Olivia Bell in Ballet Imperial. Photo Jim McFarlane
Many girls, at some point of their lives, want to grow up to become ballerinas: dressed in tulle, crowned with a tiara, and able to do amazing things balancing on their toes. What most people don't see are the hours of sweat, grit and determination that all ballerinas put in to make it seem as if they are floating effortlessly across a stage. The ballerinas of The Australian Ballet are an extraordinary group of strong and dynamic women who work hard performing in many different kinds of ballets. Often, when male dancers have already showered and left the theatre, our ladies are still enthralling audiences as ghostly Wilis in Giselle or graceful swans in Swan Lake.
Years of training from a very young age means our ballerinas are incredible athletes as well as artists. As well as spending hours in the ballet studio doing classes and rehearsals, female dancers will also cross-train at the gym, hone their core strength with pilates, and make a splash at their local swimming pool!
The Australian Ballet is lucky to have an amazing group of women in the company truly dedicated to this wonderful art form. Each has their own unique talents and strives to be their individual best, while continuing the legacy left by the thousands of ballerinas who have come before them.
David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet
The early years
Although ballet is usually thought of as a female art form, in its early days only men were allowed to dance on stage. When ballet moved out of the palaces of Louis XIV of France and onto stages, all the dancers were men.
In the 1681 opera-ballet Le Triomphe de l'Amour, Mlle de Lafontaine led three other female dancers on stage and became the first in a long line of famous ballerinas. Mlle de Lafontaine and her friends were French dancers who learnt their art from the teachers at the Académie Royale. The dancing they did was not very complicated, mainly because of the long heavy dresses and healed shoes they wore. Costumes like this made it impossible for them to jump or turn.
Luckily two exceptional ballerinas appeared at the Paris Opéra at this time. Marie Camargo was a dancer with a brilliant technique. She was particularly noted for her entrechat, a sparkling jump in which the dancer's feet cross repeatedly while she is in the air. But on stage the length of her dresses made the step impossible to see. So Camargo did what at the time was scandalous – she shortened her skirt by several inches and took the heels off her shoes. This allowed female dancers to develop a technique to match the men. Now that their feet could be seen, it also made them more careful about the neatness of their footwork.
Her rival Marie Sallé was a technically strong dancer as well, but above all she was a dramatic ballerina. Sallé also made some much-needed changes to ballet costumes. When she appeared as a Greek goddess who comes to life in Pygmalion (a ballet which she choreographed in London in 1734) she discarded the usual wig and cumbersome costume and appeared in a simple muslin robe with her hair hanging loosely over her shoulders. The reasons behind the changes these dancers made demonstrate two different approaches to the art of dance that we see even today. Camargo wished to make her technical accomplishments more visible and Sallé wanted to portray her dramatic character as convincingly as possible.
The Romantic era and beyond
In the Romantic era, Marie Taglioni gave us the popular image of a ballerina as a tall willowy creature in a long white tutu, flying through the air with effortless ease then alighting on the tips of her toes. Fanny Elssler, meanwhile, had great dramatic intensity and preferred to dance roles that showed off her virtuosity. Her specialty was Spanish dances that she brought to life with her warmth and passion. Both of these ballerinas travelled extensively, were wined and dined by kings and emperors, and were even carried through the streets by their devoted fans. The more famous they became, the more secondary became the roles of their male partners.
With the development of pointe work in the late 19th century, ballet technique continued to evolve. The emphasis of female dancing shifted from effortless lyricism to powerful virtuosity. The Romantic bell-shaped tutu was replaced by shorter and shorter skirts to show off the footwork of a new generation of dancers. The centre of ballet had also changed: it was now in Russia where visiting Italian ballerinas vied with Russian ones in feats of technical brilliance.
During the late 1800s, Russia produced lavish ballet spectacles. The Petipa ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, introduced the grand pas de deux, and demanded ever more brilliance from dancers. The great ballerinas of the day were Italians Pierina Legnani (the first Swan Queen), Carlotta Brianza (the first Aurora), Antoinetta Dell-Era (the first Sugar Plum Fairy) and the Russian stars Mathilde Kchessinska and Olga Preobrazhenska.
Lana Jones in Peter Wright's The Nutcracker. Photo Jeff
The 20th century
The early 20th century saw the great Russian dancer Anna Pavlova become a household name all over the world, renowned for her lyricism and beauty. Her famous Dying Swan made her a legend wherever she danced, including Australia, where thousands of people fell under her spell. Equally loved were the three Russian stars who toured Australia with Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes. They were called the “baby ballerinas” because they were made principal dancers at such a young age – Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova at age 14, and Tatiana Riabouchinska at age 16.
Australia's homegrown ballerinas began to come to prominence during the life of the Borovansky Ballet: Edna Busse, Laurel Martyn, Dorothy Stevenson, Peggy Sager, Lynne Golding, Rachel Cameron, plus Kathleen Gorham and Marilyn Jones who were the first stars of the young Australian Ballet.
Other great stars of The Australian Ballet include Elaine Fifield, Lucette Aldous, Barbara Chambers, Kathleen Geldard, Marilyn Rowe, Michela Kirkaldie, Christine Walsh, Lisa Pavane, Vicki Attard, Lisa Bolte, Miranda Coney, Justine Summers, Lynette Wills and Kirsty Martin while current Principals Olivia Bell, Madeleine Eastoe, Lucinda Dunn, Amber Scott, Lana Jones and Leanne Stojmenov continue to enchant audiences.