Inspired by his mother, a dance teacher, from a young age and absorbing her core values for life have helped propel Tim O’Donnell into his dancing career. Now a lead choreographer and dancer for the Milwaukee Ballet – he tells us his story.
Welcome home! What an exciting time for you, Tim! Tell us about what you’ve recently been doing?
It is fantastic to be home; this entire area is paradise! I didn’t really notice that when I was growing up but after seeing so much of the world since I left the area back in January 2001, I can say without a doubt that the Hastings region is truly one of the most beautiful places anywhere.
The last few years have been very exciting for me. After leaving West Australian Ballet, I co-founded a new Australian dance company, ‘Ludwig’, with Cass Mortimer Eipper and Emma Sandall, which was a very exciting time in my life.
The creative freedom I gained during my time with Ludwig was priceless, and working so closely with two artists as exceptional as Emma and Cass was a privilege I will not soon forget.
After the first year of Ludwig’s life, I decided it was time for me to move on and travel the world … you know, ‘live the dream’. The company is still going strong; in fact, they have a major premiere in Western Australia this month!
Since then, I have been choreographing freelance around Australia and travelled to America to stage my choreography. Most recently I have been exploring Europe, taking classes with dance companies and looking for inspiration for my next choreography.
You started out as a dancer at your mum’s Academy, Francessca Louise Academy of Dance in Wauchope How did this help propel you into a dance career?
Well firstly of course, the exceptional training I received from such a young age is without a doubt the reason I have been lucky enough to have such a wonderful career in dance. But further than just the dance training, my mum’s philosophies of being fair and respectful to others has had a major impact on my career as a dancer and in life; I think there is nothing worse than children being taught that winning is everything, because it’s not.
The young need to be taught that the only prize worth winning is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud knowing you worked as hard as you could and did YOUR best, and that was how I was raised in and out of the ballet studio.
Do you get home often, and what is on the agenda for this visit?
Up until the last few years, visits had been few and far between and usually quite brief. But I have been able to spend much more time at home recently; being around my parents and grandmother is one of the only things in this world that keeps me grounded, so my time home has become very important to me.
As for my agenda, I always kid myself into thinking I’m just going to come home and do nothing except read and eat, but I get restless far too easily and tend to get a little depressed when I’m not doing anything with my life! Luckily, my very dear friend Stacey Morgan is the Principal of Wauchope and Port Macquarie Performing Arts, so she is always able to keep me busy teaching, which I really love. The only problem is that I have grown very close to the students and will be a bit sad when I leave. And when all else fails, Mum always has a job or 10 to keep my hands busy!
You have recently been appointed the resident choreographer and soloist dancer for Milwaukee Ballet in the US. This sounds very exciting – tell us about it.
It is very exciting; I am itching to get started! I was offered the job on my last trip to the States, to stage one of my choreographies on Montgomery Ballet. While over there, I took a trip to Milwaukee to visit all my friends at the Milwaukee Ballet and got to talking with Michael Pink, the director, about the possibility of dancing with the company. I was ready to step back into the ranks of a ballet company, after being freelance for the past two years.
He offered me a job there and then and as I have an existing relationship with the company as a choreographer, he also gave me the position of choreographer in residence. I feel very honoured to have been given this opportunity.
What will your days be like once your contract begins?
Busy LOL! I like to start every day with Yoga when I’m dancing, as it not only warms me up and gives me a good stretch at the same time, but it also allows me to connect with my body and see which parts are sore … which is usually most of me! After that, we do a daily ballet class followed by six or seven hours of rehearsal, which in this case will include me creating a new work for a collaboration between the company and the University of Wisconsin and rehearsing as a dancer for Michael’s premiere of La Bohème.
Have you danced abroad before?
Yes, but only while on tour with West Australian Ballet; this will be my first international contract as a dancer. One of the many joys of my profession is being able to see the world, while doing what I love.
Your first assignment will be La Bohème. What will your role be in this exciting venture?
Well, it is actually quite a nice story for me, as one of the first ballets I performed with West Australian Ballet when I was just 19 was Simon Dow’s version of La Bohème, and I only played a couple of tiny roles – mostly character work. But, in Michael Pink’s brand new version, I will be playing Marcello, who is one of the two lead men … so to me personally, it is a nice sort of representation of how my career has progressed over the past eight years.
What other works have you done with the Australian Ballet School and West Australian Ballet?
In my time, I have been lucky enough to be able to create several works within Australia at both professional companies and full-time dance institutions, such as West Australian Academy of Performing Arts and The Australian Ballet School. I have been very lucky so far, as it is a rare opportunity for young choreographers to get so much work; there is only a very small number of dance companies in Australia, and many aspiring choreographers are snatching for a chance to show their work.
Along with creating new work, Ivan Cavallari, who is the director of WAB, also commissioned a re-staging of my work, The Games We Play, after it received first place in Milwaukee Ballet’s international choreographic competition, Genesis.
Will you get time for some R&R before you begin work on La Bohème, once you are settled in?
The company has two weeks of conditioning classes prior to the rehearsal period, but I don’t need any more R&R, so I will be hitting the gym and doing all those annoying things like paperwork and opening bank accounts … oh, and recovering from the jet lag, which just seems to get harder every time!
Any advice for young people wanting to make a career out of dance?
Listen to your teachers! They have the answers you need to make you a dancer; however, they alone cannot make you into a dancer – only you can do that. So stop talking, and start stretching!
This story was published in issue 83 Port Macquarie