There can be no doubt that one of the most memorable days of a dancer’s life is when they hear that they have been cast in a West End show, but even more exciting when they know that they will be making their debut in the iconic musical The Lion King.
The last time Insight caught up with Jonathan he was just about to start his third year at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance and hoping to graduate in the summer of 2020.
Three quarters into his first year at Rambert, Jonathan tore the meniscus in his left knee and had to have surgery. “I couldn’t dance for about three or four months and then I had to repeat the first year, but my second year went really well.”
“My third year was really busy,” Jonathan says, “and we were preparing for a show at The Royal Opera House with past Rambert students coming from all over the world to choreograph pieces for us, but then Covid-19 hit.”
During a student’s final year they undertake auditions, the ideal scenario being that they graduate with a job to go to. “Lion King was my first audition and I got it, which was so exciting,” Jonathan exclaims. That was in November 2019 and Jonathan was supposed to start rehearsing for the show the following March and, luckily, the production kept the new people that they had taken on.
Jonathan adapted to the new normal in a world that had moved to life online. “I graduated school in July last year, but a lot of it was on Zoom,” he says. “It was a bit disheartening but I was one of the lucky ones because I knew that I had a job, unlike some of my peers.”
Of all of the subjects that were being taught online, dance must have been one of the hardest. “I did ballet in the mornings in my kitchen – luckily I had enough space – and I just danced in my kitchen all day, which was very strange and involved a lot of discipline because when you are at home, all you want to do is stay in bed,” he laughs as he says this.
Jonathan has been back in Gibraltar since March, keeping fit by training at the gym, taking classes at the Danza Academy where he began his formal training at the age of 12 and teaching a few classes there whenever he has the time. “The past year has given me time to reflect on a lot of things,” he states. “It made me realise that eventually I am going to have to stop dancing and that I won’t be able to dance for the rest of my life.” The intensity of ballet training often means that a dancer’s career ends anywhere between the ages of 30 and 40. “It comes at a different stage in life for everyone, but it depends on my body and hopefully my knee won’t give out again, although everything has been really good since the surgery and I have been very lucky with that.”
Dancers often move into choreography and this is something that Jonathan has considered he would like to focus on. “I would also like to teach in a pre-professional school like the Rambert, but there is a big, wide world out there, so it could be anywhere.”
Looking to the immediate future now, Jonathan will be leaving Gibraltar to head back to the UK to start rehearsals for The Lion King in mid-June. “I have to learn the whole show from start to finish, whereas some of the other cast members have been in the show for a while, so I will do that and then as we go along they will bring in the orchestra and the rest of the cast. Rehearsals will take five or six weeks and then we open on the 29th July.”
As part of the ensemble, Jonathan will need to be able blend in with the other performers and to quickly switch between different animal characters and other natural elements as they bring the sounds of the Serengeti to life through a mix of dance, song, puppetry and masks.
“I know I open the show as a giraffe,” he says. “Just before we stopped in March last year I had a few costume fittings, but they were mainly for the under garments so I don’t really know what other animals or elements I will be, but I am really excited to find out all about that.” The Giraffe has a tall headpiece which forms the neck and head of the animal, but those who may already have seen a performance of The Lion King will know that the performer is on four stilts as he emulates a giraffe gracefully walking across the savanna. “I have never danced on stilts before – so I am a little bit nervous but excited at the same time.” Something new for Jonathan will be the fact that he also has to sing in the production. He explains that attending dance schools meant that he never had any formal singing training. “I asked the head musician at Rambert if he would help me prepare a song for the audition, and I think this was the part I was most nervous about and I thought I would probably get cut, but it turns out I can hold a tune.”
West End theatres were forced to close on 16th March last year, and it is all fingers crossed in the hope that the show is able to open in July as planned. As of 17th May, theatres were permitted to open in London again under social distancing rules, which allows venues to open at either half capacity or with 1,000 seats – whichever number is lowest.
Disney’s The Lion King, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, is one of the West End’s best-selling stage productions and the sixth longest-running West End musical of all time. The Lyceum Theatre just off the Strand in London has been its home for more than two decades where the production, with a team of more than 50 performers onstage and 100 crew backstage, has been seen by over 16 million people. The epic adventures of Simba from a young, wide-eyed cub to his destined role as King of the Pridelands, is loved by children and adults alike.
Jonathan says that it looks promising because although a lot of other West End shows have opened or are opening up, it was the decision of the production company that the Lion King would wait to make sure that everything was going ahead and not to give anyone false hope. “The show has already opened in Australia so they are using the things they have learnt there and applying them to what is happening in London.”
Family and friends are eager to come to see Jonathan make his debut in the West End, and although he has said he doesn’t want them there for opening night, his initial contract is for one year. “There’s no rush, and if I do a good job I hope that may be extended, so there will be plenty of time for them to come and see me in the not too distant future,” he comments. “I can’t wait to start and I am very grateful for the opportunity to debut as a professional dancer in an epic musical that has captivated audiences around the world.”
Having seen the musical as a young boy who could only wish that he would appear in the show one day, Jonathan says that the whole thing feels very surreal and he still can’t quite believe he will be appearing on stage soon.
One thing that Jonathan is looking forward to is the adrenaline rush that he hasn’t experienced for the last five years. “When I was performing in competitions in Gibraltar I used to enjoy that feeling, so I am excited for the first night when the opening bars of Circle of Life play as the curtains open – it will be an amazing experience.”