Interview: Dana Stephensen, Australian Ballet
Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photography Jeff Busby.

Interview: Dana Stephensen, Australian Ballet

Glam Adelaide catches up with wicked stepmother, Dana Stephensen, from The Australian Ballet’s upcoming reimagining of the fairytale, Cinderella.

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Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photography Jeff Busby.
Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photography Jeff Busby.

The Australian Ballet will hit town on 4 July 2014 with its new production of Cinderella. Choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, formerly artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and now resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre, this new version of Cinderella is hailed as a fantasy land of 1940s glam – with some surprises in store!

With this in mind, Glam Adelaide spoke to Australian Ballet soloist, Dana Stephensen, who plays the wicked stepmother, to ask her about this new Cinderella, her journey and life as a ballerina, and what audiences can expect.

Many little girls dream of being a ballerina. You were three when you began dancing, how old were you when you knew that being a professional ballerina was really on the cards for you?
I grew up doing lots of different types of dancing so it was a bit of a natural progression, really, as I came to realise what I enjoyed the most and also what perhaps I had natural talent for. My teachers were still surprised I chose ballet in the end as Musical Theatre was also a natural calling for me, but there was something about ballet … and the dream of one day becoming a dancer in The Australian Ballet that really grew on me from about age 15.

You’ve worked your way up the ranks and were promoted to soloist in 2013. Tell me about that.
I always tell people that becoming a Soloist for me was like becoming a Principal! I don’t like to look too far ahead, but as I had been dancing Soloist roles and even a couple of Principal ones for several years, it was something I had been working towards. I was promoted the day after the World Premiere of Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake when I danced the Duchess, which is a lovely Soloist role that I was originally 4th cast for.  Due to other dancer injuries, I ended up being in the Opening night cast. It was a hugely exciting time and my promotion really capped that off and confirmed that I was in the right place and doing the right thing.

When was your big moment – that moment you felt you’d “made it”?
Performing the Principal role of Kitri in Don Quixote on the Dancers Company Tour. We toured regional Victoria and South Australia and I did 11 of them in a few weeks which is a fair amount for a highly energetic and taxing 3-Act ballet. But I was loving it. I was happy, dancing confidently and it all seemed so easy and also made all the effort beforehand seem so worthwhile.

Tell me a bit about this new production of Cinderella. What can audiences expect?
Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella is a wonderfully theatrical, musical and moving production. It feels so cinematic to me and almost like musical theatre without the singing – Cinderella and her Stepfamily actually live in an old theatre! Each and every step tells the story of individual characters and this is definitely Ratmansky’s strength. He puts so much narrative into the steps which enables the audience to have a strong affinity with the characters. The Stepfamily are hilarious in their pursuit of the Prince, of course, and I play the Evil Stepmother, who I like to play as less evil and more of a product of her own misfortunes. There is lots of wonderful dancing, extravagant sets and magical moments. It is a fairytale with a strong sense of humanity.

Tell me a bit about your “Prince” in this production of Cinderella.
The Stepmother has planned her whole life to set up her two daughters with the Prince, but never forgetting that she might even have a chance herself! I like to play her as a very intelligent woman, conniving and ever hopeful that the Prince will pick her. We do have a lot of fun pestering our Principal men in this role – we get very up close and personal with them all!

I’ve noted personally that over recent years, a lot more seems to be demanded of professional dancers than in previous decades.
I think it is true that professional dancers do a lot more than just turn up and work and learn the steps and perform. Naturally, due to the new knowledge about the body, there is a lot more focus on injury management and performance preparation and the psychology behind that. Not to mention the social media and self-marketing side of things – a lot of dancers overseas are ambassadors for brands but in The Australian Ballet, we are all managed under the umbrella of the Company for all our publicity purposes. Having said that, dancers do have to be smart, articulate, well presented, able to communicate effectively but I don’t feel that that is something only our generation is facing – the best dancers have always had all of this. The Australian Ballet is highly focused on education and we have various education and public programs and measures to get ballet out to a broader public and especially engage younger people in dance.

Who were some of your mentors growing up as a ballerina?
I used to love watching Vicki Attard when I was younger and Lucinda Dunn. Of course I was lucky enough to have Luci as a mentor for the last 10 years while I was in the Company which was a huge privilege. It’s even more encouraging to see that these people who you idolise have bad days too and see how they pull themselves together. I love watching Natalia Osipova dance as I have never seen such freedom and joy in dancing, and it inspires me how exciting she is.

What is life like as a ballerina?

A. To be honest, there is a good mix. We perform nearly 200 shows a year and are always training every morning and rehearsing countless ballets during the day. It’s hard work, it’s not all tulle and sequins and with any elite profession, disappointment is often waiting in the wings. However, there are many moments where it really is a dream to do what you love doing and get paid for it. It can feel a little selfish at times to me to devote so much time to myself and my dancing but then I see how much enjoyment it brings to the people who watch our shows, or young dancers who are so inspired by all of us.

Tell me about the best and hardest parts of being a professional dancer.
The Best – being on stage and having the time of your life, sharing moments on stage with wonderful people and beautiful partners, having my friends and family in the audience remembering what I was like when I was younger and then seeing me up there. Self expression and freedom. The hardest – the disappointments, the sadly natural comparisons you make, being good at something doesn’t always make you suited for something, the self-criticism, doing class everyday (the worst part!), the long seasons away from my husband!

What do you think keeps bringing audiences back to the ballet now that there are so many other forms of entertainment that compete for consumer’s attention and money?
There is something timeless about ballet. It’s not on a smart phone, you can’t half watch it while scrolling down your Facebook, you immerse yourself in the dancing and the music and there is not even an obnoxious word said. It is often an escape for people from their lives which is a real honour to provide for people – sometimes a fairytale is all you want! It’s also really exciting watching highly accomplished talented young people live and in the flesh. People do fall over, and things don’t always go to plan, but it’s live and unrecorded and real. It’s tangible and beautiful.

What’s next for Dana Stephensen?
Literally, a belated honeymoon to the Rocky Mountains in Canada for 3 weeks and I can’t wait! It will be a good chance to have some time with my husband and a much needed break from the routine of ballet. And then, who knows? As long as I am inspired, I am happy.

Interviewed by Samantha Bond
Twitter: @samstaceybond

The Australian Ballet: Cinderella
When: 4 – 10 July 2014
Where: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide
Tickets: From $36.00
Bookings: Book through BASS online or phone 131 246

 

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