If you’ve been lucky enough to see a production by The Australian Ballet, you’ll know what I mean when I say that it’s a properly prestigious institution. From the dancers’ stage presence to the technique and the glittering costumes, there’s a reason they’re the ballet company young dancers around the country dream about training with.
Riley Lapham is one of the elite few whose dream became a reality when she was offered a contract a few years ago. At 14, she and her dad moved to Melbourne – leaving her mum and brother in Wollongong – so she could train with the Australian Ballet School.
She was one of 20 kids in her cohort, with only two or three contracts on offer to join the company afterwards. ‘Surprisingly, the atmosphere was never super competitive’ Riley says, noting that ‘going through four gruelling years of full-time ballet training really bonds you in a way that few other things can.’
Her story reads almost like something straight out of a ballet movie (the iconic 2000s film Centre Stage comes to mind). After sustaining a serious ankle injury in a rehearsal during senior year, she missed out on a contract and thought she would have to put her dream on hold while she recovered, with hopes of auditioning overseas the following year. Then after graduation, the company’s directors asked her for a meeting.
‘They said that a dancer had notified them of her upcoming retirement and that he was happy to offer me a 6-month contract and will support me through the rehab. I truly couldn’t believe it,’ Riley explains. But her elation over what should’ve been a triumph wound up being filled with ’embarrassment’ that she couldn’t prove herself as a first-year corps de ballet member.
‘Having to ask a senior member to repeat a run through in your place because you’re injured was mortifying, and with no established reputation or standing within the company to fall back on, it was a really challenging time. To now be recognised with this nomination [in the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards], by those same colleagues I felt so embarrassed in front of, is such a special feeling of growth.’
While Riley dispels the myth that there’s competition between the dancers, something the movies do get right about being a professional ballerina is the sacrifices they make in order to get up on stage and do what they do with such ease, power, and grace.
‘It’s a very consuming pursuit and leaves you with little time or energy for much else, and takes a quite a toll on the body,’ Riley notes. ‘But the pros really do trump the cons, which is why we all continue to do it.’
In addition to the ‘irreplaceable feeling’ of euphoria from being up on stage, Riley says there are few workplaces that have the same sense of community like The Australian Ballet. Each of the dancers know they’re a part of a special legacy. And when they get up to perform the classics, across more than 200 shows each year, every new audience, in every venue, is treated to a performance like no other.
I’ve never been a morning person, and the time I wake up depends on whether we are in season or not. Around 7:30/8am if we aren’t performing, and between 8:30/9am when we are. Shows come with late nights, which means I need more of a sleep in to get my hours. I’m also a chronic alarm snoozer.
I normally do my skincare first, before heading in to The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre [in Southbank] around 9ish to arrive by 9:30am.
I always start with some pilates before class starts at 10:30am. My body functions best when supported with supplementary strengthening, so I have a morning pilates routine and then fit the rest in throughout the day or across the week. Class then runs for 1 hour and 15 mins until 11:45am, and then we get a 15 minute break before rehearsals, which go from 12-2:30pm.
Thing are particularly busy and demanding as the 2023 performance season has just kicked off! The upcoming repertoire this year is incredible, but a very heavy load. It’s going to be quite a busy year for the women of the company in particular, with Swan Lake and Jewels coming up. The classics have such a rich history of being performed by different companies across the globe at different points in history, so there’s an element of wanting to do them justice.
We get an hour and 15 mins for lunch each day. I mostly bring my own lunch (leftovers from last night’s dinner), but I’ll also buy it sometimes, either from our deli or the café downstairs. The company also has a partnership with Dineamic – the ready meals company – and we have a fridge at work that is stocked up with meals. Each dancer gets one a week, which is super convenient when you’ve run out of time to organise lunch.
If we aren’t performing, the afternoon holds more rehearsals – from 3:45-6:30pm with a 15 minute break in the middle. If we are in season, the afternoon is for rest, food, sewing pointe shoes etc. before the show that night.
If I’ve had an arvo coffee instead of a morning one, I’m normally very energised! Otherwise, it really depends on how heavy our workload is. A pro of our job is that being physically active all day is quite invigorating, so I don’t usually feel the fatigue until lunch, and once you get going again afterwards its fine.
I always end the day with 10 minutes in the ice bath. The Australian Ballet has an amazing in-house ice bath that looks like a jacuzzi but sits at around 10 degrees. I find it a massive relief at the end of a long day in pointe shoes and it also aids recovery, reduces any inflammation and prevents injury.
We normally finish up for the day about 6:30pm out of season, and 10:30pm in season if we have a show. Some of my favourite dinners are pasta, salmon with rice and veggies or a burrito bowl. Basically, a balanced meal that includes carbs, protein, healthy fats and veggies. My boyfriend and I will watch something on Netflix or Binge, then I’ll always read before bed. It’s the only thing that winds me down effectively.
I normally get to sleep around 10:30pm or 11pm. When we are performing its closer to 12:30am. I absolutely need a lot of sleep. I’m learning around 8-9 hours is minimum for me to be a well-functioning humanoid.
Right now I am listening to, watching, and reading…
My music preferences are a pretty mixed bag, but Etta James, Laurie Darmon, Billie Eilish and Nicholas Britell all feature heavily.
I just finished watching the season finale of The Last of Us. Bloody LOVED it.
Currently reading How many more women? By Jennifer Robinson and Keina Yoshida. It’s excellent and I’m learning lots.
A philosophy I live and work by is…
Stand by your morals. Be curious. Find the humour.
For work, I try to remind myself that there is always value in authenticity, as a person and an artist. Perfectionism can become all consuming, especially in something like ballet, so I find solace in the thought that our uniqueness is our strength.
Something I’ve learned the hard way is…
Do the thing immediately, or set a reminder. You won’t remember it.
Riley is a nominee in the 2023 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards! Vote for her online here, and book your tickets to see The Australian Ballet here.