Humor and Wisdom from the Multi-Passionate Dancing Life of Matthew Donnell
I’m so excited to introduce you to my recent podcast guest, good friend, fellow dance educator and UNCSA alumnus as well as super-talented and wonderful guy, Matthew Donnell!
We talk about the highs and lows of being a multi-passionate jack-of-all-trades, his highlights as a professional ballet dancer, how to fall down and get back up again, the importance of révérence, character dance, and technique variety in ballet training, developing character in dancers and human beings, serving our communities, helping dancers find their voice, and assert that all people are valuable!
Matthew C. Donnell Bio
Matthew C. Donnell, a native of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, received his formal dance training from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) and the Rock School. Matthew danced with the Kansas City Ballet, performing soloist and principal roles by the great ballet and contemporary masters. Critically acclaimed, the Kansas City Star named Matthew 30 under 30 artists to watch.
Dancing has taken him to stages all over the world: including the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, performing with Young Tanzsommer in Austria, and entertaining the troops at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.
Additionally, Mr. Donnell is an actor, singer, film maker, physical comedian (clown), and licensed Minister. His theater credits include Kansas City Starlight Theatre, Kansas City New Theatre, Houston Theatre Under the Stars, and the New York Musical Festival.
With partner Alana Niehoff, he wrote, produced, and performed in his one-man clown/physical comedy show The Chapeau Show in NYC benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. His short film series, The Adventures of Jim has been screened in film festivals on the East and West Coasts.
He is a former member of the board of governors for the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents ballet and opera performers, and current faculty at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (Matthew talks about CPYB and Marcia Dale Weary’s dedication to the art of teaching at 3:44 of the video below).
What follows are my favorite gems from our conversation, which I believe you will find valuable whether you are a dancer, performer, or creative in some other way.
Here is the video we captured talking on Zoom together during the holidays:
How far can I go?
Matthew insists that he’s not a natural ballet dancer, but is instead guided by deep curiosity and desire to perform. He shared: “As a dancer I had to work really really hard. I have feet that were designed to be doorstops and I have the flexibility of a carrot.” (25:39)
He acknowledged the inherent difficulties of dancing, saying that “Everybody works hard as a dancer, from a recreational dance school to a professional-track dance school, there’s hard work, and I didn’t come by any of that easily, so every step was, ‘I want to see what’s the next thing, how much further can I get? Can I become a professional? … I knew I wanted to eat, because I like to eat, and I knew that you had to make money in order to do that, and I wanted to perform!” (26:20)
We have both learned to be persistent as well as open to the forms our careers take, pursuing childhood dreams but letting go of rigid expectations: “It might not look like, and it didn’t look like, the career that I had made up in my brain at age 13, but it far surpassed because I was given the chance to royally muck up and then make something of that.” (40:13)
Matthew’s successes seem to come from a combination of curiosity, hard work, luck, and privilege, which he fully acknowledges: “I think it’s sloooowly–it’ll never get there in my lifetime, but it’s slowly, with all the steps that we’ve taken … no, that we are taking, towards equality, that I hope to be a part of, that it may be getting, like a little tiny speck of light better, but it’s still very much a boy’s club in ballet. I was able to take full advantage of that and I don’t hide that. So I know when I’m sharing something that I was able to laugh at, because I fell, to a young lady who sees that as the end of her career and she’s going to get judged, there’s deep scars that have put that in her mind that I didn’t have to deal with.” (28:09)
“The” Fall, How to Get Back Up
Speaking of letting go of expectations and recovering from disappointment, getting up from falling (both literally and metaphorically) is a theme that I wanted to discuss, having witnessed Matthew’s ability to recover with grace. (24:50) I admire Matthew’s transparency, resiliency, and grace when falling or “failing,” but he demurs, saying “I don’t know any other way to be. Where you might so kindly refer to that as resilience, it’s just kind of survival.” (25:39) Add humility to the list of admirable traits!
