David Chambers: Finding Beauty in Ballet

David Chambers

I have to admit, I’ve never actually had a sugar plum, but I get excited whenever I hear the theme song. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is an iconic number in the Nutcracker and is played on a celesta, an instrument that looks like a small piano and makes the sound of bells (some Christmas trivia for you there). The Nutcracker will open this weekend at the Academy of Music under the new company name, the Philadelphia Ballet. This week I had a chance to speak to one of the behind the scene forces, David Chambers. Chambers comes to our city with a score of artist organizational experience, and in his new role as Chief Advancement Officer he’s helping to get the word out that the Philadelphia Ballet is back live and in person!

Where do you hail from? 

I was born in Melbourne, Australia and moved to the states in 2003 from Sydney. I was dating someone at the time who lived in Houston, Texas and that’s how I ended up in the United States! I lived in Houston for 14 years. I started off at Houston Grand Opera in a low level marketing job and eventually became the Director of Institutional Giving. In 2011, I joined the Houston Symphony where I was the Chief Development Officer for 6 years before I was recruited by the Chicago Symphony where I worked for a year before I was recruited by the San Francisco Symphony by my then former boss to handle all of their marketing and publicity. I did that for a few years until Covid came along. Now I’m here in Philadelphia. 

Well, you certainly get around David! 

I know! I’ve seen a lot of the states and it’s been fascinating just getting to know so many different cities. They all have such very distinct cultures. It’s been interesting having a chance to see how this big complicated country works. 

Tell me a little about growing up in Melbourne.

I’m one of five children and I’m an identical twin. I’m smack, bang in the middle of all five, my twin Mark is younger than me by 13 minutes. My twin lives in Melbourne still, as does my sister and my younger brother, and I have an older brother who lives in the United Kingdom. We lived in Melbourne until the age of 13 when my father, who’d worked at the same company for 27 years, decided to take us all to the small country town where he was raised, after his boss tried to get him to move to Sydney. It was a complete sea change; they bought the local supermarket and the family ran it for a few years until dad got involved in local politics. The small town was called Rutherglen and it’s in a wine-growing region North of Melbourne. The Chambers family has lived there since the 1850’s, and my cousin now runs the winery. I have to say, leaving a city like Melbourne, which in 1983 had about 3.5 million people to move to a town of 1600 was… interesting. Especially, knowing that I was gay, even though I wasn’t out yet it was an interesting 5 years of my adolescence. 

I can imagine.

Yes, when I ended up finishing high school there, there were about 12 people in my graduating class! It was a really, really small school. 

So I gathered!

I think in total, the school had 260 students and at the time, and I think this was true of a lot of rural schools, the reason there were so few people in my graduating class is that a lot of them didn’t finish year 12. People would go off and do apprenticeships or work on farms.

How rural was it where you lived? Did you have cows and chickens around or was it more suburban?

We didn’t have chickens, but the land where my parents built the house was an old paddock that my uncle owned so we looked out at grape vines and sheep. So it was a real country town and in a bizarre way it’s how I ended up in Philadelphia because when I was not working with my parents in the supermarket, I was a waiter. I started waiting tables at the age of 13 and did that until I was 21. I’d gotten a degree in hotel and catering management. I got the degree and after graduating decided that I didn’t want to work in restaurants anymore so I got a job as a publicist for a theater company in Melbourne called Playbox. All they did was produce new Australian plays, which was fascinating. That was the first job that took me on my journey, a journey which led me to a job at Opera Australia, then eventually to the states and now here to Philadelphia. 

And a hearty welcome to you. 

Thank you. It’s funny, I never realized how much my degree would help me in development, but having a background in events and understanding how that works has served me well. 

When you were with Opera Australia were you in that big Opera House that we always see in the pictures?

Yeah, the opera company performed there and in Melbourne. I was the publicist for about 3 years. I’ll tell you, the Opera House is the most beautiful building on the outside, but it’s a terrible place for opera! 

That’s crazy. 

Yeah, the theater is tiny, it only holds about 1,400 seats. It’s got a really small orchestra pit, because it was never intended to be an opera theater, it was meant to be a lyric playhouse but at the time it was being built, the Sydney Orchestra was the dominant arts organization in the city. They lobbied for what was supposed to be a multi-purpose concert hall, shared by the opera, the ballet, and the symphony. Because they were the bigger organization, they took the big stage and the opera and the ballet were given the small theaters. But gosh, you could be having the worst day and all you’d have to do was take the train to the Circular Quay and look at that gorgeous building and everything would be okay. It’s a very special place. 

Tell me a little about what you were like as a kid? Did you play sports or play an instrument?

I used to swim a little bit but mostly I played music. I played the cello, clarinet, piano, and all the recorders, but one of the challenges of moving to a small, country town was finding music teachers. I played cello until I was about 18, and then stopped. But I’ve always had music in one form or another in my life. 

Does anyone else in the family play?

My twin brother plays flute, and he just got a harp again. He also plays piano but he was better than I was. My younger brother played the drums and my older brother played sports, he was a real Aussie sports guy. He played Australian Rules football and moved to the UK to play cricket. 

Since it’s the holidays, what was your most memorable Christmas and what’s different about Christmas down under?

[Laughing] The biggest difference is that it comes during our summer so it’s HOT. I’d say the most memorable was the year we moved to our new house in Rutherglen. My father had lots of family there, and both grandmothers were still alive, so there was a big Christmas celebration with lots of extended relatives. 

When did you come out?

