This week we have Matthew Donnell on our 10 Question With… series…
1. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved in dance?
I credit my mother. Many little boys begin ballet by getting dragged after school to the studio with their sisters. Mine was my mother. She picked ballet up in her thirties after a twenty year hiatus. She began to have an interest in teaching, and my brother and I became a couple of her first students. My brother discontinued training, but I stuck it out. I wanted to pursue musical theatre, and I knew that being able to dance would help me in that dream. I began attending the North Carolina School of the Arts (or slap a “University of” in front of that as it is now called,) shortly after I began working with Mom. Ballet proved to be such a challenge to me that I fell in love with it and wanted to see how far I could go. After spending a total of three years in the “Preparatory Program,” an after school program for local students, I enrolled in the eighth grade full time until I graduated from the high school program. (dance and academics.) I then went on to study at what was then The Rock School of Pennsylvania Ballet, and after a year there was hired by William Whitener as a dancer for the Kansas City Ballet.
2. What has your dance career been like?
Now that I am looking back on my dance career with a professional ballet company, I can say that I have been completely blessed to have gotten to both start and finish with one company. I had many opportunities that one wouldn’t necessarily be awarded in a larger company. I suppose it’s a trade off in some ways. In a smaller company, you don’t get to perform as much as you do in a larger one, but at the same time, you also don’t have to spend the first three years of your career holding a spear. I performed principal roles within my first season. I’d choose the same road again if I had the option.
Another thing that was paramount for me were the people I worked for and with. Overall, we were close and practically a family. We supported one another in ways that are foreign to some other companies from what I have been told. Of course at times there was drama within the “fam,” but we had a good time, and it is the people that I miss more than the actual career at this moment.
3. You studied under some impressive teachers such as Duncan Noble and Melissa Hayden…can you share a bit about what they were like?
Oh my what an experience! The easiest way to speak of my reverence for Mr. Noble is this: ever since his death in 2002, I have dedicated my seasons to his memory. He taught so many wonderful male dancers and gave us a solid technique. He also trained many a wonderful partner. Lifting was difficult for me, and my strength developed later than many of my peers. It was frustrating for me, but he gave me such a solid foundation that once my strength did begin to improve (though high lifts I struggled with throughout,) I was a pretty solid partner-if I may say so myself! He had a dry sense of humor and it took my entire first year to understand it, but once I did-man oh man did we have a great time! He was always encouraging and supportive of his students.
Ms. Hayden was quite a character. She was to many of the women what Mr. Noble was to the men. To be honest, she scared the heck out of me. Fortunately, I remained in her good graces throughout school.
4. Can you share a particularly good moment from your career with readers?
My career was full of so many wonderful moments, but one I will share is the story of how I came to do my dream role of Herr Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker.”
First, go back to when I was about twelve years old in my first production of the beloved holiday ballet. I used to mimic Drosselmeyer and use my party-scene cape to fly around and “swoosh” as he did his. It was an early sign that the character roles would be my favorite.
Now, zoom forward to the third year of my career. One of our main “Dross’s” decided upon coming back to work that his body was ready to stop and move onto another playing field. This was the ONLY time in my career that I remember distinctly asking for an opportunity. I went to our ballet master who is in charge of the Nutcracker and told him that although I knew that I was perhaps young for the part, I would love to learn it for the future.
To my amazement, they gave it to me. I had never poured myself into the creation of anything at that point my history as I did that role. If I was at an elevator, I would sweep my hand and open it with “magic” as if “using the force” from “Star Wars.” I blew on traffic signals to change them. I had several quirky things I would do.
I went on to perform the role for the rest of my career, and I loved every moment and every evolution of the part, but I never felt as magical as I did the first season I performed my dream role.
5. What has it been like to dance with the Kansas City Ballet?
SO MUCH FUN!! NEXT QUESTION!!
Seriously though, it has been the gift of a lifetime. A phrase that I once stole and paraphrased from an actor goes as this, “I love my job. I get paid to play!” It’s true. Although there were many times when I was frustrated or in pain (face it folks, it’s not always glamorous-I hate to break it to you,) the lure of the stage and the knowledge that I would be back up there to entertain audiences again and again kept me going. I have a need to perform. Being in the ballet helped to quench that thirst.
6. What prompted your decision to retire from the company after the 2009-2010 season?
This was a hard decision to come by in many ways, and yet I came to it quite simply. I had always known that I wanted to move to New York to pursue musical theatre, and I had always wanted to do it in my twenties. Also, it was important for me to “retire” on my own terms. I didn’t want to have anyone make that decision for me. It would have been too big a blow on my ego. I wanted to go out at the top of my game. “I did it my way” as Sinatra said, and I can always have the satisfaction of knowing that.