Further, he’s made this amazing video into a teaching moment, asking “Why not show everybody that you fell on your butt in front of 2,000 people? Now, when my students fall on stage and it’s the worst moment of their life I can go, ‘careful, you should just be happy I didn’t catch that on video, you would’ve been famous!’ And then while they’re crying about their fall, they’re also laughing and learning that you can get up.” (27:13)
This experience allows him to coach younger dancers to also get back up, learn, and focus on the positive: “I told the dancer backstage, she was really upset because she had tripped or slipped or fallen or something, I said ‘You’re not going to remember that, you’re gonna remember the double pirouette that you nailed, and you’re going to remember how exciting that felt. You can remember that if you choose, you know, as a negative, or…” (27:39)
Although we enjoy making light of “the fall” that was captured on video, it’s important to acknowledge the very real fears of falling, failure, and injury for dancers: “It’s easy for me to laugh at that now, it happened in 2009 and I was even able to laugh about it right after because I was trying so hard to transition, but in the moment it was kind of scary and it took me a minute to get back on the horse in the subsequent shows. Because you’re always afraid you’re going to fall!” (32:11)
Matthew’s anecdote about another onstage bobble (not an outright fall, but the realization of vulnerability) reminds us of the importance of adequate nourishment, and provides a connection to my two recent guest dieticians! For more about eating and ballet, check out my previous blogs Dancing Body Acceptance with Dietician Fumi Somehara and Dance Recovering from Eating Disorder with Dietician Kia’ikai Iguchi.
Matthew related: “I was doing Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor’s ‘Company B,’ which is the hardest variation I’ve ever done, as far as, it’s all jumping, and the very final moment I’m going straight downstage doing this snapping kicking movement … my knee bobbled and that was the moment where I remembered that I hadn’t eaten sufficiently that day–[I scolded myself:] ‘you just almost blew a knee because you were shaky!'” (33:18)
Performance memories together
In our discussion of fear and fearlessness in dancing, we enjoyed reminiscing about our experience performing in “The Merry Widow” Operetta with the Piedmont Opera, our first “paid gig” while still at UNCSA! That production was truly a favorite. (34:20)
Ballet Career Highlights
Speaking of his professional ballet career, Matthew summarized: “I love Kansas City Ballet and am so proud of some of the things that they have done… Two things in my career that I will loudly proclaim that I am proud of and one is that fall, and the other one is the successful unionization of Kansas City Ballet and making the call to get that ball rolling because now the dancers since 2007-8, we already had a good contract, but we ensured that they would have a great contract for the history of that company and that helped those dancers start learning to have a voice for themselves.” (48:45)
In particular, helping dancers find their voices and teaching students that they and their time are valuable resonated for me, and Matthew broke it down:
“Most people will have a conversation with you. Managers and directors want to have the best product. Dancers want to have the best product, where’s the disconnect? If you can put a mechanism in place that allows both parties to work together, that’s so important. (49:29)
I try to teach students that, too. That’s why my class doesn’t go over. I end my class on time. I want the dancers to learn I end my rehearsals on time, I want the dancers to learn that their time is valuable. Yes, I’ve gone over before, I’m not perfect, I’m not hating on anybody who goes over, but for me, for my choice, I want the dancers to know they are valued because we have value. We have value as non dancers!” (49:47)
Let’s reiterate that: Dancers have value. Our time is valuable. All people are valuable!
Speaking & the advantages of Media Training
Also related to dancers finding their voices and learning to speak well, we laughed over the difficulty of speaking eloquently on-the-spot, with my podcast recordings and subsequent editing a case in point. Matthew shared the benefits of Media/PR training, having been coached by his former-Rockette wife, Alana Niehoff in the skills: “Otherwise dancers don’t get this training, but fortunately there are people who are good at teaching such things.” (21:50)
I have seen the benefits of such training in action, having seen the Rockettes dance, and representatives speak on their behalf, for years. Last November, as they were returning to performing live again having cancelled the “Christmas Spectacular” the previous December for the first time in their history, the Rockettes performed on The Today Show, linked here.
Referring to the appearance and the “Christmas Spectacular” itself, Matthew shared: “This show definitely holds a special place in our family’s heart, and I’m so happy it’s back on. I also get a tingle of happiness seeing my friend (and one of my first students from my early teaching days) Melinda Moeller nail the interview! Alana has taught me what incredible PR training RC gives, and this is a prime example!”
Stagecraft & Artistry
Although we appreciate the importance of sound technique, both Matthew and I hold artistry in high regard, and one example of this is the importance of révérence in ballet class. Matthew stated (and I agree!), “Dancers get so stuck in the technical aspects of what we do. One of the things that I was really taught by a teacher or two was the art of taking the reverence at the end of ballet class. A lot of teachers don’t choose to do that in American schools. You’ll always see it in Russian schools at the beginning and at the end of class. I at least try to do it, I would say 99.9% of the time I will always make sure that there is 30 seconds for at least bowing to stage right, stage left, balcony, you know, and students and just finishing. That is my chance to teach a little bit of stagecraft, of the artistry.” (38:37)
I can so relate to this feeling, of wanting to ensure that your students learn that experience of practicing artistry and not getting hung up on their their technical successes or failures: “I catch myself, I’m like: ‘uh-oh, you’re giving maybe more monologue than you’re giving a combination right now…’ But when I know that a dancer is going to get pounded with technique, as they should, in another class, I need them to learn how to be a person, too. So that they don’t go home at the end of the day and go, ‘That sucked, I couldn’t do that pirouette, ugh, ugh, ugh…’ I want them to go, ‘You know what? Tomorrow is another day and that’s going to be better, but I am going to be a better person because I am learning how to persevere, I am learning how to be an artist.'” (40:31)
We share a teaching philosophy that includes the whole artist and person, as Matthew put it, “There are so many technicians out there, we need to make sure that we are training artists. And heck with that, let’s make sure that we’re training good people.” (40:31)
Character Dance and Developing Character
Training artists includes the stagecraft, history, and artistry discussed above, as well as versatility of dance styles. Matthew talks about the increased integration of ballet and modern dance at UNCSA, CPYB’s Hip Hop and Precision Jazz offerings (in addition to the core ballet syllabus), and character dance, saying we don’t want to create “One Trick Ponies.”
