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From black times, to black swan

Mon 29 Oct 2012 In: Hall of Fame View at Wayback View at NDHA

Buff Auckland dancer Chris Olwage has bowed gracefully out of New Zealand’s Got Talent, and after all the “blisters, blood,strains, sprains, tears and the occasional meltdown” he tells he is far from giving up on his dreams. It may have been a shock to many who are familiar with the immaculately-formed Olwage as a performer on Auckland’s gay scene,when he revealed in his nationally televised New Zealand’s Got Talent audition that he suffered from childhood obesity. It’s when asked about his coming out story that he reveals the long and tough journey he has been through to becoming the swan on our TV screens. RELIGION AND SEXUALITY COLLIDE Born and raised in South Africa, Olwage was heavily involved in a zealous Christian community, brought up believing that there were certain ways one had to be and conform to, “and that any deviation from the Word of the Lord in the way it was presented by our Pastor was of the devil and evil,” he explains. It was in this context that he realised he had an attraction to the same-sex before he was a teenager, then hit puberty and fully realised he was gay. “Consequently, this is when I began to derail. I became gradually reclusive, The kids at school used to make fun of me, bully me, I even tried to date a few girls but never had that effortless attraction that the other boys seemed to have for them,” Olwage recalls. “I hid away; delved into my arts and crafts, studies and any book I could find to escape the world.” THE STRESS BECOMES TOO MUCH Food became Olwage’s best friend and every bit of pain he felt was consequently dealt with a large helping of some sugar- or fat-laden treat “Whatever I could find I'd devour. When I look back I can see the mistakes happening, the points where I gave up and how it all spiralled out of control. Soon I was obese, depressed, lonely and now so very confused about my life, who I was and what I believed ... I was a mess.” In the very darkest hours he even tried taking his own life. “I had no one to talk to, no one to confide in, I had never felt so distant from my parents before.” On a school prefect camp he delved into the medicine box, pulled out every pill he could find and "handful by handful I swallowed them down, crying, and hoping everything would “be over soon”. The despairing teenager snuck out of the dorm and went for a walk along the beach in the pitch black night, and it was on a rocky outcrop he had a moment that was clearly a colossal turning point in his life. THE LIFE-SAVING TURNING POINT “The waves beating on the rocks seemed to soothe me, though at this point my stomach started aching. I collapsed, every pent up emotion washing over me and in the darkness I cried the most sorrowful cry I've ever had, and in the process a moment of clarity dawned upon me.” He realised he could make himself different, and be different. Maybe not straight away, but one day he could be ‘free’. It spurred him to put his fingers down his throat and force the pills he’d swallowed from his system. “I walked back to the dorm, the tears drying on my cheek, my stomach in the most horrendous pain I'd ever experienced but a calmness that I had never known,” he remembers distinctly. NEW BEGINNINGS “The next morning I woke up with the determination to change my life. I changed the way I ate, I tried new exercises, I tried to be happy with my disposition and worked hard to accomplish the foundations that I would later build upon to be the person that I am.” Soon after, Olwage’s family moved to New Zealand and he became a North Shore boy with a fresh start. It wasn’t until his first year of university that he first summed up the courage to even explore his sexuality. He first kissed a man when he was 19. “My knees buckled like in a movie,” he laughs. “I was definitely gay!” Chris is easily recognised out and about on the gay scene Gay clubs and a boyfriend followed, a relationship which lasted two years. It was upon the break-up that he decided to come out to his parents: “I invited them over for a dinner at my flat, and somewhere between the main course and dessert I told them I was gay. They took it well, obviously surprised but then at the same time it explained a whole lot. “After a few months of adjustment, it was no longer an issue and was just the way it was.” NZ'S GOT TALENT Chris flew into the semis as the Black Swan By the age of 26 Olwage had shaped enough fitness, skill and self-belief to thrust himself into the harsh spotlight of talent-search TV. He left at least one judge almost speechless when heperformed a sexy gender-exploding take on the Black Swan, which was more than enough to get him past the first round of the talent