Now, that I am in New York and taking wonderful classes on my own schedule and out of the pure love of dance, I feel that I am still strong. It’s hard to evaluate yourself against a company of your peers with whom you have worked with for so long. Now that I am in the city comparing myself to other dancers, I can understand why I was able to have a career. I’m certainly no Baryshnikov, but I don’t completely stink either!
7. What will you miss most about this part of your career?
I will miss performing. However, in my next career, I’ll still be performing, so fortunately for me, I’ll still have that fix.
That said, on the vain side of things, it’s been a bit of a blow to the ol’ ego to be in a city where no one knows me as a “Senior Member of the Kansas City Ballet.” People used to come up to me in random places such as Target and thank me for my work. I miss that. I loved being recognized publicly because what it really meant was that my work had touched the lives of others. It’s not just about my pride-I promise!
8. Is there anything you will be glad to leave behind in the world of dance?
Well, there are a couple of things, but I am learning that they just manifest themselves in other ways no matter what the field.
People complain. It’s life. However, in ballet companies we sometimes complain a lot. I was guilty of it, and I tried to keep it under wraps, but it still happened. There can sometimes be a cattiness that goes along with it too, and I won’t miss that. I must say though, it can be even cattier in musical theatre, so I’ve got my guard up against that. I’m constantly trying to surround myself with people who will call me out when I’m becoming negative. Actually, the first person who ever did that was the gentleman I inherited Drosselmeyer from, and I’ve been forever grateful.
The other thing I won’t miss were the long rehearsal processes. They were never my favorite.
One of the luxuries about being in a small and financially stable company is that we were able to have a decent length of contract without having to have too many layoffs. What I mean by this is that when in some companies, ballets have to be put together quickly because “time is money,” we were often able to take our time and really clean things. That can be a luxury for both dancer and choreographer.
What I wasn’t always so wild about was that sometimes I felt that I peaked to soon in the process, and then had to wait another three to four weeks sometimes for a weekend of shows that were over in a flash. I believe I do some of my best work under pressure. That’s why I like that musicals are often put up in under three weeks.
One thing that KC Ballet has to look forward to is the opening of the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. This will give the dancers opportunities to perform more often.
9. What will you do in this new chapter of your life?
As I’ve touched on previously, I am now living in New York, and I am here to pursue my first love, theatre. It’s a challenge to be thrown into auditions with many talented people for the first time in over a decade, but in a way, I’ve prepared for that with the ballet company life. In a ballet company, you constantly are auditioning for roles. The main and amazing difference is that you get paid regardless of the role you receive! Lucky, lucky!
10. What is your best advice for performers of any kind?
The first thing I’ll say is stolen from the actress Kathy Bates, who was my commencement speaker at UNCSA.
“Get a life.” Your art can be what you do, but it can’t be the sole thing that defines you. In the end (especially as a dancer) it will end. If the person you are is wrapped up in the art you create, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening.
Get out into your community. Learn about other people outside of your field. You will find that many “normal” people don’t understand what it is that you do. Don’t give up on them, and they won’t give up on you. Get to know as many different people as possible. I believe we are all here to hold each other up. Several of the friends that I have made and will have for life are not dancers. I’m also not an architect, but I’ll be darned if I wasn’t going to try to understand the lives of those around me.
Please, please, please try to keep the complaining to a minimum. Here I will quote (what I believe is) myself, “Complaint without action is pointless.” If your complaining can result in accomplishing something to better your life or the lives around you, then by all means, complain away, and then make a change. However, if you’re simply fetching and moaning which comes from a false sense of entitlement, shut your mouth. Someone else would love to have your job. None of us are irreplaceable. That said, we are unique and deserve to be treated as such.
Enjoy your life. There’s a fine line between being happy and being miserable. One side of the can line lead to a great life, but once you begin complaining and being unhappy, it’s hard to climb out of that rut.
-I documented my last season in a blog at www.matthewdonnell.blogspot.com
I also have a website at www.matthewdonnell.com where I can be reached if anyone has any other questions.
Bio: Matthew Donnell, a native of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, began ballet training under his mother’s instruction. He trained on full scholarship at the North Carolina School of the Arts and the Rock School of Pennsylvania Ballet. He went on to dance for ten seasons with the Kansas City Ballet where he was seen in many principal roles. His most memorable roles are Merce Cunningham’s solo Totem Ancestor, Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker, Iago in The Moor’s Pavane, and the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Company B. In addition to the Ballet, he has been seen at Piedmont Opera, The Lost Colony, and regularly at The New Theatre of Kansas City. He doesn’t just limit himself to dancing, and his special skills include clowning, juggling and unicycling. He now resides in New York where he is pursuing theatre.