From Rocky to the Royal Ballet and back as one ballet legend replaces another

Despite a global recruitment process, the new artistic director of Queensland Ballet is a homegrown legend – with the announcement today that Li Cunxin’s big shoes are to be filled by Rockhampton-born former Royal Ballet principal artist Leanne Benjamin.

Dec 20, 2023, updated Dec 20, 2023

Filling the shoes of Australia’s best-known and most beloved ballet figure was a giant order, but if anyone can continue Li Cunxin’s legacy at Queensland Ballet, it’s a homegrown legend who’s arguably our most successful international dance export of the past 50 years.

Rockhampton-born former Royal Ballet principal artist Leanne Benjamin was announced Wednesday as the company’s sixth – and first female – artistic director after a global recruitment process.

The 59-year-old’s appointment has reassured Li Cunxin.

“I’m thrilled that I’m handing my artistic guardianship to her,” he said. “Leanne’s experience across stage, student pathways and her passion for our Queensland community is going to stand Queensland Ballet in great stead. Queensland Ballet is in inspired hands.”

QB chair Brett Clark added that Benjamin’s artistic stature, credentials as an international speaker and judge, and “outstanding global connections” would build on Li’s legacy.

Named by UK critics as among the contemporary era’s nine best ballerinas, Benjamin is such a big deal there that she was one of just 14 “outstanding” Australians invited to King Charles’ coronation in May. She was also named the 2023 Australian of the Year in the UK.

While she mightn’t be quite as well-known by the general public here just yet, to Aussie ballet lovers Benjamin is a household name inspiring awe and respect – the mother-of-one was still in top form when she hung up her pointe shoes at the remarkable age of 49.

Despite spending her three-decade career living and working overseas, Australia has always remained home to Benjamin, so she is thrilled to bring her stellar career full circle.

“It’s an incredible honour to take on this prestigious role,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited to be returning home to Queensland as artistic director to a world-class company. I have worked with the most inspirational dancers, choreographers and creatives in the ballet world, and the most beautiful part of my story now is that I will be coming back to where it all began.”

That was in Rocky, when the three-year-old began learning from renowned teacher Valeria Hansen. At just 16 Benjamin debuted on the international stage, winning both the prestigious Adeline Genée Gold Medal and Prix de Lausanne.

Her 21-year achievement as the British ballet bastion’s longest-serving female principal was recognised with an OBE and AM, numerous dance awards and an honorary doctorate in performing arts from Central Queensland University.

In her 2021 memoir, Built for Ballet, Benjamin detailed her passion for mentoring and coaching following her retirement from performance in 2013.

She has worked with international principals as well as emerging talents, including those following in her footsteps at the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition (which incorporates the Genée Gold Medal).

An annual award given in her name by the Tait Memorial Trust supports young Australasian dancers to train in the UK.

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Benjamin forged a connection with QB in 2019 as principal coach on its remount of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, although she, Li and his ballet mistress wife Mary had already been friends for many years (Mary also hailing from Rockhampton).

It was MacMillan who had invited Benjamin to join the Royal Ballet in 1992 and she had been one of the last RB dancers to work with him.

“I loved my time with Queensland Ballet in 2019, and cannot wait to strengthen my connection with the dancers and the wider teams,” Benjamin commented.

She paid tribute to Li for transforming the company on and off-stage “with truly world-class facilities and an exceptional training academy which further deepens its impact in our sector and community”.

Benjamin will start early in the New Year, and with the 2024 program in place, her focus will be relationships.

Having worked with Benjamin for eight years at the Royal Opera House (the Royal Ballet’s home), QB executive director Dilshani Weerasinghe praised her broad outlook and “vibrant vision” bringing “fresh thinking” to ballet pathways and traditions.

Benjamin admitted being impatient to meet everyone involved in contributing to Queensland Ballet at all levels, including audiences and supporters.

“Ballet is a beautiful coming together of all these contributors and to be a part of this, as an artistic guardian, is a privilege,” she declared.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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