Watch Leanne Benjamin slot her tiny frame into the corner of a sofa and you can easily believe she could pass for a 16-year-old Juliet; see her dance the role and you will be begging her never to stop. At 47, the Royal Ballet’s most senior principal remains in remarkable physical shape with a lithe, springy body that folds and stretches like a scrap of silk, but playing Kenneth MacMillan’s complex, passionate young heroines isn’t just about jumps and pirouettes. Older ballerinas often outplay the debutantes: ‘The great thing about doing these roles when you’re older is that the more baggage you have, the better.’
Benjamin has a reputation for toughness but the seasoned dance actress is hiding it well. Fresh from two weeks of Florida sunshine with her husband and son, the Australian star is relaxed, good-humoured and looking forward to the rest of the Covent Garden season.
In her 29 years with Sadler’s Wells, English National Ballet and Royal Ballet companies she has performed almost every work in the canon but smart choices have prolonged her career — and kept her own interest alive. ‘When people say, “You’re dancing better than ever,” I chuckle because I just think my repertoire is more refined.’
She ditched the Swans and Sugar Plums some years ago. ‘I least enjoyed Sleeping Beauty because I had to put way more into it than I ever got out of it — I just never liked that pretty little girl — and you know what? Those ballets bore me a little bit. You spend so much time backstage: got to change your shoes, got to change your hair. My favourite roles are the neoclassical MacMillan one-acters: Gloria, Requiem, Song of the Earth. If I have great music, I get really inspired.’
Although she is always a natural choice for the MacMillan repertoire, she is also routinely picked by Covent Garden’s choreographers to create new ballets and in the past few years has worked with Christopher Wheeldon, Alastair Marriott and Covent Garden’s extremely hip resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. ‘He’s a very bright man but you really have to have your head screwed on: he wants the body in places that it’s just not used to going.’ McGregor’s unconventional use of music — often adding the score only after the work has been choreographed — has also proved a challenge. ‘It’s difficult for me because I like to play with the music when I dance but you do get it in the end. There’s such a buzz of energy.’
Excitement is a must for Benjamin, particularly in her choice of partner. ‘At the beginning of your career you don’t realise how important that is. I’ve danced with loads of men who’ve been absolutely adequate [uttered like a dirty word], who’ve done absolutely nothing for me.’ For the past four years her Romeo has been Edward Watson, who shares her keen dramatic sense. ‘Ed always “comes up” on the stage. I never do a rehearsal like I do a performance — I want to keep it spontaneous, but sometimes I forget to warn them.’
Watson is happy to speak of his empathy with Benjamin: ‘I love dancing Romeo and Juliet with Leanne because we somehow work on the same plane together. Even in the parts of the ballet where we’re not actually dancing together, we’re so aware of each other physically that something happens dramatically. We’re both telling the same story. People talk about Leanne being a brilliant dancer for her age, but I don’t agree with that — she’s just a brilliant dancer, and her age doesn’t have anything to do with that.’
Her last-minute pairing with fellow Australian Steven McRae (‘my little Aussie friend’) for last season’s Manon had only three rehearsals: ‘After the performance he said, “Oh my God, you could have warned me!”’ McRae is 21 years her junior but they share an edgy intelligence and flawless timing. ‘A lot of dancers have great technical skills as soloists but unless they develop their partnering, the ballerinas won’t want them. All the girls want to be partnered by Steven. He’s such a joy.’
Benjamin has never been paired with Sergei Polunin, the Royal Ballet’s prodigal son, and meets all questions with a dead bat: no, she hasn’t danced with him; yes, his resignation was a surprise. Delicate negotiations behind the scenes could be jeopardised by loose talk and Monica Mason and her dancers (media-trained to a man) aren’t taking any chances.
Benjamin’s savvy, pick ’n’ mix approach to the repertoire is probably the secret of her professional longevity, but daily class and 20 or more performances a season still take their toll: ‘I just take it year by year. I do have a bit of a cartilage problem.’ She pokes ruefully at her hip joint through her child-sized jeans. ‘I’m in every morning at 9.30 having physio. I drive them crazy.’ But when I ask her to tell me her idea of physical heaven she seems nonplussed: ‘Sitting on a couch? Sex? I don’t do the spas thing, I just get bored: I’d rather go home and read a book.’ Performance-free evenings are precious and although she’s a keen playgoer (her husband, Tobias Round, is a theatrical producer) she confesses to being slightly dismayed by her eight-year-old mania for the stage — ‘I don’t want to be in the theatre every night when I retire.’
Retirement? (She said it first.) Her swansong won’t be for a long while yet but when she does leave Covent Garden it will be a clean break. Ballerinas traditionally teach their roles to the next generation — she herself was coached by Antoinette Sibley, Lynn Seymour and Georgina Parkinson (her late mother-in-law) — but Benjamin would far rather pursue her life’s other great passion: property.
A quick scroll through her cuttings and you realise that she features as regularly on the property pages as she does in the culture sections, in articles charting her progress up the housing ladder from the first tiny flat in Barons Court to her current spread in Maida Vale. She itches to take a course in architectural design and put these experiences to further use. ‘I’d be six days a week talking to a builder. I love seeing something going from absolutely nothing to being something incredible,’ she smiles. ‘Like working on a role.’