Rachel Rawlins, principal artist with the Australian Ballet, has announced that she will retire at the end of this year. She will give her final performance in Sydney in December in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes' newly-choreographed version of Swan Lake. ''I've never danced the lead in a complete, traditional production of Swan Lake so I am looking forward to leaving on a high note by fulfilling that ambition,'' she says.
Rawlins can't remember a time when she didn't want to dance.
''It was something I felt passionately about before I realised what dance was,'' she says. ''When I look at the children of some of my friends I recognise that same desire today in some of them. They just love moving to music.''
Rawlins took her first ballet classes in Canberra, largely at the Dell Brady School of Ballet. She remembers those early years fondly and recalls that Brady was strict but in a way that made her pupils understand that it was important to dance properly. Brady, for her part, recalls that it was absolutely clear from the beginning that Rawlins was talented.
''Even now when I look back on the photos of the first show she did with me when she was a 'rose fairy' - a role she shared with Pia Miranda, now a successful film actor - her lovely long slender legs and beautifully pointed feet signalled what was to come. She was also very determined - in a quiet way - and when she was given a challenging role, as she was in subsequent shows at the ballet school, she would always push herself to achieve her best.''
From Canberra, Rawlins went on to further study in Melbourne, eventually at the Australian Ballet School. She counts getting a contract with the Australian Ballet at the end of her training as the first major highlight of her dancing life. It was the beginning of a stellar career, which subsequently included two years in London with the Royal Ballet, in addition to her 18 years with the Australian Ballet, where she has been a principal since 2004.
She still has strong memories of preparing for her first principal role with the Australian Ballet, that of the Sylph in the iconic Romantic ballet La Sylphide.
''I worked intensively with Maina Gielgud, then artistic director of the company, on that role,'' she says. ''Maina made sure that I was thoroughly prepared so that when I went on in that role I felt really confident and could enjoy being onstage.''
Other career highlights have included dancing in the several ballets by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that the Australian Ballet has in its repertoire - Bella Figura, Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land and Petite Mort. She admires Kylian's musical choices and his ability to make choreography that is so in tune with that music. But also she notes that as a principal dancer it is lovely to work sometimes as part of a group. Kylian makes works that are somewhat democratic in nature compared with more traditional ballets where there are obvious principal roles. Rawlins explains that it is a special experience to feel the freedom of movement that comes with being part of a group and being able to bond with them onstage.
But, of course, she has consistently danced leading roles in more traditionally structured ballets and has been acclaimed for her performances in classical works and dramatic ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Manon, Onegin, Madame Butterfly, Romeo and Juliet and a host of others. A frequent partner in recent years has been Ty King-Wall, currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet. He recalls in particular dancing the pas de deux from Giselle with Rawlins, both in Canberra earlier this year and then in New York on the company's recent overseas tour.
''I have loved partnering Rachel,'' he says. ''She has such a natural sense of movement, such a rare quality I think. Dancing Giselle with her was a real highlight for me.''
Rawlins says that she will go to Melbourne for a family Christmas and perhaps spend time at the beach. She has nothing planned yet in terms of the future direction her life will take but acknowledges that the Australian Ballet has a number of strategies in place for re-training dancers.