It’s Mother’s Day and while it’s a special day to celebrate all Mum’s for all they do, today we’ve touched base with one of Australia’s most cherished dancers, Lucinda Dunn OAM, to ask for her thoughts and experiences of being both a dancer and a mother.
As a quick recap for those that don’t know Lucinda’s career - and we suspect there wouldn’t be many - after winning the Prix de Lausanne at the age of 15 Lucinda was offered a scholarship with the Royal Ballet School, London where she graduated at 17 before accepting a contract with The Australian Ballet in 1991.
Lucinda quickly rose through the company ranks attaining Senior Artist in just 4 years before being promoted to Principal in 2002. Lucinda was Australia’s longest serving female artist, dancing with The Australian Ballet for 23 consecutive years and from 2002 to her retirement in 2014 as Principal.
Now the Artistic Director of the prestigious Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy in Sydney’s North, we caught up to ask Lucinda about her thoughts on being a dancer and a Mum.
Let me start by asking, when you began your career did you know you wanted to be a Principal dancer or were you just happy dancing? Do you see yourself as a naturally ambitious person or did things simply fall a certain way?
Lucinda: Gosh … I think, initially I was simply happy that I had a job, that I was dancing at home in Australia with a reputable company and with a great repertoire. I had an Artistic Director that was interested in coaching younger dancers for opportunities. Then as I moved through the ranks, which I did quite swiftly, I suppose that ambition grew of wanting to be a Principal. I looked up to the Principal dancers in the Australian Ballet and began to feel that was something, not that I could do, but that I could aspire to.
Do you know when that aspiration really kicked in?
Lucinda: Not really. I did my first Aurora after only 18 months in the company. I was only 19, or nearly 19, and so that was pretty early to do one of the most prestigious roles in the Ballerina’s repertoire. There wasn’t really a lightbulb moment that said ‘I’m going to be a Principal' or ‘this is what I’m going to work towards’. I had lots of opportunities that were given to me and I was rehearsed in certain roles as an understudy and usually I got a performance. So my opportunities were varied and I did the necessary work to get onto stage and that’s why I escalated quite quickly.
It sounds like the path revealed itself to you, rather than being planned?
Lucinda: Yes, it did actually. But I think the work and the work ethic I had and have, and now try to impart to my students, did help dictate my career; I showed my desire, how eager I was to improve and do my best.
When you were starting out did it ever cross your mind that you might one day become Australia's longest serving female Principal?
Lucinda: [Laughs out loud] No! Never! And there were times in my career when I wanted to just pack it all in. I never had that goal of, ‘I have to break a record’. I just feel very privileged that I had the longevity I did. It wasn’t without hiccups along the way, but it was never something I aspired to; to dance as long as I did. I kept going just so long as I was happy, fulfilled and challenged.
Can you remember the first time you thought, ‘I can’t do this. I need to pack it in?’
Lucinda: I don’t know if it was the very first time, but there was a really big conversation with a Director and I remember my husband was downstairs in the car waiting for me as I went into this meeting. And … it was a bit of a Catch 22 situation; physically I wasn’t looking my best and so wasn’t getting much to do, and not getting much to do your body goes to pot. I went into the office and said, if you can’t use me or you don’t think I’m suited to this then I need to finish now. That was a very big moment because I was about to walk away from my career.
How old were you?
Lucinda: [Pauses and sighs deeply] Mid-20’s.
So we might have missed out on 15 years of your career?
Lucinda: [Laughs] Yeah, well I was just unhappy and I felt that this is something I’m trying to push myself to love. And to get up every day, with 8 hours in front of the mirror in the studio … if this is not something I want to do with my life then I need to change. And, you know, let’s do it now while I’m strong enough to stand up and say, ‘Hey. What do I need to do?’
You were made Principal in 2002 at age 28. How old were you when you had your first child?
Lucinda: [Pauses for quick calculation] 34 or 35. She’s 8 and a half now and I’m … going on 50 it feels like. [Laughs again]
Mid-30’s is often a time when a lot of dancers do think maybe they should consider retiring, or if I’m going to have a baby then maybe I should retire. At the time did you know that you'd go back to dance, was it part of a ‘plan’ or were you taking a ‘wait and see’ approach?
Lucinda: It was part of a plan. I wanted to go back into the studio and that’s why I did class as long as possible and a ballet barre the day before my daughter was born knowing that I was going into hospital at 6am the next morning. But it was a little unknown, as every Mother would probably say. What you attempt to do, you know, I didn’t know if my body would let me go back after giving birth and I didn’t know if my baby would let me. What needs does my baby have? Will she let me go back to a pretty stressful and long running career? So it was my plan and I kept those pointe shoes and my lycra on and I was in class every single day. I was lucky that I was able to do work safe duties, so I worked through my pregnancy cause I was healthy and had no issues that stopped me from working, but … if I could go back, that was my plan if it was doable.
What role models did you look up to in this choice and how important were their experiences in guiding you?
Lucinda: There was Lindy Wills. She had her first baby a year before me so she was one of the pioneers in this new, ‘let’s have a baby and return to dancing’, whereas previously it had been Ballerina’s retiring when they made that choice. But it came down to the maternity plan The Australian Ballet had in place that showed there was a want to keep mature artists in the company performing and able to continue their careers, as it’s a time when your artistry and understanding of your emotions are really blossoming. Because obviously that’s the time when you really start to grow as an artist, when you really know your body, you know your self and what you’re capable of. I didn’t speak to many other international Ballerina’s about motherhood, I was just seeing what I could do myself.
