Today, we bade a bittersweet farewell over scones, jam and cream to our much-loved soloist Laura Tong, who’s off on maternity leave. Have you ever wondered how The Australian Ballet handles dancer pregnancies? Kitty Walker asked the questions.
People are starting to speculate about the water in The Australian Ballet’s Melbourne studios. What’s in it? Is it catching? Over the past few years, a growing number of dancers are embarking on one of the biggest challenges they’re likely to face on or off the stage. Babies.
In 2007 the company implemented a groundbreaking new parental leave and family policy. Since then, eight dancers have benefited from its flexibility. Two have had more than one child, with all bar one returning to the stage after giving birth. The policy offers 14 weeks post-natal paid leave with the option to extend to 28 weeks at half pay. There is leave available for fathers, an option to reduce hours with no impact on pay during pregnancy, flexible safe duties for dancers, options to help families to travel and stay together on tour and support in maintaining peak fitness in preparation for a return to the stage. At the moment we have Principal Artist Lucinda Dunn on safe duties, while Soloist Laura Tong has just completed hers and has started maternity leave.
In recent years you may have called The Australian Ballet to purchase a subscription package and spoken to one of your favourite principal artists, operating under a code name in the call centre. Or perhaps you paid a visit to the company’s Melbourne headquarters, and were greeted at reception by a face you’d seen mid-flight on stage. Maybe, if you looked closely at a production’s revamped costumes, you picked a certain dancer’s painstaking handiwork.
Lucinda is working across different areas of the company while continuing to practise daily ballet class, as did Laura. Dancers on safe duties work until six weeks before their respective due dates before beginning leave.
Laura was 10 weeks pregnant when she returned to work in January after the company’s summer break. Casting decisions were being made for the first season of the year, Madame Butterfly. Waiting until the magical 12-week mark before sharing her news, Laura knew she was being considered for the major roles of Kate and Suzuki, but would she be able to tackle them? Much would depend on how her pregnancy was progressing and how she was dancing.
“It was one of those things where I was really excited about being pregnant but also thinking that I would love to get those two roles in before I stopped dancing.” She managed to do both, performing until she was 18 weeks pregnant. Her final performance was in Adelaide and it was an emotional experience. “I know that I’m planning to come back at this stage, but it feels like a long time. It’s by far the longest break I’ve ever had since I started dancing … I felt really different by the end … it was really special to be out there, if quite strange!”
Lucinda has been through the process of safe duties before, having given birth to her first daughter Claudia in August 2008. She is now pregnant with her second child and has more of an idea of what to expect on the other side of the curtain. The first time round, Lucinda continued to dance the super-challenging role of The Sugar Plum Fairy in Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker until she was eight weeks pregnant. “That role kills me full stop. Let alone when you’ve got no stamina and you feel sick and you’re dizzy!” In 2011 she continued dancing until 13 weeks, performing the Black Queen in Checkmate during the Sydney season.
Physically, dancing with a baby growing inside you is a whole different experience. Muscle strength disappears almost immediately, there are serious centre-of-balance issues to contend with, the pelvic floor must work incredibly hard when a dancer is landing jumps, and that’s not to mention the dramatic changes occurring in the body’s physical shape. But it’s also an unforgettable opportunity for a dancer to share the experience with their unborn child.
Lucinda continued barre practice until the day before Claudia was born. Even in the last stages of her pregnancy, Laura headed off every morning with a giggle to “attempt to do some ballet”. Both agree it’s imperative to have the option to continue to do class each day if the body feels right. “The doctors say and the books say, eat healthily, listen to music and exercise. As a dancer you do that every day,” says Lucinda. “To have that option is important, especially when most dancers now want to return to work. It just makes the process so much easier afterwards.”
When a dancer decides to stop regular studio work is a personal decision, made in consultation with the company’s medical team. Options for safe duties are varied, with an individual’s skills and interests taken into consideration. When pregnant with Claudia, Lucinda taught company class, coached dancers, hosted dinners for patrons, worked on reception -“which was awesome actually!” – helped the media team and travelled with an early version of the NAB Dance the Dream program. “I was quite interested in knowing if I could be useful within the organisation. I’ve only ever danced. What actually could I do, what could I learn?”
This time around she’s coached the cast of The Dancers Company ahead of their regional tour of Don Quixote and assisted the wardrobe department in the refurbishment of costumes for The Merry Widow. She’ll also be staging Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain© in Melbourne and will work again with the corporate relations team on NAB Dance the Dream.
Laura’s safe duties included working on Luminous, a coffee-table book celebrating The Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. The investigative role – sourcing permissions from photographers, designers, dancers and choreographers – has been both hugely satisfying and a steep learning curve. She also worked with the corporate relations department on the NAB Dance the Dream program, gaining an insight into the bigger picture of sponsorship arrangements. Another interesting project for Laura, also linked to next year’s 50th anniversary, was researching alumni of The Australian Ballet. “You certainly get a better understanding of how much work goes into certain things, which is really good from [a dancer’s] perspective to understand.”
For all dancers who have participated in the safe-duties side of the policy, it’s clear that the experience has been an invaluable confidence-building tool. Most members of the company have never worked in an environment outside of full-time dance so to have the option of learning a swathe of new skills is an incredibly enriching experience.
We wish Laura and her husband Tristan every happiness with their new baby, and look forward to Laura’s return to stage. In the meantime, catch up on the wonderful blog posts she wrote for us while on safe duties, including one on being ‘en pointe and pregnant’.