Prinicpal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by Michael Foreman
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 20 February 2014.
IN THE ABSENCE OF DAVID BAIN, Leanne was welcomed and interviewed by Michael Foreman, David’s predecessor as Chairman of the Association, who began by congratulating Leanne on her recent National Dance Critics’ De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement. Having retired Leanne wondered what she would get if she made a come-back! The award was totally unexpected, given the people who had received it in the past. She had also been awarded an Australian doctorate. She felt apprehensive setting out for university (her current project) with little academic background, but arriving with a PhD!
Going back to the beginning, Leanne is a ‘Rocky’ girl, as she hails from the small town of Rockhampton, some 370 miles north of Brisbane, where there is very little of interest except cattle but hard graft is the norm. However, things might be looking up now as she had just received from her mother, an article from the local newspaper suggesting they have celebrities such as Rod Laver and Leanne Benjamin named on a big plaque for everyone to see on arrival to the town! There was quite a lot of dance there when she was young. Leanne and her sister, Madonna, went to classes with an amazing teacher and she believes a lot of her success can be attributed to discipline and hard work. She went to class at 6.30am, thinking nothing of setting off in her pyjamas, and again after school. She did the RAD syllabus but as for coming to London, it and the Royal Ballet were just fantasy and the arts didn’t play any part in her world. Australian Ballet was very far south, though she did see Margot Fonteyn who came to Brisbane towards the end of her career. Her sister wanted to come to London so, despite being a daddy’s girl, a couple of years later Leanne followed her. They have the most generous parents who, although very small-town people, are quite entrepreneurial, always doing something new and pushing the boundaries. Her father, at the age of 60, learned to fly and Leanne is doing an ambitious thing now by starting a degree. Eventually ballet became a burning desire and she had no doubts that this was what she wanted to do. She has the typical ‘can do’ Australian quality. She won the Gold Medal at the Adeline Genée competition and also the Prix de Lausanne. Competitions give you the incentive to work towards a goal, which is important. People say it is the taking part that counts, but really it is about knowing that you want to win. There is a fine line with competitions. They can be good for you, but if you are sensitive it is tough when you don’t do well. Failure is not easy to contend with if you are ambitious.
When Leanne arrived at the Royal Ballet School she was unknown. She danced with Jonny Cope in Peter Wright’s production of Giselle in the school performance, with Peter and Alicia Markova rehearsing her. Lynn Wallis was also a great help and Leanne responded to her iron fist approach, brooking nothing less than perfection. Alicia Markova had a reputation that she didn’t like to jump, rather she liked to be lifted, but now your partner expects you to help by jumping, and you soon know if you are not playing your part!
Dame Ninette wanted Leanne for the Royal, though Leanne was unaware of this at the time and Peter wanted her at Sadler’s Wells and that is where she went initially. He has seen her right through her career and presented her with the De Valois Award recently. Sir Peter is an amazing man, was a phenomenal director, very hands on and choreographing great productions. It was full on with long weeks of touring, but having fun after the shows. So you worked hard and played hard. Leanne moved up through the ranks very quickly but had a foot injury for a year not long after joining the Company, which was tricky as in those days there wasn’t a lot of help available in comparison with now, where there is physiotherapy, weight training, body conditioning etc. You just rested an injury and Leanne believes that sometimes that is no bad thing as with some injuries you need to rest your body.
Not long after Peter gave her a Principal contract, Leanne left Sadler’s Wells. This was no reflection on the fantastic company but Leanne felt her body couldn’t cope with all the touring and that her dancing was suffering. Looking back though, you think ‘those were the days.’ The early days were great as she started in the corps but was also dancing solo and lead roles in most ballets. This gave her an understanding of the people around her, as she had gone up through the ranks. She knew what it was like for the corps when a ballerina asked for incredibly slow music and how tiring it could be to stand on one leg for ever while the principal is taking bow after bow. She had a sense of every role, through a great learning curve, and camaraderie with colleagues because of that. In the touring company you dance many different roles and there is not the pressure that you have when you work so hard for only one or two Auroras or Juliets at the Opera House, for example. The Royal Ballet repertoire is now so varied from Ashton and MacMillan through to McGregor. It is very vibrant, but the changing repertoire takes its toll on your body.
