From Rockhampton to tea with the Queen
Australian dancer Leanne Benjamin has written a thoughtful and illuminating autobiography, writes Karen van Ulzen.
Leanne Benjamin has had a brilliant career. In a way it is a classic story of a dream come true – little country Queensland girl becomes top international ballerina. But, like all such stories, the path to the top was not as smooth as it appears, with complications and crucial decisions and just a little bit of fate thrown in. It takes a special combination of elements to become a great ballerina – the right body and the right facility, of course, but also the right circumstances, the right people, and the determination, intelligence and courage to do honour to the great talent you are born with.
Benjamin’s story is even more extraordinary too in that she did not follow the classic script and retire at around 35, but continued dancing at her peak until the age of 49, 10 years after the birth of her son.
Now she has written a memoir, Built for Ballet.
“It was both cathartic and rather disturbing,” she laughs about the experience of looking back over her life. She is speaking to me from her home in London via Zoom. “I was so lucky I had kept most of my letters. I had accumulated about five diaries. I opened a case I hadn’t opened literally since the ’80s, and there it was, full of letters. It’s testament to the old days when most overseas correspondence was by mail. It was really the only way of corresponding because of the time difference, the cost of international calls. . . I was never lonely but I missed my family terribly because we were a very tight knit family.”
Benjamin was born in the town of Rockhampton, halfway between Brisbane and Townsville. She trained with Valeria Hansen (the same teacher who taught Mary McKendry). Blessed with a “sleek, muscular body” and a natural gift for performing, she followed her sister Madonna to the Royal Ballet School. “Leaving my home and my country at the age of 16 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she writes. She won the RAD Genee and the Prix de Lausanne and an RAD Bursary, but despite her promising start wasn’t accepted, as was her dream, into the Royal Ballet. Instead she was put into the RB’s touring company, Sadlers Wells, under Sir Peter Wright, who was to become a significant force in her early career. She quickly became the company’s leading light, dancing all the leading roles in a hectic schedule and promoted at age 22 to principal dancer.
Yet she had the insight to see that she was both “being pushed beyond her capabilities and at the same time being held back”. “It sounds arrogant,” she writes, “but I knew I was becoming a mediocre dancer, giving performances that were good but not great. I wanted to be special and I knew I could be.” She left SWRB and joined the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) which was making waves under the directorship of Peter Schaufuss, and moved with him to Deutsche Oper Ballet when he was sacked from the English company. While in Berlin she met choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, who singled her out for a role in his ballet, Different Drummer. He became another key figure in her development. Thanks to him she was finally offered a place at the Royal Ballet, though she had to accept a lower position as soloist, something of a humiliation for a dancer of her rank. Knowing that she was not a first choice of the artistic director Anthony Dowell, “I just put my head down, took my place in the queue and began to struggle to get out of the shadows,” she writes.
She was soon in the spotlight, promoted to principal at the end of that first season. She went on to become one of the Royal Ballet’s most celebrated ballerinas, performing all the classics but excelling particularly in dramatic roles, such as the reckless, passionate Mary von Vetsera in MacMillan’s Mayerling. In 2005 she received an OBE in recognition of her services to dance.
Along the way the reader learns of some of the difficult choices she had to make, awkward clashes with bosses, the importance of key mentors and empathetic partners. She had her share of injuries – including two hernias – but she doesn’t dwell on them, instead writing about them with what appears to be a characteristic ability to just “get on” with things.
During her career Benjamin gained a reputation for being difficult. While this is not an unusual description of a demanding artist, I wondered if it was also the result of a cultural clash? “Could be?” she replies. “I did feel culturally different. I can’t speak for all Australians of course, but we do say what we think. I wouldn’t say I was even particularly outspoken, but I was honest, I would want to know and learn there in the studio, I would want to get things right, because otherwise what’s the point? I wasn’t there just to churn out a role, I wanted to understand what it was about.
“Great artists are perfectionists,” she continues. “When you are a perfectionist you put so much pressure on yourself to get things right, and that can translate in the studio into friction with the person you’re working with.
“Sometimes as a dancer I just wanted to be better than I could be. Sometimes your partner does not have the same level of commitment you have. I wish I had not been so hard on myself in my 30s. And I decided, as I say in my book, that if I did come back after having [my son] Thomas that I would enjoy the last bit of my career for as long as it would last.”
The book provides interesting glimpses into working with imaginative geniuses such as Wayne McGregor, the juggle of work and motherhood, her personal relationships, her critical successes and personal triumphs. “I did not want this to be a 'kiss and tell' book,” Benjamin tells me. “I think there is enough variety and controversy in the battles I had to navigate over the years without having to put anyone or circumstance down. I wanted this to be an inspirational book, because I am so grateful for my career and everyone around me.
“I wanted this to be more the story about how I made it from small town Rockhampton to having tea with the queen.”
She is quite candid, however, about her awkward relationship with Ross Stretton, one-time artistic director of the Australian Ballet. When the Royal Ballet was undergoing a financial crisis, she approached him about guesting with the Australian company. She found him “almost impossible to negotiate with”, “subtly authoritarian”, and when he withdrew his offer she decided she had “dodged a bullet”. It was tricky then, when he became her boss at the Royal. “He didn’t say anything to me, and I didn’t say anything to him. He was polite, and I did what I always had. I put my head down and did my best.”
Many dancers regret that their technique begins to decline just as they are beginning to peak artistically. Such was Benjamin’s natural facility that she had the rare luxury of reaching her artistic maturity while still at her peak physically. Did she have any special regime to stay in condition? I ask. She explains that she was so physically loose that the tightening that comes with age actually improved her strength. She also credits her uncompromising regime of daily class, which she took very seriously and “never just treated as a warm-up”.
As she matured, she also learned to appreciate the value of nuance and subtlety, exploring the depths and corners of a character through quietness and pauses rather than constant movement. “You don’t have the same energy of physicality, but you do find more moments of stillness. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, older dancers can stand and look at each other while bars of music are passing by, whereas younger people tend to feel they have to do something.”
Her final performance, appropriately, was in Requiem, by her beloved mentor, Kenneth MacMillan. After it was all over, “I picked up my bouquets and went home. I closed the front door, had a little sob, and then picked myself up. It was time to get on with the rest of my life.”
Benjamin is now enjoying being a wife and mother, and building a new career as a coach. Immediately after our interview, she was rushing off to coach fellow Australian Steven McRae back to the stage following a long slow rehabilitation from injury. His return, by all accounts, was triumphant. It seems Benjamin is still “getting on with it” with her usual brilliance.
‘Built for Ballet’, an autobiography by Leanne Benjamin with Sarah Crompton, is published by Melbourne Books.
Go in the draw to receive one of two free copies of this beautiful book, hardcover RRP $49.95, 400 pages including 32 photos, courtesy Dance Australia and Melbourne Books. Just go HERE!