One of the West Australian Ballet’s (WAB) three Principal Dancers, Matthew Lehmann’s every movement is with the gorgeous grace of a natural dancer. Born in Melbourne, the 31-year-old performer started his training in 1999 at Ballet Theatre Australia. First performing for WAB in 2005, he joined the Company in 2010 before his promotion to principal dancer in 2013.
In the midst of preparing for the “hardest season of the year,” Ballet at the Quarry, Lehmann describes the physical demands of spending 7.5 hours in the studio everyday. Likening dance to a career “going to the gym day in, day out” he – understandably – suggests rehearsal sometimes feels like a necessary evil for the thrill of performing.
“On stage is when all the hard work pays off. You just feel comfortable in the role, so you can enjoy it, forgetting everything behind you. There’s no more work you can do and there’s no point worrying about getting something right, it’s going to be the way it is,” Lehmann says.
“I still get nervous, but after so many shows it’s nowhere near panic. I harness it to improve my performance.”
Ballet at the Quarry is usually a vehicle for WAB’s contemporary, ‘edgy’ material. Lehmann suggests “it’s more extreme on the body because it encompasses varying styles. A dancer’s body becomes used to a certain way of moving, but with five distinct pieces comprising the show, each with different movement vocab, it’s demanding.” Performing almost every night for four long weeks, Lehmann says his body “reaches a level akin to what they call ‘game fitness’ in AFL. It means I can perform at a high level every night, and it’s earned in rehearsal. It’s especially important as a principal, because you always have a dominant role so there’s extra pressure to consistently be your best each night.”
Like a play, when a Company buys the rights to perform a ballet all the steps are set, and it must be presented in that way. Dancers are able to put their own spin on it, adding their flair and personality to the role, but the steps must remain as written. However, if the work is being created for the Company, like most of the pieces exhibited at the Quarry, dancers are able to collaborate with the choreographer.
“If you perform a ballet that’s been done a million times, you always get judged against and compared to other versions. I still enjoy and appreciate the challenge of a famous piece, but when you do a dance that you’ve helped give life to, you get judged more on how you move and how the piece actually is, not how someone else did it,” Lehmann says.
Beyond the Quarry show, the 2016 season includes a wide range of styles. Performing at His Majesty’s Theatre, it encompasses Beauty & the Beast, Romeo & Juliet, Radio & Juliet and beloved Christmas classic The Nutcracker, set to the music of Tchaikovsky (!!).
Stories that have strong characters are best for adapting to ballet. “If the plot is too complex, the audience becomes lost because it’s hard to follow so many wordless characters. That’s why they are mostly fairy tales that have simple, clear storylines: ‘They love each other, but can’t be together yet because…’ However, even the simplest tale will struggle to come across without a skilled choreographer.
“Variety is what keeps the audience – and the dancers – interested. If they see the same genres and style year in, year out, we’ll get pigeonholed.
“Beauty & the Beast will be quite theatrical because that is the style for which the choreographer David Nixon is known. This year we’ll also be revisiting Edward Clug’s Radio & Juliet, where we get to dance to Radiohead’s music! It’s the perfect cross-over from movement to music, and I feel like such a badass being able to just fling limbs around. It’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done!” Lehmann previously won the ‘Most Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer’ award at the WA Dance Awards when the Company last performed Radio & Juliet in 2014.
“The Arts involves a constant struggle to bring the audience back and keep them engaged. Ballet is considered elitist and only for rich people, but Radio & Juliet goes a long way toward breaking that stigma. When I speak to people after their first experience of ballet, they always tell me that they weren’t expecting to enjoy it so much. The Fringe World Festival has made people more open to new artforms,” Lehmann says.
“In Europe, there’s a strong history of dance so society holds dancers in higher regard, even on a pedestal. It’s a place that understands how much work goes into ballet, and thus treats them the same way as footballers are treated in Australia. Here, most people are quite welcoming to the fact I do ballet, it’s only guys in suits that seem to have a problem with me. Bikers I meet at the pub, who you might anticipate having the biggest problem, instead congratulate me for doing what I love.”
Now in his eleventh year of professional, full-time dancing, Lehmann recognises that being a principal dancer includes a leadership role. “I remember what it is like coming out of dance school, when I joined my first company [Alberta Ballet, Canada] I was only 18 and suddenly dancing full-time. For me, the guys who helped me and pushed me in the right direction were in senior roles like I am now. They gave me pointers about how to work smartly in the studio and meet the commitments expected of you. I want to do that for the next generation of dancers too.”
“I was able to get to where I am today because I am a very good dance partner. Quite often a guy and a girl have to be able to move together, being able to lift and turn in coordination. I’m just able to picture my partner’s movement, and this is definitely a strength as a performer. Like most people at the Company, I grew up dancing all styles, including jazz, tap and ballroom. Most dance schools offer a wide variety nowadays, and I find the dancers that have a broader learning background are more versatile, because they have more knowledge and experience to draw upon.
“Additionally, my father, who teaches ballroom dancing with my mother in Melbourne, put me into a lot of acting classes when I was in high school. This means I have the skills to convincingly embody a character on stage and that’s become the side of performing that I love- dance has almost become secondary.
“I think it’s necessary for a classical dancer to be able to act. They can be amazing technicians, but if there’s no soul it can be like watching gymnastics. You can be in awe of their physicality and technique, but there must be passion behind it so that you stop looking at their steps. Then, just like watching a film, you become immersed and forget where you are,” Lehmann says.
“The power of ballet over other art forms is that it is based on expressing feelings, like happiness and pain, in movement. Everyone has a natural ability to read body language, and dance just amplifies and personifies that.”
Words by Samuel J. Cox