At home with Benedicte Bemet, principal dancer of the Australian Ballet
Benedicte Bemet is one of those dancers you never forget. From even the junior ranks, she has been a crowd favourite, combining technical prowess while radiating her sheer love of dance from the stage. Her trajectory to principal dancer at the Australian Ballet seemed guaranteed. However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
While Covid-19 forces dancers around the world to pause, I spoke with Benedicte from her home in South Australia. What follows is a condensed version of our phone conversation, where in her thoughtful and engaging way, she speaks candidly about her rise to the rank of principal, the injury that nearly halted her career, the positives and negatives of anxiety, and her thoughts on David Hallberg taking on the role of artistic director at the Australian Ballet in 2021.
CL: Firstly, where and with who are you spending your time in isolation?
BB: Good question. I’m good. Some days and weeks are harder than others, but overall I’m coping pretty well. I’m actually in isolation in Adelaide [South Australia], which is my boyfriend’s hometown, so I’m in an apartment with my boyfriend and his brother and his brother’s girlfriend who is also a dancer in the ballet company.
CL: Oh, how brilliant. Would we know the dancer?
BB: Yes, her name is Riley Lapham [corps de ballet dancer at the Australian Ballet]. So that’s really nice. There’s two of us doing class together, and then there’s the two boys. Which is great because it kind of feels like we’re a little family. I imagine having more people to isolate with is probably easier. We’re really lucky to have each other actually. It’s been quite a nice experience.
CL: So you and Riley can do class together?
BB: Yeah exactly. It’s really nice to know that someone else is doing the daily grind with you.
CL: Before we get into that, can we just go back a little bit to when Covid-19 emerged in Australia. So, it’s mid-March, and you had performed in the opening couple of nights of [the Australian Ballet’s] “Volt” season in the Melbourne?
BB: Yes. I was in both “Chroma” by Wayne McGregor and Alice Topp’s new piece “Logos.” Three shows I think we did.
CL: After three shows, then theatres close, the Melbourne season is cancelled, the Sydney season is then cancelled. And so what happens then? All the dancers just fly straight home?
BB: Yeah, it was such a quick turnaround. I think for like the whole country really. For us, on the Thursday we were dress rehearsing, Friday we opened and there was kind talk of this lockdown situation and then on the following week, on the Monday, when gyms were closing and you weren’t allowed to do activities in large groups—so that’s what our company falls under—David [McAllister] said we’re going to try working from home. The IT team, they worked so hard to get the Microsoft Teams app up and running in two or three days with all this content, and to get the live stream class working, and then the very next day we all could take a piece of Tarkett home, which I don’t actually think any other ballet companies were doing. I noticed after we started working at home a few other companies, a couple of weeks later, all started getting these bits of Tarkett. I feel like we might have been a little trendsetters there maybe!
CL: Everybody got given their own little piece of Tarkett to take home? Cut up from the ballet studios?
BB: Yep. And then in the following week, if you were lucky enough to have a bigger space or a backyard or you know a slab of concrete they were like come back in and we’ll cut you a bigger piece. And so we’re all taking little bits of equipment, whatever we needed. And then the next day we drove to Adelaide just so that we could cross the border [between Victoria and South Australia] before quarantine started.
CL: It’s incredible isn’t it? Just sounds so crazy that you have to cross an Australian state border before quarantine . . .
BB: I know. It’s almost like still doesn’t feel like reality . . . basically we came over [the border] and the next day we woke up and we set up our little Pilates studio and ballet bar in the living room and we woke up and we signed on to our Teams account and there was our teacher setting class. A few hours later we had our daily call from a member of staff, someone working within the company just to touch base and make sure we’re okay. The company have been exceptional at just making sure we feel loved and connected and wanted and important.
CL: I agree, that’s so important. I imagine it could be really hard to stay fit and motivated when you can’t really practice in a big studio? So, can you talk me through your day?
BB: When we first came here and starting living in isolation I googled techniques to deal with . . . sometimes my anxiety can get the better of me. And I read that journaling was really good and I’d never really done it before and I was like alright, that’s what I’m going to do. So, I wake up and I’ll have a coffee and breakfast and I’ll journal for a bit and then I’ll get changed into my work out gear and I’ll so some pre-class Pilates. So, these are just the daily exercised I do, that every dancer has, that is specific to their body and their needs. And then at ten thirty Adelaide time, so eleven o’clock in Melbourne, we do an hour and fifteen of class. And then after that we’ll either be given some point work from our teacher or alternatively we can go back into the [online] library and select a pointe class that the staff members have pre-recorded for us. So, the first few weeks of isolation they were not only teaching class in the morning but going back and then recording other classes for us so that if something goes wrong [with the live class].
