TINY dancers are practising their pliés as the late-afternoon sunlight catches dust particles twisting and twirling - surely even pirouetting - high above them at the historic hall, still standing proudly, in Riverina heartland.
"Do the plié for me again. There you are. Can you do the plié without sticking the bottom out? Make sure that your bottom doesn't get burnt in the fire at the back!"
After decades, ballet lessons have returned to the School of Dance Art Henty under the tutelage of international dancer Lily Bones-Gonscak.
With a dance career spanning two decades, Bones-Gonscak has performed in more than 1500 shows worldwide.
Having lived and worked in more than a dozen countries, she has graced the stage of at least 100 theatres and venues and made 25 original works for world leaders the likes of the British and Danish royal families and the Prince of Monaco.
By any measure, Bones-Gonscak ranks among the Riverina's most successful exports of all time.
Yet, outside dance circles, she remains largely unknown.
Bones-Gonscak says the performing arts have long played second fiddle to sport in Australia.
She ponders that without a betting culture in the arts, a large section of society may even feel alienated from them.
"Imagine if you could bet on the ballet? How many fouettés will she do?" she muses.
Seriously though, Bones-Gonscak knows all too well that dance is one of the few professions in which studying starts in early childhood.
Within two years she was short-listed for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Her then Melbourne-based teacher Mary Li (wife of Li Cunxin whose autobiography Mao's Last Dancer was made into a film) urged her to move across the ditch despite not making the cut on the first attempt.
"She played an instrumental part in my career," Bones-Gonscak says.
"I was a bit too young when I was shortlisted but I trained at the New Zealand School of Dance. It took me four years to get into the Royal New Zealand Ballet but then I danced with them for several years."
Aged 18, Bones-Gonscak was picked up by Chinese company Guangzhou Ballet to dance in Swan Lake.
Living in the countryside ballet boarding school complete with studios, classrooms, cafe and even a pointe shoe factory, it was a tumultuous time in history with Hong Kong recently handed back to China.
"The entire commune was surrounded by barbed wire and a giant image of Mao Zedong overlooked the building," she recalls.
"It took me four months to be able to catch a bus after I learnt some Mandarin.
"That first contract was the most eye-opening for me."
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Having performed in the entire classical repertoire with principal roles in The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, Bones-Gonscak has been contracted with the Queensland Ballet; Ballet David Campos in Barcelona, Spain; and Ballet Jorgen Canada in Toronto, Canada, over nearly two decades.
In doing so, she even had to prove to the Spanish government that her skillset was beyond other dancers to get a job and later she gained Spanish citizenship only after passing a language test and living there for 10 years.
She met her future husband Jan Gonscak when they were working for the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava.
"Being paid to do what you love for 18 years was a great gift," she says.
Together with Jan and their daughter Tara, 6, Bones-Gonscak has come full circle now in their recent move to Henty, only 60 kilometres from where she grew up and went to Murray High School.
She teamed up with Projection Dance to perform in Cinderella at The Cube Wodonga last year and later did some coaching - albeit somewhat stymied by border closures and lockdowns - in the same Wodonga studios where she trained years before.
"Then I found the School of Arts building at Henty; it was an old dance school and it opened up huge possibilities," she says.
Together with Jan, she wants to offer residencies for returning Australian dancers and international choreographers in the form of project-creative retreats.
They are already using the space for choreographic projects with trained Border dancers to create jobs for dance graduates in Australia and to coach dancers who are trying to make it overseas.
"Australia produces a huge number of graduates and there are not enough pioneers making work here," she says.
"I have the networks and the experience to help dancers who want to pursue a career overseas too."
With a Master of Creative Industries, Bones-Gonscak knows there is huge participation in dancing in Australia - it's consistently the No. 1 activity for girls - but job opportunities and investment in the arts nationwide lag infinitely behind sport.
"Our infrastructure never included theatre in the way it does sports stadiums," she says.
"We have the Opera House but it's really only seen as a building; in Europe the theatre is not just a building it's a home for the artists and their community.
"Overseas, theatre has always been a source of entertainment from the beginning of time. When we really started investing in public infrastructure in this country, TV came along as competition for the arts."
Bones-Gonscak wants country kids to learn dance whether they see a career in it or simply do it for fun and fitness.
A last glimpse back through the door of the School of Dance Art Henty reveal everyone's on track.
Either way, the world's at their feet.
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