The Australian Ballet

Ballet FAQs

TAB Swan Lake Baynes Sydney Photo Daniel Boud 2016 aa61 1 1

Swan Lake, performed in 2016. Photography by Daniel Boud

Is being a ballet dancer a full-time job?

Very much so! Professional ballet dancers are like elite athletes – in constant training for the rigours of performance. Our dancers prepare for their careers from childhood, and work six days a week to polish technique, develop their artistry and hone their bodies to peak fitness. They have a short mid-year break and a longer break over the summer.

What does a dancer's working day look like?

Most of the dancers start their day with Pilates and body conditioning before moving on to morning class. Rehearsals take up the afternoon. If the company is in a performance period, there will be a short break before warm-up barre and the show.

How many times does The Australian Ballet perform each year?

Around 200 times! Apart from our annual seasons in Melbourne and Sydney (usually between five and six ballets in each city), the company travels to selected major cities like Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, and regularly tours overseas. Our regional touring arm visits towns around the nation each year.

How many dancers are in The Australian Ballet?

We maintain a troupe of around 77 dancers. Young dancers fresh from training usually enter at the lowest rank, becoming part of the corps de ballet. They may then rise through the ranks, from coryphée to soloist to senior artist to principal artist. The top rank is reserved for dancers at the peak of their technical and artistic skill.

Why do the dancers wear such strange clothes in the studio - one leg warmer, tights over leotards, onesies, moon boots?

Away from the stage, the dancers are primarily concerned with comfort and keeping their muscles warm, which prevents injury. Dancers wearing one leg warmer are usually coddling a niggling injury in that leg. Moon boots are used to protect pointe shoes when the dancers are outside the studio. They also keep their feet warm and ready for the next rehearsal.

How long does it take to make a tutu?

A classical tutu requires the unique skills of cutters and costumiers, who work in close consultation to produce a costume. It can take up to two weeks of solid work to produce a single tutu.

How long does it take for a dancer to go en pointe?

Female dancers usually begin their training en pointe at the age of eleven or twelve, although this can vary. Before a dancer can begin pointe work, they must do extensive work to strengthen the feet and lower legs – otherwise they risk injury, possibly permanent.

How many pointe shoes do the dancers go through?

The Australian Ballet goes through 7,500 ballet shoes a year (including men’s and women’s flat slippers). Of those, 5,000 are pointe shoes. The ladies also use 350 pairs of tights a year.

Do men wear pointe shoes?

No. The only time a male dancer would ever wear pointe shoes is for a specialist character role (for instance the Ugly Sisters in some versions of Cinderella, or Bottom, who is transformed into a donkey in The Dream.

Why does The Australian Ballet have pianists?

Our pianists accompany the dancers in class and rehearsal. Rehearsal pianists have highly specialised skills – they must be able to provide music of the appropriate speed and rhythm for the exercises devised by the artistic staff during daily class, and they must master full piano “reductions” of complex orchestral scores in order to accompany rehearsals. Our pianists also play solo piano for performances of works like Ballet Imperial and Dyad 1929.

Who does the dancers' hair and make-up?

The dancers do it themselves! For specialist make-up (used for roles like Puck in The Dream and Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty), the costume designer will often supply a drawing demonstrating how the make-up should be done, and the dancers will be given cosmetics to achieve that look. Usually, however, they buy their own make-up.

What does "chookas" mean?

It’s the equivalent of “break a leg” – a way to wish performers a good show without transgressing the theatre taboo around saying “good luck”. Where does it come from? No one really knows! It's specific to Australian dance culture.

Why are all the ballet terms in French?

Ballet was first codified as a system of movement in the 17th-century French courts, and the terms have been handed down over generations. Even if a dancer can’t speak French, they know the universal terms for movements – so dancers are able to take morning class anywhere in the world and feel at home.

Can dancers have children and still have a career?

At The Australian Ballet, they can. We are one of the few companies in the world to offer full-time contracts to dancers – so they have access to leave, including parental leave. Several of our female dancers – including principal artists – have left the company to have children, and almost all have returned to the stage.

What happens when a dancer gets injured?

The Australian Ballet has a world-leading medical team that has worked wonders in injury prevention. However, just as in the highest levels of sport, sometimes injuries are unavoidable. Dancers are encouraged to report strains and niggles early, and to spend time away from performing if necessary. Dedicated rehabilitation specialists assist them to return safely to the stage.

Did you know ...

When The Australian Ballet tours internationally, the dancers must travel on two planes, so that the precious artists of the company are not all in the sky at the one time.

The stage managers sometimes mop the specially sprung Tarkett floors on our stages with Coca Cola or a sugar-water solution to make them sticky so that the dancers’ shoes will grip the floor, reducing the danger of slips.

Formaldehyde was used for many years to give tutus their characteristic stiffness. Since it was phased out, the costume department are in constant battle against “tutu droop” as they test less toxic solvents.