Inspired by an article by Mormon Newsroom, featuring Jake Mangakahia for World Ballet Day on October 4, 2016.
When most missionaries decide to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they leave behind familiar elements of their everyday life, sacrificing their time, money, and hobbies to share the message of the gospel around the world.
For Jake Mangakahia, sacrificing his hobbies also meant sacrificing his dream job. A professional ballet dancer for one of the top ballet companies in the world, Mangakahia joined the Australian Ballet's corps de ballet when he was 18 years old.
Speaking of his love of ballet, Mangakahia told The Australian Ballet, "I love being able to contribute to a community and make it beautiful—that’s what I love about the arts. It contributes to society in a way that not many people notice, but they can feel."
Born on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, Mangakahia started dancing at a young age. He was only 10 years old when he successfully auditioned for The Australian Ballet School. After years of training, study, and experience, he joined the Australian Ballet in 2011.
However, in a Mormon Newsroom interview before his mission, Mangakahia explained, "Both of my parents served missions and it is something I have been looking forward to doing for a long time." His desire to serve a mission helped him to see sacrifice as a positive experience.
"It's funny because people think we're crazy for doing this," he said about his choice to serve a mission, "especially when you have a career you love. And I've just bought an apartment; I won the Telstra People's Choice Award last year; things are going so well . . . and they think it's so crazy because you're leaving all that.
"When someone loses everything, you find out who you really are," Mangakahia continued. "I feel like this is an opportunity not to lose everything but leave everything and find out who I am and while doing that, give to other people."
Called to serve his mission in Toronto, Canada, Mangakahia left the Australian Ballet in 2014, after approaching the artistic director, David McAllister, for a two-year leave of absence.
"I approached David probably about a year ahead of the time that I was thinking that maybe I would leave and told him my ideas about what thoughts I was having," Mangakahia said in an interview for ArtsHub. "And basically I gave him articles about other athletes and other people in industries like ballet, of them going on missions and coming back and returning successfully."
"David, and I guess some of the other company members, were able to see that it would be something that would be an attribute to who I am, something to definitely gain from and bringing the richness of that experience back to my art form and to the people around me," Mangakahia said.
While serving his mission, Mangakahia only exercised for 30 minutes each day and an hour each preparation day, compared to the seven to eight hours of dancing he was used to every day prior to his mission. Even though he planned to return to the Australian Ballet, he put his dreams on hold to completely focus on missionary work and serving others.
"While on my mission, I was totally focused. Ballet, which I loved and had been doing for 18 years prior to my mission, wasn't a top priority for me at that time," Mangakahia told Mormon Newsroom.
After returning home from his mission, Mangakahia had six weeks to prepare for his audition to rejoin the Australian Ballet and was readmitted to the troupe in 2016. Performing in Cinderella, Swan Lake, and Nijinsky—even as a principal role in the latter—he found ways to draw from his mission to improve his artistic work.
Jake Mangakahia surrounded by his grandparents, brother, and parents following his first Nijinsky performance. Image retrieved from Mormon Newsroom.
He told ArtsHub, "A very prominent quote that our mission president . . . would say is 'forget yourself and focus on others.' And so I've taken that from my mission and really try to remember that everything I do in the studio and on the stage is to give to other people, to feel and to inspire them. To give of myself [as] an artist in all that I do.
"Because, you know, looking in the mirror you can feel sometimes that it's very selfish, but if you're thinking that 'this is for someone else,' then it gives a whole new light and a whole new way of being an artist. It's not about yourself anymore; it's about 'how can I make this piece something for someone else to use in their life?'"
In his endeavor to serve others through art, Mangakahia credits his mission for helping him to improve and grow, both spiritually and as an artist.
"The mission for me has definitely been growth, and definitely spiritual growth—to understand how, you know, God essentially can speak to me and other people," he told ArtsHub. "And there are moments in art where you don't need to explain what's going on, but everyone in the room can feel it. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but those moments I feel a lot when I dance, and I feel it, the same feeling, at church or whenever I'm doing something that's spiritual."
In November, Mangakahia will be performing the lead in Nijinsky at the Sydney Opera House. He will also prepare for the 2017 season, which includes Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
"I'm looking forward to an outstanding year with the ballet," Mangakahia told Mormon Newsroom. "My ultimate goal is to share the gospel through my art, wherever and whenever I can."