Posted on 12 February 2020 By Rose Mulready

When choreographer Graeme Murphy set out to make a ballet of The Happy Prince, he had a specific purpose in mind: to capture children’s attention and kindle their creativity.

“I want to cater to the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of inspiration, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts. If ten kids per show think ‘I want to be part of this magic,’ that would be my reward,” he says.

It got us thinking: what were the childhood moments that shaped the careers of our top dancers, choreographers, musicians and artists? We asked them to remember how they fell in love with their craft.


"My parents were both teachers, and their school concerts were my first experience of theatrical magic. My imagination was also fed by books - the worlds at the top of the Faraway Tree. I continually dreamed, both waking and sleeping, of flying (I still have flying dreams all the time). I think the first professional stage show I saw was when the Tivoli came to Tasmania with a revue called Oriental Cavalcade, with these acrobatic dance numbers. There were, you know, slave girls chained together doing cart wheels, and i thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen."

Photography Kate Longley


"Before I was even in school, I went along with my brother and sister to the Hole in the Wall Theatre in Perth, which was just a tiny place in a suburban street – it didn’t even look like a theatre. Before we went into the performance, we had to colour in a picture of a clock face; then they gave us one of those early 1970s plastic cups, the ones that are really crinkly, with a couple of beads in it. They taped the clock face to the top of the cup, so that we ended up with a little prop. I don’t even remember what the show was, but there was a nasty person, and every time they came on, we had to squeeze the cup and rattle the beads. I just thought it was the greatest thing ever. There were people in costume, lights … I used to wait every morning to see Playschool, and to me it was like being inside Playschool! I took that little cup with the beads in it home and kept it for weeks and weeks, until it all disintegrated: I kept on scrunching and rattling that thing until it died.

"The wonderful thing about childhood is that you really believe. I really did think that cup with the beads in it would keep the baddie away. You believe in the magic."

Photography Kate Longley


"I sat as a young bunhead, watching American Ballet Theatre’s Le Corsaire in California. The sets, the dancers! Marcelo Gomes was debuting as the Slave. He was perfection! But what took my breath away was something altogether different: a real working fountain they brought out in the dream scene and set at the back of the stage. A REAL working fountain! ON stage! I was hooked and never looked back."

Photography Kate Longley


"My best friend and I went to see a ballet gala in Nagoya, my hometown in Japan. The Russian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova was dancing Kitri in a solo from Don Quixote. My jaw just dropped to the floor: she was born to be a ballerina, it was like she was surrounded by sparkles. I was twelve years old and I’d never felt anything like it. I remember thinking at the time, 'Oh my God, I am really into ballet.'

"After the show my friend said, 'I want to be like her. I want to go overseas to attend a full-time ballet school, and I want to be a professional ballerina.' And I was like, 'What? Ballet can actually be a job?' And so of course I wanted to do that too. I wanted to be like Svetlana. Since then, we’ve both been so lucky to get to do what we love and get paid for it. Last year my best friend and I were back together dancing on the same stage, at another gala in Nagoya, for the 20th anniversary of my ballet teacher’s studio. I danced Don Quixote with my husband Chengwu Guo. Kitri has always been a really special role for me.

"Last year, both Svetlana and I were nominated for Benois de la Danse awards, and I was hoping I’d get to see her at the ceremony, but sadly she wasn’t there. That performance still has such a big impact on me. Her charisma was what really attracted me, and I think that’s the most important thing for a principal dancer, more than technique, more than acting. I still watch her performances sometimes on YouTube when I feel alone. She makes me think, 'Ok, I can be better. I can push more.'"

Photography Daniel Boud


"There were musicians in my family, so I’d been learning an instrument, but like many twelve-year-olds I was getting frustrated with it. My friends would all be outside, at the beach, and I’d be inside practising. But then I went and played with a youth orchestra. All of a sudden my scratchy, horrible-sounding, annoying violin was completely transformed.  When the brass, percussion and woodwind joined in, a world of colour literally opened up. Every hair of my body stood on end. I will never forget that as long as I live.

"And then I thought, 'Well, who gets to play with all these colours? Oh, that’s the conductor. I want to do that!' So at age twelve I decided that’s what I would do, without really understanding what it meant, or that women weren’t 'supposed' to do it. But I knew that’s what I had to do – it was very visceral."

Photography Julian Kingma


"When I was about seven, my parents saw The Phantom of the Opera in Melbourne and they brought back the cassette tape for me and my sister. We learned all the words. A few years later, the production came back, and we got tickets as a gift. I found it so captivating, especially having known the music for so many years. Then there was the experience of being immersed in the magnetic energy of the theatre. It wasn’t long after that I got a VHS tape of The Australian Ballet, with Miranda Coney, Christine Walsh and Lisa Pavane dancing excerpts. I had that on repeat until I drove my horse-riding sister batty; I loved it so much. By then I was dancing, so I’d put on my pointe shoes in the lounge room and learn the solos. I’d watch them, rewind them, play them again, rewind them, play them again, using the furniture as partners.

"It's funny, sometimes one of the ballet pianists will play something from The Phantom of The Opera in class, and I’ll think, 'Oh, that’s lovely'. It still has a place in my heart."

