The globally renowned Tanya Pearson Academy (TPA) based in Sydney, has recently announced the appointment of Lisa-Maree Cullum as artistic director of the Academy who will be taking the helm in 2024.
A former student of TPA herself, Cullum brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise from her professional career with the English National Ballet, Deutsch Opera in Berlin and Bavarian State Ballet. Currently working as the Associate Artistic Director of the Bavarian Ballet Academy in Munich, Cullum’s career has spanned across the UK and Germany, and is considered one of the most successful principal artists of her generation having been awarded the highest honorary title ‘Kammertänzerin’ by the German government for her contribution as a world-class artist. With flawless technique with exceptional artistry, Cullum has performed as a guest artist with prestigious international companies around the world, and is now excited to share her knowledge with students and guide them on their individual journeys.
The appointment as the Artistic Director of TPA marks an exciting next era for the Academy, which in 2023 moved to architecturally designed, and custom-built, state-of-the-art premises under the leadership of owners and Directors, Xanthe Geeves and Gregor Thieler.
Lisa-Maree, thank you for joining me, and congratulations on your new role as artistic director of TPA. Can you tell us about your connection to the Academy in your training years?
“I met Mrs. Pearson at a summer school in New Zealand when I was 14. She, in a conversation with my mother, spoke about a full-time program that she was founding in Sydney. At the time, I was looking for the next step in my education and so shortly thereafter, I moved to Sydney to study full-time with her at the Glen Street Academy. I lived with her family, which was wonderful. I was very young – I was 14 – and my parents were still in New Zealand. I started the training with Mrs. Pearson, and even though I was only with her for a relatively short time, she really made a very profound impact on me and gave me a lot of opportunities. She took me to Europe for an international tour, and we participated in two very large ballet competitions: the Adeline Genée International Ballet Competition in London, and the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland. I was very fortunate to have done very well in both of them, and I credit Mrs. Pearson a lot for that.”
How did Mrs. Pearson influence you as a student, and what lessons did you carry with you throughout your pre-professional years abroad?
“Mrs. Pearson was a very strong person but a very kind personality. I was very impressionable when I met her, and I was looking for development. She gave me the confidence to take the next step, and she supported and coached me at a young age for these prestigious competitions. She was a force!”
Your trajectory to principal dancer is impressive. Can you highlight three key milestones throughout that time which propelled you forward?
“I danced full-time with three major ballet companies in the world. I started my profession with the English National Ballet, then I moved to the Deutsche Oper Berlin a year later, and eight years after that, I moved to the Bavarian State Ballet Munich, Germany. They’re all very different companies, with very wide ranges of repertoire, which for me was particularly interesting. My main motivation for moving to Munich was the repertoire.
In terms of three key milestones, I would say my first performance as Giselle was incredibly important to me. It was a stepping stone to becoming a principal dancer. I was very young, and I was trusted with a big responsibility. I think nowadays, this is unheard of that someone so young would be trusted with such a big role.
So, I’m very grateful for all those who gave me that opportunity. Moving to Berlin was an incredible time because it was a year after the Berlin Wall had fallen. It became an international hub – people flooded in from all over the world. There were influences that previously hadn’t existed, so I feel really grateful to have been a part of a time and experience all that.
Moving to Munich…wow, Munich. I love Munich. Munich was my home for 17 years whilst I was in the company. I had the opportunity to work with incredible people. During this time, one of the things I’m most proud of is returning to the stage after a very serious injury. I was injured for 13 months with a knee injury, and there was a lot of very unhopeful sentiment around me that I wouldn’t return to the stage. So, I guess I’m really proud to have overcome that. I’m also really proud to have returned after having my son, which for any ballerina is a challenge. I’m proud of the career that I had and the relationships that I’ve built with people over the years.”
It was such a different time culturally and politically with much less connectivity. What advice would you give to students who are intending to move overseas?
“Well, yes, obviously, there are many more possibilities now with social media. I think it’s always very important if you are heading to Europe from Australia that you really have a well thought-out itinerary. If you’re going to go that far and have the expense of going – and it is an enormous expense – it’s well worth visiting more places rather than isolating yourself to one possible thing. It’s a very different mentality, as you know. Europe is steeped in tradition, but I feel that Australia and New Zealand have come a long way. You know, we have beautifully talented and well-trained young artists. I’ve always seen in my career that kids from Australia have always been very determined. They fight for things harder than somebody who perhaps comes from a country that is, you know, right smack in the middle of Europe. Be prepared, be open, listen to advice, and listen to your teachers. Quite often they’ve been through it, and they know. Take every opportunity, and grab it with two hands.”
That’s great advice. As you turn your focus back to Sydney and TPA, how would you describe the calibre of talent that you see?
“I’m always impressed by the amount of talent in Australia. I think that teachers are training students beautifully. I’ve just been at YAGP, and there is an immense amount of talent. It’s really mind-blowing. I think it’s the responsibility of teachers to continue to give them every opportunity and to give them life experience. To create atmospheres where they can thrive not only in an educational environment but also prepare them well for what’s coming.”
It’s exciting to see the evolution of TPA over the years and also now with the brand-new facilities. What are your goals and objectives for the Academy in 2024?
“I want to continue to build the Academy to new levels with my experience, and I have a lot to learn alongside the fantastic team. I think our facilities are just out of this world! I mean, as a young, talented student, why wouldn’t you want to train at TPA and work in such a beautiful environment with teachers who are committed, dedicated and inspiring, and want to give you everything?”
As you guide and nurture the next generation, what insights and challenges will you be offering them?
“Anyone who’s been in this career knows that it’s not an easy one, and you want to be able to guide each child – no matter what their age is – in a personal way, because all students learn very individually and have differentiating abilities and qualities.
There has been a shift in what a ballerina was to what it is now. I think the beautiful thing about ballet at the moment is that there is such incredible diversity in the world with companies and directors that are looking for diverse dancers. They’re not looking for carbon copies of one of the other.
My goal is to give young students the chance to explore their journeys, and I hope to guide them the best that I can and support them because it is a hard profession and there are, as everyone knows, knockdowns and knock backs and it doesn’t always work the first time, but perseverance can be a strong quality to have.”
When you’re teaching, what do you look for in class from your students?
“I always appreciate it when I have students who are in the moment and not easily distracted by things that are going on around them. I find after COVID, it’s difficult for students to be in the moment. That’s something that has to come back because it’s currently a weak trait I have observed across the board.
In addition, I place great emphasis on quality rather than quantity. Musicality and coordination which is very important. Coordination is a key focus because anyone who has danced knows that if you’re dancing something very difficult, at a certain point the power runs out. What is going to keep you going is your coordination, so I put great emphasis on coordination and musicality.”
Finally, how would you describe your unique approach to preparing students to go on their own individual journeys?
“I think it’s just important to make students feel like they’re seen, that they are not just one of a mass, but that they are an individual person, and that they do matter! Every child and every student finds their way differently. I think when students know that they have a team of people behind them, next to them, that is guiding them, excited for their successes, that are going to pick them up when things don’t quite go according to plan, that is when I think students really thrive.”
To read more Lisa-Maree Cullum and learn more about TPA, visit tanyapearsonacademy.com.au/lisamareecullum.
By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.