Leanne Benjamin and Dame Monica Mason exchanged stories and each contributed to a lively, interesting and amusing conversation. The stories ranged from Leanne’s early days as a dancer, her time in British and overseas ballet companies and her recent experiences as teacher, coach and designer.
Leanne trained in Rockhampton, Queensland, until she was offered a place in the Royal Ballet School when she was 16 years old where she was pleased to be placed in the White Lodge class rather than in the Overseas class. Peter Wright chose her to perform Giselle in the School Performance, a role in which Dame Alicia Markova coached her. Dame Alicia was very quiet, with few words but she had a lovely presence in the studio. She helped Leanne with style and her particular way of jumping. As a dancer, Dame Alicia liked to be lifted but Leanne said she was lucky to be partnered by Johnny Cope.
At Peter Wright’s invitation, Leanne was offered a place with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet where she stayed for 5 years. Leanne said Peter Wright was wonderful but the touring and travelling was difficult on her body and at that time, there were limited resources for injury rehabilitation. The floors at each venue could be very different and not made for dancers so impact injuries were a risk. Leanne said that the heavy touring schedule and constant change of venues was difficult to sustain her technique. Over her career, she learned about the importance of listening to your body and to protect it, to enable a dancer to have a long healthy career.
She knew that English National Ballet concentrated heavily on technique and had an attractive repertoire so when she was offered the opportunity to join this company to work with Peter Schaufuss, she took it. Unlike Sir Peter Wright, Schaufuss was not a father figure but Leanne admired him for his ability as a dancer and his emphasis on technique. Leanne danced with a range of specialist dancers at ENB including Patrick Armand. The challenge for the male Principals was that Peter liked to dance most of the opening nights. Leanne liked that ENB coaches gave corrections on the night of performance rather than the Royal Ballet’s way of making few corrections on the night and deferring the corrections for another day. Leanne found immediate notes helpful and working with different directors and teachers over the years has helped her in her current work as a teacher and coach.
When Peter Schaufuss moved to Berlin he invited Leanne to join the Deutsche Oper ballet. It was an exciting time to be there to enjoy a new culture, especially as the Wall had just come down. The company performed in a modern, sparse theatre with a stage larger than Covent Garden. The rehearsal schedule was different from Britain, with an afternoon break so that mothers could collect their children from school. Rehearsals would recommence at 5pm and could run on until 10pm. Another distinctive feature was the possibility of a doctor's note which would allow dancers to take time off work. There were a lot of rules within the company as well as strong union rules. It was difficult for Leanne to learn German as English was spoken in the studio. Leanne stayed in Berlin for 16 months and had the opportunity to work with Bejart, Roland Petit and Suzanne Farrell.
Leanne experienced a different rule with the rehearsal schedule when she was coaching Mayerling with Houston Ballet. Every 55 minutes there had to be a 5 minute break for the dancers, during which, teachers were not allowed to talk to them. Leanne found this frustrating to have to cut off from giving notes to the dancers when the dancers were relaxing - as you would do in the Royal Ballet. Sarah Lamb had said that the same rule applied in Boston.
When Leanne was performing Juliet in Ashton's Romeo and Juliet at the MET, Kenneth MacMillan was in the audience and complimented her onstage after her performance, they next met in Berlin. Leanne was so in awe of him when he arrived, she could barely speak; he told her she was going to have to start talking to him as she would be dancing the lead in his new ballet, Different Drummer. Kenneth was a choreographer she desperately wanted to work with and was excited when he invited her to join the Royal Ballet but Anthony Dowell was not so keen as he had lots of talented dancers in the company. Monica mentioned that perhaps he was concerned that she would not stay with the company.
Leanne had always followed her gut and made decisions she felt were right. Years earlier, her parents had wanted her to stay with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and Sir Peter Wright but, despite the comfort she enjoyed there, she had been drawn towards English National Ballet and felt she needed to shake herself up. " And everyone else" added Dame Monica Mason, to much laughter. If Leanne didn’t join the Royal Ballet, she was very unsure of where she would go or what she would do after Berlin. Since arriving in London at 16 she had had little help with making transition decisions.
On the day of this talk, Leanne and Edward Watson had begun working together coaching Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Ballet. Leanne's face lit up as she spoke of the magic in the studio and how well they worked together, rehearsing a whole scene. She was so pleased to be working with Anna Rose O'Sullivan, Marcelino Sambe, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, William Bracewell and Reece Clarke who stepped in for the day. As a coach, Leanne said that she loved the process of seeing how each dancer needed to develop.
When Leanne spoke at LBC last time, she talked of her plan to train in design. She finished the training and now combines some design work with her teaching and coaching commitments, but she is drawn to the studio. When Kevin O'Hare asked her to work as a coach for Mayerling, she realised how much she enjoyed being back in the studio, working with the dancers. Seeing the change in a dancer through the rehearsal process is both stimulating and satisfying for her. As a coach, she is learning how to deal with different personalities and an approach in rehearsals. She remarked that this knowledge would have been a great help when she herself was a dancer.
