Australian Ballet’s Leanne Stojmenov on motherhood and ‘Nutcracker’
Ballet dancers speak of there being something healing about going back to the barre. To place your feet in first position, to rise and lower, plié and stretch. To conduct the same movement you were taught at age four, five or six. There’s one ballet in particular, Harald Lander’s Études, that captures it. “Senior” dancers are dressed in black tutus, “juniors” in white, and the curtain rises to expose a dance class, at the barre, in a stripped-back homage to classical training.
Returning to the seminal role of Clara in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara felt a bit like that to the Australian Ballet’s principal artist Leanne Stojmenov, who danced the titular role eight years ago. It’s only recently that she has returned to the company’s Southbank studios in Melbourne, having given birth to her son, Max, 21 months ago. “She’s another woman now,” Graeme Murphy says over the phone. “She is a woman, she’s had a child. She’s come back to dance, which is no mean feat, and I think her life experience has enriched it.”
When I meet Stojmenov, it’s the first cold day in Sydney’s autumn. Her dark hair is slicked into a high bun and she greets me warmly, coming fresh from the studio. She remarks on the blue skies, tells me how much she loves Sydney. Living in Bondi for the show’s Sydney season reminds her of her home town, Perth, and its clear beaches. She pulls her parka close to her and I notice the slight turnout in black patent sneakers as she leads me to the Sydney Opera House green room. When we get there, it seems more of a cafeteria or, with dancers stretching across the room, an exercise studio.
Dance Magazine describes how, before her first performance as one of the “seven dwarfs” when Stojmenov was just four years old, she ran to the middle of the stage and told the audience to “shoosh”. While she still commands the stage, she is hardly overbearing. When I later ask her former trainer, Terri Charlesworth, what stood out most about Stojmenov, she most frequently describes Stojmenov’s depth, or perhaps her generosity.
Stojmenov trained from the age of three under Helen McKay, who, before succumbing to breast cancer during Stojmenov’s teenage years, told Charlesworth to keep her eye on her. Charlesworth, the Ballets Russes-trained, former West Australian Ballet dancer says: “She was sent to me because [McKay] could see the potential. Right from the word go, I saw that potential in her – potential being a real love of dance, the physicality, and a beautiful soul. She’s got the most beautiful soul.”
After two years with the West Australian Ballet, Stojmenov joined the Australian Ballet in 2001. It was on her second day that she first spotted her now-husband Marc Cassidy (they began dating one year later). She took on roles as Kitri in Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote, Manon in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon and Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, before being cast as Middle Clara (the role is shared by three dancers) in Graeme Murphy’s 2009 Nutcracker – with the propitious bonus of performing a pas de deux with Cassidy. Stojmenov remembers having a fleeting moment of “I need to make the most of this” – it would be their final pas de deux before Cassidy retired.
For Murphy, watching the pair was “a revelation. I remember thinking then, ‘This girl is really on her way.’ They were exquisite together. They brought an absolute magic and regality.” Two years later, Stojmenov was promoted to principal artist within the company.
Murphy’s Nutcracker tells the history of ballet in Australia through the story of Clara, a Ballets Russes dancer who immigrates to Australia. The Russian classic is re-created using Tchaikovsky’s score, symbols of Marius Petipa’s libretto and scattered elements of the original German folktale. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was the pre-eminent classical company in Imperial Russia and beyond, with Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky among his students. Following Diaghilev’s death and the outbreak of war, the company split into two and toured the world, including Australia. Many of the dancers settled in Melbourne: Edouard Borovansky, who in 1939 started the Borovansky Ballet which more than 20 years later became the Australian Ballet, was among them, as was Kira Bousloff, who in 1952 established the West Australian Ballet.
Like the original Nutcracker, Murphy’s ballet begins on Christmas Eve, but this time, in a sweltering Melbourne terrace. Elder Clara (Ai-Gul Gaisina) celebrates the season with fellow émigrés and, watching an old video from her company days, reminisces on her life as a prima ballerina. The clock strikes midnight and she is transported via hallucination to Russia. Act II begins at the Imperial Conservatoire, where Young Clara (Amelia Soh) takes a class before being accepted into the company. The audience witnesses Middle Clara (Stojmenov) dance for the Tsar before touring the world, and eventually arriving in Australia.
