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Peak performance: what it takes to be one of Australia’s best ballet dancers


Posted on October 14, 2019

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Limitless patience; incredible support; a life-long love of dancing and the arts. That’s what the nominees of the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards identify as being necessary to be one of the nation’s peak ballet dancers. We spoke to the nominees about their passion for dance, and how they got to where they are today.

Our partnership with The Australian Ballet continues to nurture Australia’s brilliant ballet talent, and the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards represent the pinnacle of our partnership every year. The Awards allow us to support some of Australia’s brightest young stars with new opportunities and career experiences, to challenge and encourage them on their chosen path.

The six dancers nominated for the award this year include Corps de Ballet Dancer Isobelle Dashwood, Soloist Jill Ogai, Senior Artist Cristiano Martino, Senior Artist Marcus Morelli, Soloist Sharni Spencer, and Corps de Ballet Dancer Yichuan Wang.

We hosted a virtual roundtable with the nominees to find out what it takes to become one of the nation’s best dancers.

What’s your inspiration for dancing? How did you get started?

Sharni Spencer (Soloist): I’ve just always loved to move and dance! I grew up in Tamworth, we had a massive backyard and I was always outdoors, running around, dancing, jumping on the trampoline, bike riding, you name it I would be doing it! My parents used to do ballroom dancing and some rock’n’roll classes and would love to watch them busting a move. I’ve just always been drawn to and dance ended up being the thing that I would keep choosing when after school activity times would clash. I started taking classes at the scout hall just in the laneway behind our house. As I progressed my teachers told my parents that I had good foundations for ballet and could continue potentially into a career if I furthered my training elsewhere.

Isobelle Dashwood (Corps de Ballet Dancer): Ballet has been a huge part of my life since I can remember. My mum is a ballet teacher and as the middle of 5 children, I grew up wanting to follow my older sisters everywhere including ballet class. I was always quite shy as a child but when I danced around the house, I felt so free. 

It wasn’t until I was 12 however that I really felt a big connection with the feeling ballet gave me. I loved to strive for new goals and to dance to beautiful music. The marriage of all the aspects of a show coming together to create a seamless piece of art inspired and excited me and I couldn’t get enough. As I’ve grown in the industry, I’ve definitely noticed a shift in what I find important or want to focus on. Technique will always be a foundation that supports our capability to dance and dance well, but I’m slowly learning that feeling things more emotively or taking energy from other parts of my body enhances what I do both technically and artistically. Dance is exciting because it’s a continuously evolving and changing art form with so many incredible aspects shaping the magic we share onstage and that inspires me every day to work at my best. 

Being a very tall dancer has also made me appreciate differences and uniqueness. I don’t fit a mold but I’m creating my own and hopefully, that inspires others to feel that they can go after any dream that they have with hard work, passion and courage. 

Jill Ogai (Soloist): I started after watching a video of Swan Lake with my twin brother. We both always loved moving, and so when we saw ballet, we wanted to try it. It’s always felt great and very right for me to move and express to music. On tougher days, it’s the most important thing to remember; why I started dancing, and how great it feels. 

Cristiano Martino (Senior Artist): Really it can depend on the day. Sometimes I’m inspired by the work we’re doing in that moment, it can be the beautiful music we are dancing to or the person I’m dancing with. I find lots of inspiration in my friends/colleagues. But probably my partner Andrew Killian who is performing his 20th year & season with The Australian Ballet. He is an exceptional, humble & talented artist and a constant source of my inspiration.

I started dancing after I asked my mum if I could go along with my sister because I was always copying her routines in the lounge room when she would practice. I was a very energetic child & I’ve never been able to sit still so initially I think I just loved being able to channel my energy into something. I never really knew I could make a career out of it but I’m so grateful I have.

Yichuan Wang (Corps de Ballet Dancer):  I remember the first time I saw other boys doing some really cool techniques I just felt I really loved it. And after I could successfully get those steps that feeling is awesome!

Marcus Morelli (Senior Artist): I started dancing at the age of 10 after many years of being ‘dragged’ to my sister’s ballet classes/competitions. After lots of encouragement from them and the teacher, I finally gave it a go just so they’d stop telling me to give it a try. Clearly something grabbed me from that first class, as I never stopped going back. I owe my decision to start ballet to my two wonderful sisters as without them, who knows what I’d be doing?

What does it take to be a dancer of your calibre?

