THE only way I can describe Leigh Rowles is that she is pixie like. Her eyes sparkle, her hands dance and she almost glides across the floor. She tells me her first attempt at choreography was when she was eight years old. She arranged a slow tap dance around Deep Purple. I smiled knowingly – but at the time (and please tell me I am not the only one) thought slow tap and a heavy metal band sound was a little incongruous. I had to google when I got home to find what she was really talking about.
Academically Leigh was gifted, (she matriculated with Honours) and so there was no relaxing of the curriculum to do arts at school even though that was her passion. She was, however, able to continue with her dancing outside school hours, resulting in acceptance into The Australian Ballet School, and then, a year later, into its parent company, The Australian Ballet. She loved not only the dancing but the intellectual stimulation of the production aspects: lighting, costumes, sets, music, illusive elements etc. – in fact the multiple ingredients that made the whole visual spectacle so superbly atmospheric and effective.
Certainly not a prima donna – she felt very humble when she went on to dance with The Australian Ballet. Because of her attitude, passion and extremely disciplined work ethic, Rudolf Nureyev, who was dancing with The Australian Ballet at the time (on a long and arduous tour of the US) took her under his wing and she was given opportunities of a life time. And what do Leigh and Nureyev have in common (other than the obvious)? They both fell over, Leigh in Los Angeles, and Nureyev in New York, and both before esteemed audiences that included Jackie Onassis and American theatrical heavyweights. As Leigh says, “It didn’t make me feel so bad when he did it too.”
As she recounts it, Rudi was to make this grand entrance, “Yum Pum Pum, Preparation, double turn, SPLAT”. But he made that “faux pas” fantastic and brilliant – not detracting from but adding to the magnetic allure he cast upon all audiences. This particular audience, in fact, felt privileged to have shared a rare, and public, human flaw in the immensely powerful personality that was the enigma of Rudolf Nureyev. In other words he made the most of the circumstance. Sagacious learning that deeply influenced Leigh’s attitude to “mistakes”.
When The Australian Ballet performed Sleeping Beauty for the opening of the Sydney Opera House, the costumes were finished in a rush, and she found, to her great discomfort, that her tutu had a pin in it which found its way between her bottom and her partner’s knee, on which she was posed. She thought it hilarious and kept smiling throughout.
She travelled extensively with the Ballet from the US to Continental Europe, to exotic Asia and behind the Iron Curtain. Then after eight years of dancing as a soloist in over 70 different roles and having become a senior soloist, she decided to leave the ballet so that she, herself, could create. It was a difficult decision but she had determined to redirect her career before she started to deteriorate, physically.
Her creative instincts sought other genres of expression, first in drama, where one of her directors from The Australian Ballet, Sir Robert Helpmann, cast her to star opposite John Waters in the play Dracula. Involvement in music theatre followed, and Leigh became known for her imaginative creative expression, which led to her accepting choreographic invitations and working prolifically in all forms of professional theatre: in straight theatre Piaf; in opera, Don Giovanni, in television Blue Heelers and Hey Hey It’s Saturday. She accepted an invitation to become director and choreographer of the National Theatre Ballet School and then was head of training and resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet School.
While choreography was her passion, beneath this was a lifelong yearning to create via another visual medium – painting. Although hampered by a total lack of time and of “home being hotel rooms”, she bought an easel and tools, and wherever she travelled she would set it up, “absorb the culture”, and express it on canvas. Whenever possible she went to the Melbourne School of Art to study. She was fortunate in having a teacher who recognised that she would not be content with portraits and landscapes and encouraged her to try abstracts. “What is original about you is your imagination,” he said, and so she immersed herself in colour and quirk! Everything was, and is, concerned with expression via colour. None of her works express aggression, unkindness or cruelty. “I revere life and nature and it is a privilege to express the gratitude that I have by being able to portray – in abstract form – the infinite beauty of life in its many guises.”
Innocently I asked if there was a reason why Leigh wanted to project the goodness of life in everything she painted. It was then that the sparkle in her eyes dimmed and she told me of an abusive, alcoholic father whom she often stood before shielding her mother from his rage. A father who was dangerously destructive and had her shaking with fear, feeling that her existence was “not enough”.
By immersing herself in the colours of dance, then choreography, then painting, she could escape the darkness.
She has led what some might call a privileged life of travel to the most exotic cities of the world, working with the greats of ballet, performing in front of the Queen in a royal command performance and having a network of millionaire friends. One friend offered her the use of “the truck” when she visited him in his four-storey home in Malibu. The “truck” turned out to be a Mercedes SUV. But it was a world that did not equate with her deep spiritual values, gratitude and humility. And so she came to our Bass Coast in search of tranquillity.
She now has the time to devote herself in her gentle way to paint intricate works which take weeks to create and complete. Only last year she felt brave enough to enter a competition – the Rotary Club of Leongatha’s art and photography show. Her painting “Ancient Threads” won the award for best acrylic– and it sold!
Leigh says “I paint to inspire.” She believes that although painful challenges, insurmountable obstacles, difficulties, unkindnesses and seeming unfairness may pervade our lives in ways that are deeply sad, beauty is available to each of us.
In an interview with the ABC some years ago when she was about to choose the next round of young hopeful ballet dancers for The Australian Ballet School, she said, “There's a musicality, there's an artistic feel for what they're doing, there's a generosity of spirit, there's an openness. It's an indefinable quality but you can see it when people move. When you have been around as long as I have, you can really see when there's something extra from the inside, you know?”
And do you know – I think Leigh has that something extra inside – don’t you?