Catherine Eddy, 25, is a ballerina with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
She was born just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa, but she didn’t stay there long. “I got used to travel at an early age,” she recalls, “so I really love the touring aspect of theatrical life.”
Catherine’s poor little legs were knock-kneed at the age of six. When her parents took her to a physician to see what might be done, he suggested that they either enroll her in a gym, a ballet school, or get her to start riding bikes. Her parents preferred the ballet option and Catherine was in complete agreement. “I had a cousin who danced,” she says, bubbling with enthusiasm. “I thought she was beautiful and I loved the costumes. I wanted to wear a tutu too.”
By the age of 15, Catherine’s family had moved to Melbourne, creating an opportunity for her to study a three-year professional ballet course at the Australian Ballet School. When she graduated at 18, she was offered, and accepted a contract with the Australian Ballet, the national ballet company.
In 2006, after six years with the Australian Ballet, Catherine joined the smaller (by 50%) RNZB, which offered more opportunities for roles.
“The Australian Ballet does so many performances every year that it becomes easy to forget the joy of dance and to treat it as just a job,” says Catherine. “I love the Kiwi way of life, the better pace here, the quiet confidence of the Kiwi dancers, and the respect they have for each other. And I’ve regained that joy of dance which is important to me.”
What does a typical ‘day in the life’ of a professional ballerina in New Zealand involve? During a rehearsal period, dancers work from 9:30am to 5:30pm with a 75-minute lunch break, five days a week. The day starts with a 90-minute dance class led by a Ballet Master (or Mistress) who develops the dancers’ capacities. Masters and Mistresses are generally well established dancers within the company who have an aptitude for teaching and coaching. From 11:15am to 5:30pm the company rehearses, normally in the venue where the performance is to be given. When a repertoire includes contemporary dance such as for Michael Parmenter’s Weather, the choreographer of the piece will often be brought in to teach specific moves.
In a performance period, daily classes continue as usual from 9:30am but the dancers work six days instead of five, taking Mondays off.
Injuries are covered by ACC. Common ones for ballet dancers are to the knees, hips, and back. Male dancers, who have to lift their female counterparts, are prone to shoulder damage. Foot problems, such as stress fractures, are quite common. Last year Catherine was obliged to take six weeks off during the Giselle season to recover from achilles tendonitis.
How does she expect to fare physically as she grows older? “Dancers are prone to arthritis in the feet as they age and hip replacements are also not uncommon,” she says. “Osteoporosis is not uncommon either, but it is often diet related. You need to apply common sense to your diet if you do physical work and that includes a balance of protein and carbohydrates.”
What about potential motherhood? “These days I think it’s possible to have a baby and go back to professional ballet,” she says, “but essentially, ballet is a selfish career, quite self-absorbed. I wouldn’t like to try to have a ballet career and children. I think most ballerinas would choose to complete their careers and then have children.”
Retirement age is somewhere between mid-20s and 40 for women. Men tend to retire between 35 and 40. But there are always exceptions; one RNZB male dancer is 42.
What would she tell young girls wanting to wear tutus?
“Attend ballet classes with a good teacher, perhaps once and not more than twice a week. Once the aspiring dancer reaches their mid-teens, if their body looks as though it will suit the ballet form, then they can think about attending a professional school.”
The characteristics of a ‘suitable’ body include the amount of ‘turn-out’ of the hip. A professional ballet dancer’s legs need to be able to rotate 180 degrees outwards. Supple bodies are favoured, and so are smaller bodies (aesthetically more pleasing as a conveyor of art-form than larger bodies). Boys, in addition, need to have upper body strength, since dance will often require them to lift their female counterparts – another good reason for being a smaller built female! Dancers are not required to read music but they do need to be musical, to be able to count beats.
Catherine’s first year with RNZB included roles such as a trolley dolly and exotic dancer in The Wedding, various roles in the triple bill, Trinity, and the lead role in Giselle. She can’t pick a favourite ballet but said, “Giselle was great and I loved Romeo and Juliet. I’d love to do Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon.
Ever made a gaffe in your professional work? When a performer does it, it tends to be fairly obvious. A few years ago Catherine had the role of lead cygnet in Swan Lake. At the appropriate time she moved out onto the stage with the other cygnets behind her. But she tripped and fell. “The worst was that all the other cygnets stepped over me and continued to their positions,” she laughs, “and I couldn’t get up until they’d all passed. In some ways, if you have a fall, it makes the audience love you more, but I try to avoid it.”
What does an effervescent, light-spirited, ballet dancer like Catherine do for fun?
“I play tennis although not too often because I need to be careful with my knees. I love movies and books and I’m a big music fan – classical, jazz, contemporary. I like to spend time with friends as well.” She’s finding friends amongst RNZB’s performers. “You need to get on with your workmates in a dance environment for sure,” she says, “but these are all great individuals and it’s a pleasure to work with them.”
Perhaps she is in one of the few male/female balanced professions. “RNZB, which employs 32 full-time dancers, normally has a 50/50 split.