Paper towels balance perfection en pointe

Leanne Benjamin - new Queensland Ballet artistic director - Newsreel
Queensland Ballet’s new artistic director Leanne Benjamin. | Photo: From the private collection of Leanne Benjamin

London’s poshest hotel restaurants played a little-known part in helping to support the career of Queensland Ballet’s new artistic director Leanne Benjamin.

In her autobiography Built for Ballet, Benjamin says to protect her toes she would pack the inside of her shoes with a particular type of absorbent paper towel, which became increasingly difficult to find as her career went on.

“I would have paid $25,000 to find the perfect roll, but it wasn’t available, so I ended up smuggling napkins out of hotels,” Benjamin says.

“I used to buy it (the paper towels) in supermarkets. Then it only became available in one particular supermarket, so I bought rolls and rolls of the stuff, thinking that it would get me to the end of my career.

“Then I kept dancing, and my supply ran out.”

By the time she retired at age 49, she could only find something similar in the restaurants of posh hotels. In order to achieve the desired effect, she would have to mix a paper serviette with a little of her diminishing stock of paper.

The paper towel struggle is a good metaphor for Benjamin and her career on the world’s most famous stages. At a young age she was told she should never be a ballet dancer because she had osteoarthritis in her right big toe, a warning she ignored despite the career-long pain. Her resilience, determination, and courage are a study in true grit.

“Dance is demanding,” she says. “What kept me going was that I loved the discipline of it, the sweat and exhaustion of daily class. I actually liked the challenge of challenging myself.”

Born and raised in the central Queensland city of Rockhampton to Bernie, a mechanic, and Jill who restored antiques and ran the local antique store, Benjamin was one of four children and says she never wanted to be a ballerina. It just happened.

Her mother enrolled her in ballet at the age of three because she thought Benjamin and her older sister Madonna would walk better by learning the poise of dancers.

By four she was already making the local paper with her performances.

“My personality meant I always wanted to be real onstage, to communicate, to tell an audience a story with my body and my feelings,” she says.

Surprisingly, she didn’t see her first live ballet until age 11 when she was chosen to perform a Scottish reel in Queensland Ballet’s version of La Sylphide.

She had begun learning from Rockhampton’s Valeria Hansen who was producing world-class dancers such as Mary McKendry who danced at the Royal Ballet School, English National Ballet and Houston Ballet before she returned to Queensland Ballet to work alongside her husband Li Cunxin.

“There wasn’t a mirror in the room…because I wasn’t looking at myself, I never thought of myself as being fat, thin, tall or short,” Benjamin explains. “I was just there to learn to dance and to perfect what I was doing. That saved me, I think, from one of the most difficult things for young girls about learning to dance – it can encourage body dysmorphia.”

At 16 she left Australia to follow Madonna (who dropped out and is now a producer at Channel 4 Television in London) and study at the Royal Ballet School where she won the Adeline Genee Competition Gold Medal and the Prix de Lausanne scholarship.

Her first paying job in dance, at 18, was with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, where she was promoted to principal dancer at 22.

“One of my strongest memories of SWRB is of dancing Lise (from La Fille Mal Gardee) in a Big Top in Scarborough, with the rain pouring in so hard it was being caught in buckets placed on the stage, while I balanced on pointe on one leg, holding the ribbons of a maypole, pretending it was a sunny day, and laughing because it was actually raining on my head while I did so.

“I had come from an uncomplicated, sunny upbringing but there was nothing I liked better than to delve into complexity, undertaking my own education in feeling by experiencing emotions in the safety of make-believe.”

Benjamin says those tours gave her the opportunity to make mistakes, experiment and learn – away from the judgemental eyes of critics. But she got tired of the never-ending travel, bad studio facilities and constant hard floors. She found she wasn’t getting the coaching needed to turn her into the performer she knew she could be.

“I wanted to be exceptional not average, but there was no time to be perfect in anything. Sometimes my perfectionism went against me, because I put too much pressure on myself, thinking about technique, not delivery.

“Technique will only get you so far,” she explains. “It’s the smaller, in-between movements where you put the steps together, melding the tiny moments between steps to create atmosphere and personality in dance.”

Shortly after she joined the English National Ballet (ENB) and from there the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin. “I can’t emphasise how rare it was for a principal dancer to leave her home company at that time, and my own bravery astonishes me.

“Anyone who knows me will recognise that what you see is what you get. I was regarded as a maverick, someone who was never afraid to ask questions and to speak her mind. I always wanted to have an explanation of why something was for the best.”

This went against the old-school belief that ballerinas should be seen and not heard.

“For me it was always about the work, about what audiences would see, but to do my best, I needed things explained to me,” Benjamin says.

Things have changed now – “in treating young dancers like grown-ups, we will encourage them to think more deeply and to become better artists.”

It was in Berlin where she met choreographer and mentor Kenneth MacMillian who she credits with reinventing her life and career when he advocated for her to join The Royal Ballet in 1992.

Twenty years later, aged 39, she and husband Tobias Round (a theatre producer and manager, and the son of former Royal Ballet principal Georgina Parkinson and photographer Roy Round) welcomed son Thomas.

“My body allowed me to carry on dancing at my peak; if anything, the absolute break from dancing my pregnancy had enforced seemed to strengthen me. I didn’t feel worn out. I felt refreshed and ready to go.”

“I think my performances as an older dancer were probably better. I approached my early performances in the classics with so much energy. Later I had more refinement – I could say more with less.”

At the age of 49, with an OBE and an AM in recognition of her services to dance, she retired from the stage.

“I wasn’t even tempted to try to get to my 50th birthday. My motto with curtain calls was ‘always leave them wanting more’.”

After the stage she studied for a Diploma in Architectural Design at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. She’d renovated seven homes before she’d retired and was keen to take the interest further.

But she gave up when she realised that working for demanding clients might be more stressful than dancing Swan Lake.

Then almost as soon as she stopped performing, the phone rang with people asking if she’d take on some private coaching, including returning to The Royal Ballet as a guest coach. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it.

“It became the event that I most looked forward to every week – and has ended up being one of the most rewarding things I have done since I left the stage.”

Leanne Benjamin started at the Queensland Ballet in February. Her book, Built for Ballet an autobiography with Sarah Crompton is published by Melbourne Books and is available through Dymocks, Amazon and Booktopia.


Leanne Benjamin's first stage performance.
Leanne Benjamin's first stage performance aged four was singing and dancing "Animal Crackers in my Soup." | Leanne Benjamin personal archive
Leanne Benjamin with her husband Tobias and son Thomas in 2020.
Leanne Benjamin with her husband Tobias and son Thomas in 2020. | Leanne Benjamin personal archive

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