Karen van Ulzen talks to Mia Heathcote, senior soloist with the Queensland Ballet.
Mia Heathcote is very used to being asked if she had any choice in being a dancer. As the daughter of Australian Ballet dancers Kathy Reid (former soloist) and Steven Heathcote (former principal dancer), it would be assumed that dance was her destiny.
Heathcote agrees that being surrounded by dance and art from birth definitely sparked her interest, but she insists the impulse was all her own. “From when I was very little I couldn’t help but move to music,” she says. “The choice had to be my own or I wouldn’t be here now.”
In other words, if she hadn’t have really loved what she does, she might have found the path too hard. She is a senior soloist with the Queensland Ballet, with a growing repertoire of significant roles on her CV, but she has faced some obstacles on the way. Certainly her parents have bestowed her with the right attributes for a dancer - with enviable physique and eyecatching strawberry blonde hair. But she has also needed determination and plain hard work to get where she has, and to prove to herself and others she could do it on her own.
As a child, dance was a natural part of her life and “I have to say it was pretty fun,” she admits, “hanging around the dressingrooms backstage, seeing all the costuming, make-up, pointe shoes and all the inspiring people”. She was in ballet class by age four and by 12 had already been on stage with the Australian Ballet, performing the role of the Young Clara in Graeme Murphy’s celebrated version of The Nutcracker. She joined the Australian Ballet School in 2010 when she was in Year 9.
But at this point she deviated from the expected next stage in her career - which would have been to step straight into the Australian Ballet. In 2014, before she had finished her course with the school, she auditioned “just for experience” for the Queensland Ballet. To her surprise, she was offered a place.
“I did the audition because I was feeling a little bit underconfident in myself, a little bit stuck, and needed to experience something that would push me out of my comfort zone a little."
She was also offered a place in the Australian Ballet, starting the following year. She chose Queensland.
" I don’t think, looking back, I was really in a place to digest all that information but what I did know I needed a change, and something needed to happen for me to move on. Qld was an escape from what everyone thought I should do. I wanted to get out, figure out who I was without my background. To pave my own way.”
She found the going tough – first job, first time away from home and living on her own. Adding to her woes, while still in her first year with the company, a nagging problem with her os trigonum (in the ankle) decided to flare up. “The pain got progressively worse, particularly in my left ankle. I didn’t even get through a show without having to go off at some point,” she says. “I remember crying all the time, I felt weak, and I felt a bit isolated as well, I was still trying to find my way, and even though I had moved to Qld I felt like I still needed to prove something, that I had made the right decision and was doing well there and whatever. And that just put more pressure on me.”
Surgery was the only option, which she undertook on her left ankle in late August of her first year. “I missed the regional tour, I missed a lot of things, and felt I hadn’t put my foot in the water yet. That was really hard.”
After rehab in Melbourne, “I came back (to QB) and started to do just a few coaching sessions. I was able to take the time I needed, and things were slowly getting back on track.”
Looking back, she says: “I felt like my little world had been tipped upside down. I had all the support I needed from my family and friends but I needed to do some work myself. Which was another good reason why I moved there [to QB] – without the change you can’t have the challenge, and without the challenge you don’t get the growth.”
And grow she did. Having cast her in a number of lead roles, Cunxin promoted her to soloist in 2017, after her stunning performance as Wendy in Peter Pan. “Mia is blessed with natural ability but she also gives everything of herself to every performance and brings so much character to the roles she dances,” he announced at the time. Then, in 2019, he promoted her to senior soloist after he made the surprise decision to cast her in the coveted role of Juliet in the opening night of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Her performance earned high praise from Dance Australia’s critic, Denise Richardson.
“Heathcote captured the very essence of teenage love in her characterisation – passionate, impetuous and all consuming," she wrote. "She also showed a beautifully fluid quality to her movement, as well as a quickness and lightness, so essential to the role.”
Dancing Juliet was the realisation of a long cherished ambition. “It was life-changing,” she says, ". . . the highlight of of my dance career so far.” Adding to the moment was the fact that her own father was guesting in the role as Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet.
Another highlight was being chosen by choreographer Liam Scarlett for the role of Titiana in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which this writer can attest she performed with tender, ethereal radiance.
And what now, during the pandemic, with the company’s plans all in abeyance? It was to be a huge 60th anniversary year, and preparations were well underway for an international gala when everything suddenly stopped. The QB has now moved its entire season to 2021.
Luckily, the lockdown turned out to be a good chance for Heathcote to have her second ankle fixed. “The pain has been pretty relentless for the last year and a half," she admits, "but I’ve delayed surgery because I didn’t want to miss anything.” She had surgery as soon as elective surgery was reopened and the enforced layoff has been a perfect time to recover. She is now taking her first tentative steps as the company returns to normal schedule.
If she has been able to come this far on two dodgy ankles, who knows now what she can achieve pain-free?
You can see Heathcote dancing her own choreography with her partner-in-life Victor Estevez as part of the Queensland Ballet's '60 Dancers, 60 Stories' online project. Go to https://www.queenslandballet.com.au/60-dancers-60-stories
Photos of 'Romeo and Juliet' feature Heathcote and Patricio Reve in the title roles. Both were promoted following these performances: Heathcote to senior soloist and Reve to soloist.