The frustrated ballerina 12



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I have just bought a season ticket to the Queensland ballet for 2016!

Okay, this isn’t exactly earth-shattering news, but it has brought back so many happy memories; memories which remain clear even though they started over 60 years ago.

I saw my first ballet at around 4 years of age. My great aunt, also Godmother, took me to see Margot Fonteyn dance at the old Theatre Royal in Sydney. It was instant love! It was also a case of move over Margot, Karen is here – at 4, I was still a long way from developing my 173 cm (5 feet 8 inches) and size 40 (9) feet!

I annoyed the life out of my mother until she took me to ballet class at around 6. I was in heaven, but already the tallest in the class. A few years later I changed teachers and moved to the ballet school run by the wonderful Beth Dean. Ms Dean and Mum knew each other and although Mum and Dad insisted that going to ballet class depended on doing well at school, they wanted me to have a good teacher.

Beth accepted me into her classes but quietly told Mum to dissuade me from thinking I would ever be a ballerina; Mum went into immediate lioness mode. Beth waited until the lioness finished her growl then pointed to my feet and hands; it was already abundantly clear, the word “petite” was not in my future. Nonetheless, I continued to take classes until my mid-teens, when my Leaving Certificate loomed large and I was the tallest, including the boys, in my class! Graciously I retired from ballet at 15 – Dame Margot was safe!

I continued to go to ballets and saw many of Australia’s greatest dancers, Sir Robert Helpmann, Kelvin Coe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, Garth Welch and the tiny, exquisitely beautiful Kathy Gorham. I’ll never forget her performance in The Display and Yurgen. Of course these dancers have made way for today’s stars; you can trust one thing, the various dance and ballet companies in Australia, have dancers to match and surpass any in the world. It is Helpmann-and-Ashtonno surprise that Australian dancers are found in the world’s so-called “top” companies.

There was a time in Sydney when the major venue for ballet and opera was affectionately known as the Newtown Opera House. The Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown was the scene of many wonderful ballet nights, but the one I remember clearly is when Sir Robert Helpmann and Sir Frederick Ashton danced the Wicked Step Sisters in Cinderella, Sir Frederick’s own creation. Their pairing was absolute genius and to my shame, I cannot remember another dancer in that performance. To my utter delight, I was taken backstage to meet them – oh what Knights!

In the early 70’s, a few years pre-Sydney Opera House, there was a performance of Don Quixote in Canberra I was desperate to see, despite living in Sydney. I took Friday off work, caught the bus to Canberra, changed at the bus station into evening dress, went to the Ballet then back to the bus station, into my travelling clothes and arrived home about midday the next day. It was worth the trouble such a magnificent performance again with Sir Robert Helpmann in fine form. My memory tells me I paid an obscene price for the ticket, but in today’s terms it was approximately the same price as the movies. Considering however I would have been earning about $30 per week, luckily I was still living at home!

One of the great pleasures of the annual Nutcracker is seeing the young ballet students, many little girls in their tutus with their hair in a bun, lighting up as the curtain rises – you can see them rehearsing in their mind for their own debut, dancing Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy. If you look carefully, you will see Karen, aged approximately 6 and a half, she is the tall one with the blazing red hair, pulled back into the obligatory dancers bun of course.

As much as I love the original Nutcracker, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, the Story of Clara is truly delightful as is his restaging of Swan Lake. Ballet is not static, it grows, develops and changes. I’m lucky to have seen some of this growth over so many years and now roll on 2016 Ballet Season, I’m back!

Are there other budding baby boomer ballerinas out there? Do tell us your story.


Karen O'Brien-Hall

I've had many careers in my life and loved each one! My new career blossomed when I retired and become an OAP. I am passionate about childhood literacy, books in general and my garden. I love Ballet, Opera, Concerts, Theatre, (both professional and community) and Movies. I tend to have opinions on most things and enjoy a good debate about the topic, not the person. In my thirties, I married my GOM (Gorgeous or Grumpy Old Man) the love of my life.

  1. Delightful memories, and you’ve seen some stellar performances. Not a ballerina myself, but I have two budding ballerinas in the family. Ballet brings them great joy.

  2. Yes I learnt ballet, modern &I tap, doing competitions & exams. Loved it &I had my own little dance school for awhile. Now I have returned to dance being ballroom. doing comps & exams. I love it &I still want to do well at my age. I think once a dancer always a dancer as you continue to have the deportment an &I turned out feet at times. Still have some costumes that I can’t bare to part with. One being a pig costume when I was about 5. Great memories of a trip to Ballarat every year for comps &I my dance school winning the awards.

  3. Yes great memories, also a lot of sore blistered feet too. Both daughters learnt and became teachers of dance for many years, starting at 4. Many happy years sewing sequins onto costumes.

  4. I was way too tall, but I remember the look of horror when I showed my mum that I could actually stand on my toes without ballet shoes in our lounge room.

  5. I loved ballet and learnt for about seven years, until my teacher suggested I was the wrong shape and should leave. I was 15 at the time and was devastated. I was never body conscious until that time.

  6. I adore ballet and always have, learnt for 13 years from 8 years old, doing classical and jazz. I still have my first pair of point shoes! Don’t get to the ballet as often as I would like, but am still mesmerised by every performance!

  7. Loved doing ballet. Fond memories of blisters for toe dancing and especially my mum making all my costumes and taking me into the city for my examinatiions. Found it very rewarding and still love it.

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