CL: It’s really quite an incredible amount of work from the company. . .
BB: Yeah it’s massive. So, I’ll do that, and then I’ll either go for a long run in the park across from where I am living, or I might do like a HIIT workout. Also if you want we’ve got an exercise training specialist [with the company] and he can set you some exercises for an hour or take you through some sort of training, if you want. Some people prefer to be a part of a class and do it that way. But I don’t mind actually just having that sort of solo time.
CL: I’ve also seen some of dancers such as Isabella Boylston and former Australian Ballet dancer Leanne Stojmenov, now they’re all teaching class live online. Have you done any of those classes?
BB: It’s amazing isn’t it? I actually haven’t. Mostly because of the time difference. I think if I wanted to do one of the Bella classes I’d have to probably get up in the middle of the night. But I loved watching them and it’s so nice that people are still that positive and upbeat and creating this community. There’s a really beautiful piece [“Shelter”] that’s just come out by Dani Rowe and a bunch of other choreographers along with twenty or so dancers around the world and it starts with them all talking about [being in isolation followed by a choreographed piece], and it’s just so beautiful and it’s really inspiring that even though everyone’s stuck in this kind of bizarre Groundhog Day people are still creating. In the company we’ve got a BodyTorque season that we do most years where people get to create work and I think you know that we’re trying to discuss how we can still make that happen. It’s just a nice way to remember you’re still creative and no matter what happens, you can still create things.
CL: It seems many positives may come out of [Covid-19] because people have been forced to move online and think of new ways to create, and they’ve actually had time and space to think how can we do this differently?
BB: Totally yes. So true. I guess it’s just being able to have that sort of growth mindset and I mean we’re all going to have those days where you’re just like, oh, this is so frustrating and everything is shit, but I guess just being able to wake up each day and be like, okay well, what can I take out of this today, and actually, yeah, this is challenging but what are we learning. Just keeping that fresh perspective.
CL: 2020 is obviously a very different from 2019, but for you personally, you were promoted to principal at the end of last year. Tell me about that experience.
BB: It was just such a good night. We did a show of “Sylvia,” which I really enjoyed performing. It’s such a fun ballet and I got to dance with one of my favourite partners, Chris [Rodgers-Wilson], and my parents were there, and little did I know fifteen of my friends, some had driven from Wollongong, my boyfriend’s grandparents came from Adelaide, like there were all these people in the audience and David [McAllister] came on stage and first he promoted Dim [Dimity Azoury]. Which was amazing. She is someone that I’ve always looked up to in the company and she’s a beautiful person, not only a stunning dancer, but I really admire how she holds herself and how she is as a person as well. So, to share that with her, we were both just in tears and yeah, it was such a great night.
CL: Did you at all expect it?
BB: No, I don’t know if you ever let yourself entertain the idea. You know, you always say I really want to get there one day, and I am doing all this work and I feel like I’m producing good work. But I think there’s always a little voice in your head that’s like no, no, don’t entertain that idea just in case it doesn’t happen.
CL: I think from an audience perspective it seemed an obvious trajectory, as you’ve been a much featured dancer, even from very early on in your career with the company. But then in 2017 you suffered quite a serious injury. Can you tell me about that?
BB: So the injury was an insertional achilles tendinopathy. So, you’ve got like your traditional tendinopathy which takes a while to heal because tendons don’t receive much blood. They always just linger. And then you’ve got an insertional tendinopathy which is where you’ve got, in your ankle, a bursa that gets inflamed that presses on the tendon that gets inflamed that presses back on the bursa, so it’s this chicken and egg kind of scenario. So, it took me about six months to just get pain free walking. And then I sort of had to retrain my body how to make ballet positions with my feet in an alignment that wasn’t going to cause me pain. Which was a very, very slow and painful process and I’m forever grateful for my coaches and the medical team that got me through that because there were just some days, like, honestly I just didn’t think I’d be able to do a “Sleeping Beauty” again. Or anything like that. I felt like I was so lucky to have had a taste of these amazing physically demanding roles that I wanted to get back to, I didn’t want to just be just waltzing around. I love that challenge. So, in the back of my mind, it was a bit like I don’t know if this is really going to work. I really spent about a year-and-a-half to two years fully building my fitness back and my technique back.