Alice in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photography Lynette Wills


"When I was nine years old, my school went to Perth Concert Hall to see West Australian Ballet perform The Nutcracker. There were busloads of kids and we would have been rowdy and horrible. I sat there, in the dark, watching something I’d never seen before, but strangely it resonated with me. I found myself wanting to get onto the stage: not to watch, but to do what they were doing. It looked like sport, and it was make-believe, and there was music, which were easily three of my favourite things when I was a kid. I knew I was loving it, but I didn’t exactly know what it was.

That was the real trigger for me, my first and most profound exposure to ballet. For me, the most meaningful thing about ballet is that energetic connection between the performance and the audience, and that was obviously humming for me when I was nine years old. It’s something I’ve hung on to throughout my dancing career, and now in my role as a ballet coach."

Photography Lisa Tomasetti


"I knew that I was an artist from when I was three or four. I used to draw over everything: the floor, the walls, the pavement, I never stopped. I used chalk and when my mother was out of sight I’d grab her lipstick - that was a great thing to draw with! We lived in Adamstown, Newcastle on the main highway, and I would wander out there as a small child because I’d see a pebble or something glinting that would catch my eye in the sunlight and would have to have it. It was all about the visual aesthetic. I’d stop the traffic – they had to stop or they would have run me over – and the motorists would get out and take me to the front door and put me back into the safe care of my mother, who’d be horrified.

"I graduated from that to making model theatres. I was a highly impressionable child. I remember being taken to the art gallery in Newcastle - I thought it was the most wonderful thing, so I came home and made my own art gallery in the sunroom, a miniature version, from whatever I could find. Whatever I experienced as a child I’d want to recreate."

Kim's design for The Little Swallow in The Happy Prince


"The reason I started dancing was because I had an older and a younger sister who were doing ballet, jazz and tap. I would go with them to lessons and my sisters, their friends and their teachers were always encouraging me to give it a go, because they didn’t have many boys at the school. Eventually, after a couple of years, I gave in – really just to make them leave me alone. I  didn’t consider dance as a career until a few years later when my ballet teacher showed me a DVD called Born to be Wild, a documentary featuring Ethan Stiefel, Ángel Corella, Jose Carreno and and Vladimir Malakhov, principals with American Ballet Theatre. It was the first time that I’d seen male ballet at a professional, elite level. I’d always been an active kid, bouncing off the walls, but in that video I could see how far the male ballet spectrum actually spanned, in terms of partnering and storytelling. I remember being completely transfixed  by what they were doing, and then started to try and do those things myself. It all happened very quickly after that."

Photography Daniel Boud

Fiona Tonkin, Artistic Associate & Principal Coach

 "I wasn’t allowed to do dance lessons until I was seven years old, so the first time ballet really got to me was when I was a teenager, watching my very first performance. It was a production of Giselle by Southern Ballet, a semi-professional company run by my teacher Lorraine Peters in New Zealand. It struck something mystical in me – something magical, something ethereal. It was the way movement and music could come together to tell a story, and that beautiful, beautiful second act. 

"Right up until I got my first job with Royal New Zealand Ballet, I never thought I’d be good enough, but at that moment, seeing Giselle, I knew that ballet was going to be part of my life forever. It was a tingling; a feeling of being taken away. That’s the way I want to feel every time I watch a performance. Over my career, I danced the role of Giselle many times. It would encompass all those early feelings I had, but with every season you had grown and would add something new. My last Giselle was in Japan with The Australian Ballet, the year after my mother died, which was profoundly affecting.  When I coach dancers, it’s about the technical side of the role, but also the emotional side, which isn’t always easy. If you’ve not experienced loss or death, how do you convey that heartbreak?

What I’ll always remember about my first Giselle is the Queen of Willis just floating across the stage – it will stay with me forever. As a dancer, you never want to lose sight of the ability of your profession to transport people like that.

Fiona rehearsing Giselle with Dimity Azoury. Photography Kate Longley


My Dad is a musician (a violinist, he was the concertmaster of the symphony orchestra in my hometown Sichuan, around an hour from Shanghai) and my mum was a singer (Chinese foIk music). My Dad used to tell me that when I was one or two years old I was a very grumpy kid, I cried a lot, but he found when he played the violin I’d stop being naughty or grumpy. So he said maybe I had that gene in my blood. He started teaching me violin when I was around five but after five years of teaching he said, ‘Oh Yi, I’m exhausted’. Fortunately when I was ten I got into the Beijing Conservatory Primary School. Dad said, ‘if you don’t go to the Conservatory I won’t have the energy to keep teaching  you.’ It was 27 hours by train, and I was boarding from age ten; the first year I just wanted to go home.

"When I was little I liked sports more - I played table tennis and soccer. My dream was to be a table tennis player. When I was 15 or 16 I was studying in the Conservatorium; I was always branded as very talented but someone who never worked at all, and my teacher had had enough of me. She told me, ‘Yi, I can’t teach you anymore because you just don’t want to play’. I was pretty ashamed about being kicked out, so from that time on I thought, ‘OK, you have to decide exactly what you want to do.’ From then on I decided to practice harder. And with that I started to develop the interest, not only in technique but in the music.

Photography James Braund