Dancer, Teacher, Choreographer, Creator
For those that know Jason well, as it is for many who’ve met him only briefly, the overwhelming impression he gives and leaves in the memory is of a man imbued with a deep and overflowing sense of kindness. After speaking with him at length I’d personally describe it as an intelligent compassion. Yet however it’s described, it is love and care that appears to be the driving force that pulled Jason into the arts and has drawn him to want to teach, to share his knowledge and experiences, and assist others in becoming the most complete dancers and performers they can be.
“The arts are a way through and out of dark times.”
Now 48, Jason has enjoyed an incredibly diverse background in dance, spent predominately in the US, yet has for the past 12 years called Australia home to the point he now feels more Australian than American, cherishing the people, natural beauty and working environment he’s found here. I recently caught up with Jason via Zoom to better understand his unique story and what drives him.
Jason was born and spent his early years raised alongside the beaches of Florida’s West Coast, which he describes as a near idyllic childhood immersed in the natural beauty and golden Sunsets gleaming over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
"I feel privileged to have spent so much time outside as a child."
An only child, Jason’s parents separated soon after he was born, his Father moving back to Kentucky to become a farmer while he remained cared for by his mother who had a full time job working at The Bell System Telephone Co. as a Manager & Employee Training Coordinator, a job she stayed in, as did many of her generation, for 30+ years before retiring.
Later, from ages 8 to 13, Jason would spend his 3-month Summer vacations with his Dad, moving from his new home on Florida’s East Coast to his father’s Kentucky Farm. While this was likely dislocating in some ways – and certainly by the time he reached his mid-teens he preferred to remain in Florida spending his Summer break running with friends – Jason does have fond memories of life on the land, which he describes as “centering, humbling and nourishing”, painting a picture of time spent amongst large fields of corn, wandering goats and cattle, all of which further cemented his strong connection with nature.
Though neither of his parents had an arts or performance background his Mother enrolled Jason in classical piano lessons from aged 6 and further guaranteed the future of his performing arts training with a move closer to Miami, to the small town of Boynton Beach. There Jason became deeply engaged in a strong program at Santaluces Community H.S., in the public education system, with a focus on music and drama.
"To this day I believe I have continued to pursue drama, just doing so via another medium; dance. And I think this is what makes me different as a choreographer, as I’ve always built movement from a place of story and emotional journey."
Yet until the age of 16 Jason never had contact with any formal dance classes and dance wasn’t on his radar. This all changed when in his Graduating Year the school decided to put on a production of, A Chorus Line for their end of year performance.
Jason laughs recalling that almost none of the students had any dance training, yet that all changed when the Mother of the girl playing the lead role of Cassie, whom he describes as “this incredible woman”, a local dance studio owner, walked in and began to put them through their paces. It’s no exaggeration to report this was a defining and life changing event for Jason. He warmly recounts that first contact with formal dance training within the narrative structure of the musical as a feeling of everything he’d come to love fusing together; music, story-telling/acting and a whole-body experience. He felt complete. This was the ultimate art form.
"I remember the feeling vividly; it was like my whole sense of self turned over into something new!"
It will perhaps be surprising to hear, yet at this time Jason had his sights set on becoming an Orthopaedic Surgeon and had already applied to a University in Upstate New York to go pre-Med. He’d spent hours growing up riveted to medical TV shows on stations like PBS, watching surgeons put organic matter back together, repairing the broken, healing the seemingly destroyed. While on the surface Orthopaedic Surgeon to Dancer/Teacher might seem an incongruous leap, there does appear to be connective tissue. For Jason, there’s something deeply healing in the arts and dance in particular; both for those participating in the process of learning about their bodies, how to move, how to bring all of who they are to each moment, and for those watching and having that kinaesthetic experience as an audience member.
Image : Dani @dancetrainmag
During his performances of A Chorus Line Jason’s raw movement potential was spotted by a choreographer named Demetrios Klein, who offered him a full scholarship working with his Modern Dance Company. Fast forward a few weeks and Jason is at home explaining to his Mum, “informing her” because he’s taking responsibility for his own future, that he’s decided not to do Medicine and wants to pursue dance, to which she responds supportively, “You can always do University later. Do the year and see how you feel”.