Inhabiting the role of Clara is special for Stojmenov – “it is like a piece of history”. Murphy choreographed the production 25 years ago with casting in mind – the Australian Ballet School founder Dame Margaret Scott played the original Elder Clara. Stojmenov shares the stage with St Petersburg-trained former Australian Ballet company member Gaisina, as she did eight years ago. Stojmenov laughs: “I think our heights match, and our colouring.” I notice for the first time Macedonian looks: dark eyes and perfectly curved eyebrows. “I think they are a beautiful match physically,” Murphy later says, “but I see other similarities. Because I grew up … working with Ai-Gul, always being so impressed by her artistry, her professionalism … I see great similarities.” Stojmenov says: “Having those generations on stage is really special for us.”
The role of Clara has personal connections for Stojmenov, too, by way of her former teacher Charlesworth. In the 1940s, Charlesworth was recruited for the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet and trained under Bousloff. After Bousloff left Ballets Russes to stay in Melbourne, she wound up in Perth. “I can’t remember how I knew Kira [Bousloff] was there,” Charlesworth reflects, “but she was working in a rowing club on the Swan River, gathering dancers to begin the first season of the West Australian Ballet.” Charlesworth joined the West Australian Ballet company in 1953, and went on to became assistant director in 1960.
Training under Bousloff left Charlesworth with an abiding interest in ballet history, which she passed on to her students, Stojmenov included. “Leanne, of course, was interested in it all.” Just before flying to Europe on a graduation tour, Stojmenov decided to audition for the WA Ballet as “practice”. Landing a job there before she’d auditioned in Europe connected her with Charlesworth’s story – and Bousloff’s, whose story, broadly, mirrors Clara’s.
There is a point in a dancer’s career when they pass from dancing technically to telling stories with movement. I ask Stojmenov if she can mark the moment when she feels she began to deliver compelling performances of character. “I think that’s where a lot of people may notice, or comment, that you’re maturing as an artist,” she says. “There’s a lot of focus on technique, which there needs to be, but being able to let go of that a bit… that develops over the years, and having ballets like this [Nutcracker] allows you to play with that a lot more.”
When she first performed Middle Clara, in 2009, she was still developing these talents. She had danced as Kitri, in Don Quixote, which is “hugely technical”, but hadn’t extended her character over a full-length story ballet. Murphy and his creative associate, Janet Vernon, were confident she could convey the younger elements of Middle Clara. “But you have to go through that whole journey with [Clara] to death – and she goes through a lot in the ballet. They were really pushing for my characterisation.”
Stepping into Clara’s shoes again eight years later, Stojmenov brings not only what she’s learnt from ballet, but from life experience. “I’ve done a lot more travel, I’ve gone through different things. You grow as an artist, and everything you go through you bring to your performance.” Murphy says in her Clara this time around, “the role is imbued with such maturity”. While Stojmenov “hasn’t peaked yet, she is at a beautiful state”, he says.
It is a wide-ranging role, traversing tales of grief and loss, and requiring, Murphy says, “pathos, strength”. “Some people sit with their technique,” he says. “I feel [Stojmenov] is tweaking and perfecting and, at the same time, gaining more and more depth. You long for those dancers who can be lyrical and soft but also have that steely strength.”
After having her first child, that strength took time to build up on Stojmenov’s return to the studio. Just over a year ago, she returned to the stage earlier than the recommended nine months, for fear it would otherwise be harder, mentally, to get back into it. Instead, she took three months off after the birth of her son, then began Pilates (her husband runs a studio) and five months later, returned to the barre. Within seven-and-a-half months, she was on stage, in the demanding role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. “I was, like, ‘I feel like myself.’ ”
Murphy has seen “ballerinas with babies” come back to ballet with “a new subtlety”. Aside from the initial suppleness Stojmenov gained – “the hormones course relaxant through your body” – she felt differently about her career. “Ballet has kind of been my life up ’til having Max,” she says. “And I could get really intense about it. I can get really strict – I still am really hard on myself. But I don’t have time for that anymore. I have two full-time jobs ... and that’s been good for me as a dancer, because I can let things go a bit more.”
“I was thinking the other day,” she says as we near the end of our chat, “I wonder whether I’ll come back and perform the Older Clara.” Will the ballet remain in the company’s repertoire in years hence? “I think it will be. I think it stands the test of time.” Story ballets are what dancers fall in love with, she says, “It’s what you train for, what you aspire to.”
And that’s the training she returns to every day, and came back to after time off. “You do these performances then it all comes back, the next day, to the barre. It’s a really personal space. You are always trying to improve, trying to clean it up, trying to be more efficient, get better extensions.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "Call to the barre". Subscribe here.