Some of Matthew’s most-loved roles have included characters such as Drosselmeier and Mother Ginger in “The Nutcracker.” This most recent holiday season, he appeared as Mother Ginger on stilts in the CPYB production. (11:45)
Matthew is also a proponent of character dance training for ballet dancers: “Character, that’s something that I’m very passionate about, and I have so much to learn, but I do teach character dance and I’m grateful that I get to teach it because that’s something that isn’t taught a lot in the current generation … and it’s so important, how it gets passed on because if we don’t do it, then it will die, and then most dancers are going to get into a ballet company and they’re not going to do Odette/Odile right out the gate, you know, they’re going to do character work!” (43:11)
As important as training well-rounded and employable dancers is to us, fostering good and interesting people is also a key goal. As Matthew put it: “Let our generation be the generation that made artists that people like. Not just as social media personalities and influencers, but I want to sit down and have a coffee with that person, you know, I want to know about them.” (41:16)
I have admired Matthew’s apparent ability, from my vantage point, to pursue and somehow balance a variety of different passions and interests, so I asked him how he does it, and he explained that it has do do with “moments in time,” and being able to overcome a sense of insecurity or impostor syndrome that can come from dabbling in many different specialties. (7:10)
Matthew showed admirable vulnerability and perspective in his explanation of pursuing a multi-passionate life: “I used to joke around, in my clowning side of my life (that you witnessed, because you used to see me ride my unicycle all over campus) that I had all these toys, all of these juggling toys, that I could do a little bit with. So, that whole ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ that’s kind of how I feel, and if I’m honest that’s a huge insecurity of mine. So I think that what I may project into the world, that’s where the balance is. It’s like, how do I try to be as good as I can at what I’m doing while at the same time I’m feeling like, ‘Gosh, I know there are so many people that are better teachers… I know that there are so many people that are better clowns… I know there are so many people that are better dancers…’ and then you can let yourself go [exploding sound]! So what I try to do, is I try to flip that around and go, ‘Chill out, you might not be able to juggle five, but you can juggle three. And it is a juggling act, you know, life.” (8:03)
The drive to learn such an array of skills has always been present for Matthew: “I’ve always had all of these things that I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to write a book, and in my lonely youth, I would write romantic poetry. I kept all of those things, because they’re so embarrassing.” (9:45)
Recently, Matthew is learning to juggle his love of performing, teaching, and fatherhood: “I love teaching, and I love and miss performing, and at the same time, I love my family. That’s the newest thing. That’s the hardest and most rewarding role I’ve ever played. And that is so cliché and everybody and their uncle says it, but it’s TRUE!” (9:14)
We can all learn the lesson of appreciating and enjoying what we can do and enjoy practicing, rather than comparing ourselves to others or focusing on what is still to learn and master. That said, we do feel a sense of urgency to do and learn what we can in our lives, as Matthew pointed out, midlife crises are real, and he’s trying to hone in on what is important at this stage. (10:40)
Published Author, Frustrated Actor & Philanthropist
I was curious about how Matthew’s book, _The Boy with the Patch_, came into being, and he explained that it had to do with a longtime desire to write a book combined with his dancing and acting experiences:
“Everything kind of goes back to ballet for me. When I was a little kid, my first ‘Nutcracker,’ I think I was twelve, and I fell in love with the role of Herr Drosselmeier and I wanted to be Drosselmeier and the people that played that role at the School of the Arts, I just looked up to them and one of them was an actor who had transitioned into ballet. And so I thought, ‘ooh, that’s cool, because I was a dancer that wanted to transition into acting someday, and I didn’t know that you could do both! So I would try to race around, with my cape around my legs like the Drosselmeier did in that production, and I just started imagining being Drosselmeier, and then the opportunity arose early in my career to take on that role, so I’d say for about 8-9 years of my 10 at Kansas City Ballet I played that part and I was coached by Todd Bolender, who was a legendary dancer for George Balanchine, and I was one of the last people he coached in that… it gave me these different visualizations.”