It was with Demetrios that Jason first came to experience contemporary dance and his passion was instantly inflamed. As he describes it, he was given three years’ worth of dance education crammed into a single year, working with Demetrius and his dancers every chance he had, including missing his year 12 formal to perform with the company in NYC for the first time.
Fascinatingly, whenever Jason speaks about any of his teachers he does so with the highest of respect, acknowledging that they each gave him the most incredible gift just at the time it was needed. I drew his attention to the way he spoke about his teachers and he reflected that deep down, even when he was young, he knew he wanted to be a teacher, that it was always in him; the wanting to guide young lives, to help, to provide that next stepping stone. For Jason it comes across as a noble calling, a wanting to serve, and each teacher that came into his life is held in a kind of spiritual reverence, seen as part of a long, generational continuum connecting past knowledge with future potential that he too is now part of.
After his time working intensely with Demetrios it was suggested to Jason that he consider adding classical ballet training to augment the next step in his professional trajectory; to give him the polish and foundation that would bring into balance his raw movement talent, musicality and story-telling ability. And so, Jason auditioned for the school of what was then called, Southern Ballet Theatre – now Orlando Ballet – in Orlando, Florida, was accepted and spent the next three years honing his classical craft.
"I went to the audition. I stood at the “barre”. Not knowing what to do. And just did what they told me.
Jason “dove heavy into ballet” during this time assuming he was headed toward a career as a classical dancer, until toward the end of this three years one of his friends in the Corps de Ballet came and told him he was auditioning for Walt Disney World, Florida as a performer and asked if he wanted to come along.
This was in the early-to-mid 90’s at a time that preceded the major Disney musicals hitting Broadway [the first was Beauty and the Beast in 1994, followed by The Lion King in 1997, both of which were performed as theme park versions first] and Jason went along out of interest. There were two roles available, one for Disney Florida and one for Disney Tokyo and his friend got Tokyo and Jason got the contract for Florida. Jason spent the next decade working across every major dance and musical adventure that Disney released during this time, gradually building his stagecraft and fitness via the gruelling performance and rehearsal schedule. Importantly for Jason’s future, a contract with Disney meant you automatically got health insurance and your Equity card, meaning you could work elsewhere … such as New York.
In the two to three years before Jason left Disney, he’d become drawn to the movement and ethos of a new and inspiring contemporary choreographer based in Florida; a woman who would soon become a household name across the world. Yet that fame was still in the future. For now, she was providing classes and slowly building a reputation for herself based on creative dance works that fused strong story telling elements, with powerful contemporary, jazz, old time musical movements and pop music that all led to performances that were highly emotionally engaging. Her name was Mia Micheals.
"Mia was the most hard-core mover and human being I’d ever met. I was so inspired and just wanted to reach her level of creativity & intensity. I had to strip away a lot of my exterior to reach the kind of internal vulnerability she demanded from her dancers."
Jason spent a few years doing classes and working small gigs with Mia in his down time from Disney and then, when Mia moved to New York and was about to do her second season of her dance company, RAW, she reached out to Jason asking him to join her. Again, this was a moment that would come to redefine his life.
Jason moved to New York city, crashed in with Mia and joined her for a fast rehearsal and performance process putting on Season two of RAW. Yet their relationship, which had sometimes waded into being artistically volatile at times, abruptly ended a short time after the close of the season when they had “a bit of a blow-out”. Jason believed his time in New York was over and hastily made plans to head back to Florida and Disney.
"This moment in time was quite difficult and I was really hurting. However, I knew I had to make a decision to protect my mental health and put my well-being first."
Yet fate hadn’t finished with Jason in NYC! Moving in temporarily with another friend who happened to be a Rockette and with only 2 days before his fight back to Orlando, Florida she suggested Jason jump into an audition for the famous Radio City Rockettes. Jason admitted to her that he didn’t know they used boys, but apparently their Christmas Spectacular Show did, and so the next day Jason joined a line of 700 other hopeful’s that stretched around large city blocks.