Marcus Morelli (Senior Artist): To be a dancer of this calibre, you not only need to be physically adept but your mental fortitude has to match. The physical challenges of ballet are immense, there is always more to learn every day, but you need to be resilient on the inside as we all face rejection, self-doubt, and injury. On top of these qualities, the artist inside needs to be present because at the end of the day we’re here to tell stories and hopefully make our audiences feel something. Yichuan Wang (Corps de Ballet Dancer): Limitless patience. Always be able to push yourself hundred percent. Not only physically strong but also mentally. Cristiano Martino (Senior Artist): It takes a lot of hard work! Ballet is absolutely about being a good dancer but it’s also about being smart and mentally aware. I think to be a professional ballet dancer you need to be resilient & tenacious. We’re always learning & growing as artists & dancers and never really stop. But so much of that development goes on behind the scenes or in your own time before an audience sees the final product on stage & it’s not always easy. Jill Ogai (Soloist): A thirst and desire to constantly learn, listen and practice. Then the ability to trust your instincts and yourself when you perform. It takes a balance of the two for ballet because there always has to be the pursuit of perfection when it comes to technique, but the ability to show your personality when you’re performing, because that’s what audiences connect to. Isobelle Dashwood (Corps de Ballet Dancer): There is an incredible amount of hard work that goes into each day to maintain our strength, technique and quality of movement but I really believe that without passion and a hunger for this art form and respect for the past and future progressions within the industry, the hard work will only looks stiff and black and white. Ballet is colourful and full of so many opportunities for artists to thrive in their own individuality. I know that’s what I hope to achieve over my career and I’m continuously learning how to balance the black and white side of ballet with my own colour. Dancers that are impactful often have something special or unique to offer. As professionals we consistently work hard and have so much love for the art form and I think that’s what gets us to this point and keeps us going. Sharni Spencer (Soloist): It’s a fine balance as to what it takes to be a professional dancer! I think it’s a real mix of things that need to come together. Things like the right body proportions and anatomical attributes to allow you to execute ballet movements and be able to create nice lines, co-ordination and the ability to control movement, musicality, a stage presence and on top of all that a passion for dancing and mental grittiness! Most of us trained from a very young age, so I think the right training foundations and an interest from an early age helps to mould you.

What is your career highlight so far?

Sharni Spencer (Soloist): I’ve got some really special memories, one recently was dancing Alice in Alice in Wonderland this year. It is such a huge ballet and there is a lot going on for Alice the entire time. I’d covered the role for a couple of years and really loved the way Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography felt, especially some of the pas de deux. I was lucky enough to dance with the lovely Chris Rogers Wilson and I felt like we had a very similar feel and musicality which made dancing to Joby Talbots score a dream. It was an incredibly challenging role and a marathon of a ballet but I loved every minute. Isobelle Dashwood (Corps de Ballet Dancer): I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform the Lilac fairy in David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty in my second year. This role was so enjoyable to work on and I had never enjoyed a performance so much. It was really special to feel calm and go on stage enjoying the performance rather than stressing about what could go wrong. I also had the chance to perform the queen of the Willis this year which was extremely challenging but a dream role of mine. The character is so strong and commanding with a really interesting and heartbreaking back story that I loved diving into. I think just going onstage each night with my friends and colleagues and creating the magic that helps an audience escape is constantly a highlight for me. Jill Ogai (Soloist): Dancing a piece called ‘Unspoken Dialogues’ in New York earlier this year. It was created on two ex-principal dancers of the Australian Ballet (Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers), and I was lucky enough to dance it, and dance it with current principal dancer, Kevin Jackson. Only a handful of dancers have ever danced the piece, and it was a huge accomplishment for me. Cristiano Martino (Senior Artist): I’ve probably got two so far. Dancing the role of Oberon in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream in my third year in the company. It’s probably been one of my favourite roles so far & I really hope it comes back so I can give it a go again but this time hopefully much less nervous & terrified. The other would be making my Albrecht debut in our Giselle season in Sydney earlier this year. It was a bit of a stressful time as my shoulder had just dislocated on stage in the season before but we tweaked one lift & Benedicte & I did it! They’re probably some of the most enjoyable shows I’ve done in my entire career. It’s a ballet I’ve loved for so long and I honestly didn’t think I’d really ever get the chance to dance it. Perhaps it was because I was so stressed about my shoulder falling out again I didn’t worry about the steps I just had the best time telling the beautiful but tragic story and looking into Benes eyes! Yichuan Wang (Corps de Ballet Dancer): I always think the next performance will be better than before. Marcus Morelli (Senior Artist): In my career so far I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to perform some fantastic leading roles, but my favourite to date would be Spartacus. That ballet holds a special place in my heart as it was the first leading role I danced, but also because the drama in the ballet is so human, the story is so real, and when I was out there onstage telling that story it sweeps you up until I forgot where I was.

The Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards comprises two categories: the Telstra Rising Star winner is awarded a cash prize of $20,000 and the Telstra People’s Choice Award winner receives a $5,000 cash prize. The Telstra Rising Star Award winner is decided by a panel of judges from Telstra and The Australian Ballet and the People’s Choice Award winner is decided by you! Both Awards are announced at the end of the Opening Night performance of The Nutcracker at the Sydney Opera House on 30 November 2019. We invite you to cast your vote to decide the next rising star of The Australian Ballet and to reward one of these exciting young dancers for their dedication, skill and grace. You can visit our Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards website to view videos of our finalists, before casting your all-important vote. Votes can be cast via the website, or by texting the dancer’s first name to 0484 BALLET. Voting closes on 17 November 2019.