WA Ballet’s 2021 season presented principal Matt Lehmann with a double dose of unfinished business after injuries on the eve of two ballets, when they were previously programmed, had prevented him from performing.
Giselle was the first, where Lehmann ruptured the plantar fascia in his foot, and now Coppelia, after torn ligaments from a rolled ankle limited him to only the character-based Doctor Coppelius rather than alternating it with the other leading male character, Franz.
“I hurt myself the week before we opened,” Lehmann explains.
“It’s frustrating to have done all that work in rehearsal, get to the eleventh hour and then roll your ankle. It’s like playing footy all season and then injuring yourself right before the grand final.
“So it gave me a good mental drive to get through Dracula healthy.”
As the title character, Lehmann loved every moment of the Dracula season at Crown Theatre Perth in August, which introduced new audiences to the award-winning WA Ballet production that premiered at His Majesty’s Theatre in 2018.
Lehmann says it has been the shortest turnaround he has experienced in his career, which began in Melbourne, where he trained at Ballet Theatre Australia and The Australian Ballet School, after being raised by ballroom dancing parents.
He performed with Canada’s Alberta Ballet before joining WA Ballet in 2010, where artistic director Aurelien Scannella promoted him to principal dancer in 2013.
“Two weeks to rehearse is not long, but it’s helpful I’ve rehearsed this ballet before so it’s been at the back of my brain somewhere,” Lehmann shares.
“It’s like when you sing along to a song you haven’t heard in 10 years and you still know the words. The transition has been easier for the people who danced leads in Dracula because we’ve already got our match fitness.
“After a break, it takes a certain time to build up that match fitness. I find a general rule of thumb for me is that the amount of time I have off, it takes me that long to come back and feel like myself again with my strength and stamina.”
Choreographed by Greg Horsman, Coppelia is a modern, more-relatable Australian take on the comic ballet classic, set in the small South Australian town of Hahndorf in the late 19th century, complete with a game of Australian Rules football on stage.
On the surface it may look like a light and pretty ballet about German settlers arriving in Adelaide, but Essendon supporter Lehmann says the production also has a dark and emotional side.
“He’s quite tormented and sad, then the lead female (Swanilda) plays a trick on him and pretends he’s successfully made the doll come to life. He’s heartbroken when he realises it isn’t real. Then in the third act it’s all happy family where everyone gets married and everything is forgiven.
“It’s good for families and a little pantomime-like with lots of acting and tongue-in-cheek moments. There’s things that aren’t ‘meant’ to be in a ballet, like guys getting hit in the balls and stuff like that, which makes kids giggle.”
On alternating performances, Lehmann swaps between Doctor Coppelius and Franz, Swanilda’s sweetheart, who becomes infatuated with the doctor’s mysterious “daughter”.
“They’re very different roles, with Doctor Coppelius requiring a lot of acting on stage, which I love, and it’s one of the reasons why I dance,” he says. “The ballets I love are the ballets where I can act and get into the story. And then Franz is a classical role where you’re dancing the whole time.”
Life has immeasurably changed for Lehmann since he last rehearsed Coppelia in 2015. He and wife Alex welcomed son Banks into the world 11 months ago after a long and challenging process of IVF.
“People assumed it was a COVID baby but this has been in the works for quite a while,” he reveals.
“My wife loved the name Banks but I was worried we weren’t cool enough to name him that. It took a couple of days in the hospital until we both finally decided we were those cool people.”
These days, Lehmann’s schedule goes from smashing his body in the studio for 7 1/2 hours between morning ballet class and rehearsals before leaving at 6pm, in time for feeding Banks and getting him ready for bed.
Sundays are for father-son swimming lessons, where Lehmann says parents pretty much drown their child for half an hour by dunking them under the water.
“He loves it and thinks it’s the best time,” he laughs.
“For my first official Father’s Day we went down to Floreat for fish and chips and got the picnic rug out. He wandered about and stuck everything in his mouth, as they do. He’s turning out to be an awesome little guy.”
Lehmann says fatherhood has seen him approach the role of Doctor Coppelius differently this time, although he does try to attack any role he returns to from a different angle, which will happen for some time yet, since the 36-year-old has no plan to retire.
“It’s a personal thing but when you get to that over-30 mark, for any dancer or elite athlete, you start getting asked how the old body is going,” he says.
“I’m still dancing and still loving it.
“We have Sleeping Beauty before Christmas which is another three-act mountain of a ballet. So once Coppelia finishes, we’ll have the Sunday off and then we’ll be back in the studio on Monday; another day, another ballet.”