Joffrey Ballet virtuoso David Palmer has traveled a long road, both stylistically and geographically, from his teen-age beginnings as a professional dancer. Aided by his natural enthusiasm and perceptiveness, the 25-year-old blond, compactly built Australian has made the transition with verve and grace--much the way he dances.
In the Joffrey, he has excelled in such extroverted roles as Mercutio in John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Joker in Cranko's "Jeu de Cartes," proven adept at meeting the modernist demands of Paul Taylor's "Arden Court" and "Cloven Kingdom" and been prominent in such contrasting dramatic roles as the central figure in James Kudelka's "Passage" and the explosive soloist in William Forsythe's "Love Songs."
Two new challenges face Palmer during the Joffrey's season which starts Thursday, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He will be dancing the leading role of Colas in Frederick Ashton's witty and romantic "La Fille mal Gardee" and he appears in the revival of "Valentine," a combative 1971 duet by Gerald Arpino.
Although he joined the Australian Ballet at 17, Palmer actually took an indirect route to ballet. "I started out as a jazz dancer and my first jobs were in cabarets," he explained recently.
"I only decided to study ballet seriously when I was about 17, because there just wasn't any cabaret in Australia at that time. I joined Australian Ballet later that year. I'm really grateful for my jazz background. It taught me a lot that's helpful in ballet, such as a good eye for detail."
The Australian Ballet keeps its dancers extremely busy; they work 48 weeks a year and give more than 200 performances of an extensive repertory. In his three years with the company, Palmer had roles in several Cranko works and also performed the demanding central role in Glen Tetley's "Rite of Spring."
Palmer also had a working experience he remembers as being particularly rewarding when Arpino, the Joffrey's associate director, and his assistant Scott Barnard came to set "Kettentanz" on the company. But he had no idea the association would soon have an influence on his career.
A year after becoming a soloist with the Australian Ballet, Palmer found himself with "some misgivings about dancing. I was very young, and I wanted a lot from my work, from the people I worked with, since I was putting in a lot. I was being given a lot of responsibility--too much--because they felt they could depend on me to work things out for myself. That was when dancing became too much like a job.
"I left (the company) not knowing what I was going to do. I took six months off--went to the beach, bought a motorbike. Once I'd taken some time away, I realized I still wanted to dance."
He set his eyes on Europe: "I wanted to have some fun with my career; I thought I'd join a European company where I could have brunch in France one weekend and in Italy the next." But first he went to New York, eager to study with the variety of teachers available there. A chance encounter with Barnard led to his taking class with the Joffrey and an offer from its director to join the company.
The Joffrey was then in the midst of the '83 season, so Palmer did not dance roles initially. But Arpino soon cast him in several works and his versatility led him into many others. "During the first eight months of 1985, I danced 28 new roles," Palmer recalls with slightly horrified disbelief.
He has not felt out of place with the all-American image the Joffrey tends to emphasize. "I've found it amusing at times--being a cowboy in 'Jamboree.' But I've become Americanized, and I like a lot of the attitudes here--the positivism and progressiveness. It's more competitive here, and that's been a good catalyst for me. In Australia, people are so laid back that sometimes you have to check for dilated pupils."
The ballet training there emphasized a British approach, and Palmer recalls being "bored with the whole traditionalist look of ballet at the time. I didn't feel I could become a classical dancer that way.
"In America, people are a lot freer. They know you can go about things in different ways to get the same results."