Exposing the real ballet dancers

PAUL MATTHEWS: "Because you get chosen, you feel like you're on the right track."
PAUL MATTHEWS: "Because you get chosen, you feel like you're on the right track."

Ballet has made a whirlwind return to New Zealand popular culture with the success of Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, and TV3's The Secret Lives of Dancers.

The TV show and movie are doing wonders for popularising the lives of ballet dancers, says Paul Mathews, a 24-year-old professional dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), but he is sceptical about the way such programmes tell the dance story.

MULTIMEDIA: An audio slideshow of Eddie Brunton.

Created by Ross Giblin.

Secret Lives created drama through editing to make good viewing and was not always realistic, he says. "I don't know how interesting [unedited footage] would be for the general public, something that represents what we really do  just hard work day after day."

Despite the emphasis on personal drama, Mathews says he does appreciate the exposure the TV show gave the company. "More people recognise that it's a career. They realise that we do it fulltime, because they see what we do in a studio."

It's fulltime and full on: by the end of the year the company will have done five productions  Pinocchio; Verdi Variations; the Stravinsky Selection triple bill, currently touring New Zealand; an international tour From Here to There; and the upcoming The Sleeping Beauty  and have given 95 performances.

Mathews has been with the RNZB for six years. The youngest of four children, who all danced, he was sent to ballet classes in Auckland when he was four years old, but didn't decide to make a career out of dancing until he was a teenager.

At 13 he auditioned for the Junior Associates, a programme run by the New Zealand School of Dance that helps promising dancers prepare for a fulltime career. The programme takes a small number of 13 to 16 year olds each year, offering contemporary and classical ballet classes, four weekends a year free of charge. Many of the young dancers go on to the School of Dance.

"Because you get chosen, you feel like you're on the right track," Mathews says.

At 16, he was accepted into the School of Dance, where he trained in contemporary and ballet for three years before graduating in 2005 with a Diploma in Dance Performance. He received the Excellence in Classical Ballet Award for his year and the Todd Scholarship, which gave him a contract to dance with the RNZB for a year.

He has appeared in several roles, from the contemporary Plan to A to The Nutcracker.

Fifteen-year-old Eddie Brunton also wants to be a RNZB dancer. Like Mathews, Brunton, who dances at Chilton Dance Centre in Lower Hutt, started dancing at the age of four. She has been part of the Junior Associates programme since she was 13 and plans to audition for the New Zealand School of Dance at the end of next year, after she has gained her Advanced Two ballet qualification  which is the penultimate of the vocational grades with the Royal Academy of Dance, an organisation recognised in 84 countries.

The School of Dance, which took 38 of 135 dancers who auditioned last year, offers both a ballet and a contemporary major with the opportunity for dancers to train at other dance institutions, complete a secondment with a dance company and choreograph their own contemporary works in their final year.

School of Dance marketing manager Celia Jenkins says the school generally has an employment-on-completion rate of about 80 per cent, and up to 100 per cent of students have been offered employment in recent years. "[The employment rate] is a testament to the school's quality of education."

After completing her training, Brunton hopes to dance for the RNZB and eventually move to a company overseas such as the Paris Opera Ballet, or the Royal Ballet in England, whose former principal ballerina, Darcey Bussell, is one of Brunton's idols. "It's a really good career to do, when I can be doing what I love."

However, despite giving prestige and feeding passion, dancing is not going to make you rich. RNZB marketing and media co-ordinator Julia Hughes says the members' salaries are "very modest". The RNZB would not provide figures.

Although professional dancers do not earn a large salary in New Zealand, principal dancers in the United States are paid up to US$1500 (about NZ$1900) a week.

If Brunton is going to make it as a pro, there are some hurdles. For starters, she is tall for a ballerina  176cm (5ft 9in)  which makes it harder for her to move quickly, especially when jumping. It also makes it hard for her male partner in pas de deux or couples work, although there are more tall male ballet dancers around than before, Brunton says.


But she was inspired after seeing the RNZB's 173cm-tall Abigail Boyle, who has played leading roles for the company, dancing.

"I thought tall ballet dancers weren't able to be as good, but then I saw her and she was amazing."

Brunton's ballet teacher, and Chilton Dance Centre director, Bronwyn Bennett describes her as a "passionate and mature" dancer.

"She really loves dancing  she's always performing."

Brunton takes 10 classes a week and three private lessons. Her parents pay for her class and competition-entry fees, her costume costs for competitions and a new pair of pointe shoes every month (see above).

Despite being among teenage ballet dancers with big ambitions and raging hormones, for the most part, people within her dance school, local competitions and at the school of dance get on well, Brunton says. "There's sometimes a wee bit of competitiveness. Mostly between Auckland and Wellington," she laughs.

Mathews and Brunton both agree: being among Kiwi dancers avoids the catty competitiveness that appears in the European and American dance world.

International dancers who come to New Zealand might start out a certain way, but "they become Kiwis", Mathews says.

Mathews says dancers put more pressure on themselves than anyone else does. At Brunton's age, he was practising 10 hours a week; since joining the company that has increased to 40 hours per week.

The 32 members of the Royal New Zealand Ballet have classes from 9.30am until 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, and again at 11am on Saturday.

Most moviegoers have seen dance films where the director puts pressure on the young girl to lose weight, but Mathews says the reality is that any pressures surrounding body image come from dancers themselves.

"You know yourself. You don't need to be told. You are the one on stage with your top off in front of two or three thousand people a night. Do you want to have soft bits, or do you want to look really good?"

Aside from aesthetic pressures, ballet dancers put enormous strain on their bodies, which often results in injuries and short-lived careers.

Mathews has been lucky when it comes to injuries, but says many in the company have not been. He can't remember a season where there have been no serious injuries among company members.

A stalwart of New Zealand ballet, Sir Jon Trimmer, is dancing in Petrouckha in the Stravinsky triple bill at the age 71, but most dancers are not able to perform past middle age.

The RNZB's newest recruit, Sara Havener, is 18 years old, and the oldest dancer is 32. The maximum age of a professional ballet dancer is about 35 for females and 40 for males, Mathews says. But modern training techniques and injury awareness means ballet dancers are able to keep performing for longer.

Mathews, barely into his 20s, is aware he can't perform forever but will cross that bridge when he comes to it. He left school at the end of fifth form to attend the School of Dance and has tried to finish his high school studies by correspondence  but he couldn't stay awake.

He has been working toward a business degree at the Open Polytechnic for the past five years, but is not as passionate about study as he is about ballet. "I don't even know why I'm studying. I just fell into it. The question comes up a lot at functions, you know, 'what are you doing after ballet?' and I can pretend I have an idea."

Brunton says she always wants to be involved in ballet, and is already working toward becoming a teacher in case of injury, or when her career ends. She works as an assistant teacher for two classes a week at the Chilton Dance Centre.

There are also mental pressures on dancers, Mathews says. The biggest is during casting for roles. Company members do not have a say in what role they are chosen for. Roles are often chosen by the choreographer, and it can be hard on dancers when they do not get the role they want. "Most people manage to hide the tears till the changing rooms. As a dancer, you just have to realise it doesn't always go your way."

The Stravinsky Selection is on tonight and tomorrow at the St James Theatre in Wellington, before moving on to Auckland, Napier and Invercargill.

The Dominion Post