Dancers without borders
Matthew Lawrence was born in Christchurch, New Zealand – coincidentally in the same hospital as his wife (fellow dancer Gaylene Cummerfield), the same month, one year apart.
Lawrence grew up wanting to be a cricketer. “Ballet grew gradually on me. It took me a while to fully understand how unique it was.” When asked how it grew on him and why he loves to dance, Lawrence says: “It sounds strange for me to say, ‘I love to dance because...’ I think the word ‘love’ is so flippantly used it has lost true meaning. For me love is a word I use sparingly – usually used only in a romantic, family or friend context — reserved for special people. I greatly enjoy dance; it fulfils my need to be creative, whilst moving me like no other art form. However it’s far too exposing, exacting, challenging and frustrating for me to just naively ‘love’.”
Lawrence’s initial training was at Patricia Rowley School of Dance in Christchurch, then six months with Auckland City Dance Centre, before moving to Melbourne to finish his training at the Australian Ballet School, aged 18.
Upon graduating he was offered a contract with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Lawrence was just about to sign when an “eleventh hour offer came through from the Australian Ballet”, which he very quickly accepted.
Lawrence rose to principal artist, dancing lead roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Raymonda, Coppelia, La Fille Mal Gardee and others. In 2003 he won the inaugural Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year Award. A highlight while at the AB was “performing opening night of Maina Geilgud’s Giselle” at the State Theatre in Melbourne. Also, performing at the World Ballet Festival in Japan: “Being onstage and watching legends like Manuel Legris, Sylvie Guillem, and Alessandra Ferri – it doesn’t get much more inspiring that that!” Working with fellow principal artist Steven Heathcote allowed Lawrence to realise what qualities he most admires in a performer.
“I always admired my friend and colleague (Steven) for his ability to take his work seriously, but not himself.”
“After being with the AB for 11 years, my wife and I decided we needed a new challenge, so we took a risk and sent out audition tapes. Fortunately, David Bintley (artistic director with Birmingham Royal Ballet) had seen us dance previously in Japan, so he offered us each a contract straight up. It was perfect timing. We were very lucky. “
Lawrence says that while he’s “never been one for superstitions or specific rituals”, he does carry around a statuette of John Travolta in his white suited iconic pose from Saturday Night Fever. “It was packaged as ‘Romeo Patron Saint of Love’, and given to me as a good luck present for my first Romeo performance by my wife, many years ago.”
Lawrence is grateful for the close dance partnership he has with Cummerfield. “We have performed together in all of the Peter Wright classics.” And both agree that a very special performance in their careers was dancing the lead roles in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.
Lawrence’s next big challenge is fatherhood! As for on the stage, he says “I’m always looking to improve as a dancer, artistically and technically. However I don’t have any more driving ambitions. I could quite happily retire tomorrow with what I’ve achieved. I guess I’ve achieved a lot more than I set out to.”
For Sonja Peedo, life seems to have come full circle. The contemporary dancer from the Richard Alston Dance Company in the UK started dancing at the local ballet school in Mount Isa in Queensland, thanks to a childhood bond with her cousin and best friend Anita. “As a child, my cousin Anita and I were inseparable – the best of friends. Anita began ballet classes and so I went along too. As we got older, Anita left but I continued on, so it wasn’t anything planned – I had no child-like wish to be a ballerina when I grew up, I just enjoyed dance – along with netball, swimming and gymnastics,” she says.
A chance encounter with a teacher from the Queensland Dance School of Excellence, who at the time was training the students for their dance exams, led Peedo to eventually audition for the Queensland Dance School of Excellence. She got in, of course, and made the move to Brisbane to study full-time. On completion of her studies she joined the Queensland Ballet.
“It all seemed to happen of its own accord! I was very young and naïve when I joined QB and missed the support system you had while training at school.” During her time there, she decided to take six months off to figure things out. Feeling uneasy about going back, she decided to put dance behind her and get a regular job behind a desk. However, it was a segue that became the ultimate career clincher.
“It wasn’t until I gave dance up and I was a secretary for two years that I realised how much I loved and missed dance. I missed the artistry and physicality that dance gave me,” she says.