After five years with Sadler’s Wells, Leanne was ready to move and was poached by Peter Schaufuss at London Festival Ballet. He had seen her in her graduation year when his mother was teaching her and he had wanted her to dance with him around the world, but she put on her ‘safe hat’ and decided to stay ay Sadler’s Wells as she didn’t want to go into the unknown at such a young age, in spite of the prospect of fame and money. So she took the harder route, which she quite liked. When she felt the time was right, she moved to Festival Ballet where she worked on refining her technique with Peter Schaufuss and his staff. When Peter left the UK, Leanne joined his company in Berlin but stayed less than two years before returning to the UK and the Royal with Kenneth MacMillan. She hadn’t worked with Kenneth before he came to mount Different Drummer in Berlin, though he had met her when she was dancing Romeo and Juliet at the Met and had half an eye on her. To have Kenneth working with you was incredible. Different Drummer is a tricky piece, one of his typically dramatic works, though perhaps not so much an audience pleaser. The last time the Royal performed the piece her partner was Ed Watson, whom Leanne described as amazing. Kenneth wanted Leanne to move to Covent Garden, but had had to persuade Anthony Dowell, as there were a lot of principal ballerinas dancing with the company at that time. Consequently she took nine months to decide on the move. She was desperate to work with Kenneth, but worried about the company being top heavy with ballerinas. Sadly he died shortly before her first performance of Mayerling. She owes so much to him. The range of roles he gave dancers is just phenomenal. He was interested in the dancer’s personality, regardless of their size or shape.
Audio clip - Kenneth MacMillan:
Turning to another MacMillan ballet, Glowho the girl was and what she represented. Leanne thought she was longing to see her partner again having lost him in the war. For her it is about the loss of somebody you love. The ballet is very beautiful and poetic from the moment the curtain rises. Most choreographers give you little information, so that dancers have their own interpretation of the role. Leanne’s coaches included Monica Mason who has incredible knowledge. Leanne herself is doing a bit of coaching with a couple of dancers who were present at the talk and is really enjoying it.
Leanne loved her beautiful role in Requiem. The ‘Pie Jesu’ spoke to her particularly as she had a child and in the role you have to be both mature and childlike. You need to get under the layers of the role. It is quite precarious at the end with the shoulder lift as your foot is at a strange angle and you are facing in the opposite direction from the boy holding you for the long walk across the stage. The dancer lifting you onto the other’s shoulder is also very important. Luckily for her last performance she had Carlos Acosta to perform that task!
Leanne absolutely loved dancing Song of the Earth, another neo-classical work. It is probably the most athletic role Kenneth created for a dancer. She found that the roles he created for Marcia Haydée sat most comfortably on her body. Requiem and Gloria leave you wanting more because you are on and off stage so much, but with Song of the Earth you are completely exhausted after continuously running round the stage before having to push yourself further for the final pas de deux. You definitely get a sense of who created a role, sometimes you know just by the leg you are on. Leanne found Thaïsparticularly difficult as Antoinette Sibley’s “good” arabesque leg was the opposite one to hers and made a simple pas de deux quite difficult. It is fantastic to be rehearsed by someone who created a role, as, for example, by Lesley Collier in Rhapsody. Lesley was so quick. Leanne used to watch her a lot, amazed at how great she was, a phenomenal ballerina, both lithe and incredibly fast.
Asked why Anastasia hasn’t been performed recently, Leanne thought it might not be good box office, but felt sure it would come back. Originally it was just Act III, which is incredibly demanding, before Kenneth made it into a full length work. After he died some changes were made and Leanne felt that although it needed cutting it may have lost something because of this. Michael wondered if Anna Anderson having been proved not to be Anastasia would make a difference to Leanne’s interpretation. She thought Kenneth wouldn’t have minded one way or the other, because most roles he created were left open to interpretation. Leanne agreed that she had become known for her interpretations of the MacMillan roles.
Asked if she preferred dramatic ballets to others, Leanne said certainly, yes. Mention was made of her fantastic performances in Mayerling. When she first rehearsed it Kenneth was alive and she had one on one coaching from him. By the time she performed Judas Tree, which was created on Viviana Durante, Kenneth was no longer here but she made the role her own and made two films, one in Pinewood Studios with Irek Mukhamedov and one of a live performance more than a decade later with Carlos Acosta. It is very physical and it is great being the only woman on stage with all those guys, despite the context. It is quite difficult in rehearsals as you cannot really go full out with the character until you hit the stage and yet it must be rehearsed. The lifts are tricky and you have to be in the right place for your partner to throw you to the next boy and yet you have to keep within character. After being under a shroud on the floor, it can be awkward being pulled out by the foot as, if the boys weren’t careful, the heel could come out of the shoe. Judas Tree is interesting, and has a very different, cold atmosphere compared to most of Kenneth’s other pieces. At Kenneth’s memorial service, Nicholas Hytner spoke of encouraging Kenneth to do Carousel saying it was to do with sex and violence to which Kenneth had replied ‘well, that’s what I do!’.
