Not since the exquisite Elaine Fifield in the middle of the last century has an Australian ballerina risen as high in the exalted ranks of the Royal Ballet as Leanne Benjamin. So Queensland is naturally bursting with pride in its home-grown girl who, since her retirement from the stage in 2013, has been showered with honours, the latest being the inaugural Queensland Agent-General Award “for Queenslanders who have excelled in their chosen field and significantly contributed to Queensland – United Kingdom relations”.
Left to right: Courtney Cleary, Calvin Richardson, His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, Governor of Queensland, Leanne Benjamin AM OBE (with flowers), Alexandra Oomens, Kaye de Jersey, Romany Pajdak. Photograph © Marek Sikora Photography
On November 20, a recital was given in her name, hosted by Queensland Agent-General Linda Apelt, in association with the Tait Memorial Trust, with guests of honour Paul de Jersey, the Governor of Queensland and his wife, and George Brandis, Australian High Commissioner. Under the gleaming chandeliers at Australia House, Benjamin’s post-performing gifts for producing and directing were very much on display before a warm and excited audience of Queensland guests and devoted followers of the Tait, the generous organisation run by Isla Baring, daughter of the great Australian impresario Frank Tait, which awards grants to so many talented young artists from Australia and New Zealand, and of which Leanne is Patron.
Left to right: Lachlan Monaghan, Kate Shipway, Courtenay Cleary, Calvin Richardson, Alexandra Oomens and Romany Pajdak, with Linda Apelt, Queensland Agent-General. Photograph © Marek Sikora Photography
The short program was masterfully put together, with Kate Shipway, the Royal Ballet’s wonderful concert pianist, on stage throughout, guiding the changing atmosphere as the evening unfolded. Asphodel Meadows by Liam Scarlett featured Romany Pajdak and the first of the Australian former Tait awardees, Calvin Richardson, who would later bring the house down with his extraordinary choreographic take on The Dying Swan. Another Aussie boy, Lachlan Monaghan, danced up a storm as the boot-hand, Will Mossop in the “chair solo” from David Bintley’s joyfully comedic Hobson’s Choice.
Next came a piano interlude: composer Connor D’Netto’s meditative Adoxographies No 2, followed by Pablo de Sasate’s spirited Carmen Fantasy Op 25, played by yet another Tait scholar: the elegant and expressive violinist, Courtenay Cleary. The fifth Australian artist of the night was the soprano Alexandra Oomens, who sang Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night in her shining tones. To our further delight, she remained on stage to support Romany Pajdak who brought to lyrical life the reminiscence of Leanne Benjamin’s farewell performance at the Royal Opera House – in Fauré’s Pie Jesu from Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem. Lady MacMillan, who was in the audience, told me later that the touchingly simple movements of that solo had been stolen from his three-year-old daughter, Charlotte, whom he caught unawares, disporting herself unselfconsciously to music.
Mason King, Isla Baring OAM, Meg Newton and Ruby Cross. Photograph © Marek Sikora Photography
Also in the audience was the ex-ballerina Anya Linden (Lady Sainsbury) whose astonishing beauty we Sydneysiders first glimpsed when she appeared with the touring Royal Ballet in 1958. And after the performance it was thrilling to notice her in animated conversation with the three newest Tait Memorial Awardees in their first term at the Royal Ballet School – Ruby Cross, Meg Newton and Mason King – fresh-faced and full of the kind of dauntless hope so often bred in the Antipodes. Watch this space!