had to offer. I needed to feel the desire to attack everything I did from love return to me. The adversity I faced in leaving helped me to find that in myself.

Photo by Niv Novak
Photo by Niv Novak

Q: After four years, you decided to leave AB and ended up at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Why did you choose discovery over status-quo?

Jessica: Although I chose self-discovery over the status quo, I think it’s more accurate to say it chose me. It didn’t feel like a choice at the time, and for quite a while, I had awful dreams of being lost and exiled from a home I had loved. I felt absolutely certain I had to dance and wanted to dance, and I was willing to leave what I knew to keep my love of dancing alive. When I left the AB, my confidence was shattered. I felt intense anxiety before going on stage and no longer trusted my instincts, which was disturbing because they had always been clear and strong. It was self-preservation. Stepping away from the institutions that had nurtured me as a young artist was very hard, very scary, and grief-stricken, but I found a sense of ownership of my expressive capacity and my career that I had previously lacked

Q: Life is about connecting dots, and Sydney Dance Company (SDC) was the next dot along your journey. What did you uncover there as an artist?

Jessica: Sydney Dance Company was an incredible time of grace and initiation for me. It was the first time I felt I could embody my full power as a dancer. The environment was very diverse, the company much smaller, and I was older, wiser, and more sure of my personal value. The light that had dimmed in me due to the pressure and insecurity shined from within me again, and I was not looking for external approval to validate my calling or my place there. Physically, I flourished within the classically based but more free-form movement. The contemporary repertoire improved my ballet technique and my wholeness in strength, speed, and dexterity. I was ready to grab the opportunity fearlessly with both hands, having come close to considering (for the first time ever) that perhaps I would not be able to keep dancing professionally. A few weeks after I allowed that thought to enter my mind, SDC called and offered me the contract.

Photo by Ralph Alphonso
Photo by Ralph Alphonso

It was wonderful and liberating for me. All the risks and heartache of those years after leaving AB made sense.

Q: Then the desire for motherhood came calling, and you gave it all up to raise children. How easy or difficult was that decision to retire?

Jessica: Again, the decision to retire to have babies came to me. I knew I wanted a family; my husband and I had been living apart for three years, he in Melbourne and I in Sydney.

My body made that choice in little moments of longing and discontent. I noticed that my commitment as part of the company was faltering, and a part of my heart longed for motherhood fiercely.

However, it was not easy to leave. I felt the weight of the closure of a time in my life that had been hugely joyful and engendering. I was sad, but I understood that I needed to honor the instinct to turn inward and enter the next phase of my life.

Q: Shortly after giving birth to your child, you discovered Ayurveda, a natural system of medicine, and dove into the certification. What are the benefits of Ayurveda, and how can it help dancers?

Jessica: Ayurveda was like a memory that came back to me. After the birth of my daughter (my second child), I had the overwhelming urge to learn about it. I was drawn to the holistic vision Ayurveda holds of each individual as a potential focus for pure consciousness. Ayurveda describes the senses and our experiences as the factors that influence our soul impressions, which create or destroy our health. It had been my very intimate personal experience, and in reading my first course notes, I felt I had found a modality that witnessed every aspect of experience and contained vast wisdom in healing and processing it.

Ayurveda offers dancers the recognition of wellness as the unification of body, mind, and spirit. Emphasis is placed upon daily and seasonal self-care and ritual to ground and balance the external influences of the environment and the stressors of life upon the psychophysiology. Ayurveda provides the uniqueness of each individual and its approach to healing as a completely individual process.

As a dancer, there is a lot of variation and instability in terms of touring and changing repertoire, the unknowns of casting. At the same time, the daily grind for mind and body can be intense. Ayurveda offers stability and relief through treatments, dietary alignments, breath and meditation excursuses, and herbal support.

‘Paragon’. Guest artists, creatives and artists of The Australian Ballet.
Photo by Fiona Tonkin

Q: In May, after seven years of retirement, you will return to the stage in The Australian Ballet's 60th-anniversary production! Congratulations; what a rare accomplishment! How did this opportunity come about?

Jessica: Thank you! It truly is a dream come true and one I never imagined would come to pass. I’m pinching myself, to be honest, and couldn’t have planned this so beautifully myself. For this special 60th anniversary season of ‘Identity,' The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp, is creating a work in honor of the company’s history. When David Hallberg asked her what she would like to choreograph, she decided it would be meaningful to recall dancers from the company’s history to make a new work. Her focus is on capturing the spirit of the people and artists who make and have made it come alive. Alice came to me and said she had put my name on a list of dancers for inclusion in the cast. I was very honored, but I laughed at the time. It seemed too magical an opportunity to really come to pass. Alice and I danced together as babies in the company and have supported one another for many years. She became the choreographic gold, and I went and danced at SDC. She knew this chance would be incredibly meaningful to me and that I was in a place in my life where I was hungry to perform again after children. And here I am.

Q: There was a lot of uncertainty when you left The Australian Ballet all those years ago. Do you believe Ayurveda helped heal those past doubts and brought more meaning to your dance career and life?

Jessica: Yes, Ayurveda gave me a paradigm through which I could understand myself and my journey and how who I am by nature has shaped me and my experience. It gave me insight into how my responses, strengths, individual purpose, and personal struggles are interrelated. I felt seen and empowered by the wisdom of Ayurveda. Some things I had wrestled with within myself, which had affected my career, became crystal clear. I saw myself for who I truly am, beneath all the conditioning we receive as dancers. I am grateful for those early doubts now. That uncertainty helped me to remain committed to vulnerability and authenticity. Ultimately, the difficulties and doubts of my career have been the biggest gifts because it was only through facing them that I came to know myself and find maturity at heart.

Photo of Jessica Thompson dancing by Ralph Alphonso
Photo by Ralph Alphonso

Q: What simple practices/treatments can dancers implement into their daily life and see results?

Jessica: Daily oil massage (abhyanga) with warm sesame oil to ground, invigorate, and restore. It stimulates lymph circulation, removes toxins, and brings balance and peace to all the senses and elements within our physiology.

Tongue scraping with a copper tongue scraper. This is a game-changer and must be done immediately upon waking up for practice. Tongue scraping removes toxic residue, which accumulates in the mouth overnight and stimulates the health of all organs. Ayurveda believes the tongue to be a mirror or map of organ health, and cleaning it daily brings freshness and vibrancy to inner processes of balance and elimination.

Drink hot water with lemon, freshly grated ginger, and a touch of honey first thing. It assists with energetic clarity and efficient elimination. It provides the hydration and taste necessary for good digestion throughout the day.

Breathe deeply with your eyes closed for ten minutes. Breath is life. Prana is the Ayurvedic term for breath and without this life force, we live less fully. Breathing with awareness is basic meditation that focuses the mind, calms the nervous system, and allows us to sense an inner realm of stillness where we can always access calm and perspective. Very handy before auditions, performances, in tough rehearsals, when extremely fatigued, etc.

Daily journaling. Review of the day without judgment allows the integration of the events we experience and reflection upon our integrity and contribution. Rather than being a time to criticize or regret, it is a space to understand ourselves and the world and to accept ourselves and others in love so we can live to our fullest potential as artists and, most importantly, people.

Photo of Jessica Thompson dancing by Niv Novak
Photo by Niv Novak

Q: What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or going on the journey?

Jessica: Always follow your heart. Remember that you are always enough, regardless of the outcomes. If you begin in the spirit of love, this will always be available to return to, even when things get tough. The moment you want to give up is often the birth of a new possibility. Surrender to the mystery, give it all you have, and let go for the ride!

Connect with Jessica:

Instagram: @yourheartisyouroyster

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