WORDS Kim Newth PHOTO Darin Young
Nineteen-year-old dance protégé Summer Penney will never forget the feeling of being on stage at the Arts Centre Melbourne last December for the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet’s production of Swan Lake.
“It’s always been my favourite ballet,” says Summer, who stepped into ballet at the age of six in a class led by Sharon Tite at Christchurch’s Southern Ballet. “I remember holding that last position on stage with the other swans – it was such a wonderful moment. I felt like my heart was pouring up to the sky!”
Such moments do not happen by chance. By the time she was 13, Summer already had a ballet career in mind and trained at both Christchurch’s Anneliese Gilberd Academy and the New Zealand School of Dance (in the Scholars and Associates Programme) before being accepted by the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet in 2016. She also received mentoring from Alayna Ng, of the New Zealand Ballet Company.
“That was great because it gave me an opportunity to really find out what it’s like behind the scenes for a professional dancer.”
Summer had only just turned 17 when she left New Zealand to join the conservatoire and can still remember how hard it was adjusting to life on her own, even with the unwavering support of her family back home in New Zealand.
“I don’t think I slept for the first three months! I began in a homestay and then moved out with a couple of other young dancers … I really didn’t know anything about the world and the training was very intense too. The standard was very high and that was a shock, but I improved so much during my two years there.”
Last year Summer graduated with an Advanced Diploma in Elite Performance Dance and is now enrolled at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University where she is studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance. The Christchurch Ballet Society awarded her a tertiary grant earlier this year to help with her studies.
Studying at university is a career shift for Summer in many ways. Rather than pursuing a place with an international ballet company, Summer feels the time is right to explore her wider potential as a dancer and performance artist.
“At the conservatoire, the focus was on technique, physique, aesthetics and how to fit with the corps de ballet, whereas now I’m learning about ways of thinking and expressing myself as an individual.”
At the time of interview, Summer was performing at the National Gallery of Victoria in a dance construction piece called Huddle by American contemporary dance choreographer Simone Forti. Huddle forms part of the gallery’s exhibition MoMa, celebrating 130 years of modern and contemporary art, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
This sculptural dance performance – one that requires making a small mountain of human bodies which must then be climbed – is far removed from Swan Lake, but Summer is blossoming from the new experience.
“It’s a really beautiful piece that draws on the energy of the group and relies so much on preparation.”
Summer may have the opportunity to tour Europe at some point in her degree and would like to explore contemporary dance opportunities there.
Whatever the future holds, this young woman is assuredly stepping towards it with grace and strength.