The Australian Ballet soloist Jill Ogai has spent the past three months dancing only in her apartment.
“There’s a couple that lives underneath us,” Ogai tells Broadsheet over the phone. “I left them a note [telling them] what I do and that between 11am and 1pm they might hear a lot of noise, so I’m sorry. Every time I jump around I feel so bad, and then I ran into one of them downstairs and they said, “Oh no, we love it! We hear you setting up and then we say, ‘It’s ballet time!’”
It was at the end of March when the company’s dancers learned their much-anticipated upcoming performances of Volt, Anna Karenina and Molto had been cancelled because of Covid-19. But while Ogai says they’re lucky to be able to train at home, she and her colleagues feel the need to get back on stage “ASAP”.
“For the first month or two I was so heartbroken, I can’t explain it,” she says. “I’d be totally fine and then I’d just cry. It was so bad not to have that performance component. I think particularly dancers feel this because we go into it knowing that it’s not going to be a really long career – not forever – so there’s a sense of real impatience.”
Ogai immediately connected with ballet when she first started learning at the age of four. She moved away from her home in Adelaide at 14 to attend the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, before she was eventually cast in The Australian Ballet. After six years in the corps de ballet (the chorus), she was promoted to soloist. In 2019 she danced a key role in every show and was the winner of Telstra’s Ballet Dancer of the Year award. Now 26, Ogai is in the prime of her career – but she is currently unable to perform.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the arts and recreation services industry has been the second-hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in terms of lost revenue, after accommodation and food services. More than half of all arts and recreation businesses ceased trading in the week starting March 16 (the highest proportion of the 17 industries analysed), and 73 per cent of arts and recreation businesses reported that their business had been adversely affected by Covid-19.
In April, the Ausdance National Covid-19 impact survey found that studios across the country closed with no alternative income available. With the large majority unable to pay rent, utilities, staff, contractors or themselves, it’s likely that some will never reopen. More than 80 per cent of survey respondents also noted a negative impact on their mental health.
Ogai says artists and dancers are used to uphill battles and withstanding all kinds of blows.
“Passion is a hard thing to explain because it’s from the inside out,” she says. “A lot of people just see the outward end of ballet, but really it’s all internal drive, motivation, self-belief, picking yourself up when you’re down.”
Now with Covid-19 threatening the entire arts industry, dance companies – even those as tightly woven into the country’s cultural fabric as The Australian Ballet – are facing their biggest challenge yet.
Right now, The Australian Ballet is getting by on donations through its annual Keep Australia Dancing program, that underpins the company’s everyday activities. Normally this would fund shoes, costumes and equipment, but this year it’s also going towards squares of Tarkett dance flooring for dancers to safely train on at home ($95 each); sessions with the artistic health team ($100 each); and virtual dance classes ($80 each).
“The public and people that are passionate about the arts have really helped us stay strong,” Ogai says. “I think a lot of the public misses the arts. It’s what people bond over,” she says. “Although we’ve lost shows, I think we’ll definitely come back stronger as a company and as individuals.”
This article was produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Australian Ballet.