The homecoming of Australian-born dancer Alison McWhinney

Alison McWhinney. Photo by Laurent Liotardo.
Alison McWhinney. Photo by Laurent Liotardo.

In a significant move since assuming the role of Artistic Director at Queensland Ballet, Leanne Benjamin has announced the homecoming of Australian-born dancer Alison McWhinney. Originating from Port Macquarie, McWhinney has enjoyed a distinguished career with the prestigious English National Ballet in the UK, where she has thrived since 2005, and was promoted to First Soloist in 2017.

McWhinney’s impressive repertoire includes iconic roles such as Juliet in Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, Myrtha and Giselle in Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, and the title role in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. Recently, she has captivated audiences as Stepsister Edwina and the title role in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella.

Expressing her excitement about returning to Australia, McWhinney spoke with Dance Informa about her time in the UK, and what she is most looking forward to about her homecoming. Join us in the conversation below.

Alison, describe your excitement to return home and dance with Queensland Ballet.

“Returning home to dance with Queensland Ballet means so much to me. When I started dancing at the English National Ballet, I had always hoped that one day I would dance in Australia, and it’s now a dream come true. 

I feel so lucky to be given this opportunity to come home and be reunited with my family after so many years in the UK. It also means Laurent (my fiancé) and I can raise our daughter here. I wanted her to experience a beautiful Australian childhood like I had, so it’s wonderful in every way.”

How long were you with the English National Ballet? Talk us through your journey there.

“I joined the English National Ballet in 2004, after training for one year at the English National Ballet School. I spent a lot of those first years doing corps de ballet work. 

Then, when Tamara Rojo became director, she completely changed the direction of my career. She believed in me and gave me so many opportunities and roles to grow and improve. With her, I danced most of my dream roles like Juliet, Manon, Giselle and Cinderella. She gave me three promotions over her tenure. It was a fulfilling time at the English National Ballet, and I had the opportunity to perform many exciting roles in different and new ballets in our repertoire.”

From your training in Sydney to your time abroad, how have you evolved as a dancer and artist?

“From when I started my professional training in Sydney until now, the way I see dance has changed. I used to place most of my focus on technique and think that artistry and musicality were things you add on top. However, with experience, I now believe those things make your technique. You can use the steps to tell a story and to express emotions or you can use them to make you ‘see’ and feel the music. 

Music is everything; if the music is not inspiring me, I find the steps much more difficult. Feeling the music through my body and using it to express myself is something that makes me feel so happy and it is so satisfying – it is one of my favourite things about ballet. I think at school, I mostly tried to be on the music and didn’t give it the same importance I do now.

I have always been someone who likes to work hard since I started training and enjoyed having time alone in the studio to work on things. Since having my daughter, I am even more aware of how precious time is – she grows in front of my eyes. So when I’m in the studio, I make it count and work hard while I’m in there and not with her.”

What are your top three highlights with the English National Ballet? 

“My top three highlights with the English National Ballet are dancing Juliet. It was my first principal role, and Nureyev’s version is so physically demanding; it’s a marathon. Also being able to come back to that role over the years has been so good in the sense that I could continue to develop and grow into the role. 

The second highlight is dancing Manon. This was my absolute dream role since I can remember. You can just get carried away with the music, and the choreography feels so nice in your body. Telling her story onstage was also a challenge, to make it feel right for me, and I loved the rehearsal process and developing the character over many shows.

My third highlight was the opportunity to work with Yuri Possokhov who choreographed a ballet on us during Covid, which was wonderful. He has such a passion for music, and I admired his love for what he was creating. To have something made on you personally is a special experience.”

Describe what you’ll bring to Queensland Ballet and what you’re most looking forward to.

“I’m looking forward to a new chapter and the unknown of what’s to come for me at Queensland Ballet – this includes continuing to grow, develop and learn from new people. 

Also to work with Leanne. I know she has a lot to give, and I can’t wait to absorb all her knowledge and experience. I hope that I can bring myself into whatever role I’m doing. Everybody has their strengths and qualities, and it’s beautiful to see everyone’s different facets shine. Just to be me, enjoy the work, and make lots more memories on and offstage.”

Alison McWhinney will begin her journey with Queensland Ballet as a Senior Soloist in late July, marking a new and exciting chapter in her illustrious career. Brisbane audiences can look out for her first on-stage performance in Coco Chanel: the Life of a Fashion Icon in October.

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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