The Secret Life of Dancer Sophie Arbuckle

Sophie Arbuckle is currently the youngest dancer for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and at just 20 years old. I  sat down with her to discuss the thriving career she has ahead of her.

As I stand in the lobby of the St. James Theatre, adjacent to the grand staircase that guards the stage which hosts an array of mesmerizing performances, I wait for Sophie Arbuckle. She has agreed to meet with me in between her rigorous rehearsals for an upcoming in-house performance. As a member of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), she stands in the studio space above the theatre.  There is something very special about a company that rehearses in the very same theatre in which they debut.  The New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) graduate, exited the elevator from across the room following in suite by Sir John Trimmer the heart and soul of the company. They all stand tall with their beautiful posture and walk with a slight turnout only a dancer would possess. 

Arbuckle received the news of acceptance to the RNZB in November 2016, after a long audition and interview process she secured her position in the company alongside just one other dancer. 

“Auditioning is a stressful experience, everyone is out for themselves”, says Arbuckle.

I spoke with Arbuckle about her new schedule since entering the company. Having now been a professional dancer for almost a year now she has been overwhelmed with the intensity each day consists of, especially during the preparation of a ballet. 

“For the first half of the year, I was so exhausted, spending all day on pointe took a toll as I was used to only a few hours a day previously.”

She finds a lot of humour in people’s misunderstanding of the life of a dancer, explaining that many people are unsure as to what they do all day including her own grandmother.

“My grandma does not understand what I do for a living, she understands that I perform but then asks what I do for the rest of the day, what is my real job?” 

In reality, the day to day life of a dancer is incredibly strenuous, working six days a week to create the stunning ballets that earnt the RNZB its Royal title. Arbuckle explains that ballets are generally learnt with little knowledge of who is receiving each role, stating that she was unaware she would receive the role of Lady Montague in the company 2017 performance of Romeo and Juliet until her fitting with the costume designers a month before debut. 

Although a small role, Arbuckle says she was honoured to receive a titled role as a first-year within the company.

“I was completely shocked; the role was mainly acting and very small but I was excited to receive a role so early in the company.”

Her acceptance into the company, however, was not her first taste of success. Her accomplishments date back to her time as a competition child, competing around the country in prestigious events such as the 

Alana Haines Australasian awards which is a likened to the Youth America Grand Prix, the most prestigious ballet competition in the world. 

At the age of 13, Arbuckle was accepted as a Junior Associate at the New Zealand School of Dance, a program in which talented dancers receive more in-depth training and opportunities for masterclasses with the RNZB. She continued through the associate program until her acceptance as a full-time dancer at the age of 16.

“I never ended up finishing school as I left for the NZSD, at the end of year 11. But I was dead set on being a professional dancer and without the school, I don’t think I would I have received the opportunities I have had.”

Through the New Zealand School of Dance, she has received opportunities, other dancers, her age could only dream of. At the age of 17, she was selected especially for a tour of Europe alongside the RNZB for their performance of Giselle and received the same honour a year later for the New Zealand tour. 

“It was one of the most amazing experienced that allowed me to grow as a dancer and as a person, I received genuine insight into the life of a professional dancer.”

Despite her incredible success, Arbuckle remains incredibly humble, throughout speaking to her she remains joyful and insists much of her achievements we down to luck. When asked about the Todd Scholarship she received to sponsor her year at the company she says, “The scholarship is awarded to NZSD dancers accepted to the RNZB so there were only two of us to pick from, so I think it was more luck than anything [Laughs]”. 

Arbuckle began dancing at the age of six, much to the dismay of her mother a retired company member of the RNZB. “Ballet is a very involved art, it becomes your life and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted that for Sophie”, says Fiona Arbuckle.  

Luckily for Sophie, she has found great joy and love for the art and since deciding at the age of 12 she wished to pursue ballet as a career she has gone on to excel in her field.  

“The feeling of achieving what you set out to achieve is a great feeling, ballet allows for small goals that help you in the long run, on top of that the feeling of being stage is a pretty cool one I don’t think there is much that is more loved than performing.”

As her first year at the RNZB comes to a close, Arbuckle has made plans to leave the company and travel to Europe to pursue a career. She wishes to begin her audition process in Germany and work her way towards England. 

“I think having been in Wellington my whole life and having the opportunity to be a part of the school of dance and RNZB it is time to explore other options and really challenge myself.” 

As Arbuckle prepares herself to return to rehearsals, she asks if I wish to view the studio upstairs. Joining her on her return, the elevator led us to the entrance of the company met by a long hallway with dancers such as the beautiful Abigail Boyle, Arbuckle’s idol and mentor. As Arbuckle takes a hard left I follow as the main studio reveals itself, beautifully lit from the sunlight of the day outside. The room is the size of two tennis courts with an intricate window display upon the back wall and a grand piano in the downstage left corner. The presence of only a few dancers still manages to fill the room to each corner with a sense of dedication and joy.

The studio reflects the beauty of the company’s work, a place in which Arbuckle says, “has helped me grow hugely as a dancer, I am very thankful for those who took me under their wing”.

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