New crown for Leanne Benjamin

Comments Comments

Former Royal Ballet principal Leanne Benjamin talks to DENISE RICHARDSON about her new role as artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

Leanne Benjamin. Photo by Jason Bell.
Leanne Benjamin. Photo by Jason Bell.

When Li Cunxin unexpectedly announced his retirement as Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet (QB) due to ill health, speculation was rife about who would replace him, as under his direction the company had soared in popular and critical reputation – the crowning glory being the redevelopment of its headquarters, the Thomas Dixon Centre. However, the appointment of Leanne Benjamin OBE, AM, not only a Queenslander, but the first woman to hold the position in the company’s history, seemed a perfect fit, also bringing the highly respected artist almost full circle.

Benjamin left her hometown of Rockhampton for the Royal Ballet School over 40 years ago, going on to a remarkable career, including 20 years as principal artist with the Royal Ballet. Barely in the country a week when I caught up with her at the QB headquarters one very steamy February morning, she was brimming with enthusiasm about her appointment and, despite the heat, her relocation from London to Brisbane.

“I’ve been so warmly welcomed by everybody,” Benjamin exclaims, while readily admitting, with an already packed schedule, and still getting to know the dancers and staff, “There’s a lot to learn!”

Benjamin was familiar with Queensland Ballet before her appointment, having come to rehearse Romeo and Juliet in 2019. “I loved working with the dancers and saw that Brisbane had developed also. But I never thought any more about it.”

When first approached, she was well settled in London and not at all interested. “I loved my job with the Royal Ballet, and I also had other interests, like being the Vice-Chair of the Governors of the Royal Ballet, and Patron and Head of Dance for the Tait Memorial Trust. I had just also spearheaded a program called UK Young Dancer with the great theatre choreographer Arlene Philips.”

Nevertheless, she thought she should at least come and look, and get, as she called it, her "gut reaction". “As soon as I walked in (to the Thomas Dixon Centre), it was ‘wow!’ The building has a great feeling about it – a real sense of community. One of my reasons for coming in (as AD) is that when you have great facilities, you are in a better position to encourage the best and brightest from around the world.”

“And of course we have this extraordinary Talbot Theatre. I’m trying to work out how we can put a spotlight on it, and this company. Perhaps make it somewhere to develop Australian and First Nations choreographers, and (encourage) that cross fertilisation between other groups and us.”

Benjamin has worked as a coach for many years, a role that has prepared her well for the job of artistic director, Benjamin believes. “Knowing what you need in terms of staff, and treating them well, because I know what it means to be an overworked coach. Hopefully, I can bring the best of myself here to Brisbane.”

With Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo by Jacob Perrett.
With Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo by Jacob Perrett.

I wondered therefore what qualities Benjamin thought made a successful artistic director? Without hesitation she nominated great communication, and secondly, “realising that there are going to be mistakes made along the way but trying not to dwell on them. That will be the most difficult for me,” she adds, laughing. “I expect a lot from myself. And I think just being a good role model. I want the dancers to enjoy work. Feeling intimidated by the people you work with, or not knowing what someone is thinking … that used to drive me crazy as a dancer! I think it’s very important to tell the truth in a very open, honest and caring way, even in terms of casting.”

While speculating on how she might improve on QB’s already good standing, Benjamin is adamant that she “won’t be throwing the baby out with the bath water”. She would, however, like to open the company up to new voices in terms of choreographers, including female choreographers, and stagers.

Accordingly, she met up with some of her extensive network in the UK and Europe before flying out to Australia. Although naturally reluctant to speculate in any detail about the 2025 season, names that we perhaps might hear more of include Christopher Wheeldon, whose company, Morphoses, Benjamin performed with in the early 2000s.

“He understands my dedication, my values, so that will be a very important relationship, as well as other choreographers I’ve worked with like (Alexei) Ratmansky. I didn’t create a piece with Cathy Marsden, but we’re great mates.”

Brisbane's distance from the rest of the world has its challenges, Benjamin readily admits, and there’s always the ever-present budgetary constraints. So how will she balance the audacious with the prosaic?

“I’ve been doing that all my life!” she laughs. But, she argues, playing it too safe will also lose audiences.

“My mission is to see what the audiences enjoyed, what the dancers enjoyed performing, and I must know why I want to do something. There must be a connecting thread.”

Leanne Benjamin with Carlos Acosta.
Benjamin performing with Carlos Acosta.

The annual season of Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker in 2025 is also under review. “I know it’s a wonderful Christmas story to tell,” agrees Benjamin, “although there are other good Christmas stories. But it’s also about the balance, ensuring I have a great portfolio of works for the year.”

Having herself been through four changes of director at the Royal Ballet alone, Benjamin acknowledges that change at the top can be unsettling. But she has firmly indicated to the dancers that she will be looking after their best interests. “That’s all I can do,” she explains. “A new director will have their own taste, and I think that’s why people worry because they don’t know whether it will align with theirs.” Inheriting this year’s program gives Benjamin time to assess which dancers might be suitable for roles in 2025. “And who has potential,” she concludes. “That’s my big thing – to take potential and nurture and develop it.”

By all accounts there should be exciting times ahead for Queensland Ballet.








comments powered by Disqus