You’ve already touched on this, but I’m wondering if this was a scary time for you? We all know a dance career can be short, so to take time off to have a baby yet still want your professional dance career to continue; were you nervous that you might not be able to get back? And if so, how did you deal with those feelings?
Lucinda: I wasn’t scared. My husband and I wanted a family and, as everyone will say, your family is first. So if that meant that I had to end my career for whatever reason then that’s what I would do. So it wasn’t frightening for me to think if I have a baby will I lose my career. It was, we’re going to have a baby and we’ll see what happens.
How long after your daughter was born before you felt you were dancing at full capacity again? And did you feel different?
Lucinda: [Another deep sigh] After my daughter was born I was back on stage … she was born in August and I was back on stage in January. Which, I would not advise [short laugh]. I was actually really ill and it was way too soon, I hadn’t recovered enough to get back on stage. I definitely wasn’t at my peak then.
Were you back that quickly because you pushed yourself or did others?
Lucinda: Yeah. I pushed. An opportunity arose that I wanted to get back on stage for if it was possible and so the work began. And I have quite a strong work ethic and I’m quite determined and so it happened … but it probably wasn’t until the middle of that year, even 12 months later that I felt myself again. Your body takes time to put all the layers back and to re-build the confidence to be onstage. It takes time. And of course you’re wanting to explore your role as a mother and the relationship between being a Mum and studio time.
Beyond that I don’t think anything changed for me in the rehearsal periods or on stage. I know people say ‘Once you’re a Mother you flourish’ and all of that … I just felt I was given another opportunity to be back on stage and every performance I did I just tried to be self-satisfied and to be better than my last show. I don’t know that anything really changed. Other women may say that, but I can’t pinpoint anything that was really different.
You became pregnant again a couple of years later and your next daughter was born in 2011. What was different the second time? Some aspects must have been a little easier because you were more experienced, but what surprised you?
Lucinda: [Laughs] How it’s even more exhausting than the first one! Because now of course you’ve got one one you’re looking after, I was still dancing and I was trying to make another one. Yes, so that was different. My pregnancies were the same in that I was really healthy and had no issues, so I was in the studio again and I probably had the same outlook; that if it was possible for me to return we would try but if not, then I’d be happy with whatever happened.
You did get back and danced for another 3 years until 2014. What was it that tipped the balance and made you decide to retire?
Lucinda: I felt that doing Swan Lake at the age of 40 [laughs] … you know the demands on my body. I didn’t want to be going through class, rehearsals and performances every day wondering, ‘is my body going to hold up to this?’. I had a lot of calf issues in last few years of my career, and I felt that I really had to manage those injuries all the time. As you get older your physiology changes, your muscles aren’t as supple or elastic and I felt that my calves were my demons and it was a daily battle really. I was aware of the impact on my technique or artistry and didn’t want it to make me look not-as-pleasant to an audience; I didn’t want people thinking ‘it’s time’. I wanted to make that choice, and not wait till I felt pressure from other people wondering, ‘why is she still here?’. [Laughs again]
Those physical demands, those ‘demons’, did they impact on your family life, on your capacity to be a Mum?
Lucinda: Look … if anything is wrong with you physically or mentally obviously that does effect you. Your mood might be low because you’re not doing the work that really exhilarates you and so that does have an impact. Rehab is not as much fun as doing a three act ballet. But you can’t take those moods home to your children. So it didn’t effect me being a Mum so much. I did the work in the studio and then running home to be with family was a priority.
There’s no way to quantify success in this, but how well do you feel you were able to juggle motherhood and your incredibly demanding dance career, which is taxing in terms of time, but also in terms of its emotional and physical toll?
Lucinda: Family comes first. So once I’m home I’m Mummy. There is no, ‘wait a minute I’m a Ballerina so let me eat my dinner, ice my feet and have a bath’, there was none of that. So my personal time did suffer because I always put my children first. So I suppose that impacted on some of my recovery time and tools or mental preparation in the studio. Obviously the lack of sleep and constantly giving out to others was one of the hardest demands. As I’m sure all mothers feel.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to other dancers wanting to have children and continue their careers?
Lucinda: [Long pause] That it’s doable. There have been many dancers in The Australian Ballet and continue to be that have babies. And there are many dancers in companies elsewhere that you can read about on social media, celebrating having children and dance careers. I mean I’m fascinated with what the woman’s body can do: have a baby, breastfeed, get back into shape, back on stage at the highest level. It’s fascinating to do. It’s very possible. And you can find balance. You can leave your child, as guilty as you feel [laughs] and do something that you really love doing and that’s part of you.
And do you think it’s easier for dancers to have babies now and continue their careers?
Lucinda: I think the policy The Australian Ballet put in place all those years ago has made that decision more accessible. That it is allowed, that it’s not hush-hush. It’s a bit like studying. 20 years ago if you were found to be studying on the side you were perceived to be not as focused, whereas now the company is an advocate for study, for having something else for when your career is finished. Because it’s not ‘if’ your career ends, it is definitely ‘when’.
Finally, as the song goes, ‘Regrets I’ve had a few’ … do you have any regrets?
Lucinda: Oh I can’t share those with you! [Big laugh]
Thank you Lucinda for sharing your wonderful talent with us over so many glorious years and for taking the time to look back and talk about your career and help us celebrate all our Mum’s!