Ballet dancer Robyn Hendricks was 15 years old when she and her family travelled to Melbourne from their home in Pretoria for an international dance competition. While she was there, Hendricks caught the eye of a teacher at the Australian Ballet School and after being invited to audition, she accepted a place at the prestigious school. She had just five months to organise visas and make travel and accommodation arrangements before flying back to live in Melbourne. She was only 16, living on the opposite side of the world from anyone she knew.
Eleven years later, Hendricks has become a soloist with Australia’s top classical ballet company, The Australian Ballet. Sitting tucked into an armchair in the green room of the Sydney Opera House, this composed, graceful woman shrugs as she concedes she still misses her family, and that times were often tough as she learned to do everything for herself. “It was pretty daunting,” she says, explaining that she flatted with another student. “There were days when I wished I was back home. But I stuck it out.”
There is not a hint of regret in Hendricks’ voice. In fact, she prefers to focus on the positives, and there are many. Hendricks gets to travel Australia and the world and has toured much of Europe, Asia and America, where her partner and fellow dancer Charles Thompson proposed to her during the company’s New York tour last year. It may sound like a dream, but the reality is far more gruelling than one might expect.
A typical performance day begins at 7.30am. She does pilates to prepare her body before making her way to the Sydney Opera House for class at 11am, followed by rehearsals until 3pm (dancers have an uncanny muscle memory and can perform one ballet while rehearsing something totally different). She then has a two-hour break before she needs to prepare for the evening show. Over the next hour, she will shower, apply her stage make-up, do her hair and be ready for the 6.30pm warm-up. “Half an hour before the show starts I do the last things: brush my teeth, put perfume on, put my headdress on. I’m not superstitious so I don’t have a specific routine. Then I usually go up on stage and try a few things. You can talk on stage until the sound curtain goes up, when everything goes dark.”
And it’s not over once the curtain comes down. Hendricks showers again, takes off her make-up then endures a painful ice bath, necessary to manage or ward off injury. Finally it’s home for dinner and preparation for the next day. She has a quick read of the newspapers before she falls into bed around 1.30am. It all begins again six hours later, six days a week.
Pain and fatigue are constant companions for professional ballet dancers. “Dealing with being tired is probably the hardest part – on some days it’s really challenging,” she says. “It does pass.” Indeed, The Australian Ballet has an internationally regarded medical program, including myotherapy and physiotherapy, and the dancers undergo regular massages and ice baths. In 2011, Hendricks was forced to pull out of the much-anticipated world premiere of choreographer Graeme Murphy’s Romeo+Juliet, which had been partially choreographed on her. “At the time it was heartbreaking. Everybody wants to do a Graeme Murphy,” she says. She was out injured for a full nine months after an ongoing condition resulted in a number of broken bones in her foot.
She will return to the spotlight as part of the company’s current program Vanguard, which features three works by key choreographers from ballet’s recent history: George Balanchine’s technically challenging Four Temperaments, Jiri Kylian’s arresting Bella Figura and Wayne McGregor’s astounding, contemporary Dyad 1929. The latter was created on her, by McGregor, a huge compliment, especially given the British choreographer’s standing as one of the most in-demand choreographers alive.
“There’s no ballet vocabulary in Dyad at all, so creating it was quite difficult. Making your body forget everything you had learned…was quite scary. But it was a great experience and the piece is quite extraordinary, there’s nothing like it.”
In fact, Hendricks still appreciates just how much she loves her job. “Working with people who have such extraordinary minds and are so individual and can express that through movement…and the travelling is really great. There’s no other job like it, so I feel pretty lucky,” she says, adding that people are always fascinated to learn what she does. “There’s lots of intrigue and there’s lots of people who are well educated about ballet dancers and know we’re elite athletes.”
The Australian Ballet performs Vanguard at the Sydney Opera House from April 30 to May 18 and The Arts Centre Melbourne from June 6 to 17.