He continued, “I created backstory for myself of what this person was, and when I was living in New York after I had retired from dancing, I sat down, and I was getting really burned out from auditioning, you know because ballet is such that you can say, ‘hey, I can do five pirouettes,’ ‘yeah? Show me…okay, you got the job.’ Alright, a lot of times, especially as a guy… (It’s much more challenging now, because there are so many good dancers). Theatre, it was once explained to me, that if you’re a casting director and you have a vision of what Cinderella looks like in your mind, you can wait until she walks in the door. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of people, you can wait until she walks in the door. So I wasn’t getting cast a lot in things and I couldn’t understand and I was getting really burnt out because I didn’t have a creative outlet, and I just sat down one day and wrote, ‘I wonder what Drosselmeier would be like as a little boy,’ based on the things that I had put into my character i created the story and I read it to a buddy of mine and he was like, ‘Matthew, you should turn this into a book!’ (14:24)
The writing process was one thing, publishing quite another, as Matthew recounted: “It took seven years, but I finally ended up in Carlisle Pennsylvania and saw on Facebook that there was a small–I had gotten rejected by every publisher, agent that you could–and I saw that there was this small (they’re not small to me) not-for profit organization that their mission is to support writers, artists, and musicians financially.” (17:23) So they raised the money to publish the book through Go Fund Me to help fund people who are struggling.
Matthew explained that he didn’t self-publish his first book for ego reasons and has since learned better: “For some reason in my mind, I didn’t know much about self-publishing, but I just knew that my first book, for my ego, I wanted somebody else to publish it, because to me that meant that somebody saw what I had done enough to take it on. And again, 100% ego, I have since learned that there’s NOTHING wrong with self-publishing! So in a month we over-raised and then it got published.” (18:25)
Matthew sums up: “It was kind of my labor of love, and I love that people have it in different corners of the world and in a small way it’s helped support people in need,” he summarized. (19:30) I find it admirable that the effort of publishing would up being not just an act of ego, but of philanthropic community service, another through-line of Matthew’s career, which includes The Chapeau Show that he described so: “My wife and I did a show before I left New York that was to help me like, put clown material out there… ‘I want to make some money on it, but I don’t want to keep it,’ so I donated that to Broadway Cares Equity Fights Aids and so it was sort of a win-win: I didn’t feel bad for having people come and give ten bucks, in case I sucked.” (19:47) Quite the contrary, folks seem to enjoy both the clowning and the writing in addition to his dancing performances.
Transitioning to teaching, learning from our education
Speaking of wanting to have his work be appreciated, Matthew realized, “I guess that’s what teaching is for me now. It’s a weird place to be as a performer, because I still very much feel like a performer even if I only do, you know, Mother Ginger for a couple performances or Drosselmeier a couple times in a season… You kind of feel like you’re holding on to your favorite toy and you don’t want to share it, but yet you know you need to.” (20:50)
We reflected on how our training during those days at UNCSA has impacted us in our current role as dance educators, still using some combinations we learned then, though we recently had to consider things deeply as accusations came to light about trusted teachers. Thankfully the training and history remain, they didn’t invent ballet and the knowledge taught us to become dancers. “It’s my job to pass down the perfect parts of imperfect people.” (37:00)
He stated, “What I bring to the studio from my training at NCSA is the joy that I had in just being there, surrounded by artists, and the teachers that I had that gave me the confidence that this unflexible, imperfect person could maybe have a career.” (38:37)
Several times during our chat, Matthew expressed his gratitude for the career and life he’s been blessed with: “I’ve been very lucky.” May we all have the chance to feel such curiosity, inspiration, generosity, courage, perseverance, personal expression, and thankfulness.
Questions for Inquiry
- Where do you struggle with feeling like an amateur, imposter, or inferior when learning & practicing new skills?
- What would you try if you weren’t afraid of failing?
- What passions are waiting to be expressed?
- How are you working to find and express your voice?
- How can your artistry benefit others?
Thanks again to Matthew for taking the time to share his story with me! Definitely check out Matthew’s website matthewdonnell.com as well as his current teaching with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and come visit me on social media @ablythecoach!
Blythe C. Stephens, MFA, Bliss Catalyst, she/they, Creator
A Blythe Coach: helping multi-passionate creatives dance through their difficulties & take leaps of faith into fulfillment through coaching, yoga, & dance education
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