From that moment Peedo’s life changed forever – with a renewed passion for dance she retrained at the Queensland University of Technology. “I am very thankful for the good sound training I got through the Queensland Dance School of Excellence and QUT Kelvin Grove. I gained an understanding of how to work in a technically correct way and had the opportunity to develop my own personal movement sense – it definitely supported me throughout my career and the longevity of it,” she says.
Peedo then joined Expressions Dance Company, where she remained for five years. “Having been a part of devising a work, allowed us dancers to have complete ownership of the work and really boosted the development of my performance skills and become a confident performer.”
The saying goes that “the grass is always greener on the other side” but Peedo set out to discover this for herself. After getting a taste of the Rambert Dance Company in London, while on an Australia Council grant, she made it her mission to work with Richard Alston, then director of Rambert.
It was on Peedo’s third audition that she was finally accepted into the Richard Alston company, where she’s since clocked up eight years. “The nature of the consistent work and performing schedule creates a friendship between the dancers and it feels like my family and second home working there.”
Over the years she’s drummed up an impressive list of achievements, including performing at Buckingham Palace, where she got to meet the Queen. She has also worked on commercial projects that would make anyone green with envy. “I was one of Kylie’s dancers for her performance at the Brit Awards and for the Pet Shop Boys on Top of the Pops here in England and at the MTV Awards held in Germany later that same year.”
In among her dance career spanning 25 years, Peedo has kept busy being mum to her four children. And now, after 18 years in the UK, her circle of life is bringing her back to Australia. She hopes to pass on her experiences to others — and who knows, she might just inspire the next young dancer to set sights on the world stage.
Che McMahon began his training at the Barbara Lynch Dance Studio in Melbourne, learning ballet, tap, jazz and song and dance, and then graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2001. He was offered a contract with the Australian Ballet in 2002, where he stayed for the next three years.
In 2005, McMahon decided to head to Europe, and successfully auditioned for the Ballets de Monte-Carlo. “Being offered a contract at my first audition in Europe – I never thought that would happen!” he says. McMahon performed with the company for two years, then in 2007 he saw an open audition advertisement for Bayerisches Staatsoper (Bavarian State Ballet) in Munich, so he took a chance and auditioned, and was offered a contract beginning in the 2007 season. McMahon is currently in his third year with the company, as part of the corps de ballet.
His career highlights so far include Zugvögel by Jirí Kylián. “Being a featured dancer in a creation by your favourite choreographer feels pretty good.” And The Second Detail by William Forsythe. “I had a lot of fun doing this ballet on the terrace of the Monte-Carlo Casino. An outdoor stage with a view of the Mediterranean sea and a full moon to top it off. Unforgettable!
In a dancer, McMahon says he is most inspired by “explosive energy and dynamics”, and on a more personal level, he says that “dancing is an amazing way to express yourself while listening to music. That’s why I love it!” He doesn’t believe in pre-performance rituals or superstitions, but he has a fail-safe way to unwind after a show: “Pizza, cold Bavarian beer and some good tunes.” And what’s next for McMahon? “I want to expand my pallet of original movement,” he
says. But first: “A five week surfing
safari in Africa!”
When Remi Woertmeyer was 10 years old, a physiotherapist told his mother he should stop dancing; he would never be a dancer as he didn’t have the right physique. But Woertmeyer and his “extraordinarily supportive” family didn’t take no for an answer and he continued his training at Terry Simpson studios in Adelaide until, in 2001, Wortmeyer graduated as Dux of the Australian Ballet School.
Woertmeyer went on to dance with the Australian Ballet for eight years, where, in 2009, after being promoted to senior artist, he received an Australian Dance Award nomination for Most Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer.
In 2005 he received a standing ovation for dancing Grand Tarantella, a performance that earned him the inaugural Walter Burke Award and the opportunity to spend 2006 dancing on the Metropolitan Opera House stage and touring USA as a member of New York’s American Ballet Theatre. Wortmeyer lists this as a definite career highlight.
In 2010, Woertmeyer joined Dutch National Ballet (Het Nationale Ballet), and, in his second season with the company, has just been promoted to soloist. In his first season, he danced in John Neumeier’s Sylvia. Wortmeyer says that spending time with Neumeier was “surreal”, as he considers him “the most relevant choreographer of our time”.
