“When I was younger,” she says, “I sort of had this idea set out for myself, but you can’t ever plan life.”
As Mia Heathcote doubtless understands, there is a difference between dreaming and planning. Having been promoted to the role of Principal Artist (alongside Patricio Revé) at the Queensland Ballet in September, the dream may be said to have come true. However, aside from the fact of her stratospheric achievement, she remains grounded in something more elemental than career advancement and garnering accolades.
“I believe you just have to take the path that your heart takes you on. I mean, everything that I thought I had planned has not gone to plan; and I don’t mind that. I’m more open to just letting go now.”
Yet, two decades after beginning her ballet journey at just four, the Melbourne-born dancer finds herself reaping the rewards of countless hard yards. When, on the opening night of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director Li Cunxin promoted Heathcote and Revé to Principal Artists, she was in a spin.
“Absolutely surreal,” she recalls. “To be honest, it hasn’t quite hit me yet.” Then, a beat later, she adds, “But also, in a way, because we’re constantly working, nothing’s really going to change. There’s still the same amount of input, effort, work and dedication; so I think to have that title is a great honour, but at the same time, yeah, it hasn’t actually sunk in yet.”
As anyone in the game will tell you, the life of a professional ballet dancer is 95 percent work and barely 5 percent flying around stage and getting flowers at the end of the night. In this light, given the realities of elite performance, what does it truly mean to be called Principal Artist? What difference does it make in the studio?
Reflecting on this, Heathcote says, “It’s a great achievement for yourself because, you know, a lot of young dancers set out to go as far as they can go, so I do think it’s quite an honour to be able to make it to this kind of position. There’s definitely a sense of responsibility that comes with it, too. I always try to be the best role model I can be, because I always looked up to the older dancers in the company when I was younger. But also, like I said before, it doesn’t change much because the work is still the same.”
Unpacking it further, she explains, “Maybe the roles won’t change much from Senior Soloist to Principal Artist. Maybe I would have done soloist roles before, but I think now I will still be doing them. So, work load wise, things will be fairly the same; but [there is] definitely a pay difference.”
At this, she laughs, before clarifying, ”Although I am only in the first year, so maybe it won’t be that much difference.”
Now in her mid-20s, and with pay rises and grand titles under her belt, Heathcote can not only enjoy the rewards of past effort but contemplate the path ahead. For an artist of her stature, doors will surely open. Yet, in keeping with her earlier thoughts on making plans, she looks forward with soft focus. “It’s not so much ambition,” she reveals, “but more excitement about what might happen and what I don’t know yet.”
Of course, there are those who would say that Heathcote’s rise was pre-destined. As the daughter of former Australian Ballet stars Steven Heathcote and Kathy Reid, she was the classic ‘green room baby.’ As a child she was steeped in dance.
“I get asked about this quite a bit,” she concedes. “Like, how much influence did all that have over me? To a certain extent, if a child grows up surrounded by ‘something’ and they’re so used to seeing it and so immersed in it, I guess there is an element of it being inevitable. But I actually don’t think that.”
She cites the example of her older brother Sam, likewise surrounded by ballet but with no real interest in it. (He turned to music instead.) Of their shared childhood and her burgeoning love of dance, she remembers, “It was just magical to me. Regardless of what I saw around me, or how I felt, music always had this ability to make me want to move. As a kid, Mum and Dad always had music on in the house and Sam and I, without even knowing what we were doing, would just respond to it.”
The other aspect of having ballet parents is just that — the hands-on, helicopter stereotype of the overly ambitious elders relentlessly driving their children. Either that, or the free ride trope. Clearly, Heathcote has been dealing with this for as long as she can recall. To her, however, famous parents are simply parents.
Opening up on this, she elaborates, “If I’m black and white about it, the pros were that they understood what I was going through every step of the way. A common misconception about having ballet parents is that they will have so much to do with what you do, and that they will interfere in your career. Like, ‘She got this because of this or because of that.’ That’s where it comes into the cons. People just have this misconception that things will come easy and fall into place for you.”
Yet, you cannot fake or name-drop your way to being a Principal Artist at the Queensland Ballet. At this level, dance is an elite athletic pursuit, and surnames are of little use. As Heathcote expands, “I’ve had lots of comments over the years, and it used to get to me, and sometimes it might still, but to be honest, on a daily basis, I don’t think about the fact that I have ballet parents. I’m just trying to survive into this quite difficult world.”
And so it is, with new title and better pay grade in tow, that she returns to the routine of classes and rehearsals. “I just feel very grateful to have made it this far,” she concludes. “But the work doesn’t stop here. In fact, it begins here.”
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.