Chrissa Keramidas made history at the Australian Ballet

Can you imagine a professional ballerina making a comeback on stage forty years after retirement? Chrissa Keramidas did exactly that. But her narration reveals there were more fairy tale-like highlights to this story.

Chrissa Keramidas has her mother to thank for discovering her calling in life.

The passion sparked to her seven-year-old led her dancing ballet in some of the world’s biggest stages.

Mum Maria was not a dancer herself.

Her mother “had some sort of epiphany”,  Keramidas says, when she took her to her first ballet lesson.

“I never sat still. I was always dancing and skipping, so, she thought it would be a great idea.

“She said to me many years later, ‘that was the day I lost you. You were never completely mine anymore’, meaning I fell in love with ballet. It became my obsession,” Keramidas says to Neos Kosmos.

She remembers how that initiation scene unfolded.

In the pictures (L) Chrissa Keramidas as a young girl dancing and (R) in a group family shot. Photos: Supplied

“She had a blue trench coat on and she took me by the hand. We were living in Collingwood at the time and she walked me down Johnston street. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was wondering where we were going.”

They ended up at the Collingwood Town Hall, in a “massive room” with “chairs all the way around”.

They were there for the mothers “all sitting and knitting” waiting for their kids to finish their lesson.

“That was my first introduction to ballet […] And I just knew that that was what I wanted to do. I loved it. I loved the feeling of moving. It’s like you have this voice inside you that compels you to keep doing that. And you don’t know why, but you just have to.”

Chrissa at the age of seven. Photo: Supplied

From that moment on, Keramidas didn’t look back.

At age 16 she went to the Australian Ballet School, then graduated from her training into the Australian Ballet Company where she worked as a professional dancer for five years.

But she knew “there was more”.

“There was a big world out there and […] I knew that I needed to go and see what was happening. I wanted to test myself on a world stage.”

After a stint in Europe, including a stop at Stuttgart Ballet – she ended up in New York visiting a fellow Aussie dancer.

Photo: Supplied

“I had a good friend in Germany and another elsewhere. We were scattered all over the place. The old ballet world was small. We all knew each other.”

The friend in the United States was Danilo Radojevic who would later become Keramidas’ husband for eight years before they parted ways.

Much later down the track he would also serve as Australian Ballet director.

“I went to America to visit him with no intention whatsoever of staying there. I just went and did class at the American Ballet Theatre.”

Ballet companies deliver daily classes and if you’re a dancer, “you do class every single day of your life,” Keramidas explains.

So, she went along and asked if she could join.

Chrissa Keramidas performing at “La Bayadere” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Photo: Kenn Duncan for the American Ballet Theatre/Courtesy of Chrissa Keramidas, personal archive

“I walked into this studio and saw some of the greatest dancers in the world standing around.”

Keramidas names a few of the heavyweights she met at her first American Ballet Theatre class, the famous Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.

Kirkland, and Cynthia Gregory, two of the foremost American dancers of the time.

“And I can go on and on. II stood in the doorway looking and thought ‘well, where else can I go and have this?'”

She ended up attending a whole week of sessions.

Keramidas dancing at “Murder” with Mikahil Baryshnikov at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Photo: Marty Sohl for the American Ballet Theatre/Courtesy of Chrissa Keramidas, personal archive

“The ballet master who was teaching at the end of one particular class pulled me over and he made me do a few moves. The next thing I knew I had a job.”

Keramidas spent about a decade at her “dream job”.

When her mother and sisters visited New York, she was at the peak of her career.

“They had seen me dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov. I think back on that now and get goosebumps. It was so lovely to share that time with them.”

Even before, her family were her number one fans.

“My parents were absolutely supportive and loving and proud.

Still, Keramidas doesn’t hide that in her beginnings she had been given the “proper job” talk.

“When I was a student at high school and I had just gotten into the Australian Ballet School, I remember sitting in the kitchen table and they were saying, ‘but this isn’t a real job’, ‘you need a proper job, something safe’.

“But they could see I was not going to have a bar of it. And I guess I was fortunate to have enough talent to put the wheels in motion. They saw that and from then on, they knew and were incredibly supportive.”

“I remember distinctly my dad sitting in his favourite chair, reading Neos Kosmos. He’d have his head buried in it. I always have that picture in my head.” Chrissa was born in Elassona, central Greece and her parents, Maria and Nikos were from a nearby village, called Deskati. Photo: Supplied

In the late ’80s Keramidas made a move back to Australia, and a career shift.

She passed from teaching roles, to serving as Associate Director of the West Australian Ballet and working briefly for the Sydney Dance Company.

“It was a very short period of time, literally months. And honestly, it was not my thing at all,” she admits.

“You know, I came from a very traditional, classical ballet company, and I joined this sort of very contemporary dance company.

“I knew then that the time had come,” she says of the decision to hang up her pointe shoes.

“It was the boom time of ballet,” Keramidas says of the years she worked for the American Ballet Theatre. “I look back on it now and feel so lucky to be there at that time, so blessed to be surrounded by all those extraordinary dancers and artists.” The full version of the main image featured above. Photo: Supplied

She could not have imagined that decades later she would make a comeback on stage.

In 2017 Keramidas was asked to dance in the role of the older Clara at the ‘Nutcracker’.

“It came out of the blue. I had no intention of even thinking about going back on stage again.”

“The Australian Ballet School was great training. And then I gradually, you know, grew into better roles, bigger roles and the Australian Ballet was a lovely company but then the time came where I knew I had to go.” Keramidas ventured internationally in the late ’70s and landed her dream job at the American Ballet Theatre. Here, in a recent headshot. Photo: Supplied

Choreographer  and former Sydney Dance Company director Graeme Murphy, made the request.

Murphy worked with Keramidas before at the Australian Ballet and had seen her perform in New York.

“So he knew my work very well.”

“And at first I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t think I can go back and do this. There’s no way I’m gonna go back and get into a tutu. You gotta be kidding,” she laughs.

“But you know, I thought I might regret this. It was like I saw my life pass before my eyes.”

Australian Ballet dancers perform on stage during a dress rehearsal of “Nutcracker – The Story of Clara” at the Opera House in Sydney in 2017. Photo: AAP/David Moir

It was a battle with herself, she reflects, but one she did not regret giving.

“Everything felt so much harder than I ever remembered it. But I actually surprised myself and I loved it. I really did.”

It was a coming full circle return for the ballerina who says dancing “felt like breathing”.

“It’s a very difficult profession but you just don’t care because of the personal rewards […] that feeling you get from moving, dancing, interpreting, projecting.

“It’s hard to explain but people who dance certainly understand it. We all have that connecting thread.”

Dancing, the way Keramidas describes it, makes for a meditative, transformative experience.

“I would lose myself completely and be in my own zone. It transported me to a different level. I guess it was my world. It’s a special world.”

“I hadn’t set foot on stage for the longest time and all of a sudden to be back as a dancer and especially as you get older, you become incredibly insecure. You think, ‘Can I still do this?’ Chrissa Keramidas and Emma Gavan in Graeme Murphy’s 2017 Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. Photo: Daniel Boud, The Australian Ballet/Facebook