Leanne Benjamin: Internationally acclaimed dancer
Leanne Benjamin, AM OBE, is a former Principal of The Royal Ballet. She is also the recipient for the inaugural Agent-General Queensland Day Award for Queenslanders making a strong contribution in Europe. Leanne moved to London from Rockhampton at 16 years of age to study at the Royal Ballet School and went on to enjoy a highly successful and internationally acclaimed career. I caught up with Leanne ahead of Queensland's 160 birthday celebrations to discuss her life as a ballerina and advice for talented young Australians.
Apart from The Royal Ballet, you have been the principal dancer at Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Deutsche Oper Ballet. Looking back, which of these achievements gave you the greatest joy and why?
Coming back to work after having my son, and finding a new and unexpected chapter to my career. I was approaching the traditional age for retirement, and instead became consumed by working with some of the most incredible choreographers of today. I took things a year at a time, and before I knew it, I was 49 and felt it was time to hang up the pointe shoes and experience life beyond the stage.
What felt like the toughest achievement?
Moving from my first company- Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to go to London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). It was terrifying as I had huge respect and admiration for the director (Peter Wright) of Sadler’s Wells, but I knew I had to move in order for me to grow as an artist and experience different roles, see new places, and to continue elevating my performances
Serendipitous opportunity, careful design or the pursuit of pleasure - what initially powered your astonishing career and how did this change over time?
Ha, I would actually say it was always a judgement call on the decision in front of me at the time. There was no great ‘architecture’ or grand plan. I loved being in the rehearsal room more than being on stage, and was never one to court the press, but I was motivated by the process, new challenges and working towards a goal. I am now in the fortunate position of coaching and motivating dancers towards their goals.
Your career began with ballet classes at your local town hall and, by the age of 16, you had won two prestigious awards, the Adeline Genee Gold Medal and the Prix de Lausanne. Reflecting on your own experience, what would you like to see in place for other young Australians making a similar journey abroad?
Support- it takes a village. And true talent is blind to wealth and circumstance. My parents made huge sacrifices for me to have the opportunities I enjoyed, and not everyone with talent will have that support. At the Tait Memorial Trust, and through the Award in my name, we try our best to help in a small way to ease the burden.
I’ve read that you come from a family of high achievers. I imagine this gave you a solid start in life. Is there anything about being from rural Queensland or Australia that has stood you in good stead for an international career?
I know it's a bit cliche but my origins certainly help me keep things ‘real’. We tend to form our values and (work) ethic from an early age, and I certainly got those from not only my family, but also from the support of Rockhampton and people with whom I spent time with.
Can you tell us about your work with the Tait Memorial Trust and the ballet awards for young Australian and New Zealand dancers?
We want to make a contribution to support pre-professional Australian dancers spread their wings and become exposed to a broader range of experiences. Ballet is a world-wide art form, and if there is a way for any dancer to be able to travel, to London for example, and learn, watch, listen, basically soak up whatever they can from a multicultural and varied community, they will be more likely to succeed.
Many young dancers come to London to grow and learn. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by London and its reputation. What’s your message to young Australians about working here, staying strong and keeping hold of their roots?
Bring your Milo! And maybe some Minties…. Seriously though, Australians are naturally intrepid and curious. I would say to remember never to take it for granted, keep an open mind, and take things a day at a time. The good thing about today, is communication is a lot easier than in my day- you can FaceTime and call home to your heart’s content.
Many Australians want to find "WOW" dance experiences in London. Any advice on where should they visit?
Sadler’s Wells will offer an incredibly broad and high quality programme of work throughout the year. Of course, there is also the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum as well, for the larger companies, and then you will also find interesting work at the Barbican, the Southbank and The Place.