Heine on pliés, pinot and paying her dues

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Dancer, choreographer and last Gold CAT, Michelle Heine.

IT’S not quite a case of “The Last Rockette”, as the song goes, but dancer and choreographer Michelle Heine will go down in Canberra’s theatre history as “the last Gold CAT”, named at the recent online ACT Awards before it became known that the board would wind up operations on June 30.

One of the best-known choreographers in Canberra, Heine was honoured for “fostering the love of dance among people of all ages, including people with special needs, particularly through LEGS Dance”, the studio she founded.

The Zambian-born former showgirl at Sun City resort in South Africa cut her teeth as dance director with Stuart Maunder’s 1992 production of “My Fair Lady” for the Canberra Theatre Trust, but truly came to note here with Colin Anderson’s first production of “Les Miserables” in 1994.

Michelle in her showgirl days at Sun City resort in South Africa.

Quickly becoming the choreographer of choice for most of Canberra’s big musicals, in recent years she has won accolades for her work on “Legally Blonde”, “42nd Street” and “Kinky Boots”, all for Free-Rain Theatre.

But right now there’s no time to be bathing in the glory of the Gold CAT.

Although some of her big gigs for the year, like “Mamma Mia” with Free Rain, are on hold because of the COVID-19 crisis, Heine maintains an optimistic outlook and says, “We will get there eventually”.

She’s had more urgent things to attend to. 

“We had to make a quick turnaround to online Zoom classes within 24 hours of the shutdowns,” she says.

The kids at LEGS Dance had a syllabus to follow and exams to pass, but in any case, she estimates, by the end of the year they’d have gone stir crazy.

“Thank goodness for today’s technology,” she says. “On Zoom I set up a dance studio and I let parents know the ID and password. So at 4pm, say, kids take their laptop or other device and log in.”

She also created a waiting room where she could check them into class, after which “they pop up on the screen like the ‘Brady Bunch’… they tend to talk all at once so I have to mute them from time to time. It was quite a learning curve for someone like me and it just shows how creative you can be in a crisis”.

A pleasant sideline has been setting up virtual dance parties, including a “Plié and Pinot” ballet class, where participants can combine classical moves with a glass of the best red (or white if pinot grigio is your cup of tea.

That was run from Heine’s kitchen and involved people she hadn’t seen in years. After the class, everybody opened up a bottle – “it was phenomenal”.

Mention of plié raises the question of whether all dancers have a ballet background.

As far as Heine is concerned, they should.

“It’s where you get your basic technique and a special understanding of control,” she says. “I was in a ballet company before Sun City and I loved it… I made sure my children did ballet and my elite class have to do ballet twice a week.” 

Daughter Cariba, now starring in WIN TV’s “The Secrets She Keeps”, did ballet classes every day when dancing professionally in Los Angeles.

Innovating during the crisis has a strong connection with mental health issues, she believes. 

“In hindsight it’s been a terrible time but it’s making people so creative and we’ve all got to come out a whole lot better, it’s forcing some of us out of our comfort zone.”

It hasn’t always been comfortable.

She followed her parents to Canberra 30 years ago straight out of Sun City, thinking to find “an amazing dance troupe”, started LEGS dance troupe for girls, worked on all the big showgirl routines, then found that there was no work apart from the odd tourism or awards event, and certainly not much money.

As well, her husband Kevin couldn’t find a suitable studio for their two children, Cariba and Kyle, so she started one in her garage. It took off and Heine found herself renting all around town until settling on a more permanent space in Sheppard St, Hume.

All the while she’s been choreographing, both for her students and for Free-Rain Theatre. Highlights have included “Wicked” on the big stage of the Canberra Theatre and “42nd Street”, probably her all-time favourite because of the amount of tap in it. 

It’s been a big journey and the great unknown will be even more challenging, she has no doubt. As for Gold CAT,  it was a real shock – “I expect they thought I’d paid my dues”.

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