Sharni Spencer, soloist at The Australian Ballet, reflects on her time as a full-time student at the New Zealand School of Dance, and how her training prepared her for life as a professional dancer.
Where are you from?
I was born in Lismore, NSW, but only lived there for a couple of months before my family moved to Tamworth, which is where I spent my childhood growing up and started attending ballet classes. I also spent a few years in Newcastle in my early teenage years.
Where did you undertake your full-time training?
My mum, dad and sister moved their lives to Newcastle from Tamworth so that I could further my dance training. I am so grateful and really appreciate that my whole family have always been so supportive and really gave me the best chance at fulfilling my dancing dream. I trained full-time in Newcastle at the Marie Walton Mahon Dance Academy for a year and a half.
As part of the full-time course we made audition videos to send to pre-professional schools. I got accepted into Elmhurst School for Dance in Birmingham in the UK and spent about six months there before deciding that it wasn’t the right fit for me and returned home to Newcastle. Marie had heard some great things and recommended I fly over to the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) and audition for their full-time classical program. I had missed the formal auditions for that year but there was a place free, so I flew over to take three days of classes and auditioned for the full-time classical course. I knew straight away that it was the right place for me. I was accepted, and began that year immediately!
What level of education had you attained before beginning your full-time training?
In terms of academic education I had completed my Year 10 by distance education before joining the NZSD. In dance training, I trained right through with the RAD syllabus and was awarded the solo seal.
How did you find the transition from full-time studies to the profession?
The change in workload being quite a big shift. At NZSD, we took classes each morning, ballet and contemporary, followed by repertoire classes and pointe classes, pas de deux, pilates, etc. dancing for the better part of the day, with a few seated classes like anatomy and dance history. When I joined The Australian Ballet, I felt that I wasn't doing enough dancing to maintain my technique compared to what I was used to. I had to make sure I was keeping my fitness up outside of the schedule. I also remember feeling incredibly tired not being used to late nights and back to back performances. Sometimes we perform eight shows in six days!
What were the most important benefits of your studies?
I was very lucky to have been exposed to a wide range of repertoire while I was at NZSD. We learnt so many different styles and worked with so many different guest teachers from all over the world. I feel that learning so many different styles of ballet and all the nuances of the repertoire was really a huge benefit. We also did a lot of contemporary work at school which I think made me a more versatile dancer.
How quickly did you gain employment upon graduation?
During my second year at NZSD we had Balanchine pepetiteur, Victoria Simon, come to guest teach. She spoke with the school’s director, Garry Trinder, suggesting I audition for The Australian Ballet. I flew over and auditioned in the August of my second year. I think I got a phone call from the artistic director David McAllister the day before my birthday in October learning that I had secured a contract to start the next year. I was very fortunate to have the luxury of a contract before I had even finished my three years schooling. I graduated after two years with a Certificate of Dance and joined the Australian Ballet in 2008.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you were a student?
Life experience really enriches your dancing, but that is really only something that you can gain with time. However, something that I wish I had known is to just be yourself! Everything clicked for me once I realised you can make each role your own and find your own way of performing the steps (within the classical parameters of course) and your own way of expressing yourself in a role. Those differences and quirks are what make you interesting. Don’t just try and replicate what someone else has done with the role. We all have our own strengths and should use them accordingly.
Also a big one is to have the confidence and be bold enough to promote yourself in a class. I don’t mean in a loud and brash way, but to show what you have to offer unapologetically. I was quite shy early on in my career, it can be daunting in a big company!
This interview is part of our 2020 Full-Time Studies Guide, published in the August/September 2019 issue of Dance Australia. Subscribe to Dance Australia here or Dance Australia at your favourite retail outlet, or online here.