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March 2005

Dancing Queen

Lisa-Maree-Cullum Has Fulfilled Every Little Girl's Dream

Lisa-Maree Cullum couldn’t make our original interview. At the last minute she had to fill in for a sick colleague. Injury, it seems, is an occupational hazard for dancers. “Feet, Achilles, knees, hips, backs, necks … These types of injury are common, but you try to keep going because the career of a dancer is short and you want to make the most of it,” she explained when we finally caught up with her.

Cullum has captivated Munich audiences since August 1998, when she joined the Bayerisches Staatsballett. Within five months, she received an award from the Abendzeitung for “outstanding achievement in the area of art and culture” and was appointed principal ballerina. Since then, she has danced numerous roles, winning over audiences with her passionate interpretations and her lithe, assured performances. In person, Cullum is all elegant angles and barely suppressed energy. Standing by the fireplace in the practice room of the Bavarian State Ballet, she jigs on the balls of her feet and straightens her knees as she speaks. She is lively and converses with the confidence of someone aware that they are at their peak. “All the way through my career I have been lucky,” she says. “I was always in the right place at the right time and had the right people supporting me.”

Growing up in New Guinea, Cullum started dancing at the age of four at a ballet school run by her mother. Returning to New Zealand when she was nine, she won a copy of Margot Fonteyn’s biography, personally dedicated to her by the dancing legend. From that moment on, there was no doubt which career she would pursue. “To receive a book from Fonteyn addressed ‘Dear Lisa’—well there was nothing better for a little girl. It was just so inspiring,” she explains.

At 14, Cullum left for Australia to attend ballet school. Only a year later, she won the Gold Medal at the Adeline Genée competition in London and was offered a position in the English National Ballet (ENB). But in the same year, she won Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, which included a scholarship to a school of her choice, so she decided to forgo London and study in Monte Carlo first.

At 17, she assumed her appointment at the ENB, which was headed by Danish director Peter Schaufuss. When he left a year later to take over the Berlin company, he asked Cullum to join him. Within a year she was appointed principal ballerina. It is tempting to read her life as a fairy tale, but this would gloss over the dedication required. Although talented, she puts in up to ten hours a day of physically tiring work. Apart from this regime and monitoring her diet, she has had to make other sacrifices. For example, she has now spent more years in Germany than in New Zealand. She is also conscious that she has not earned a certificate of formal education. “It’s not all Chapeau and roses. It is hard work, but it pays off when you appear on stage before 2,500 people,” she explains. “It’s the ultimate kick. There is probably no drug that can compete with the adrenalin rush. It is just the most wonderful feeling. I crave it.”

Cullum was immediately taken with Munich. “It is very beautiful and has a much slower pace than Berlin,” she says. While the eight years in Berlin were successful for her, dwindling crowds and funding politics had taken a toll on the morale of the company. She also did not enjoy the emphasis on modern dance. Arriving in Munich, with its early 19th-century Neoclassical Nationaltheater, well-funded company and enthusiastic audiences was a relief. Indeed, Cullum appreciates the family atmosphere of the Munich troupe and its repertoire of modern and classical ballet. Now, at the age of 32, she believes she is dancing better than ever before—and still improving. At the same time, she is aware that her career has a use-by date. There is also the motherhood question. While she does not want to defer it forever, for the moment she is keen to push herself to see exactly what she can achieve with dance. “If my luck continues, I may keep dancing until I am 40. I’ll still be learning every day and probably retire with unanswered questions. So, there are no plans to disappear from the ballet world just yet,” she says.

“The question for dancers,” choreo-grapher Jean-Christopher Maillot once observed, “always is: Can we fly?” Cullum is giving herself time to find the answer.

In May and June this year, Cullum will perform as Nikija in La Bayadère by Mauris Petipa. <<<

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