Leanne was asked if she saw a difference in approach between her generation of dancers and the current generation of young dancers like Anna Rose. She did not think there was a difference but recognises that dancers of this generation are very adaptable because they are used to working with so many choreographers. Dame Monica added that the additional facilities available today help assessment and this gives the dancers support and practical scientific solutions which were not available in the past. The dancers are more equipped with fitness facilities but this should not take over from the studio time as it is here that the precision in their technique for the steps will develop.
Dame Monica gave an example of how dancers protect their bodies with modern advice, for example by limiting the number of jumps in a week. Historically, nothing was missed out or limited. Leanne said that she is very aware of injury and the problems dancers may have and works the rehearsals to accommodate their needs.
Leanne was asked about the comfort of regular partners and the challenges of changing partners. She gave an example of seeing Sarah and Reece perform together in Symphony in C, 2nd movement. Reece is not Sarah’s usual partner and Leanne loved watching their first performance together. With his height and Sarah being so light, he lifted her effortlessly across the stage which made such an impact. Leanne said although it was difficult to change partners as a dancers balance, height, and pirouettes all takes time to settle in. It’s important to change partners but not if it impacts on the emotional relationship between the dancers on stage. If you don’t have a connection with your partner or a physical or personality clash, it might read in the performance.
Leanne remarked that she out-lasted her partners at the Royal Ballet. Ross Stretton put her together with Edward Watson who had little partnering experience. Fortunately, they had the same approach to their studio work and stayed until the work reached their high individual standards and they achieved a meeting of mind and physicality. Over the last 10 years of her career, she worked with Ed on the dramatic roles and particularly in the new works. Dame Monica mentioned that Ed said it was Leanne who showed him how to partner. They both wanted to get it right but Leanne would concentrate on detail instead of complimenting Ed!
Leanne said that different partners bring different qualities: Carlos could lift from the floor, and Johan Kobborg and Steven McRae had great dexterity with their partnering. Dame Monica recalled an occasion during a Romeo and Juliet call when Leanne said, "There is no energy in the room, I can't work without energy". Dame Monica spoke of the need to include the corps de ballet and for them to feel important to the principal dancer to give of their best. It is easy to be concentrating on a pas de deux but this might leave the corps de ballet to not push themselves in another part of the studio. Coming through the corps de ballet gives you an understanding and sympathy. What Leanne liked to do was to create an atmosphere to work in.
During the question time, one person asked for more talks from the combination of Leanne and Dame Monica which caused Dame Monica to ask the question of Leanne, "Am I your favourite partner?" There was much laughter in the room. She then said that good working relationships are special.
When asked about the difference in choreography between Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Leanne spoke of Fred’s more stylised, posed and innocent approach and Kenneth’s natural, stripped down approach. Leanne felt she was better suited to MacMillan’s choreography, as she could be more abandoned and passionate.
Asked about her plans for the future she told the audience that she is taking two working trips to Australia this year. The first is to coach Maina Gielgud’s Giselle with the Australian Ballet and the second is to work on Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet with the Queensland Ballet which is a much smaller company which will be an interesting experience.
When asked if she thinks there is an Australian style of dancing, Leanne replied that the Australian Ballet Company have a great repertoire and the dancers are very athletic. They were also fortunate that years ago, Madame gave them Checkmate as a gift. Dame Monica mentioned that the climate helps in countries such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and that a teacher had said that the dancers from these countries were two years more mature than their British counter parts. Leanne added that children spend lots of time outside which gives them a natural cross-training.
Following Kevin O’Hare's initial invitation into teaching, Leanne has worked with the American Ballet Theatre, the Houston Ballet as well as in Summer schools and does undertake private coaching by request from keen dancers. She also undertakes design projects and changes properties often. Dame Monica remarked that she is different as she has been in the same home for 30 years. As Leanne pointed out, Dame Monica was busy with other activities.
When asked about conductors, Leanne replied that it is a very important relationship. Music lead her into dance not just the steps. Her love of music made rehearsing and performing particular ballets more enjoyable. Leanne’s favourite music is Faure’s Requiem and Mahler’s Song of the Earth and, when a choir is also involved, it can be magical. It is helpful to have a conductor spend time in the studio through the rehearsal period as the conductor needs to lead. Dame Monica added that the conductor can be sympathetic to particular dancers, they can see what speed a dancer likes to have.
Russian conductors tend to watch the dancers and then follow their tempo whereas, in the UK, dancers are more accustomed to follow the tempo set by the conductor.
Asked if there was a perfect moment of balance for a dancer, Leanne reflected that she has rarely felt it. It happened sometimes towards the end of her career when everything came together. It probably took maturity, the right partners and teachers and it was in a ballet that she really loved to dance.
At the end of the conversation between Leanne and Dame Monica, Leanne was asked about her physical activities since she stopped dancing. She admitted that she did do some exercise but with teaching there is a lot of sitting involved. She notices the echoes of old injuries but did not drastically miss the dancing. However she wants to keep exercising and does Pilates. She wants to take care of her body gently but Ed still wants to dance. She told him to be careful. This was a suitable note on which to finish a wonderful evening.