‘This is a life’s dream’: Australian ballet star Callum Linnane puts his best foot forward

A dancer since he was seven, Australian Ballet’s new principal artist talks about his surprise promotion on stage, struggling in lockdown and what he wants to do next

Not many people are promoted in front of thousands of fans. For dancer Callum Linnane, becoming a principal artist at the Australian Ballet has been an ambition he’s held since he was 12 years old. “It has been kind of a life’s dream. But, for self-preservation, I always told myself tonight’s not the night.”

One night it was. At the conclusion to the Melbourne premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, after dancing the role of Count Vronsky with a blend of guileless enthusiasm and carnal ferocity, Linnane found himself standing centre stage as the ballet’s artistic director David Hallberg made an announcement. Linnane didn’t know what was happening until he heard his name. “I didn’t really clue on until he started talking about hard grit and determination, and then it occurred to me that this was a promotion. It completely floored me,” he says.

The moment Callum Linnane was promoted to principal artist

Linnane’s promotion to principal wasn’t such a shock for the audience who’d just witnessed his mighty, sensual take on one of literature’s greatest cads, nor anyone who’d been following his career for the past few years. The 26-year-old has danced since he was seven, landing roles like the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the eponymous character in John Neumeier’s biographical ballet Nijinsky, and Albrecht in Maina Gielgud’s Giselle – not to mention his brilliant work in a number of contemporary pieces by leading choreographers such as the UK’s Wayne McGregor and Australia’s Alice Topp.

Exactly what the elevation to principal artist gives Linnane, who by his own admission has already been dancing his fair share of leading roles, seems difficult to quantify. Apart from the obvious perks: “I get a new dressing room! I’m sure there are some itty-bitty contractural things. And you become a leader, which I take really seriously.”

It’s a role he has watched fellow principal artist Adam Bull, who on opening night danced the role of Vronsky’s rival Karenin, grow into; one of the advantages of an education at the school of ballet is the deep familiarity with the company’s professional demands. “Adam became a principal when I was 12, and he was so welcoming and lovely and open to new people. And that had a real affect on me. You do put those dancers up on a pedestal.” He wants his own legacy to mirror Bull’s warmth and openness, so that “everybody in the company feels welcome, and as a group we can put our best foot forward”.

Linnane as Vronsky and Robyn Hendricks as Anna in Anna Karenina.
Callum Linnane as Vronsky and Robyn Hendricks as Anna in Anna Karenina. Photograph: Jeff Busby

The precarious balance between group solidarity and individual excellence (the source of a great creative tautness in any ballet company) is one Hallberg seems to have shaken up during his short tenure at the helm of Australian Ballet. High-profile dancers, such as Kevin Jackson, left the company soon after Hallberg took over and while new soloists like Linnane are getting a chance to shine, the key transformation has been in the corps. Precision and synchronicity have vastly improved, but it hasn’t come at the expense of lyricism or individual expression. As a company, they’ve never been better.

Linnane calls Hallberg, who has become his mentor, “a natural born leader”.

“He promotes this idea that hard work gets results. He creates an environment where everyone’s at their best,” Linnane says. There is something spooky about the resemblance between the two men: they both have similar builds, with impossibly long limbs; their alabaster skin is almost translucent; and those hooded, penetrating eyes give both dancers an air of studied insouciance, rather like Nureyev and Baryshnikov. It isn’t inconceivable that Linnane could be headed for the kind of star career Hallberg had before he quit to take up the position at Australian Ballet.

One trait needed for that kind of professional trajectory is tenacity, something virtually every dancer in the world has had to discover during two years of rolling lockdowns. Initially, Linnane threw himself into a period of intense self-improvement: “I’d do ballet class at home, and then I’d go for a run, and come back and do pilates, and strength training. And that lasted for about three and a half weeks.”

Then, like many, his motivation suddenly plummeted and “it became just a matter of survival”. A period of readjustment followed, as Linnane got used to life without performance, without the stress, anxiety and highs that life can bring.

“And then David took over the reins, so right in the middle of all that, we suddenly had a freshness, a sense the company was heading in a new direction. It just kicked me out of this funk I’d gotten into at home,” he says. “From that point, I poured myself back into it.”

‘It became just a matter of survival.’ Photograph: Simon Eeles

It was a timely reminder that existence couldn’t be all about ballet, even when his career seems to be going particularly well. Linnane is acutely aware of the mental pitfalls that come from tying your identity to one aspect of your life, and seems determined to stretch his artistic feelers out in every direction. He loves music, literature and is “a member at almost every cinema in Melbourne”. “If you’re going to be an artist,” he says, “you have to surround yourself with art.”

Landing the part of the cruel but seductive Count Vronsky was actually a rather quotidian process. “I remember Yuri [Possokhov] came out from San Francisco in 2019 and he would just sit and watch us do ballet class. I don’t think we were even rehearsing a show. After he’d left, a casting sheet went out. We didn’t even audition.”

Playing Vronsky meant Linnane could luxuriate in his love of film and literature and still call it work. “I read Anna Karenina, of course, and watched two film adaptations. I’m all for the research. And it’s hardly a punishment.” Learning the role is largely a question of technique, at least initially. “When you’re learning the work, you’re really just dealing with movement, learning the pas de deux [a dance duet] and trying to figure it out. But when you put it in context, there’s a real kind of rawness to it, a real honesty.”

Footage from the Australian Ballet’s production of Anna Karenina

There is a pas de deux in the second act, where Anna and Vronsky escape the social constraints of Russia for Italy, only to discover their love has curdled into a psychosexual prison for two. As danced by Linnane and fellow principal artist Robyn Hendricks, it is a broiling, almost vicious moment. “There’s a lot hanging on that moment,” Linnane agrees. “Had they been like ‘We’re having a great time in Rome, let’s have a few more limoncellos and call it a night’, the story wouldn’t happen. It’s one of my favourite parts of the ballet – you really feel the decay setting in.”

Decay is a process that shouldn’t concern Linnane for a long time, given his career is only now beginning to ripen. While there are roles he covets – “I really want to do Romeo, I really want to do Onegin” – he seems content with his new position, enjoying the collaborations that a stellar figure like Hallberg attracts to the company. People he has long admired from afar are now his peers, something he still struggles with.

“Each day I have to tell myself that now is a time for quietness, for taking stock and being grateful,” he says. “It makes me laugh sometimes. I think, ‘My god, this has really happened.’”


Tim Byrne

The GuardianTramp

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