When the Australian Ballet opens its season of Cinderella in the Festival Theatre on July 4, it will be without its most senior ballerina, Lucinda Dunn.
When the Australian Ballet opens its season of Cinderella in the Festival Theatre on July 4, it will be without its most senior ballerina, Lucinda Dunn. Dunn retired on May 23 after a truly illustrious 23 years with the national company. A dancer in the grand classical tradition, with a flowing line and a formidable, pure technique, the classics were far from her thinking when she began learning at four years of age. She wanted to be a tap/jazz/modern dancer, as her mother had been (her father was in theatre too,backstage.) But a percipient teacher saw her potential, encouraged her to enter Sydney eisteddfods, and then the high-ranking Prix de Lausanne. She was only 15. “I was very insecure, very naïve, very small,” she says on the line from Sydney. One of the prizes she won, which “was astounding”, was a scholarship to London’s Royal Ballet School, and while there she danced with the Royal Birmingham Ballet, who offered her a contract. But so did Maina Gielgud, then the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director, so after a month’s deliberation, Dunn picked up the phone, rang her mother and said, “Mum, I’m coming home”. “It was a very special moment for both of us,” she remembers. That was in 1991. Gielgud was intent on broadening the company’s repertoire, and alongside the delicacy of Les Sylphides, Dunn was dancing the demanding athleticism of Jiri Kylian and other contemporary choreographers. In 1992, she was promoted to principal, on the same day as Robert Curran, with whom she had already formed a ballet partnership that would produce many memorable performances. When asked about this, she says, “we pushed each other” – always striving to be better, to jump higher, to turn faster, to go that much further. The dramatic challenges of the big narrative ballets appealed to her – Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty – and finally Manon, a magnificent achievement in her final season. In 2005 she won the Green Room award for best female dancer for her roles in Balanchine’s ineffable Serenade and Ashton’s joyous La fille mal gardée (1960), and three years later, even more significantly, the Australian Dance Award for outstanding performance, in Don Quixote and After the Rain. Those four works nicely indicate the wide range of Dunn’s talents. The Balanchine, choreographed in 1934 to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, is neoclassicism at its most romantic; Lise, the heroine of La fille mal gardée, is lovable and mischievous as she and her boyfriend Colas outwit their parents in order to marry. Don Quixote (1865) has plenty of comedy, too, for similar reasons, but it also has one of ballet’s most famous virtuoso pas de deux (“It’s one of the most terrifying ballets to do,” she says with a laugh); After the Rain, created in 2005 by Christopher Wheeldon to music of Arvo Pärt, is a most beautiful, continuously unfolding work for two couples, virtually one long movement, and one of her favourite ballets: “So simple,” she says, “so elegant, so meaningful – and oh, it’s so delightful to dance; one of my special pas de deux that I love to do”. Asked about the difference between the classical story ballets and modern works by such choreographers as Wheeldon and William Forsythe, she pays tribute to the Australian Ballet (AB). “I love the fact that the AB has such a diverse repertoire that we can delve into different parts of our bodies and display what we can do.” But she relishes the challenges of the classics. “There’s not a lot you can hide in a tutu – it’s just so exposing, and you really have to be on your game and in peak performance and feeling great to pull those off. But to do a contemporary piece – I did Gemini [Glen Tetley’s extremely athletic work created in 1973 for the AB] 18 months ago and really enjoyed that physical challenge and moving your body in different shapes.” The many different shapes that Dunn’s body has taken in the past 23 years on the stage have given enormous pleasure to thousands of people in many parts of the world. At the same time, her role as a model for younger dancers has been exemplary, made even more so as the mother of Claudia (5) and Ava (2) (their dad is Danilo Radojevic, soon to retire as AB Associate Director). Dunn’s vast experience, her grace, and her mentoring abilities will serve her well when next year she becomes Artistic Director of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy in Sydney – most fittingly, the school which set her on her brilliant career. australianballet.com.au Photos courtesy of The Australian Ballet and Lisa Tomasetti