He describes this audition as something of an epiphany as it was the first time in his life that he felt no nerves, no weight of expectations crushing in on him making him question his abilities, no thoughts of where it might lead thrashing around in his mind. He felt the liberation of simply being in the moment and not worrying about wanting or needing it; he was just there for the fun experience of auditioning in New York.
Jason had a great time, was loving the energy, revelling in the atmosphere of the historic Radio City Music Hall building and enjoying not caring, but simply playing with the movement and the moment. Yet as fortune would have it, he connected with one of the Directors whom he’d known a few years ago during his time at Disney, a person he’d made a strong positive impression with, and was told immediately at the end of the audition that he’d got the job.
"Pack your bags; you’re moving to New York!"
This moment entrenched a period of time living in NYC that extended for the next seven years. Jason enjoyed three consecutive years working with Radio City, as well as on & off Broadway, and at the same time surprisingly found an emotional reconnection with Mia. This re-alignment of their paths led to him becoming part of the creative team working on the Cirque de Soleil show “Delirium”. This was followed by opportunities to assist Mia on So You Think You Can Dance – Canada, and the “Nylon” album launch/tour with Anna Vissi of Greece. In his spare time, he finally found his way back to his passion for teaching with faculty positions at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center.
"This time in New York was heaven. It felt like a Renaissance of the arts, especially coming out of a dark time in American History like 9/11."
During his time working as part of the creative team with Cirque de Soleil on their touring show, Delirium Jason met and became close friends with the only Australian dancer in the vast 60 to 70 person cast, Christian Howard (AKA Paterson).
Fast forward a few years, during which they stayed friends, and out of blue on one cold, blizzard-y New York January day Christian calls Jason suggesting he come to Sydney for a holiday. Jason had travelled to Tokyo Disney in the past to help mount shows yet hadn’t been further afield. This offer seemed too good to pass up, as he’d always fantasised about a trip to Australia and so, with a spirit of improvisation he excitedly booked his flight.
Touching down during the glorious, balmy Summer of 2009 Jason immediately fell in love with Australia. As he recalls, it was his deep connection to nature, to the beaches of his childhood in Florida and the way the light bounced off the water, a sparkle almost blinding that resonated as he walked around Sydney. Yet slowly it was also the culture and the people he came to feel a strong bond with.
People asked me, “Why would you want to leave NYC?” And I explain that I never resonated with the ethos of Modern Day America from the 80’s and 90’s that promotes; first, the individual’s hunger for growth as the most important thing, regardless of what it does to people, the environment, or society. Second, an expectation that making money is all that matters, even if you need to step on each other to be successful, giving rise to the “greed is good” mentality. Third, minorities don’t matter and don’t have a voice in policy or government. I knew, even as a child, that there was propaganda all around me - even though I didn’t know what that word meant at the time - but I understood the dissonance and how uncomfortable it made me feel."
Jason soon returned to NYC, feeling oddly disconnected from the energy of the big city, and with a real yearning to spend more time Australia. What he came to realize was that his head was catching up with the fact that his heart had found home elsewhere, and with a Permanent Resident Visa well underway, Australia was calling. What Jason had to offer in terms of his teaching style, energy, and a more Commercialized Contemporary flavour, was highly desirable, and thus, he packed his bags once more and left NYC for Sydney with little idea where this would lead or how long he might be gone.
"I felt a calling to come to Australia to teach and create, which was perfect timing because I was ready for the performing aspect of my career to come to a close."
It’s now been over a decade that Jason’s been based in Australia and during that relatively short period he’s come to be renowned and respected both Nationally, as well as in New Zealand and countries of South East Asia for his choreography, classes, teaching style and for the creation of his widely acclaimed contemporary syllabus sold exclusively through Comdance (CSTD) since 2012. Yet perhaps most of all, he’s beloved for the inspirational energy he emanates and lifts all who come in contact with him.
We’re excited to announce that Jason is now the
MDM Contemporary Ambassador & Apolla Advocate for Australia.
At MDM we couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome such an intelligent, compassionate and inspiring dancer, artist and human being into our circle and we know you, our valued audience and supporters, will revel in the boundless energy and vast experience he brings and looks forward to sharing with you.
Article by by Josef Brown