Dancing her way to the top one step at a time

A woman posing for a picture
Madeline Gibson. Photo by Ondine Slack-Smith.

“It’s just sad to hear when you have worked so hard that you’re not what they’re looking for because you’re tall or they want someone with blonde hair and here I am with brown.”

This is the devastating reality of classical ballet. It would not only be COVID that would threaten promising ballerina Madeline Gibson’s aspirations but also her height, the tyranny of distance, and the ensuing war in Ukraine. At the tender age of 20 and having danced across several continents, Madeline faced an unknown future.

She was born in Dubbo, in central NSW. Though quiet and unassuming, she was a creative child.

“She was shy in public but loved to dance around at home,” says Maddie’s mother, Sharwyn.

It was this passion that saw Maddie ask to be enrolled in dance classes at the age of three. But two years later “she just wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” her mother says.

Following in her sister’s dance steps

Maddie’s love for dance was re-ignited a few years later after her younger sister began classes at Dubbo’s Stepping Out Dance Factory.

“I watched her end of year dance concert and I just absolutely loved the costumes and makeup she wore. All I wanted to do was put on a pretty costume and makeup and get on that stage. The dancing aspect wasn’t that important to me.”

Little did she know that dance would soon become not just important but essential to her identity.

The following year, aged eight, Maddie began classes at Stepping Out Dance Factory starting with jazz before gradually picking up other styles at the suggestion of her teacher.

Maddie enjoyed experimenting with various styles of dance but says that after a few years she felt she had more of a liking for classical ballet, agreeing that “ballet just felt the most like me”.

The director of Stepping Out Dance Factory, Rikki Slack-Smith, saw her potential early on.

“I remember sitting her down when she was twelve and saying to her that she had the passion and the facility, and she could go far in the field if she wanted.”

A person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera
Madeline Gibson and her teacher Rikki Slack-Smith. Photo supplied.

At the age of 12, Maddie was successful in her audition for the Australian Ballet School’s Interstate Training Program (ITP). She was with the ITP for three years and travelled to Melbourne regularly to attend classes and intensive programs.

“I’ll never forget the day I got accepted. My parents told me I had received a letter and I remember I opened it and cried. Not only had I gotten in, but I had gotten into a whole level above what I expected. I was just so proud of myself!” Maddie says.

Following her time with the Australian Ballet School, Maddie received an offer to join Tanya Pearson’s Classical Coaching Academy where she studied under the artistic direction of Lucinda Dunn, OAM. This opportunity saw Maddie move to Sydney to study ballet full time in what she describes as a “challenging yet rewarding move”.

Lucinda Dunn says full-time training is imperative to a professional career.

“It allows students to implement the rigours of a professional dancer and the hours many companies demand.”

Training in Europe

Maddie continued dancing under the direction of Dunn until the age of 16 when she competed in the Youth America Grand Prix, where she was offered a position to study at the John Cranko School in Germany.

“I studied there for four months before I decided it wasn’t the place for me and I moved back home.”

The return home saw Maddie continue her studies before she auditioned and eventually received an offer to join the Dutch National Ballet school in Amsterdam to study for an associate degree in classical ballet.

Maddie had a successful two years in the Netherlands and remained positive despite the presence of some challenges.

The global pandemic entered stage right testing flexibility and resilience. A period of stay-at-home orders saw Maddie continue to study ballet from home for nine weeks in her three by four metre living room. “Our neighbours downstairs weren’t big ballet fans and they made this known anytime we tried to jump,” recalls Maddie laughing.

While Maddie’s schoolmates were starting university, she began the difficult task of finding a company to join. This meant auditioning all around Europe and Australia, a process that Maddie believes can be mentally and physically draining, likening it to “a bit of a meat market”.

A woman in a blue dress

War and COVID hamper ambitions

Everything was riding on a performance at the St. Petersburg International Audition in Russia, her final chance to be offered a job in Europe.

But that too, was not to be.

“Visas to Russia were hard to get during COVID. Then war broke out and it was safer not to go,” Maddie says.

Now back home in Australia, Maddie has accepted an offer to train with the Victorian State Ballet next year.

Despite the many obstacles she has encountered, Maddie’s optimism and determination has not wavered.

“Ballet is very challenging; it has a lot of ups and downs. As each challenge comes, you just have to face it in the best way you can and accept that things won’t always go your way. Just push through and focus on your next goal and remember why you’re doing it.”