2010 also gave Woertmeyer the chance to choreograph for Het Ballet. He created the opera-ballet Magdalene, or, In Defence of Beauty (with the libretto written by his partner, Malcolm Rock), which premiered at the Amsterdam Muziektheater (Stopera).
And on the horizon? “I want to reach principal status with Het Ballet – then move to resident choreographer and then director at whatever company feels right.” Wortmeyer says he is “open to all opportunities and seeing how far they can go.”
With credentials like Wortmeyer’s, no doubt it will be very far.
When Aaron Smyth stepped on to the stage at age 13, it instantly became the place where he felt he belonged. “I was addicted to it, I was competing in quite a lot in competitions and started winning scholarships and awards. That’s when I knew I wanted to make this my profession,” he says.
It’s a place that he discovered because of his sister. “I started doing gymnastics and a lot of sports when I was younger, but I took my first dance class because of my sister,” he says. “I have never looked back since taking that class, I knew from then I loved it and this is what I wanted to do.”
The young dancer is from the Gold Coast, where he trained at the Ransley Ballet and Dance Centre as well as with Dianne Talbot and Prudence Bowen. He studied tap and jazz when he was young and then ballet at age 12. He is now based in New York City. After having been accepted into the prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, he was promoted to American Ballet Theatre II a year later.
“It was a dream come true, because it is a very elite group of dancers hand picked throughout the world. We travel the globe and tour extensively,” he says.
It’s here, during his training at the school, that he achieved what he considers to be one of his biggest accomplishments. “Performing at American Ballet Theatre’s opening night gala at the Metropolitan Opera House in my first year at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, where I got to dance and meet the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama,” he says.
But even though there may be huge perks to his job, it seems dance itself is Smyth’s biggest passion. “Dancing is my life, I absolutely live and breathe it, I wake up everyday wanting to challenge myself and learn new things.” His other great accomplishment is winning the Gold Medal at the 2008 Genee International Ballet Competition. [The same year he won the $5000 encouragement award the McDonald’s Ballet Scholarship.]
While passion may be one key ingredient for success, when asked about the qualities that make a great dancer, Smyth believes it comes down to a number of factors: “Sheer determination, personality, charisma and a strong technique.” While this combination of qualities is not always easy to develop, it’s clear this young dancer has ticked all the right boxes.
See Prix de Lausanne: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVtFShixXww&NR=1
Australia’s Got Talent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7iMlhRl6tY
Julia Gillespie grew up in Newcastle, NSW, dreaming of becoming a dancer. “Dancing feels the most comfortable way for me to express my emotions. It makes me feel connected to my inner self. I enjoy being physical, using my body. Dancing also gives me a challenge, and satisfaction once I have overcome that challenge,” she says.
Gillespie trained with Marie Walton Mahon Dance Academy (Newcastle) then Ecole Classique (Sydney), before moving overseas at 17 to train with the Royal Ballet School. In her final year she auditioned for several companies in Europe and was offered a contract with Ballet de Victor Ullate in Madrid, beginning immediately after graduation.
In 2001, Gillespie joined Birmingham Royal Ballet, where she danced soloist roles in numerous performances. To broaden her repertoire, Gillespie joined Rambert Dance Company in 2010. “I am so happy and honoured to be part of such a prestigious company,” she says. “Ideally I would like to keep dancing Rambert for many years and use the opportunity to develop a strong contemporary technique as well as continuing my personal discovery as an artist.”
On her career so far, Gillespie says that “Possessing a natural ability, love and desire for dance definitely played a part, however I think the most important element, for me personally, would be mental strength — the ability to persevere through very difficult times firstly as a human being and secondly as a dancer.”
Two memorable dancing experiences she mentions are performing The Vertiginous Thrill Of Exactitude, by William Forsythe, aged 19. “It was and quite possibly will be the most physically demanding piece I have ever had to dance.” And working with choreographer David Dawson: “His concept of artistry and movement shaped my own approach as a dancer and artist from early on.”
And when she’s not on stage, you can find Gillespie working on her DJ-ing skills. “I was bought a professional mixer by some friends after they found out how keen I was to mix music!” she laughs.
