“Ballet and music are everything to me. The moment I hear ballet music, I forget about everything else. It is like another world. My greatest wish is to bring the art of ballet alive, and to fulfil the dreams of all my students.” – Tanya Pearson OAM
Tanya Pearson OAM, worldwide acclaimed ballet teacher and founder of the Tanya Pearson Academy (TPA) and the Sydney City Youth Ballet (SCYB), passed away peacefully on 8 February, at the age of 84. Her career spanned over 50 years, and with undeniable passion and dedication, she trained and inspired many successful dancers who have become principals and soloists in companies all around the globe.
Awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) for life-long services to dance education in 2012, it was also this year that Pearson was the subject of an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story, which celebrated her life and achievements. In 2014, she was awarded the Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance Education and also received the Most Outstanding Teacher Award from the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP).
David McAllister AM, former artistic director of The Australian Ballet, says, “Tanya was such a beacon in the dance community, her passion and love for her students, her dedication to the art form and unending enthusiasm. She has left so many great dancers through her teaching and also through the Tanya Pearson Academy a legacy which will go on into the future.”
In memory of her remarkable life, Dance Informa celebrates the treasured and much loved Mrs P (as she was affectionately known), reflecting upon her positive outlook, her dedication to the art form and her family, and deep desire to create opportunities for all students.
Born near Moscow, Russia, in 1937, Pearson, known as Tatiana, faced many challenges at a young age. After tragedy struck, her grandparents brought her, along with her mother Anna, to live with them in Nikolayev, where fond memories were made with extended family by the way of playing piano and performing to imaginary audiences. These moments immersed in music and expression were stories shared with her own family and moments that became fundamental to her outlook in the years to come.
During the era of World War II, “life as they knew it was turned upside down,” retells daughter and TPA General Manager Nicole Sharp. Under the German occupation, they were ordered to leave their homes in Ukraine. Escorted to Germany, like many, they were separated from families and displaced without homes. Many were sent to concentration camps, yet by the encounter of a generous and kind Catholic priest who helped them find refuge, Pearson’s destiny — under the disguise of her new name, Erna Schafer — slowly changed.
Upon an unexpected discovery of ballet in Heidelberg, young Pearson was taken by the art form. Instilled with her mother’s hope and love for music, she was taught to see life’s beauty and possibilities despite adversity.
In 1948, she emigrated to Australia at the age of 11, and later her name was changed to Tanya. Once established in her new life in Sydney, she trained with Russian ballet teacher Raisa Kousnetzova, who infused the foundations of excellent Russian ballet technique and style. Despite starting late, she progressed quickly. Soon after, she joined the Borovansky Ballet School, followed by the Borovansky Ballet company in Melbourne.
Her journey as a professional dancer had begun, and she made her debut on television and film. With little finances and a lot of determination, she traveled to London, where Pearson was offered multiple professional opportunities. Upon her return to Australia, she was offered a contract with The Australian Ballet. Settling back in Sydney in 1965, with the love of her life Keith, a handsome engineer and avid sailor who she had met in the UK, and two boys, Brent and Craig, the foundations of her legacy grew along with her own beautiful family with the addition of her two daughters, Gabrielle and Nicole.
From the humble beginnings in her home studio in Forestville, with the unwavering support of her husband, her reputation quickly grew. In 1971, she established the Academy under the name of The Northside Ballet Academy. Successfully creating a part-time academy, she also started her first full-time academy to nurture students to be company ready. The Academy attracted students from all over Australia and globally.
Committed to providing students with invaluable coaching for pre-professional students, Sharp notes, “The Northside Ballet Company became the Sydney City Youth Ballet, and then after audience member Anne Woolliams (the then artistic director of The Australian Ballet School) witnessed one of these performances and stated that the quality and standard of the company was of professional level. The Sydney City Ballet Company was founded — Sydney’s very first ballet company with Sir Robert Helpmann as Patron and then Marilyn Jones.”
Reaching international standards of excellence, Pearson was embraced by the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). A pioneer, she was the first of Australian teachers to take her students overseas to compete at international ballet competitions. Forming the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy, known as the Tanya Pearson Academy today, Pearson focussed on dedicated students fostering a culture underpinned by Mrs P’s ‘3 Ds’ — discipline, dedication and desire.
