Leanne Benjamin, OBE AM
Former Principal Dancer
with The Royal Ballet
of London for 20 years,
The Royal Ballet Companies
Vice-Chair, recipient of
De Valois Award for
Outstanding Achievement in Dance
Ballet Intensives NYC is proud to introduce our new Faculty Member, Leanne Benjamin, former Principal Dancer of The Royal Ballet. Prior to that, Leanne danced as a Principal with Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, and Deutsche Opera Ballet.
Benjamin retired at the end of the 2012/13 Season, after 20 years as a Principal with The Royal Ballet and 26 years of an impressive and rewarding career as an international Principal Dancer.
"It’s [about] keeping the integrity of the choreography and making it your own and making it look exciting"
Qualia, meaning a raw and sensory experience, marked Wayne McGregor's debut on The Royal Opera House stage, featuring a sensorial pas de deux originally created for Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin. Leanne counts Qualia among the most important works of her career.
"McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed."
– Judith Mackrell, The Guardian
Born in Rockhampton, Australia, Leanne started dancing at the age of three. At 16 she moved to London to train at The Royal Ballet School. Soon after, while still at school, she won two top awards at the world's most prestigious ballet competitions: the Adeline Genée Gold Medal as well as Prix de Lausanne, where she was recently welcomed back as a judge. For the Genée Leanne was judged by Dame Margot Fonteyn, who at the time remarked, "She didn't just win it, she walked away with it."
At the age of 18 Leanne performed the title role of Giselle at Covent Garden in The Royal Ballet School's annual performance.
"I like to say that you must have equals on stage, or you can't fulfill the potential of the situation. Like with Carlos, we are doing our thing out there, every day it's different, you're reacting to each other like playing tennis," Leanne explains.
Leanne joined Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1983 and was promoted to Principal Dancer in 1987. The following year she joined London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) as a Principal and in 1990, the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin. It was there that she met and worked with Sir Kenneth MacMillan who quickly became her mentor and invited her to join The Royal Ballet. Leanne joined the company in 1992 as a First Soloist and was promoted to Principal within the year.
They call him a maker of dances and her, the last MacMillan girl
"MacMillan was, above all, a maker of dances, a discoverer of movement which could trace the darkest aspects of human experience, or penetrate the heart of the situation," wrote Clement Crisp in a profound, lyrical tribute to the choreographer. What makes a MacMillan girl, we ask, a MacMillan dancer? "He chose me for something he saw in me... for my personality. Kenneth didn’t choose his dancers for particular details of their physicality or technique. Those qualities were important, of course, but what he saw in you above all was your individuality and your qualities as an artist,” Leanne says.
Leanne's wide repertory included most of the Classical and Neo-Classical repertoire. Acclaimed for her performances in the MacMillan repertory, Leanne has also worked with Frederick Ashton and Ninette De Valois. She is one of the last dancers to have first hand experience of working with the founders of The Royal Ballet.
Did you ever have any doubts about being a dancer?
No. I always knew. I loved working. I knew I had something special I was driven to fulfill.
“Leanne Benjamin was superlative, never allowing the drama of the long, exhausting opening pas de deux to relax for an instant,” noted Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times. “Now in her mid-40s, Ms. Benjamin is a completely compelling artist dancing with the technique to be expected of someone half her age.”
"The Firebird is one of the most physically demanding roles in the ballet repertoire. That's partly because you have to create the illusion of being in flight," Leanne shared in an interview in 2009. "The Firebird has to simultaneously use her arms and her legs in motion throughout most of the piece. I never thought I'd play her – I thought I'd be too small. It was created for Tamara Karsavina, and danced by Margot Fonteyn and then Monica Mason who was a wonderful Firebird because she had that athleticism. I remember seeing Marguerite Porter dancing the Firebird when I was a student. Her forte was not her jumps – neither was Margot's – but the beauty of the movement, arms and eyes portrayed the character perfectly."
"Benjamin has always shone particularly brightly as MacMillan's flawed, mercenary, mercurial heroine-cum-anti-heroine Manon Lescaut."
– The Telegraph
Leanne as Mary with Carlos Acosta, Edward Watson and Bennet Gartside in The Judas Tree, MacMillan's final work for The Royal Ballet. "The Judas Tree is a ballet about betrayal and guilt, individual and communal. MacMillan based it on the iconic biblical story of betrayal, the Judas kiss that resulted in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. He was also thinking of more recent instances of betrayal, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989." Find out more about history and meaning of The Judas Tree.
