Michele Hewitson interview: Lucy Green

By Michele Hewitson

Lucy Green is a natural with the fans - and the sponsors. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Lucy Green is a natural with the fans - and the sponsors. Photo / Steven McNicholl

On Thursday, after the matinee performance of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Cinderella, wave after wave of wildly over-excited little girls emerged from the Aotea Centre. Many of them wore tiny tutus (or a little girl's idea of a tutu) or sparkly shoes that resembled ballet slippers and one wore a glitter T-shirt which read: Twinkle Toes.

A while later, the ballerina Lucy Green, the real Twinkle Toes, who had just finished dancing Cinders for the wildly over-excited little girls, a few less excited boys and assorted, school-uniformed teenagers, emerged too, looking little and pretty. She was wearing cords and suede boots, an old and slightly ratty and obviously much-loved grey jumper, and full stage make-up and pearl earrings.

Her hair was in a ballerina's bun. I thought: What a relief; she's scarcely recognisable. I feared a mobbing by hundreds of little girls in tutus. She wouldn't have minded. She's used to being recognised and she was. A group of teenage girls wanted their photo taken with her. She was gracious and friendly and relaxed.

Was she lovely? I asked. Oh, yes, the teenagers breathed, as one. They love her. She's a star.

Ballet dancers are lovely, aren't they? So little and pretty and what lovely wafty costumes. You couldn't, obviously, be a fat ballet dancer and you're expected to be pretty. That is a funny thing to put to a ballerina because, what's she supposed to say? Yes, I am gorgeous? Nobody would want to look at an ugly ballet dancer, unless it was a panto.

"That's a tough one!" she said. Anyway, the thing about being a ballet dancer is that you spend all day looking in a mirror and being surrounded by people you think have more amazing bodies than yours and who have more beautiful faces than you. It's a wonder they aren't all peculiar, and perhaps some of them are, but she isn't, not a bit. She is a ballerina with her feet firmly on the ground.

She says there will always be dancers with longer legs than hers and "finer" muscles. Also, she doesn't have the right body shape. She doesn't mean that in the way most young women mean it. What's not right, or not right enough, about her body shape is that she "doesn't have enough turn-out". Turn-out is what allows ballet dancers to stand like penguins , which is a really odd idea of ideal beauty, when you think about it. Where on earth can it have come from? "I don't know! The French!"

Anyway, the degree of turn-out you can achieve is restricted by the natural rotation of your hip socket and so it is measurable and the agreed requirement by many ballet schools is 40 degrees on each side. She has 23 degrees on one side and 27 on the other and so is plainly deficient in the hip socket department. If you are deficient, you can still stand like a penguin, but you are at greater risk of injury because you put far greater strain on your knees and ankles.

So, what with not having long enough legs and unrefined muscles and not enough turn-out, she shouldn't be a star at all. She is because she was a very determined little ballet-going girl and now grown up and she was determined to find a way to stand out from "these amazing long spiders". She did it in an entirely unromantic way: She worked very hard. She says, when pushed that she does have good co-ordination and that she is a good jumper and spinner and can make jumping and spinning look nice, which is the great trick. She said: "I worked my arse off."

Of course we know all about the non-glamorous, wanting in waftiness life of dancers, not least from having watched the television reality show, The Secret Lives of Dancers, of which Green, whose first season at the company was followed from successful audition through her rise in the company ranks, was a star.

More weirdness: You are a young ballet dancer who gets her first job, and whose job involves "looking at yourself in a mirror all day", who is followed around by a camera crew while you watch yourself in a mirror all day, take up with another dancer, fall in love, go home and watch yourself on the telly, and become recognised in the street.

She said: "I think I came across really likeably."