Leanne said, “we didn’t really know what was going on in Kenneth’s mind.” He was a genius and we were grateful to have worked with him. As a dancer you need to be stimulated with new work, but there is always a shortage of good choreographers. You need new work, but for a variety of reasons you can’t always go to other companies to work with different choreographers.
Regarding heritage roles, Leanne was coached in Les Biches by Georgina Parkinson, her late mother-in-law, who herself was coached by Nijinska. It was only a small part in her career but interesting to do completely different choreography. If it were to come back now, Michael wondered if Leanne would coach the role. She said she understands it more now than at the time but she found it particularly difficult to dance. It is quite rigid with turns from nowhere. It was very challenging and they had a very short rehearsal period to get that particular style. It would be good to revisit the ballet now as it has a lovely flavour about it. At the time Leanne felt she was not sophisticated enough for the role whereas Georgina had a presence perfectly suited to the blue girl. The first time Leanne met her was in New York, where she had been sent by the Royal Ballet for a photo shoot for a dance magazine with Roy Round, her husband’s father, who now lives in London. Roy had a studio in the loft apartment where they lived. When Leanne went to get a drink, Georgina was sitting in the kitchen smoking and Leanne felt intimidated by her strong presence. She was an incredible lady, loved by all who everyone went to for Sunday roasts. She had housed Kenneth for two years helping him through a period of depression. She also took Gelsey Kirkland in and looked after her when she was coming off drugs.
Firebird is another really tough role to dance, incredibly tiring though very rewarding. It is the use of the arms constantly moving while jumping which makes it so exhausting. Monica was sensational in the role. It may not seem obvious to an audience, whether a role is difficult or not. Some roles that look difficult are easy, while some which look easy are very hard. Firebird falls into the latter category. Michael mentioned that after Monica we saw Fiona Chadwick in the role, so got used to seeing tall girls. Then along came Leanne, who was transformed on stage. Leanne loves to jump, but the role is exhausting. The solo goes straight into the pas de deux with very little pause and by the time the man finally clutches you around the ribs at end of pas de deux you feel sick with tiredness and can’t breathe.
Moving on to the new generation of choreographers, Michael commented that they have all chosen Leanne to mount works on and wondered what she thinks attracts them. Leanne thinks they know she likes a challenge, likes anything new and physically demanding roles. She loves being part of new collaborations, with a creative team with new music and designs. She came into a golden period following the birth of her son. Perhaps people missed her. It gave her the opportunity to re-evaluate her career. She didn’t want to do the big classical roles anymore preferring those she felt best suited to. She thought anyone could do Swan Lake better than her! Michael asked if a dancer’s career is at the whim of the director. Leanne replied that the director does have the final say. She wasn’t somebody who asked for roles, but she would speak up if she didn’t want to dance a role or with a particular partner, not because she disliked them but if she felt they lacked the necessary rapport. Leanne danced with a range of partners. She likened it to a conversation, having a best friend on stage. The audience can see if two people have a connection.
Wayne McGregor’s work gives the impression of a cerebral approach and Michael asked how much of that is imparted to the dancers. Wayne comes in with an idea but does leave a lot to the dancers. He pushes the boundaries of choreography and has an incredibly speedy mind which can be challenging, sometimes too challenging as his vocabulary is not necessarily the classical language. His movement is disjointed and intriguing, so you really have to work hard to get the shapes that he wants. His work challenges the rules of ballet. Wayne expects extreme shapes. It can be difficult for dancers to move from contemporary work in one rehearsal and then do the classics in the next. In rehearsals he sets a combination of movements, he will then complicate it by asking you to reverse it or change direction. He likes to layer his steps on dancers and keeps adding movements. You need a reliable partner as his ballet are lit from the side and can blind the dancers. Leanne has done a couple of Wayne’s works with Ed Watson and one with Steven McRae. Another Aussie, he is a good partner, very co-ordinated and she enjoyed working with him. Everyone knows how she felt about working with Ed who is a great partner. It was a great partnership, developed over the years and she was very grateful to him. It helped that they danced similar repertoire. Although Ed doesn’t really do the classics, he has a beautiful line.
Amongst other choreographers, Leanne has worked with Alastair Marriott, Christopher Wheeldon, Glen Tetley and Alexei Ratmansky. Alexei didn’t really know the Company, but she was pleased to work with him. He is a great teacher, with a very keen eye, very demanding to work for, very quiet and steely. It is quite difficult to work with someone at that stage of your career when they know nothing about your abilities technically or emotionally. Leanne hadn’t realised his work would be so classical, but was proud to take up the challenge so late in her career.
