No holds barre in a disciplined life

01:29, Apr 28 2014
Hayley Donnison
Hayley Donnison.

Hayley Donnison spent her childhood dancing in Invercargill. Now performing with the Royal NZ Ballet, she talks to Lauren Hayes about being a ballerina.

At an hour when many 20-year- olds are stumbling bleary-eyed to morning lectures or sleeping off another happy- hour hangover, Hayley Donnison is already hard at work.

The 20-year-old ballerina, one of 32 dancers employed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet company, can be found stretching on the studio floor from about 8.30am most weekdays, warming her well-used muscles back into life.

As a professional athlete, Donnison is, quite rightly, careful about her body, the tool of her trade.

"You definitely have to think about your health because it's all about your body and keeping the fitness," she says.

"[But] I'm not going to deprive myself of things I want. I don't usually go a day without having chocolate."


Donnison almost definitely does enough exercise throughout the day to burn off a few squares of choccy. After the stretching and warmup, class begins - about 30 minutes of barre work (exercises using a handrail) followed by an hour of energetic jetes (springing from one leg and landing on another), pirouettes and soubresauts (jumping with legs close together) under the watchful eye of the ballet master.

Class is followed by rehearsals for the company's latest production, and on an average day, Donnison could be busy in the studio until just before 6pm.

Almost 10 hours of practising and performing physically demanding exercises, day after day, is no easy feat, yet there is a recurring misconception ballet isn't a career, Donnison says.

"I think a lot of the time people who don't know about ballet don't realise it's a fulltime job.

"A lot of people would ask, what do you do for a real job?"

Donnison began dancing as a six-year- old, while a pupil at Invercargill's Waihopai School. Even in those early days, the dancer had her sights set high.

Once, for a class assignment, she penned a letter describing her dream to dance with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

"Mum really, really liked it, and she thought it was really cool, so she made a copy for my dance teacher. She's had it ever since."

The family moved across the ditch when Donnison was 10. Only a few years later, the young dancer was accepted into the prestigious Australian Ballet School in Melbourne.

Last year, aged 19, she was offered a contract to work with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

It's kind of a big deal. The company, smaller than some overseas, has only three dozen dancers, an equal mix of male and female.

The contract not only realised Donnison's childhood dream, it also meant financing equipment like pointe shoes - which can cost up to $100 per pair and last anywhere between a week and a mere day - was no longer such a worry.

"It was definitely hard for my mum and dad, I think," she says.

"When I was younger I used to go through quite a lot of shoes."

These days, Donnison has six to eight pairs of shoes on the go at one time, rotating between pairs throughout a normal day on the job.

Today, however, is not a usual day at the Royal New Zealand Ballet headquarters, a purpose-built suite tucked above Wellington's St James Theatre. Today, the dancers don't start trickling into the studio until noon, allowed a rare late start to class and rehearsals.

The theatre seems to be buzzing. Tonight is dress rehearsal night, the last chance to perfect the production before opening night, and everyone has a lot to do.

In an airy room above the studios, a team of costume designers are busy sewing and ironing, making last-minute adjustments to the cast's wardrobe. Men carrying bishop-sleeved shirts and folk dresses rush between the ironing boards, wardrobe crates and the magical, dreamy closet filled with spare sequins, buttons and fabrics.

This season's production is Coppelia, the story of young love and an inventor bent on bringing his dolls to life. It's a lighter ballet, comic in places, but this does not mean the costumes are any less impressive. If anything, the lighter ballet has made for heavier costumes.

Decades old, designed by Kristian Frederikson and shipped from Australia, the dresses are incredibly intricate - even parts the audience will never see are lavishly adorned with lace and sparkles.

But something isn't right with the wigs, there are boots yet to be spraypainted and only a few hours until the curtain rises. And that's only the drama in the costume department. There's still a live orchestra to organise, the elaborate sets to sort out and the lighting to perfect before the show begins.

Back in class, seemingly oblivious to the bustle behind the scenes, Donnison is at the barre, pulling her ankle above her head almost effortlessly.

Beside her, clad in leotards, tights, leg warmers and ballet skirts, guys and girls perform similarly gravity-defying exercises as they go through their tasks: plie (knees bent, back straight), plie, plie, first position, third position, repeat.

Artistic director Ethan Stiefel, in his quiet American accent, gives a steady stream of directions, which the class follows almost flawlessly.

The dancers are outrageously disciplined and almost unbelievably committed.

Yet here and there, there are signs these talented individuals are also, outside of work, relatively ordinary young adults. A couple sport rock band t-shirts as they warm up, while another giggles as she practises at the barre. Some have tattoos and piercings. Several are flatting together and a few, if the rumours are true, are even dating other dancers.

The close-knit environment and stress of a ballet company could create a haven for cat fights, conflict and competition, but Donnison quashes any suggestion of it happening among her colleagues.

"You hear a lot of stories about awful things in the ballet world, but it's not true.

"What struck me the most was how lovely everyone here was."

The dancers are drenched in sweat by the time the barre exercises are over. They still have hours of exercise to do before they perform on stage, in front of a partial audience, at the dress rehearsal. It's exhausting just watching them. Anyone who argues being a ballerina is not a proper job should take a class or two and see how long they can keep pace.

Donnison enjoys the physicality, though, and the hours of hard work and commitment.

"That's what I enjoy the most. It's being worked hard and pushed to my limits," she says.

"It's kind of cool - you get to do what you love. Sometimes it's tough, sometimes it's amazing."

The New Zealand Royal Ballet will perform Coppelia at the Civic Theatre, Invercargill on May 4. Hayley Donnison will also dance in the company's production Allegro later this year.


The Southland Times