show. In his semi-final just over a week ago he performed his take on Stravinsky’s firebird, bending ballet gender norms once more with his pointe work. Olwage has been training in dance for the past four years, focusing on contemporary, with ballet as an auxiliary accompaniment. He says deciding to do pointe on national TV, when he'd only been able to just been to bourree en pointe (floaty and quick transition steps) was a bit of a challenge. Initially he and dance teacher Lisa Jurakovich spent 10 to 15 hours a week just trying to put together pieces of choreography that he could do en pointe without falling over. “The strength came over time, and along with it a lot of blisters, blood, strains, sprains, tears and the occasional meltdown,” he says. The Firebird, semi-finals “For me a performance has to cover a lot of areas, the performance is one part but there is also the look, costumes and make-up, and then the artistry, the narrative and theme, gesture and emotion. Every aspect was worked on tried, adjusted and then re-adjusted it was never straight forward. And then having to cut the length down to fit everything in a two minute allowance! Phew, it was amazing fun!” Last night we found out Olwage did not make the finals, with two singers progressing on popular vote instead, something which has been a theme of semi-finals so far despite the show searching for all forms of talent. While he is disappointed, he is upbeat, saying he knew he was never going to win. “New Zealand is amazing but when it comes to off the wall, weird, fantastical and differently presented art forms you often lose a lot of common-ground with your audience,” he explains. “But I got my face out there, and was able to show a large population who I was and what I strive to do. And hopefully through this exposure there will be greater opportunities to do what I love!” He is unsure whether non-singers will manage to make it much further in the show, purely because everyone can appreciate a singer. “But I believe that if another act made it applicable to a general audience with all the boom and clangs in the right place that they would get far. Maybe I just didn't make my acts accessible enough?” HARD WORK AND SELF-CONFIDENCE Yet he has learned from the NZGT experience that there are a lot of people out there who believe in him and wish to see him succeed, “and I want to now do this for them too!” Olwage says it’s strange when people tell him he is “lucky” to have the body he has built. “This ain’t luck hun, this is time and effort!” is his response. “I feel that my body has only really just started to take on the shape that I've always desired. Who knew that healthy eating and exercise was the answer!” His nights out have become less frequent and his journey has given him new found strength and increased self-efficacy: “I did it... I changed, I am no longer that angry, fat and confused kid!” is how he feels. Olwage is a group fitness instructor and dance teacher, who has also recently qualified as a personal trainer – even auctioning of a few sessions for hundreds of dollars at the recent Gay Auckland Business Association charity auction. “I can say my work keeps me relatively fit,” he says. “It's part of my life and if I miss a workout I feel a little guilty.” His work also gives him a chance to share what he has learned, and give people the boost in confidence he fought so hard to find, whether it’s through performance or physique. For young dancers, his message is to never give up: “If you're young and you have a passion I'm jealous that you realised so young. And with all the effort and dedication you can muster you will be leagues above anything that I could ever achieve. “Just do it, and in your dark moments, remember why you do what you do!” PLOTTING HIS FUTURE The next step for Olwage is pretty obvious: to keep performing. “I want to be part of a dance collective putting on shows and hopefully travelling the world to perform in them,” he says. “Eventually, I want to create shows, multi-platform and hybrid art/dance projects maybe even being an artistic director of a dance company, but who knows what the future holds.” Olwage is single, for the first time in a long time, and seems pretty happy to stay that way unless he meets someone independent and hassle-free who will give him the space he needs – while also keep up with his spontaneity and even give him a run for his money. Most of all, he says, any future partner has to be genuine, grounded, reliable and forgiving. “I am by no means perfect, and someone who can rein me in and hold me tight when I have a low moment will win my heart.”     Jacqui Stanford - 29th October 2012

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Monday, 29th October 2012 - 5:17pm

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