It is different working with someone like Chris Wheeldon who knows you. When the casting originally came out for Alice Leanne was not involved. Then Chris asked if he could create the Red Queen on her. Once they started working, Chris changed his ideas about the role and made the Red Queen the mother in the first act. Leanne realised she was just too small to be the mother, although Act II would have been fine with the big red dress!
Leanne said it was unusual for someone to be cast in a role and then the choreographer, or director, change their mind. It has happened, for example with the Robbins Foundation. They will cast someone, see them in rehearsal and then change their mind and take them out, but that rarely happens these days. Within the company, it does happen if someone isn’t right for the role. No young dancer is going to say no to any role, so it is really in the hands of the director to cast wisely. You can’t give the young everything at once. It is like giving a child everything so there is nothing left to give. There is a fine line between demand from the audience and demand from a dancer. Sometimes directors feel they will lose dancers if they don’t give them certain roles. When Teddy Kumakawa left, he wasn’t being given enough principal roles. In contrast, Sergei Polunin, perhaps, was given too much.
After 20 years with the Royal Ballet, Leanne remarked on the facilities which are now phenomenal. Both on stage and back stage at the Opera House they are so much better. You don’t have to run from the school to do shows and get ready in tiny changing rooms. There is so much going on artistically. Choreographers and teachers all want to come and work with the Company. Leanne recalled thinking it wonderful at the end of her career to be rubbing shoulders with so many different artistic talents at the Opera House, not just with dancers.
Michael mentioned that everyone thought the world had fallen apart when Anthony Dowell went to ABT. Now dancers guest all over the world and he wondered how Leanne felt about that. She thought that when she first joined the company they were held back too much, but there is a fine line between rushing onto planes and rushing back to perform and maintaining standards. Leanne always put the Opera House first and wanted to be in peak condition for her audience there. But everyone has their own idea of how they want to manage their career and if you can cope with doing everything that is fine. Though sometimes you wonder if injuries are a consequence of the amount of travelling some dancers do. It is a young profession and, perhaps, if she had had more audacity in her youth she would have travelled more and gone out to work with more choreographers.
Asked her favourite role, Leanne said it was difficult to answer, though she particularly loved the neo-classical roles of MacMillan. It was also great dancing Juliet and Mary Vetsera, though with the latter you spend a lot of time in the dressing room, so sometimes it is difficult to stay focussed.
Leanne is doing no training now as her time is full with studying, as well as spending time with her son and doing some private coaching. She won’t let it go fully though as it is difficult after being so physical for so long to suddenly not be. She always knew it would be the physicality she would miss.
Leanne has always been very interested in property and drives her family mad by buying and selling houses. She loves design and is currently studying at Chelsea College of Art and Design on an intensive one year course and is also having private tutoring to make up for the foundation years that she missed. It was amazing to be accepted onto the course as she didn’t have the necessary qualifications but the course leader was impressed with her ideas, property schemes and ambition. She is used to being disciplined. That day, out of 65 on the course, about 20 turned up to lectures, whilst she had done the school run and still arrived on time. Whatever dancers choose to do afterwards, they have the skills and sense of discipline to succeed. In the company teachers were happy to help you if you needed it. At university it is different, the help isn’t provided in the same way. She has moved into a world which she doesn’t quite understand. It seems very random and relaxed and a lot of time seems to be wasted.
Her son isn’t enamoured with ballet although he enjoyed Romeo and Juliet because of the sword fights. He loves Shakespeare and wants to become an actor.These days the things children watch are so advanced. He has a total sense of his Australian background. Leanne goes back when she can and has been asked to go and collect an honorary doctorate but hasn’t yet found the time to do so. She is very close to her family. Her brother, sister and parents and lots of relatives are there, although her whole family came to her last performance at Covent Garden. She is not missing performing but watches when she can and loves it. She is comfortable with having left. It was a long time coming and now others can take over.
After receiving enthusiastic applause, Leanne said she wanted to thank us all from the bottom of her heart for being there for her over so many years. One of the reasons she loved getting on stage was because of the warmth coming from the auditorium and she was very grateful.
In conclusion, Michael Foreman spoke of the sad death of our Deputy Chairman, Sylvia Tyler, who had been so looking forward to interviewing Leanne having loved her dancing from the beginning and always attended her performances.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Leanne Benjamin, Michael Foreman and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2014.