Ballet teacher raises the barre

LIKE SO: Lorraine Peters puts a new generation of dancers through their paces.
LIKE SO: Lorraine Peters puts a new generation of dancers through their paces.

"Miss P" launched a ballet school in Christchurch before the Royal New Zealand Ballet existed, says Ewan Sargent.

The ballet mistress is as you'd expect. Petite, slender, poised, coiffed, graceful.

Lorraine Peters' pupils were her "girls" and "boys" and she was always their Miss P. It stays that way for life.

Her "girls" and "boys" were beautiful, delightful, stunning, but most often "gorgeous".

"I loved them. Absolutely loved them. I had one girl ring me yesterday who must be 50-something . . . and they all call me Miss P. She was telling me about the New Zealand Ballet. It's really, really interesting that they still contact me.

"One of my oldest students, my first student, Wendy Jane would be 65, and she still calls me Miss P. She was beautiful."

Yet . . . before it all gets too pink and syrupy, there's steel here, too.

"I worked my students very hard," Peters says. She demanded concentration, fitness and high standards. She drove them like mini Marine squads so that on stage they floated with the effortless grace only a hardened body can achieve.

It's this mix of firmness, respect, care and achievement that perhaps lies behind the fierce bond that forms between generations of ballet mums and their dancing children and their ballet mistress.

While the dancers can try many different contemporary forms, she believes at the core of any success lies a classical ballet grounding.

Peters is the matriarch of the Christchurch ballet world. Although in her 70s and supposedly having retired a number of times, she remains the artistic director of Southern Ballet Theatre Company, now based in Sydenham after the quakes bumped it from the Arts Centre.

She founded Southern Ballet in 1975, but has taught in the city since 1951.

Peters first studied ballet as a four-year-old in Timaru. Her father "was in display", a quaint way of saying he helped design the look of the Ballantynes stores.

He moved stores to Christchurch when she was about eight and the lessons continued under Peggy Holmes.

But Peters always wanted to be a dance teacher more than a dancer herself.

In 1951, when just 15, she took the bold step of opening her own school in a room in her parents' home. They lived in Riccarton Rd, across from the grand Lord Mountbatten homestead.

"I'll never forget my first student who was about four or five. The mother was quite a wealthy lady and she was coming down the road and stopped and went into the homestead. I thought 'argh she's gone to the wrong home, and then she will have to come to this humble little place'. She eventually found the number and she was charming. She was absolutely wonderful that lady."

Thousands more students followed.

Peters says she doesn't have the technical knowledge of the body that younger tutors bring, but people have told her she has "the eye".

Some young dancers are obvious stars from the start. But ballet is like life in that it takes more than talent to succeed.

Peters recalls five girls who auditioned for the New Zealand School of Dance. Four made it and one missed out. The successful four all left at the end of the first year for one reason or another. The one who missed out worked hard, auditioned again a year later, got in, and now tutors contemporary dance.

"Every little girl should learn ballet because of its wonderful discipline and its respect. They respect their tutors," she says.

Some numbers: 110 of her former pupils have gone to professional dance careers in some form or other. At least 12 girls have become doctors. Her memory flits from face to name across decades recalling the lives that crossed hers at their beginning and carried on with the benefits ballet gave them.

The best ballet she ever saw live came from a Russian touring company at the Theatre Royal many years ago.

She stands to tell the story, to demonstrate, arms waving. The passion, glory, athleticism of ballet was summed up for her in dazzling pas de deux.

"These two were doing Spring Waters. There were a lot of lifts and a lot of throws, but the artistry, the arms and the technique and the discipline, and the guy was just real, you know, a real man [she laughs and does the Incredible Hulk bulging pecs pose] and a beautiful physique.

"She runs across from the top of the stage and she jumps about halfway and back flips and seems to fly on her back across the stage . . . It was incredible. It wasn't trickery, it was beautiful, it was just divine. And he catches her, of course."


Southern Ballet Theatre Company's contribution to the 2013 Christchurch Body Festival is Lights, Camera, Action. The show includes three performances by the senior and intermediate ballet companies. One item, Auber, is an original choreographed piece by Lorraine Peters. The performances are at 2pm and 7pm today and tomorrow at the Southern Ballet Theatre, 108 Carlyle St. Cost: $15, $12 concessions, phone 379 7219.

The Press