Sharp attests, “She believed, above talent and facility that these elements were vital to succeed — focus and dedication to overcome any challenges and hurdles thrown at you.” Pearson’s early childhood years and experiences of World War II, and challenges of juggling a family, along with running a successful academy, have proven that, with “determination of the mind, you can truly overcome life’s biggest challenges,” Sharp notes.
Over 25 years, Pearson toured with her students to the Genée International Ballet Competition, the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the YAGP in New York, and arranged international audition tours — offering students the prestigious opportunity to visit, experience and receive offers to train at the world’s leading schools.
Throughout the decades, the Academy’s students have achieved inordinate amounts of success in these international competitions, producing numerous Genée gold medallists, YAGP winners and finalists, Alana Haines Australasian Awards NZ winners, AICD Houston Ballet scholarship winners, and Sydney Eisteddfod senior ballet scholarship winners and finalists.
Renowned for excellence, students have been offered places and scholarships in to the world’s leading selective schools, including The Royal Ballet School, John Cranko School, Hamburg Ballet School, Houston Ballet School, San Francisco Ballet School, English National Ballet School, Royal Conservatoire Den Haag, Palucca University of Dance Dresden, The Australian Ballet, West Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet.
Following a public statement, Pearson retired in 2014, with Lucinda Dunn OAM appointed as both artistic director of the TPA and the SCYB to continue the legacy of the Academy’s reputation as a leading world-class ballet academy.
Known as Australia’s longest-serving ballerina, Dunn says, “Mrs P taught me as a young teenager and has had a profound influence on the shape of my training, profession and real life. She saw something in me from a young age and encouraged me to think about entering the Prix de Lausanne competition, which made the path available for me to study at The Royal Ballet School. Mrs P encouraged and supported me from afar through those years, and through my 23 years with The Australian Ballet. Mrs P watched many of my performances and was there on my final performance of Manon at the Sydney Opera House in 2014. I understand I have a huge legacy to uphold as her successor as artistic director of the Tanya Pearson Academy, and realise similarities in our teaching and direction, doing all we can to support the talented Tanya Pearson Academy dancers. Thank you, Mrs P!”
Pearson enjoyed working with Dunn, Sharp and the Academy faculty to watch the new chapter unfold. Sentimentally, Sharp shares, “Mum was gifted with both a dedicated and loving family who she adored, plus an extended ballet family. She was so very excited to hear of this new chapter with former student Xanthe Geeves and Gregor Thieler joining the Academy as directors. This will ensure Mum’s legacy, and all that she stood for in the ballet world will continue and carry on for years and years to come.”
Geeves, now creative director of TPA, recalls, “Mrs Pearson was the most wonderful teacher and mentor who nurtured and instilled in me a very deep love for dance. I’m immensely grateful to her for making my professional career possible and for giving me the values I pass on to my students today. I hope to continue and shine a light on Tanya’s legacy. I will cherish the memories of my dance education with her and the many kindnesses she gave me as a young child.”
With deep fondness, adoration and determination to continue her legacy, Sharp closes with, “The treasured Mrs P loved her music and her family, and it was what surrounded her right up to the end. She will be missed by many around the world, across many generations, and her teaching methodologies and passion for artistry will continue to be carried on by many students, dancers and teachers.”
In memory of Mrs P: Tributes from former students
Stephanie Hancox, former soloist, Bayerisches Staatsballett Munich
“Mrs Pearson extracted and refined all of my qualities and sculpted them into a dancer. No one else could have done that. And that’s just my story, one of the many dancers she created. I think of her every lesson I give.”
Evan Loudon, principal, Scottish Ballet
“I can’t really put into words how much I owe this amazing teacher and woman. Her constant devotion to ballet, the Academy and her students has left an amazing legacy that will be remembered and celebrated. I can say without any hesitation I would not be where I am today without her. I’ll miss you, Mrs P, and whenever I smell Chanel No. 5, it will always put a smile on my face.”
Jack Bertinshaw, first soloist, The National Ballet of Canada
“I am so sad to hear of the loss of my beloved ballet teacher, Tanya Pearson (Mrs P). I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. Rest in peace, Mrs P.”
By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.