Covent Garden in the middle of a bitter London winter is still an inspiring place to be for a young ballet dancer.
Home to the Royal Ballet School, theatres, markets, buskers and old cobblestone streets, it's an exhilarating place to live and study.
On his first day at Covent Garden, Paul Russell bought a warm, thick coat at the markets and pushed through jetlag to watch a performance of Sylvia by the Royal Ballet Company.
A few days later he flew to Geneva with his mother and sister, where he competed in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne. The international challenge had been narrowed down to 150 dancers and after some stiff competition, Russell made it through to the final round of 12. Although he failed to place, he was offered a coveted scholarship by the director of London's Royal Ballet School. A week later he was back at Covent Gardens for his first dance class and living life in Wolf House, a boarding house owned by the ballet school. At just 16 he was fending for himself on the other side of the world - his mum and sister already on their way back home to Australia.
"It was a big shock to be left alone to cook dinner and do household chores after being part of a big family," Russell says. "I was nervous and excited. But I knew I wanted to be there. The standard of the dancers, the facilities and the number of boys were inspiring. I was really proud to have been accepted. I was so happy that all my hard work and the big risks having had dropped out of high school had been worth it."
Russell was relieved to discover that he wasn't at the bottom of his classes in ability. He had been moulding his body since year 8, when he left high school to study ballet full-time. He finished his year 10 certificate through distance education. While most teenagers were contemplating the Higher School Certificate, he was on his way to the Royal Ballet School in London. If life as a full-time ballet student had been physically taxing in Australia, Russell was about to step up to an elite world with a gruelling six-day-a-week dance regime.
"I was pushed more than I ever thought possible and I began to feel a sense of improvement," he says. "What I love about male dancers is that combination of sensitivity with strength and masculinity. I love the physicality of a strong male dance."
Having been brought up in a Christian home, Russell, now living on his own, began to consider his own religious beliefs.
"It was in London where my faith first came into action," he says. "I had to find a church myself and find purpose in God. It was a pivotal moment for me. I was homesick and I wanted to be back with my family, but all up living in London was an amazing experience."
The aim of the three-year diploma of dance is to find a job in a world-class ballet company and Russell was fortunate to land a position with the Royal New Zealand Ballet company almost midway through his third year.
The offer came after he took out gold at the Genee International Ballet Competition in Singapore in August 2009.
Based in Wellington, the ballet company travelled New Zealand and Russell, for the first time, began to get a taste of what life was like as a professional ballet dancer.
"It's pretty much a gypsy life," he says. "You are living out of a suitcase. You get to travel and see a lot of the country, but I found it really hard. I realised that for many people dancing was their identity. When you have to retire in your 30s because your body can't cope any more it can mess you up, because they don't have much else in your life. Some people deal with the transition away from dance well, but many don't. I just felt for the first time that there was more to me than dance."
After a year in New Zealand, he told his parents he was hanging up his ballet shoes and coming home to Australia. He was 19. After chasing his dream for so long, he became disillusioned.
"I was a bit freaked out and angry at the time," he says. "I understand that you have to start at a young age because you have to mould your body, but your whole identity becomes dance. I don't think I really knew what I was getting myself in for and how frustrating being a dancer can be. When you're a professional dancer, you don't have much control over your life."
Now 22 Russell is in his final year of a bachelor of arts majoring in psychology and linguistics. Despite having no HSC, he managed to gain a university place through the special tertiary assessment process.
Next year he plans to embark on a two-year apprenticeship in ministry work with the Anglican Church.
"I'd like to one day combine my two passions of dance and ministry," he says. "Maybe start up a dance school in an impoverished country. That could be one possibility."
He has been involved with Austinmer Dance Theatre for more than 18 months. It is a chance to keep active in the dance world two days a week at the same time as completing his studies.
"I feel I have the best of both worlds now," he says. "I still love to dance, it's a big part of my life, but I get to do other stuff as well.
"It's taken a while but I'm more at peace with my decision. I don't regret my experiences. I just came to a place where leaving was the right choice for me."
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