“I’ve always wanted to be a dancer for as long as I can remember,” says Gaylene Cummerfield. Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, she started Irish dancing lessons at the age of three. Cummerfield remembers loving these classes so much that she began “harping” at her parents for more dancing lessons. She was allowed to take up ballet, Scottish dancing and modern dance the year she turned five.
“I think there are two aspects of dancing that I love,” she says. “One is the musical side. When I hear a piece of music, whether it is melancholic, upbeat or just plain beautiful, it makes me want to dance. The other aspect is getting to perform different characters and tell a story to the audience. A bit like an actress gets to become, for a short time, someone other than themselves.”
She attended many schools and had a number of teachers, but Cummerfield says a standout was Southern Ballet and Dance Theatre in Christchurch, which she attended before moving to Melbourne and successfully auditioning for the Australian Ballet School’s (then) three year full-time course.
During her time at the ABS, she won a bronze medal at the Adeline Genee Awards, and first place at the NZ National Awards. “When I graduated in 1996, I was fortunate to be offered a contract with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.” Says Cummerfield.” It was great to go home for a bit!”
In 1997, the year she joined the company, Cummerfield was awarded first place and the Grand Prix Award for outstanding achievement at the sixth Asian Pacific Ballet Competition.
After a year she returned to Melbourne to dance with the Australian Ballet. She worked her way up the ranks for 10 years, culminating in a senior artist position and lead roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and La Sylphide.
A highlight for Cummerfield was dancing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake for the first time, partnered by her husband Matthew Lawrence (then a principal artist) when the pair was invited to perform as guest artists with Royal New Zealand Ballet.
After 10 years, however, Cummerfield and Lawrence were looking for a change. “Matthew and I were after new inspiration and challenges so we moved to Birmingham, United Kingdom. And after a year and a bit with Birmingham Royal Ballet, I was promoted to principal!”
Cummerfield has been praised as being invaluable in a variety of roles. She has danced the lead in Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, Peter Wright and Galina Samsova’s Swan Lake, Rudolf Nureyev’s Raymonda and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations and Romeo and Juliet, to name a few.
In a dancer, Cummerfield admires “calm confidence, strength and an ability to be chameleon like.” She also says that “a good work ethic” is very important.
Cummerfield says she is most grateful in life for her husband and her family – and her most special dancing memory is having her parents in the audience when she and Lawrence danced the leads in Romeo and Juliet.
“I’d love to dance Giselle and Manon one day. But I think there are always roles you miss out on.”
But her next big role is off the stage – as a mum! The couple is excitedly awaiting the arrival of their first child.
As one of the newest dancers to join the Royal Ballet, Claudia Dean has certainly come a long way. When she was only 11 years old, she began what was to become a ritual that would ultimately prepare her for the big time. She auditioned for and was accepted into the Australian Ballet School Interstate Junior Program – a change that required her to travel from her hometown of Brisbane to Melbourne three times a year. And later, as a full-time dance student, she made regular trips between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. It’s only fitting, then, that today Dean is accustomed to being away from “home”.
“I did have a bit of preparation in terms of ‘moving away from home’ as my old full-time school was on the Gold Coast and I’m from Brisbane,” she says. “So each Monday my mum would drive me from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and I would stay down there until Friday and would go home on weekends. This was good preparation for me — although it was only an hour away it was still away from home.”
At age 15, Claudia studied full-time under Prudence Bowen. She then competed in prestigious ballet competitions around the world, including the Prix de Lausanne, the Alana Haines Awards in New Zealand and the Genee International Ballet Competition. It was after blitzing these that Claudia was one of only a handful of students worldwide selected to join the Royal Ballet School.
“The school is such an incredible place, filled with amazing people, and each day I was living my dream so those aspects made the transition smooth.”
She studied for two years at the Royal Ballet School before being offered a contract with the Royal Ballet. “I was called into Ms Stock’s office and she told me about the offer of the Royal Ballet – dream come true for me!” she says.
“There are certain moments in my life lately when I get reminded of what I have,” she continues. “I then realise that I always knew the Royal Ballet was my dream, but didn’t know how I would get there. I can say now you put it down to a lot of hard work and dedication!”
Next up, Claudia has her heart set on playing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Looking at her past achievements, it appears it won’t be long before that too becomes a reality. For Claudia it looks like she’ll be calling London “home” for quite some time to come.