mon 28/07/2014

theartsdesk Q&A: Ballerina Leanne Benjamin | Dance reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Ballerina Leanne Benjamin

Feisty, evergreen Royal Ballet star sums up as she prepares to retire tomorrow

The last MacMillan girl: Leanne Benjamin's Mary Vetsera fires her final shot tomorrow night© Bill Cooper/ROH

It's the uniqueness of the Royal Ballet ballerina Leanne Benjamin that tomorrow night at Covent Garden, aged nearly 49, she will be playing a sex-mad teenager, and no one will have the slightest difficulty believing it. Then she'll retire. Not for her a soft swoop into long dresses and matronly gestures, easing decorously into the sunset, but an all-out assault on physical and emotional extremes that is typical of the career of this tiny stick of dynamite from the Australian outback.

In a season full of goodbyes - Mara Galeazzi, Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg and Tamara Rojo have all signed off during the year - Benjamin's will be the one that marks an era's end in the Royal Ballet. She was the last MacMillan girl, a new muse in the fertile imagination of the Royal Ballet's great choreographer, who pulled the levers to steer her into a company packed already with talented ballerinas, with plans of his own for her, and who died suddenly the night before her first performance with the Royal Ballet 21 years ago.

It was a bodyblow for a 28-year-old outsider, and Benjamin - in among a pack of more famous names: Sylvie Guillem, Viviana Durante, Darcey Bussell - faced a hard climb up a rockwall to get up there into the big roles as a star in her own right. It took another decade before this sparky, urchin-bodied woman anchored herself. Then she took the career risk of having a baby late in her thirties.

leanne requiem tristramkentonOnce again, that could have been it, but Benjamin still wasn't finished. In the past 10 years, she has become a world-class ballerina, a must-see artist acclaimed around the world, with her own vibrant dramatic directness and an uninhibited physical appeal, not just in the MacMillan dramatic ballets, but in his more allusive contemplative parts - the soaring embodiment of innocence and compassion in Gloria and Requiem (pictured right by Tristram Kenton/ROH), to offset her brilliantly stroppy performance in The Judas Tree. And what MacMillan had spotted in her, a new generation of choreographers battened on, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon in particular - this compelling individualist inside the malleable, childlike physicality.

Then again, I also think how effective she is when she is cast against type - her romanticism in Balanchine's Emeralds, her electricity in Fokine's The Firebird (she flashed through the air like a shaft of lightning) and even Ashton, where her big, mischievous feet have zipped through the delicate complexities of Rhapsody and The Dream like a hummingbird's wings. Really, a ballerina of parts.

Big feet were one of the topics in a characteristically fresh and amusing conversation Benjamin had with me earlier this week as she contemplated her last performance. So were the joys of a beer after a show, and family life with husband Tobias Round and son Thomas.

leanne headshotShe talked of how she strode over setbacks, of the men and ballets who got away, and those that didn't, and the secret of making a brilliant career. She sat in the Royal Ballet canteen with me, a pint-sized, grasshopper creature with legs folded up in an origami arrangement, her mobile face without make-up or artifice, and a serene, sane conversational approach. (Left, Benjamin at the BBC last month for a Woman's Hour interview.)

In brief, she was born in Rockhampton in the Queensland outback on 13 July 1964, trained in Australia and won an Adeline Genée scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. She joined Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet under Peter Wright aged 18 and was a Principal at 23. She was headhunted by Peter Schaufuss for London Festival Ballet in 1987, and went with him, after his sacking in 1989, to Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin. There Kenneth MacMillan picked her out when he staged Different Drummer and in 1992 she joined the Royal Ballet (directed by Anthony Dowell) as a First Soloist, becoming Principal the following year. While she stamped her derring-do on the MacMillan ballets, she also became a particular focus for new choreography by Twyla Tharp, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, Kim Brandstrup, Mark Baldwin and, this spring, Alexei Ratmansky. She married theatre producer Tobias Round in 2001 and bore Thomas in 2003. She was made OBE in 2005.

ISMENE BROWN: What's it been like realising that every step is about to be the last?

LEANNE BENJAMIN: Every step since I had my child has felt like the last! For the last 10 years I've thought if I do another day that's great - and if I do another day, that's great. It's been artistically fulfilling since then, and feeling more relaxed - choosing my repertoire more to suit me. I think it was a natural progression. The ballets that I didn't want to do any more were the ones the younger ones need to do: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker. You don't really want to be around at Christmas when you have a child. You rehearse non-stop 12 months a year, and unlike most athletes we dancers don't really get any time off. So it gradually meant I could get a little bit of time in Nutcracker season to recuperate the body a bit. School holidays