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Rocky girl ends dream run as longest-serving ballerina

SWAN SONG: Leanne Benjamin in one of her most famous roles, The Firebird.
SWAN SONG: Leanne Benjamin in one of her most famous roles, The Firebird. Contributed

IN 1968, a shy four-year-old took her first ballet class in the old St Andrew's Church Hall in Bolsover St.

On Saturday night, Leanne Benjamin OBE gave her final London performance with The Royal Ballet after a career spanning more than 30 years.

And although she is recognised around the world as one of the most breathtaking ballerinas to ever grace the stage, the former Range Convent schoolgirl still considers herself to be "a simple Rocky girl".

Leanne, at 48, is the longest-serving ballerina in The Royal Ballet's history and has danced every leading role in the company's repertoire.

It's a fairy tale story that no one could have predicted when her mother, Rockhampton antiques dealer Jill Benjamin, first enrolled her two eldest daughters in ballet class.

"I saw this little ad for Jan Moore School of Dance and I said to their Dad, it would be nice for the girls to have a lovely walk," Jill said.

Jan Moore remembers Leanne as a very gifted and talented child with a beautiful singing voice.

She always had such a happy smile," recalled Ms Moore.

"Right from go, she loved what she was doing…if you told her to stand on her head, she'd do it."

Ms Moore said Leanne had a natural sense of performance from the beginning and was incredibly versatile.

MANON: Leanne loved the work of choreographer Kenneth McMillan.
MANON: Leanne loved the work of choreographer Kenneth McMillan. Bill Cooper

"She wasn't at all precocious. She didn't display that kind of attitude and I think that inner humility comes through in her performances."

Humility appears to be a family trait and Jill Benjamin chooses her words carefully when she speaks of, not just Leanne, but her four children.

"When someone from the home town makes it, it gives us all a bit of belief that maybe we can too," she said.

"There are so many great people who've come from Rocky, in sport and in the arts.

"We had the most brilliant teachers and in Rockhampton we were 10 minutes from anywhere.

"It was so much better than living in the big city where you have to travel an hour or two hours to a teacher…that was a big thing."

Leanne may be the most successful, but Rockhampton has a long legacy of ballerinas who have danced with leading companies around the world.

Most, including Leanne, were students of the late Valeria Hansen.

"She was a beautiful lady," Jill said. "None of us really got to know her… but she just had that something. She brought the best out in them."

From Miss Hansen's studio in Denison St, Leanne, like her older sister Madonna, was accepted into the Royal Ballet School.

Within a year, she had won two of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world…the Adeline Genee Gold Medal, which Madonna had also won, and the Prix de Lausanne.

She was judged for the Genee by Dame Margot Fonteyn, who said at the time that "she didn't just win it, she walked away with it".

"It was the quality of the teaching she had in Rockhampton that took her to the Genee," Jill said.

Leanne Benjamin was blessed with a physique that was almost perfect for ballet.

She has long legs, a long neck and a strength that belies her tiny frame.

But equally important, she is recognised for her perfectionism and hard work (she almost never misses daily class), her quirky sense of humour and a life outside the rigorous demands of a professional dancer's life.

Leanne can eat anything she wants, loves a beer after a performance and is now looking forward to exploring her other passion, interior design, her mother says.

SISTERS: With older sister Madonna who also danced at the Royal Ballet.
SISTERS: With older sister Madonna who also danced at the Royal Ballet. Contributed

In her own words, she was born to dance and is under no illusions about the difficulty of the transition into retirement.

Leanne fully expects to miss life as a dancer, but says she looks forward to becoming a better cook and spending more time with her husband and young son.

Her career reached great heights, but when not performing, the "simple Rocky girl" always managed to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground

In an interview with the Financial Times two years ago, she said her mother was her mentor and inspiration and she was happiest when sitting on her mum's bed in the morning with a cup of tea for chats.

She said if she lost everything tomorrow, she would call her dad. Her first ambition was to be the apple of his eye.

It would seem she achieved her ambitions. Jill and Bernie Benjamin flew out of Rockhampton last weekend to watch their daughter perform at The Royal Opera House for the final time.

Topics:  arts, ballet, entertainment, rockhampton




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