Written by Rebecca Weisser
Photography by The Australian Ballet
26 April 2023
Riley Lapham was only three when the Telstra Ballet Dancer awards were inaugurated in 2003 but she was already bitten by the ballet bug.
A home video shows her dancing on tip toes in front of the television to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies with fluffy pink feather antennae on her head.
“I used to be obsessed with Barbie’s The Nutcracker,” she says. “I’d watch the sugarplum scene on repeat for years.” It was no passing phase. She has footage doing the exact same thing considerably younger.
Practice did eventually make perfect, although there were a few slips along the way at Eisteddfods also captured in hilarious footage worthy of Australia’s Funniest Home Videos.
At age six, Riley began classes at the Beverley Rowles School of Ballet which was held in a corrugated tin shed. On weekends, the little girl from the ‘Gong and her mum would drive one and a half hours to Sydney until the majestic sails of the Opera House came into view.
“For me, ballet was always about the Opera House,” she says.
Riley laughs as she remembers a photo taken on its steps, the Harbour bridge behind her, her ballet program in one hand and a packet of Maltesers in the other. The image perfectly contrasts the grandeur of her dreams and her refreshing Aussie simplicity.
At 11 or 12 she realised that ballet could be a job, that she could get paid to dance. Her training became even more intense and at age 15 she moved to Melbourne to join the Australian Ballet School.
Everything was going smoothly until, in the final year of her four-year training, she suffered tenosynovitis in her ankle, which causes intense pain and required enforced rest. She missed the all-important audition to join The Australian Ballet, which only comes once a year, the end-of-year performance and the regional tour.
Things looked bleak. Then, out of the blue, Riley received a phone call from the artistic director of The Australian Ballet, David McAllister and the director of The Australian Ballet School, Lisa Pavane. A dancer was retiring so they were able to offer her a six-month contract and supervise her recovery. Once she got her (injured) foot in the door, she didn’t look back.
“After what has been the most testing and challenging year of my life thus far, I could not be more excited for the year ahead,” she posted to Instagram.
It took two years to fully recover, but in 2021 Riley was promoted from the corps de ballet to coryphée, the rank below soloist. She was now one of four women dancing on stage, rather than one of 12.
Only two years later she has been nominated for the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards. The nominees were selected by the ballet’s artistic team, principal artists, and past award winners.
“The joy is simply in being nominated,” says Riley. It was mortifying for her not to be able to dance properly when she first joined the company so after all that, it is really special for her to be chosen now by these people whom she admires so much.
Five dancers are in the running for the prizes; Adam Elmes and Lilly Harvey who dance in the corps de ballet, Isobelle Dashwood, who is a soloist and a third-time nominee, and Riley Lapham and Katherine Sonnekus who are both coryphée.
The judges have been picking winners for two decades – 11 have gone on to become Principal Artists of The Australian Ballet – but everyone in Australia can vote in the people’s choice awards.
On five occasions the judges and the people chose the same person. On four occasions, a dancer has won the people’s choice twice. And the breathtaking Amy Harris won the people’s choice award twice before the judges gave her the Ballet Dancer Award.
Who will win the 2023 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards? We won’t know until after the closing performance of George Balanchine’s Jewels on 20 May when the winners will be announced on stage. Whoever does win the Ballet Award will receive $25,000 and the winner of the People’s Choice Award will receive $15,000.
To cast a vote for Riley or any of the other nominees visit the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards site. And if you miss the closing night performance, The Australian Ballet will be touring internationally for the first time since the pandemic struck with a season in London at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden at the beginning of August.
It will be the first time they have performed there in 35 years, and they will be celebrating their 60th anniversary. And almost certainly, the winner of the 2023 Telstra Ballet Awards will be there too as well as many former winners. It should be a night to remember.