With the unmistakable poise of a ballerina, Dorothea Ashbridge welcomed Channel’s Heather Vermeer into her Takapuna home on the eve of her 90th birthday.
Immaculately presented and with a spirited twinkle in her eyes, Dorothea, or Dolly as she is affectionately known, is the embodiment of someone who has had the joy of spending their life living their passion. Her eloquence and elegance are a window to a bygone era; an era in which this physically tiny woman danced her way to a glittering career.
I imagine the toddler Dorothea Zaymes and her first steps; gracefully executed, with raised arches and rigidly pointed toes, tiptoeing delicately from foot to foot, perhaps with a graceful leap and an effortless twirl. And it seems this is pretty much how her story began. One of eight children - six girls and two boys - born to an English mother and Greek father in South Africa, young Dorothea and her sisters all danced for as long as she can remember.
“It just came so easily to me. I never had to work at it. Even though I say it myself, there was natural talent there. It just seemed to be something I could do without really trying,” she says of her introduction to ballet. Her parents hadn’t been dancers, but Dorothea labels theirs ‘an artistic family’. “My father was interested in opera and had a voice that was so beautiful, and my mother was interested in the arts.” The pair encouraged their children in this area, Dorothea says, adding: “We all learned to play the piano, had singing lessons, elocution lessons and learned ballet.”
In 1946 she left South Africa for a new life. Without any indication of displeasure, Dorothea explains: “At the age of 15 or 16 I was put on a ship!” And that ship was heading for England, where the young dance enthusiast would be granted the opportunity to make dancing her life.
“It was lovely! I got into the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet) within three months of arriving. It was nerve-wracking at the time because I was up there with the likes of Margot Fonteyn and Beryl Grey. Anyway, they must have liked me because from then on, I was nearly 20 years with the Royal Ballet - and I never got the sack!”
Starting as corps de ballet, moving to coryphee, then becoming a soloist, in what became The Royal Ballet (Britain’s flagship ballet company after receiving a Royal Charter in 1956), Dorothea danced alongside some of the greatest ballet dancers the world has even seen. Most notably, Rudolph Nureyev. “He was magnificent,” she recalls, as her face illuminates with a smile. “Margot (Fonteyn) already had an established dance partner when suddenly an amazing male dancer appeared on the scene. Our director at the time grabbed him and he joined The Royal Ballet as Margot’s partner. That dancer was Rudolph Nureyev.”
Dorothea recalls her first international dance assignment. “Our very first trip to America was so exciting! It was the 1950s. We were all given high fashion clothes; a cocktail dress each, a travel outfit, our own handkerchief. We were all very glamorous! We flew out to America; starting out in New York on a three-month tour with The Royal Ballet. Oh, it was wonderful!”
She toured most of Europe, and recalls her trips to Berlin, Vienna, Italy, Spain and a devastated post-war Poland. “It was post-war Europe. We were often the first touring company to visit since the war. We visited Warsaw where there was hardly a building left standing. It was terrible to see. But all in all, there was a real sense that ‘the war is over’ and life was to be enjoyed.”
New Zealand beckoned in 1966 when Dorothea married Kiwi dance star Bryan Ashbridge, whom she’d met in London, and Bayswater became their home. Dorothea continued to carve a life for herself in the world of dance here in New Zealand, and internationally. She has become a bastion of the Royal New Zealand Ballet; teaching and staging numerous classical ballet works. She spent 12 years as ballet mistress at Limbs, working alongside Mary Jane O-Reilly and travelling to New York.
Her time as dancer and choreographer with the ‘Go Go Girls’ on classic TV show, ‘C’mon’, saw her working alongside Max Cryer and gain public exposure here in New Zealand, stretching beyond the ballet world. She has worked as a classical ballet teacher for United and she remembers with fondness, her years as a distinguished international dance judge, which saw her travel to Japan, China, France and many more countries: “It was beautiful!” She beams.
So of all the works she has performed through the years, which is her favourite ballet? She giggles. “When you ask that question, I’ll tell you, one becomes tired of the Sleeping Beauty, the Cinderellas, the Swan Lakes…
“What I enjoyed most was when we had a guest director who would come in and do something new; they created a new ballet for us to perform. Directors such as Balanchine; he was a fantastic person to work for.”
George Balanchine is known as ‘the father of American ballet’. He founded the New York City Ballet and was its artistic director for over 35 years. He is one of many high profile connections Dorothea has made throughout her career. “Margot (Fonteyn) and I became really quite close,” she says, and tells tales of holidaying with Anya Lindon, Lady Sainsbury, at her holiday home in Wales.
Are there any current ballet stars she particularly admires? “I didn’t think I would ever see anyone get any better than Nureyev,” she says. “But the current Ukranian dancer Sergei Polunin, boy, he did! He has managed to surpass even Nureyev’s talent I believe. He is extraordinary, out of this world.”
Dorothea has a son, Mark, who lives in Sydney and works in the music industry, and three grandchildren. None of whom appear to be following in her dancing footsteps. “This is New Zealand - they have to be sports crazy, don't they," she says, jokingly exasperated. She is still in regular contact with her siblings in South Africa, and, as avid All Blacks fan, enjoys rugby banter with her two brothers.
When we meet, Dorothea is excited about seeing the latest ballet to be staged in Auckland - Giselle, which is being performed by the English National Ballet, and the week after will be at The Piano, a new ballet inspired by the Jane Campion film of the same name. “It’s exhausting!” She exclaims. “Yes, I’ll look forward to seeing The Piano next week - if I live that long!”
As well as continuing to love her visits to the theatre, Dorothea enjoys her Shore life and likes to stay active. “I go to exercise classes once a week in Takapuna, they’re really good. And occasionally, when I’m sitting on the couch, I do a ‘leg thing’ to keep my legs strong.” She demonstrates a graceful leg lift. “And I stand and do the odd arm exercises. Anyone who saw me might think I’m rather silly.” Rather, I think they’d simply see a woman doing what she loves, nine decades on.