‘I’m flying over my country’ … Australian-born Royal Ballet principal ballerina Leanne Benjamin in full flight near Alice Springs. Picture: Jason Bell
Dancer Leanne Benjamin launches her memoir Built for Ballet
By Matthew Westwood
A dusty highway near Alice Springs is a long way from the Royal Opera House in London’s cramped Covent Garden, but the red earth and enormous sky had a powerful pull on Australian ballerina Leanne Benjamin.
Benjamin was a principal artist with the Royal Ballet in 2006 when a camera crew made the long journey from London to Alice Springs to work with her on a shoot for a marketing campaign.
The result is an arresting image of a dancer at the peak of her powers – a phoenix of the desert, flame-red dress streaming behind her, her legs extended in a powerful expression of flight.
The idea was inspired by one of Benjamin’s signature roles in The Firebird. But it was also a response to the emotions she felt when flying over the red centre, on the many flights she had made between Australia and London.
“I don’t know how many trips I’ve done back to Australia from the age of 16 throughout my life,” Benjamin said from London on Friday.
“I could see myself flying over Australia: I wanted to be a bird, looking down at the country.”
Benjamin has published a memoir, Built for Ballet, that will be launched at Australia House in London on October 25. In it, she describes a career that took her from dance classes in Rockhampton from age three, to principal artist with the Royal Ballet and roles such as Giselle, Odette in Swan Lake, and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
In 2006, the Royal Opera House commissioned a series of portraits in a campaign called A World Stage, in which ballet and opera stars were photographed in places that represented them.
Her dance colleague Darcey Bussell was pictured at the white cliffs of Dover.
Benjamin collaborated with photographer Jason Bell, whose work has since been seen in glossy magazines and shoots for blockbuster movies. His work includes official portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
They had discussed doing the picture at Uluru. When they couldn’t obtain permission, they did the shoot on a stretch of highway near Alice Springs.
Bell arranged for a truckie to drive his road train back and forth while he and Benjamin worked at getting the perfect shot.
The red earth was hard under her feet, the temperature was 40C, and a series of static poses didn’t capture the excitement she wanted. Then she tried a grand jete, extending her legs in the splits, mid-air.
“There was no trampoline, and no special effects,” she writes in the book.
“This was not a stunt photograph, it was me, launching myself into the sky, in touch with the red, red earth of my beloved country.”
Benjamin, 57, retired from dance in 2013, and has since worked as a coach with dancers in London and Australia.
She coached the Royal Ballet’s dancers in the current production of Romeo and Juliet, which opened this week.
As a former dancer who had looked at herself in the mirror every day, she said she did not want her old photos to be the centre of attention. The famous picture is kept on a “theatrical wall” in her home in Notting Hill, where she lives with her husband, producer Tobias Round.
But the picture most definitely has pride of place in the home of Jill and Bernie Benjamin, her parents, who now live in an apartment in Sydney.
“It reminds me how much I miss Australia, how powerful I must have been at that point,” Benjamin said of the picture.
“I think it’s the photograph I’m most proud of, because it really says who I am – I’m an Australian, flying over my country.”
Read an extract of Leanne Benjamin’s memoir Built for Ballet here.
Read the original article on The Australian website.