Damian Smith had only visited Melbourne a handful of times before moving here earlier this year to take on the role of Artistic Director at the National Theatre Ballet School in St Kilda. Originally from Newcastle in New South Wales, the move came a couple of years after his retirement from a glittering 18-year career with the San Francisco Ballet. Splitting his time between New York, San Francisco and Newcastle over those intervening years, Damian noticed a shift in overseas perceptions of Australia.
“When I first went to the States, you’d mention to anyone that you’re from Australia and they would always say, oh, are you from Sydney?” he says. “Now that’s changing. People are asking if you’re from Melbourne more than Sydney now. It’s obviously the arts centre of the country.”
It’s far from Damian’s first big leap into a new city. At the age of 11 he went to boarding school in Sydney to study ballet at McDonald College, and at 16 he upped sticks and flew across the globe to train at the School of American Ballet in New York.
Then at 18 he packed his bags once more and headed to France, where he spent five years with the Ballet Du Nord. “I couldn’t speak a word of French, but I survived,” he says. “It was a smaller company, but I was hired as a soloist so I got to do all of these great roles and tour Europe.”
From there he headed back to the US where he joined the San Francisco Ballet, and was promoted to principal artist in only five years. Known for his versatility, studied approach to partnering, and willingness to play the villain, over the years Damian also performed as a Guest Artist with the New York City Ballet, Hamburg Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Boston Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and The Australian Ballet.
Damian’s first taste of ballet came at the age of 9 when his mother won tickets to a local ballet school performance. Damian says he knew instantly that ballet was his destiny.
“It was like all of my senses were alerted at once,” he says. “Just being in the theatre, and the smell of makeup, and the heat of the lights, the warming up of the orchestra, the tuning. All of those things kind of flashed through my body and it felt like this is my home, this is where I belong.”
A series of scholarships helped him make his way to New York, where he would see famous faces like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev limbering up at open studio classes. “It was like a perfume or a cologne – you just wanted to inhale it and be a part of it.”
Looking back over his outstanding career, Damian remembers a few performances that seemed to transcend our everyday world.
“There were maybe three performances where I had this peak experience, where it's like the universe, everything is just in sync, and you finish the performance and the audience clap, and it's like you wake up out of this trance,” he says. “It was this amazing thing, and it was almost like the performance went better than I would have been able to execute it myself. It was like there was this power around you or something. It was just a beautiful thing, and that occurred, I think, when I was most nervous.”
One such performance was his final night with San Francisco Ballet. “It was a really nice thing to leave on that note,” he says. “They say you're only as good as your last performance, so I was happy with that.”
Since hanging up his leotard, Damian has focussed on running masterclasses for young dancers and exploring ways to integrate dance into interdisciplinary art. Getting to know his Indigenous heritage has also been a big part of his recent forays into visual art. Damian’s father, who passed away when Damian was 4 years old, was a Wanaruah man, but learning about his identity as an Indigenous person took a backseat to the all-consuming ballet life for decades.
“When you retire as a dancer, you lose your identity,” he says. “It’s more than just your job, it’s your everything. So when I left the States, I had to reclaim an identity. It was like, who am I, really, to begin with? Which you don’t really look at when you’re a young kid.”
His short film Arrellah, in which he dances in paint on a canvas that records his movements, was the culmination of extensive research into his father’s lineage and incorporates Indigenous imagery and movements.
This kind of interdisciplinary work is something Damian is keen to introduce to students at the National Theatre. “I like the idea of experimentation, exploration, and collaborating with other small arts entities in Melbourne, because there's so many around here. Why not take advantage of that?” he says.
Also high on the agenda is increasing enrolments, especially male dancers, so that there are enough students to run partnering classes. “It's, like, 50% of a dancer’s job,” he says. “It's really important. People sometimes neglect to think about that, but you've got to be able to partner just as well as you can dance.”
Damian is also keen to raise the profile of the National Theatre in general. “It's this beautiful theatre sitting on the corner there in St. Kilda,” he says. “It's a historical building. It's the oldest performing arts school of its kind in the country. I want to increase its vibe. I want to make some noise and get it pumping.
“I've been blessed to have such a career. So many people giving to me and sharing information with me and teaching me, that it feels right to pass it on.”