She doesn't dance Cinderella every night. You would, she said, "have to be Ironwoman" to do that. The ballet is three hours long (the school parties get a shorter version), with two intervals, and the principal dancer is on stage for almost the entire time. She shares the principal's dressing room with another Cinderella. You'd think she'd get her own but she says she'd hate to be all alone before a performance; she'd get too nervous. She is still very young. Her rise through the company, which she joined in 2010 as an 18-year-old, is usually described as meteoric. At 21 she's dancing in the lead role. That is fairly meteoric.

What a funny life ballet dancers lead. All the boys are supposed to be gay. Her boyfriend, Rory Fairweather-Neylan, is also a ballet dancer with the company. The girls are all supposed to be anorexic. She eats like a ravenous horse. On Wednesday, when she danced Cinderella twice, for the matinee performance and then for the evening show, she ate four enormous meals starting with porridge for breakfast and ending with a post-evening performance of shepherd's pie and chocolate.

"I eat anything really," she said, hungrily. She says there may be dancers who have problems with food and their bodies but you couldn't dance Cinderella and not eat. She also thinks the Royal NZ Ballet is too down-to-earth a company to harbour dancers with eating disorders. You'd be hard pushed to hide it. It's like one big dancing commune, in a way, and while there are hierarchies, they are tiny ones. In a big, prestigious European dance company, the principal dancers would tell some little dancer in the ballet corp to get out of their way if they had the nerve to go to the front of the barre. Here, while the principals are afforded that place at the front of the barre, a principal wouldn't boot them off.

Honestly, how disappointing. What is the point in being a star if you're not going to be a donna? The ballet star looked horrified at the idea. Well, she is a nice Australian girl dancing for a New Zealand company. She has no airs or graces that I could see. She has very good manners and is a natural with the fans, and the sponsors. She can make you believe she's Cinderella, then come off stage and mingle nicely. She's a ballet company's dream, really.

She said everyone here gets "a fair go". You wouldn't hear a principal dancer say that anywhere else in the world except here, and, possibly, in Australia. She doesn't get paid any more for being a star, for dancing in the lead role. A dancer gets paid, for the first five years, a standard contract rate. After that they might get more, for being a star, depending on the role. She wasn't sure she was allowed to tell me what pay rate a dancer joining a company starts at, but about $30,000, I guessed, and she didn't demur. "We don't do it for the money. If we wanted money, we wouldn't be dancing. It's no secret that dancers aren't paid amazingly."

Really famous dancers get paid a lot of money, but that is when you move off the contract scale and take on guest roles, then the sky's the limit. The most famous ballerina in the world is probably the French dancer, Sylvie Guillam. "She's probably Mrs Ballet! And, I mean, she could afford to have a private physio and private masseuse!" In the ballet world that is the very definition of luxury and starriness.

Lucy Green is ambitious and driven, she must dream, sometimes, of fame and fortune. She wouldn't mind a private physio. "It would make our lives a lot easier! I watch the football players getting physio on the side of the field and you think: 'Imagine having people releasing hamstrings in the interval!"'

Ballet dreams, you think after meeting her, are made of practical stuff, like her. We went to her dressing room and had a look at the tutu. This is the dress which represents the fairy tale, the going to the ball and meeting your prince. It is encrusted with 190,000 crystals (frocks with crystals are always "encrusted") and on the inside it is really horrible, all sort of faintly surgical looking with gussets and straps and God knows what. It has to be hard-wearing and to be constructed to fit perfectly, but nobody tell the little girls. It is the equivalent of the ballet dancers' feet; satin clad in pink, with fluttery ribbons on the outside and on the inside like hers: Blisters and bunions and dead skin.

But there is the sheer delight of the jumping and spinning. She was telling me about the joy of performing the pas de deux and her whole face lit up, just thinking about it. She looked like a star, shining from within. She is already a star and will no doubt, if she has anything to do with it, go on to be a much bigger one. But if she becomes a prima donna along the way, I'll eat that tutu, crystals and all.

* The final performances of the Royal New Zealand Ballet's Cinderella are at the ASB Theatre today at 1.30pm and 6.30pm and tomorrow at the same times.

- NZ Herald

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