CL: It’s a long time. I mean if you can’t walk pain free for six months, there must have been moments where you thought will I ever take the stage again?
BB: Absolutely. And then when you do get back in the studio and you know, you’re doing, like, your little baby jumps and everyone’s like oh my god, you’re jumping. And I’m like in my head do you know how much more I need to be able to do to achieve to get back out of this . . .
CL: As in, this is not exactly the Rose Adagio?
BB: Exactly, that’s exactly it! And I think that’s why I was so emotional on that night when we got promoted [to principal] because I genuinely had made a plan after my injury. I was like I’ll go and work in some fancy café in Melbourne and I’ll go back to uni and I’ll have a separate life . . . and then my body let me get back to this point I just never thought I’d get back to. And my Mum was there [on the night I was promoted], and it was the most beautiful moment, she came into the change room and no one else was in there and she just hugged me and we just cried and she was like “I know, I know.” Like it was just . . . she knows I moved away from my home when I was so young and I was so homesick and the physical pain and the body image and there’s so much that goes into it and then there’s like this beautiful moment where it’s all been recognised, and I’m just so grateful.
CL: You moved away quite young [to pursue ballet] didn’t you?
BB: Yeah, I moved away from home when I was thirteen. And I was really close with my family and that was hard, that was really hard, but once again it was a good driving force because I was like alright, if you’re this homesick, let’s make it worthwhile.
CL: And so all of that is almost validated by that promotion?
BB: Yeah. It was a beautiful full circle moment of all of that was worth it.
CL: Do you think your injury has made you better prepared to deal with this Covid-19 situation?
BB: Absolutely. Because when I was injured it was a total . . . I didn’t even know who I was. I had completely fallen into the trap of defining myself by my dancing, by whatever I was doing in the company, and so when that was taken away from me I was embarrassed. You know, I couldn’t really hang out with my friends a lot because I was just, like, ashamed of my body, and not being able to express myself how I normally could. And I think going through all of that and knowing that I’m still loved and still a good person and I still can come back from those things, coming into this time now I feel like you know, it’s okay. This is just a down time and if you’ve come back from something far harder you’ll be able to come back from this as well. So, I think it’s in a weird way it’s like when you go to that real depth, nothing’s quite as sad as that dark spot.
CL: When that time comes that you do retire, hopefully in many, many years, I wonder if having had that thought process earlier will make the transition that much easier?
BB: Yeah, for sure. I think you’re right. I think in a weird way I had to, because I had so much time off, I really had to find who I was without ballet. And the longer you spend back in it, it’s easier to lose that again. But I think one day when I do retire, it’ll still be sad and there’s obviously so much tied up in that, but I think I’m like you have been away from this world and you were okay and there are other things.
CL: You mentioned anxiety earlier. Is that something that has been part of your journey? What strategies do you use to manage it?
BB: Anxiety has been a part of my life in both good and bad ways. It has pushed me to perform and be my best and it has also chewed away at me and left self-doubt. I’ve found the best strategy to cope is to talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, voicing the little negative thoughts in your head can often make you see how dramatic and unrealistic they are.
CL: I often hear dancers talk about their constant striving, how competitive it can be behind the scenes—not just with yourself, but often with some of your greatest friends, you’re in a sense, competing against them. Has that sense of striving changed since you’ve been promoted to a principal role?
BB: No. Not at all. I think in our company [the Australian Ballet], especially, we do so many shows and we work so hard I think if anyone gets promoted, like rarely, if ever is anyone promoted that anyone else thinks, oh that probably wasn’t justified. I think my friends have seen I’ve put my heart and soul into this. It is my passion and then everyone saw me come from rock bottom during my injury that I think everyone is just really happy. And I think when you see people get that emotional about things it’s like . . .
CL: It shows how much it means to them?
BB: Yeah, exactly. Everyone else is crying, one of my best mates Jill [Ogai], she was standing next to me and she was balling her eyes out. I remember Amy Harris [getting promoted] during the “Spartacus” season [in 2018], everyone was just a mess on stage. We were all crying and honestly I remember going back into the changing room afterwards and I felt like we all got promoted tonight. It’s like everyone got joy out of her acknowledgement.
