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Bible vs ballet

Richard Watts

Having one vocation in a lifetime can be challenging enough. What to do when you have two?
Bible vs ballet

The Australian Ballet's Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia in Warumuk, photo by Jeff Busby.

Having achieved a major life goal, such as joining The Australian Ballet’s corps de ballet, there aren’t many people who would then turn around and ask for two years off in order to follow another passion. But that’s exactly what dancer Jake Mangakahia did, in order to honour his commitment to his faith.

Mangakahia, the Telstra Ballet People’s Choice Award winner in 2012, recently re-joined the company’s corps de ballet after spending 2014-15 in Toronto, Canada as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), during which time his rigorous training regime was reduced to less than an hour a day. Nonetheless, it was a calling he was keen to answer.


‘Ever since I was young, that was something I kind of wanted to do, I just wasn’t sure how. And I wanted to do it because I saw what an incredible experience it had been to others around me, especially to my parents,’ Mangakahia told ArtsHub.

‘It really unified them and made them excited about being parents and life, and it was intrinsic to everything that they did. It was natural for them to have a giving and welcoming attitude to other people, and I just loved that, and I wanted that.’

Knowing that other members of his church, including NRL stars William Hopoate, Lagi Setu, and Robbie Abel had successfully taken time out from their careers to follow their spiritual vocation made Mangakahia’s decision easier.

In only his second year in the company, he approached Artistic Director David McAllister to present his case for taking a two-year leave of absence.

‘I approached David probably about a year ahead of the time that I was thinking that maybe I would leave, and told him my ideas about what thoughts I was having,’ he said.

‘And basically I gave him articles about other athletes and other people in industries like ballet, of them going on missions and coming back and returning successfully. And so David, and I guess some of the other company members were able to see that it would be something that would be an attribute to who I am, something to definitely gain from and bringing the richness of that experience back to my art form and to the people around me.’

During his two years as a missionary, one of Mangakahia’s greatest challenges was maintaining some semblance of an exercise program in the one hour per day permitted for non-spiritual activity.

‘Yeah it was definitely a flipside of lifestyle, you know, going from seven to eight hours of dancing every day to really only 30 minutes of exercise a day. And that was a very big change for my body but I would keep track of how I was doing and use any moment, whether it was a lunch break or dinner or a day that we had called “preparation day” – to do washing, grocery shopping – I would use that time to practise.’

Re-joining the company has been remarkably easy, Mangakahia said.

‘It’s funny because I’ve come back and people would say “It’s like you’ve never left.” Obviously things have changed, some parts of the company have changed but on the whole I feel like I’m coming back home to the ballet family – people that I’ve really gotten to know and gained friendships with. To reunite is a real joy.’

Mangakahia believes that taking time out from his dance career to pursue his religious vocation has made him a better artist.

‘The mission for me has definitely has been growth, and definitely spiritual growth. To understand how, you know, God essentially can speak to me and other people,’ he explained.

‘And there are moments in art where you don’t need to explain what’s going on but everyone in the room can feel it. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but those moments I feel a lot when I dance, and I feel it, the same feeling, at church or whenever I’m doing something that’s spiritual.

‘Those two parts of my life are very interrelated and I find that there’s something about dance that I love – it’s feeling that feeling of being able to give to other people.’

Life as a ballet dancer – the long hours of training and rehearsals – can sometimes require significant navel-gazing, but through his missionary work Mangakahia said he has been able to turn that focus outwards.

‘A very prominent quote that our mission president – the guy who organises all the missionaries – would say is “forget yourself and focus on others”. And so I’ve taken that from my mission and really try to remember that everything I do in the studio and on the stage is to give to other people, to feel and to inspire them. To give of myself of an artist in all that I do.

‘Because, you know, looking in the mirror you can feel sometimes that it’s very selfish, but if you’re thinking that “this is for someone else,” then it gives a whole new light and a whole new way of being an artist. It’s not about yourself anymore; it’s about “how can I make this piece something for someone else to use in their life?”’

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts