With the Australian Ballet presently touring the country with 'Swan Lake', we thought it good timing to reprint this interview with Benedicte Bemet, one of the leading artists cast in the dual role of Odette/Odile. The writer is Susan Bendall.
It is amid the chaotic vitality of the Sydney Opera House green room that my video call with Australian Ballet Principal Benedicte Bemet takes place. At the time, Bemet has just finished the Sydney season of Don Quixote, dancing the role of Kitri for the first time, and now it’s opening night of “Identity” – a double bill showcasing two new works by Daniel Riley and Alice Topp.
Bemet’s rise to principal rank has come with great highs, hard work, sacrifices and a significant injury but there is an over-riding sense of the joy of dance in her account of her life as a dancer. She started ballet, aged three – when most of the rest of us were still toddling – and I was interested to know how this whole-of-life immersion in ballet has shaped her life.
Bemet tells me that when she was young she thought “ballet is the only thing that matters”. She joined the interstate program of the Australian Ballet School, but at 12, her family relocated to Hong Kong and decisions got serious. “It was like ‘Do you really want to do this?’” she remembers. The training available in Hong Kong was just not adequate to get Bemet to the level she needed to be accepted into the School, so she would have to move away from her parents. The question became “Do you want to do this as a job?”.
The answer was a resounding “yes” so at age 13 Bemet returned to Australia to live with her grandparents on the Gold Coast, while dancing at Ransley Ballet and Dance Centre to build toward the audition. The next year she moved again, this time to Melbourne to start at the ABS. “It was all fun and games until that turning point,” she says.
Bemet reports feeling very lucky that her parents were so supportive in letting her go at such an early age. She shares how much she missed her family and how homesick she was, in a way that makes it clear that it is still a big deal in her life to have left her parents so young. How does she feel about that decision now? “It still makes me emotional. It still makes my mum emotional. It was the hardest thing. You give up so much”. Bemet’s mum admits that the family had lost Bemet to ballet. “It’s not just about my life but about theirs,” Bemet says. “It [the sacrifice] probably makes you love it more.”
Bemet’s parents continued to live overseas until last year, so the separation has been very real and enduring. Having made such a serious decision to follow her dreams at age 13, Bemet reveals that had she not been accepted into ABS, she would have stopped dancing and just gone back to school. Luckily, that scenario never played out.
I ask Bemet about how she goes about building a role and how she layers the artistic and technical elements. She tells me that if the technique is challenging, she will start with the character in order for it not to be too overwhelming. And it depends on how familiar she is with the ballet. For example, she had experience dancing versions of Don Q as a student, so had clear ideas about how she wanted to dance Kitri. By contrast, she had never seen Harlequinade before, so having to create a role from scratch required her to seek more input from the coach and director to help navigate the mood of the piece. She hadn’t danced Juliet before either, but her partner (Marcus Morelli) had danced Romeo and that helped her situate the character in response to him.
What are the roles that this dancer finds most rewarding? “That’s a hard one!” she replies. “I loved Giselle and I really loved Romeo and Juliet. It’s the emotional journey. By the end, you’ve really given an honest portrayal, in interpreting a role there’s always a part of myself in each of the characters. And the choreography is less stressful. The big three-act ballets – Sleeping Beauty and Don Q – I love them and they’re so rewarding, but I think there’s still part of you that has to keep everything in check because of the technical difficulty. With those bigger story ballets you can really let yourself go. I think that’s why Romeo and Juliet was so rewarding because technically it’s not too challenging for Juliet so you’re just telling the story, so it’s such fun.”
How about the most challenging roles she’s danced, psychologically, physically or technically? Without delay she responds: “Black Swan pas de deux and Nutcracker pas de deux. I think just stamina-wise they are the most challenging. I found Kunstkamer really challenging – finding a different physicality. And Sol (Leon) is quite a spiritual person to work with, so I feel like, as classical ballet dancers, we’re used to getting corrections, in a very technical, physical way, where a lot of it (Leon’s process) is about feeling. It can be hard to fix things sometimes because it’s all interpretation. I love the way classical music makes my body feel but I do like the groundedness that often contemporary work makes me feel. When they are non-narrative pieces, you have to draw more on yourself as a human.”
With the roles come an array of stunning costumes and I wondered whether Bemet has any particular favourites and whether this is about the way they look, feel, or whether it’s more tied to the role. “I actually love Kitri’s Act 1 dress,” says Bemet. “It makes you feel fiery, it makes you feel sexy. I also love David McAllister’s Beauty costumes. The Aurora tutus and also the Bluebird tutu. I just felt really beautiful in them. And I feel like that makes a real difference – looking in the mirror and thinking ‘I feel really beautiful’. That’s really nice because we spend so much time looking in the mirror critiquing ourselves. Costumes really change the mood and totally change your physicality. [There’s such a] difference between Columbine’s tutu and Juliet’s flowing dresses.”
On that note, I ask Bemet to reflect on body image and anxiety issues that she has faced as a dancer. “Honestly, I think it’s just something I have to keep in check. Even now in my career. I think looking at yourself in a mirror all day is just confronting and can be hard at times. But, I mean, David [Hallberg], my boss, and the previous David [McAllister] never made me question my body and always made me feel empowered in the body I have. [They] always made me feel that it’s the dancing I do and the dancer I am that’s important. That’s helpful when you have those bad image days.” She reflects: “Any performative artform comes with stress because I don’t know anyone who is passionate about something who doesn’t stress about it. You’ve got to keep it in check because stress and anxiety can lead to not good things. I kind of think they go hand in hand, a little bit.” Ballet is certainly a perfectionistic undertaking.
I wonder how that can change a dancer’s energy or approach. Bemet tells me that it’s more about the differences in repertoire. “With different repertoire comes different opportunities to challenge yourself and to work with different coaches and bring out different things. At the end of the day, both of them (the Davids) want you to be the best dancer that you are. Sometimes it’s surprising because you can do certain ballets and think ‘Oh my god! I didn’t know that I could move like that! Or I didn’t know I would find that so challenging’… David Hallberg is all about being present on stage and not being scared – you can’t dance if you’re scared.”
In 2017, Bemet suffered a debilitating tendon injury which kept her away from dancing for many months. The injury and long rehabilitation period changed a number of ways she approaches her career and how she sees herself as an artist. Bemet tells me that prior to injury, “I was a soloist, and I was really in a spot where I wanted to get promoted and move on to the next phase. It was really external [about career path and ambitions] … and once I got injured – okay, take all of that away and I just want to dance!”
It seems that her determination would have driven Bemet to find a pathway back to dancing, even if it meant dancing differently. “That injury time has really informed how I cope with pressure now. And what I value in the artform and what I value in myself as well. I think I had to go through that for myself because people tell you ‘you’re more than just a dancer’ but I had to experience it for myself. To be honest, I still haven‘t found anything else that makes me feel that I’m expressing myself as purely as when I’m dancing.”
Now Bemet works diligently on both her body and mind. She undertakes quite a rigorous Pilates routine and static stretches. She has got to know her body very well and also commits to a lot of mindset work, “working out how I frame things, being okay with being vulnerable. Knowing that no-one is perfect – how I speak to myself and having a growth mindset – that’s been something that’s changed a lot since being injured. It’s so cheesy – but just the idea that I love what I do!”.
It seems that she has become more self-forgiving, allowing herself to do her best rather than catastrophising. “Stop interfering! – get that out of your head – your body knows what it needs to do and if a problem arises, you will fix it,” she says. Breathing and humming the music can help her de-escalate before a performance.
So what does Benedicte do for fun? “Hang out with my boyfriend and my dog (Shanchez the Hungarian Vizsla).” She reads a lot to unwind and loves pottery – “making mugs and bowls – nothing good. It’s hard but it’s very therapeutic. I love cooking, I love baking. Creative things.”
When I ask Bemet what words she would use to describe the feeling of dancing, she replies:
“Freedom, expression and breath – joy – but not always joy!” We laugh as I tell her it’s always a joy for her audience, and that she’ll just have to keep taking the hit for us.
This article was first published in the July/Aug/Sep issue of Dance Australia.