The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.
And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.
“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.
Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.
Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.
Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.
Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.
Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.
Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.