One of the important qualities of Benjamin's career is how many ballets and new roles she has originated for world-famous choreographers including Wayne McGregor, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Kim Brandstrup, and Twyla Tharp.
In both 2004 and 2009, Leanne was recognised as Best Female Dancer in the National Dance Awards, as determined by the prestigious Critic’s Circle
Berenice (above left) is another important role Leanne originated. Created in October 2010, to a haunting score by Couperin orchestrated by Thomas Ades, Invitus Invitam is based on a Racine play. Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup took as his text a part of a single line in Suetonius’ History of the Roman Emperors – ‘demisit invitus invitam’ (roughly translated as ‘against his will, against her will’) – concerning Emperor Titus banishing his mistress, Berenice of Clicia. (Berenice ruled the Roman province of Judaea during the second half of the 1st century. The Jewish queen's reputation with the Romans suffered from their bias to the Eastern princesses, like Cleopatra.) Titus and Berenice met only three times, which choreographer represented through a triptych of intense pas de deux for Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin.
"... a must-see artist acclaimed around the world, with her own vibrant dramatic directness and an uninhibited physical appeal"
– Ismene Brown
In 2013, the year she retired, Leanne received the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance
"Leanne has been such a huge part of The Royal Ballet for the last 21 years. […] The memory of her unique and very special talent will remain with us through the many roles she created during her long career," said Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet.
"Leanne Benjamin retired in the role of her choosing, Kenneth MacMillan’s Mary Vetsera, a crazed, sexed-up nymphet with a death-wish," summed it up a London writer Judith Flanders. "Benjamin’s Mary," she added, "ran through the ballet like quicksilver, darting [and] restless." At 49, Leanne shined in her portrayal of a 17-year-old girl, dancing the role with brio and interesting complexity. She was partnered by Carlos Acosta as Rudolph, the mentally unstable Austro-Hungarian heir. The Guardian’s Luke Jennings raved about “faux-innocent, dirty-sex stare that Leanne Benjamin's Vetsera projected from beneath her schoolgirl fringe.”
In 2005, in recognition of her services to dance, Leanne received the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
In 2014 Leanne was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts by Central Queensland University. She was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the same year for significant service to the performing arts, particularly ballet, as a dancer and role model.
In 2016 Leanne was appointed a Governor of The Royal Ballet Companies and became the organization's Vice-Chair in 2020.
Benjamin is the Patron of the Tait Memorial Trust where an annual award is given in her name to support young Australian and New Zealand Dancers to train in the UK.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Something I read has stuck with me: with hard work and talent you can be a king, with hard work and no talent you can be a prince, but with talent without hard work, you will be nothing.
Rehearsal is a fascinating process. Watch Leanne Benjamin coach The Royal Ballet Principals Sarah Lamb and Steven McRye in the ROH Ashton studio. So much ballet wisdom to take in!
Today Leanne works with a number of international ballet companies as a coach to their Soloists and Principals. She also enjoys working with promising pre-professional ballet students.
"I always say to young dancers, the corrections you get today are the corrections you will get for the rest of your life"
Yasemin Kayabay, Turkey, 13 y.o. Ballet Intensives NYC Scholarship recipient:
"I feel so fortunate to have a chance to work with a precious Master Teacher like Leanne Benjamin. She's so precise, we're always working on details... I've learned a lot from her about controlling my muscles more. It was a great motivation for me to work with her during the COVID-19 quarantine; I didn't want to miss any of her lessons even when my family went on vacation so I got organized to take class away from home!"
Madeline Glinski, 17 y.o. pre-professional student of Ballet Intensives NYC:
"Leanne is one of those teachers I just "clicked" with. She has a particular way of explaining things, offering a fresh perspective on how to approach a certain step or your problem area. She explains things so thoroughly, in a way I haven’t heard it explained before. And it makes one think, 'Oh, so that's how I'm supposed to approach it!'
When I first started working with Leanne, I was trying to find ways to work with the hyperextension in my legs. After just one lesson Leanne got me thinking about my hyperextension differently from how I used to. From then on, my entire approach to the technique class has changed. Now, I find myself taking class with more intent in each movement. And she pays so much attention to detail when she is teaching! She can tell right away when I'm slightly not as pulled up in my legs — even now, on Zoom through a webcam, which is amazing, considering we are an ocean apart. She still picks up on things as if she were in the room with me."
When asked what would she say to her 12 y.o. self from where she is today, Leanne replies, "I would say, go for it! Work hard. If you are interested in ballet, make sure you are with a suitable teacher – someone who’s got a good eye, and keep your feet on the ground."