Well, that’s a story. It was not a great experience. I mean my parents had an inkling that I was gay. My mother once said to me, “I hope you don’t become like all those theatrical people you’re hanging around with!” It was the late 80’s and HIV/AIDS was on everyone’s mind. I had a cousin who died of AIDS and he was the one who mentioned something about me to my grandmother who then said something to my parents and that’s how I came out. I was actually in Sydney at the time getting ready to go to Mardi Gras with some friends. My parents called and my mother said, [in an angry tone] “Jonathan shared something with grandma about you! Is it true?” I told them that yes, I was gay, and they told me, “We love you, but we don’t accept your life style.” I was estranged from them for about 10 years. I was fortunate in that when Dad went into politics, he met a lesbian couple and saw what a loving and caring relationship they had. Things started to change after that. We have a better relationship now. Things have changed so much, I was in Texas during Lawrence vs Texas, the incident that happened where the police came into someone’s house and arrested them for sodomy. It was a scary time to be out, and I remember thinking, “What have I done?” And now I’m married to a wonderful man named Alex and I’m on much better terms with the family. 

Good to hear. 

Though my twin didn’t come out until well into his 30’s. 

Talk about burying the lead! Your twin is also gay?

Yes, it was a difficult thing though, we don’t really talk much. As a twin, it’s often hard to establish an identity for yourself. Some twins embrace it and love the idea of being all matchy-matchy but not us. We wanted totally separate lives. I also think he was scared to come out but it’s funny, a friend of mine was visiting the family in Rutherglen once and as they were washing dishes, my mother turned to her and said, “Who does Mark think he’s kidding?” 

That is funny, so let’s get back to ballet, how long have you been with the company? 

It’ll be a year in January. It’s been great. The people in charge have created a really strong and positive company culture which is really nice to be part of. And it’s been great for me to learn about a new art form. I’ve been to dance performances before for fun, but learning about it first hand is exciting. 

Have you been able to see a show yet?

We did a digital season in the spring and produced something like 14 ballets, which was a way for us to be able to bring the dancers back when the pandemic was still raging. June was the first time I actually saw them live, it was at a fundraising event at our chairman’s farm and we did a few outdoor performances. It was wonderful and we hope to make it an annual thing. And the first theater performance I saw was a soft opening in October at the Performance Garage. Two new works and a revival. We were also asked to perform in NY, and I got to go to that show as well. But I’m really looking forward to seeing the company perform at the Academy! 

I think we’re all excited for that. 

Yes, I was taking a tour of the academy, and the programs from the last performance before the shutdown were still sitting there. It was like time had just stood still. But now we’re back and ready to do 24 performances of the Nutcracker and I’m looking forward to seeing several of them. One of the things that’s exciting about the way Angel and his team approach the casting is that the roles get rotated throughout the run, so you find different people doing different roles on different nights. The theater geek in me just loves things like that. Be it ballet or opera or a concert, you see and learn different things if you experience it more than once. It’s one of the privileges of the job. 

What did you learn that surprised you?

The intensity of the dancers’ schedules, I mean they have class or rehearsals every day. They work really, really hard and it’s deeply collaborative. Between performances and shows, you’re around people all the time so you learn to collaborate early on. For me, I’ve just enjoyed getting to know them now that we get to see one another in person. 

So what exactly does a Chief Advancement Officer do? 

I essentially oversee all marketing, fundraising and PR for the business. There’s so much crossover between the needs of the marketing dept. and the needs of the development side of the business. Having someone in my role lets us take a more global view and bridges any of the miscommunications that might occur. Especially as we do the rebrand and start to implement our strategic planning. We’ve launched our new season under the new name, Philadelphia Ballet. 

I noticed that, what prompted the change? 

Back in 1963 the founder, Barbara Weisberger, originally wanted to call it the Philadelphia Ballet. But there was a dance school with a similar name so she wasn’t able to use it. She went with PA ballet, but now, as the expectations of what arts organizations need to be for the cities in which they exist, we can have a much more authentic relationship with the city by being named for the city we serve. People have really responded positively to the name change so I’m really happy about that. 

Let me ask a random question, when was the last time you went out dancing?

Oh gosh! It was pre-pandemic. It was probably late 2019 while I was living in San Francisco. I had a fun night out with some of my Brazilian and Peruvian friends. We went out disco dancing and danced all night. I miss that!

We have places to dance here too. Have you been to any of the clubs?

A few; I had some friends in town and we went to see a Fringe show, a dancer named Gunnar Montana. After the show we went to several places, ending up at the Tavern piano bar. We had a good time. 

I saw that show too, Gunnar always brings it. What’s your favorite genre of music? 

I love all of the old great pop and disco music. I’m Australian so of course I grew up with Kylie Minogue. I think my favorite pop band is Pet Shop Boys, I love them. I’m pretty agnostic about different music genres, I listen to all sorts of music. 

Any fun twin stories?

I was told that like a lot of twins, when we were toddlers, we had our own secret language. There was also a time in Chicago once when someone thought I was my twin and wouldn’t believe I wasn’t Mark. I had to pull out my license to prove it. It’s bizarre.

What’s the worst opera you’ve ever seen?

Well, when I was working for the Houston Grand Opera, there was a production of Faust and it was terrible. It was the longest night of my life, I thought I’d never get out of there. And I love Faust, but sometimes things just don’t work. Now one of the most entertaining ones was in Australia, we did an opera based on Lindy Chamberlin’s story. 

The “dingo ate my baby” lady! 

Yes! It wasn’t the greatest opera, but gosh it was fun.