It will be quite the homecoming for Leanne Benjamin when Queensland Ballet on Tour performs in Rockhampton on March 27.

Who could have guessed that the performance at the Pilbeam Theatre would mark the beginning of a famous Rockhampton ballerina’s accession to the throne as artistic director of Queensland Ballet.

Benjamin is a month into her new job, taking over after Li Cunxin retired due to ill health. She will head to Cairns for a couple of performances and then to her hometown where the welcome is expected to be quite enthusiastic.

Benjamin grew up in Rockhampton and left as a teenager to follow her ballet dream, rising to become a principal with the Royal Ballet in London for 21 years. But it all started in Rocky and Benjamin wants to honour that this month.

“My mum and dad are flying up from Sydney for it, so it’s going to be a big deal,” she says. “It will be good to be home. I haven’t been for 15 years. I’m going to take all my old costumes with me – they were handmade in Rockhampton. I have a whole stack of costumes from the eisteddfods I danced in on that stage at the Pilbeam Theatre, that same stage where I used to receive awards from Mayor Rex Pilbeam.”

Benjamin has recently bonded with Queensland Symphony Orchestra chair Rod Pilbeam and the two shared stories about R ockhampton and Rod Pilbeam’s famous grandfather, the mayor nicknamed Sexy Rexy. But that’s a story for another time.

I’m meeting Benjamin for the first time and we are having coffee on the first floor of the spiffing new Thomas Dixon Centre (it has had a $100 million makeover), which is a testament to Li Cunxin who made it happen and raised the funds to make it happen.

We have a view of a studio where dancers are in class. Benjamin opts to sit with her back to it so she is not tempted to jump up and into the class to correct somebody.

Her executive assistant arrives with coffee, a little “piccolo for a pocket rocket”.

It’s a good description of Benjamin, who is friendly and dynamic and soon has me convinced that her 2025 season will be a ripper, even though we have no idea what it will contain.

“It’s my fifth week and I feel like I have been here for three years already,” she says. “My big focus right now is season 2025. Most artistic directors work two or three years out, but I’ve been thrown in the deep end.

“I’m almost there, though. I have a big call tomorrow with someone, trying to get a great artist to be associated with the company.”

I don’t ask who because I know she’d have to kill me if she told me. But if the season reflects her wild enthusiasm, we are in for a treat, whatever happens. While Li Cunxin had 2025 sketched out, Benjamin is doing her own thing.

“You come in and you want to make a mark,” she says. “I have to find my own way of taking the company forward. I always start with the audience. What does the audience want to see? I want to make sure I am feeding the audience and the dancers.

“Something I do may not have the box office in mind. I may want to do something that’s a little more challenging and artistic at some stage. I am hearing people saying they are looking for something different. I’m up in the night calling abroad and pushing the boundaries to do what I can for the company. I’m straight in. I know I have to sit back and listen and learn as well, but that’s very hard for someone like me.”

Benjamin’s drive took her to the top of the ballet world after she joined the Royal Ballet at 16. She tells the story of her career in her engaging memoir Built For Ballet.

Her resume is extensive and includes a role as vice chair of the board of governors of the Royal Ballet Companies, overseeing The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School. She has been much awarded including an OBE and she represented Australia at the Coronation of King Charles III.

Her life in London with husband Tobias Round and their son Thomas, 20, a budding writer, was good. Giving that up is tough. “I’ve had to give up a lot,” she says.

The family is still working out the logistics going forward. But her husband came to Australia with her when she began her tenure and the family will just have to devise a way forward when the dust settles.

It was always going to be hard to find someone to follow Li Cunxin. He was a superstar. But when it was announced that Benjamin would be his successor it was an “aha” moment for everyone.

“It just felt right,” Benjamin agrees. “Before it was announced I took a long time deliberating on it. I remember being in Tokyo when I heard that Li resigned. I remember thinking, who could take over from Li? He had such success.”

Turns out it was her and that seemed to please everyone.

“I couldn’t believe the positive reaction,” she says. “Everyone’s said, this is just right. And being a Queenslander, it felt right in my bones.”

Li Cunxin’s wife and former QB Ballet mistress Mary Li is also from Rockhampton and was a few years ahead of Benjamin at ballet school. Mary Li also went on to have international success and she also recently retired, alongside her husband, as both had health issues.

So, one famous ballerina from Rockhampton has left the building and another has just arrived – and she can’t believe her luck.

Queensland Ballet on Tour concludes in Rockhampton on March 27. QB’s next production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will be performed at  the Playhouse, QPAC, April 12-27

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