CL: So, another thing that has coincided with this Covid-19 downtime is a change of artistic director at the Australian Ballet. David Hallberg has been named as artistic director from 2021. You joined in 2012 so you’ve been under David McAllister’s artistic leadership for your entire career. What are your thoughts about this change?
BB: I’m really excited. I’m so grateful for everything David McAllister has done for me in my career and honestly, especially during that year off, he knew what to say and was so unbelievably understanding—that this is just something that happens sometimes and it’s a process. I will forever be grateful to him. I’m really excited to have David Hallberg as our new director. When he did rehab with us we actually spent quite a bit of time in the gym together in the mornings . . .
CL: He had a similar injury didn’t he?
BB: Yeah. He’d had surgery, so it was a bit more complex. But essentially we did a lot of similar exercises and a similar program to get back to peak fitness and health. I think his experience and his knowledge is almost unrivalled, so I’m really excited to see what he can bring to our company and what we can learn from all his knowledge. I mean there’s probably not many ballets that he hasn’t done himself, and there’s not many ballerinas and other dancers that he hasn’t seen. So it’ll be really cool to soak up all that information from him. Some people go through their whole careers with only one director, so, I think it’s going to be really great to be able to say at least I’ve had two different directors in my time dancing and just to see different artistic opinions and views, and how they express them and how they get reflected in repertoire. I think it’s a really exciting time. And hopefully gives everyone a bit of a buzz when we’re doing the daily grind ballet class in our living rooms. There’s a really exciting change coming so, you know, that sort of keeps the butterflies in your belly.
CL: Not the 2020 that David McAllister or the dancers would have imagined?
BB: I know. Poor David, I was like gosh, David McAllister, just before you finish up there’s just one more huge obstacle to overcome. But I mean honestly, if anyone’s going to do it with a smile on their face and like it’s a piece of cake, it’s going to be David McAllister.
BB: I know! Honestly, he’s really amazing at connecting the company. We’ve got a book club and then we also do Theme Thursdays, and then on Friday afternoons people do cooking class. So, David’s hosting it tonight. He’s teaching everyone how to make a tuna mornay. Because that’s what he loves. Isn’t that just priceless?
CL: I love it! So to end, a few final questions. If you could choose any choreographer that you would most like to work with who would it be?
BB: Oh wow, you know what, probably Crystal Pite. Her stuff’s amazing. I’ve just been watching “Seasons’ Canon” with Paris Opera on YouTube. And “The Statement” with Nederlands Dans Theater and it’s just beautiful, the way they use their arms in her work. I would love to be able to do that with my arms.
CL: Future dream roles?
BB: Juliet from “Romeo and Juliet,” and I would love to do Odette in Graeme Murphy’s “Swan Lake” one day.
CL: Least favourite aspect of being a ballerina?
BB: The stress. The stress and the pressure and the anxiety sometimes that I put on myself I think. Which also, it helps, because it has helped me to get me to where I am. But sometimes it can overwhelm you and it can be a bit hard to deal with. So, it’s always good to have certain techniques to use when you feel like that’s happening. But that’s probably the hardest part to deal with I’d say.
CL: Must do rituals before you go on stage?
BB: Definitely go through my choreography, doesn’t have to be like a very physical mark through or anything, but I like to do a lot of stuff with my arms and my back and my breathing. If I’m really nervous I have to hum the music before I go on. Like Aurora’s entrance, I’m in the wings humming because my heart’s pumping. But sometimes just a simple balance on pointe, first position, just getting all those little muscles fired and just feeling really like centred and calm.
CL: What would you have done at University had your tendon not healed?
BB: I find I bounce between a few different ideas. Maybe a business degree. But then I’m really interested in gender studies. And anything where your perception is taken and changed and your mind is broadened. I find those sorts of things interesting. Then I’m like, maybe psychology? The answer is I have no idea!
CL: Finally, what would you say to any young dancers who are also in lockdown about how to stay motivated during this time?
BB: I think if you’re really passionate about something there are always going to be times when it’s not the most fun thing to do. But if it is worth it, you’ve just got to knuckle down and ignore the fact that you don’t feel like it today, because great things are never easy to come by and that it is worth just pushing through that. I think a great skill is learnt when we can just like put our minds to something and just follow through with it. So, really, it’s willpower training. Like strengthening a muscle in your brain, so that you know further on in life when something else really hard happens you remember this time when you didn’t necessarily want to do something but you did it anyway. You have that willpower to fall back on.