It’s noon on a Thursday, hours before showtime, but backstage at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre it’s all systems go.
But first it’s all systems wait, as the students of the Beverley Rowles School of Dance prepare for the school’s last ever show: the Nutcracker.
One of Wollongong’s most successful performers, Ms Rowles started the school in a tin shed in Corrimal 55 years ago after a career dancing overseas – she was welcomed home with a street parade.
She was nimble but age finally caught up, and her son Marshall, also a dancer, took over with his wife Aimi. After 15 years it’s time to move on, to Queensland.
Back to the IPAC, for last-minute costume fixes while the dancers await their cues – soldiers’ hats are straightened, maids’ outfits zipped, cats’ ears placed into line by several helpers.
Not that it’s frenetic – this machine is well-oiled, and it’s not their first Nutcracker.
But it is their last, and the nerves are accompanied by a sense of calm expectation, a feeling that this one matters.
I like to call a spade a spade and keep things nice and normal for the kids, not go too over the top with it.
They’ve done the hard work in preparation and now everyone is exactly where they want to be.
Out front of the stage two helpers have the task of keeping a small army of chefs still, as they empty their lunch boxes. They are the youngest dancers, and it’s like keeping a lid on a pot of popcorn.
Lee Darby is there with her grand-daughter, as she had done with her own daughter (who is now a dance teacher herself) beforehand.
“It was just part of our lives,” she said. “We loved it, and it’s so sad it’s gone. But we’re happy for Marshall and Aimi.”
Friend Lyn Gray had been involved as a volunteer helper for decades, usually making the ornate costumes for the young dancers.
“Miss Rowles had so much respect from all the students, and the parents,” she said. “Children are different now – they’re used to having more say.”
Why does ballet still thrive? Perhaps it is like a sport – with many of the same benefits: fitness, teamwork, discipline, effort and reward.
But it’s an art, of course, and a performance.
Marshall Rowles was a keen rugby league player for the Corrimal Cougars, then found surfing, a more artful pursuit with its angles and agility. From there is was a short pas de chat to join the family business, in which he excelled, becoming the principal dancer at the West Australian Ballet with guest performances overseas.
“I was never really that bright at school, but for some reason my brain took to this,” Marshall told the Mercury from the tin shed the day after the show.
“Every muscle in your body is working, and you’ve got to know when to trigger it, how to trigger it … you’ve got a lot going on in a split-second in your mind.
“There’s counts of music to listen to, steps to remember, to be done in the right spot … it does take a different brain – you’ve got to be slightly quirky.
“It does help you concentrate on yourself, and what you’re doing, but also on other people as well. They learn how to deal with being around a lot of people – and they make lots of friends.
“They’re wall rounded, they look different, they hold themselves well, they have a good posture, they understand why they’ve got muscles in their body. And loads of brain development – a ballet brain is a bit of a different one.”
For a pursuit sometimes seen as elitist, the Rowles school, in its tin shed in decidedly non-elite Corrimal, strove to be inclusive. Not to compromise quality – the school’s latest acceptee into the peak Australian Ballet School has done so after only 2½ years of dancing.
“One thing Mum always said to me is that every child deserves the right to learn how to dance,” Marshall said. “We have some kids here who can’t afford to come and for years we’ve sponsored kids to come.
“It can be a specialist area, where people say ‘you can’t dance, because you look like this’, or that kind of thing, and I just don’t agree with any of that.
“We try and make it as fun as possible for them to come and do so they can enjoy it and not be too serious. We do have our serious ones, but I like to call a spade a spade and keep things nice and normal for the kids, not go too over the top with it, so everyone is included and feels included.”
At first Marshall wasn’t interested in a story publicising the school’s closure and its achievements. But parents brought him round.
“We’re pretty quiet sort of people, we try and stay fairly humble in our approach,” he said. “It‘s been a bit of a life institution. It’s really quite, nice lovely people like that.
“And for Mum as well. I think people wanted to see something about it.
“I see it, for us, I like to think of it as work, that’s what we do. Kids will say ‘you’ve been so fantastic, and you’re being this and that’, but that’s just part and parcel. If you’re going to do this, that’s just how you’ve got to do it.
“It’s not all about us, and what we do. It’s about the kids, and what they get out of it, and what the parents get out of it. I’ve learned that over the years. It’s taken time, but I have learned it.”
By this stage the rain pelting down on the tin shed roof almost drowned Marshall out as he recounted how Thursday night’s show went off without a hitch.
“A lot of people around us were emotional but for us it was more an exciting night. The business could have closed a long time ago when Mum got sick, when she had her stroke, but we've kept it going for a very long time.
“And I wanted it to be that way too – I wanted people to be happy about it and excited. I think most people were – they were just sad to see us go I guess.”