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Reaching for the Stars

The Telstra Ballet Dancer Award is an annual competition that recognises rising talent within the Australian Ballet. Each year, a handful of nominees have the chance to win the Rising Star, or People's Choice Award, accolades respectively accompanied by a purse of $25,000 and $15,000. Telstra has been a longtime partner of the Australian Ballet and has sponsored the award for two decades, seeing many a prizewinner and nominee rise to principal rank.

Isobelle Dashwood, the Australian Ballet. Photograph by Taylor Ferne Morris

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This week at the Sydney Opera House, Fjord Review sat down with one of the 2023 nominees, soloist Isobelle Dashwood to talk about her nomination. We also talked about her incredible family of dancers, her views on body image, and the pressures, and fears that accompany recognition within a ballet company. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CL: Can you explain what the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award is?

ID: The Telstra Ballet Dancer Award is the biggest, most prestigious award in ballet in Australia. Every year past winners, principal dancers and artistic staff choose five or six nominees, and then from those nominees, the artistic staff choose the Rising Star Award and the public pick the People’s Choice Award.

CL: So it’s only open to dancers from the Australian Ballet?

ID: Yes. It’s an in-company award, so just dancers from the Australian Ballet are involved. [Being nominated] is such a lovely recognition of hard work.

CL: This award is nominated in part by your peers. Does that place pressure on you to rise within the company?

ID: I think ballet is generally not, maybe as a professional, as competitive as it might seem—at least that’s my experience. I know as a student, for me, it felt a lot more competitive, but once I got into a company it felt more like a family, and you have a sense of team work. They really are a second family, we are very close, so I think [the award] feels more like support, a boost of confidence for you—we see you working really hard.

CL: So a positive rather than a competitive experience?

ID: Exactly. But there is also pressure too. The light is kind of shining a bit brighter on you throughout the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award campaign, and so you do feel like you want to prove that you deserve [the nomination]. That is something that is my downfall, always trying to prove that I deserve to be here. But I’m here, and I’m doing it.

Isobelle Dashwood. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

CL: In 2021 you received a promotion from corps de ballet straight to soloist, skipping the rank of coryphée. Has that ever happened before?

ID: I’m sure it’s happened in other places but no it’s never happened at the Australian Ballet as far as I’m aware. When [Artistic Director David Hallberg] called my name out, I assumed I’d be promoted to coryphée, and then at the end he said I’d been promoted to soloist, and I was really shocked but just so honoured and grateful to have that recognition.

CL: Had you been in the corps de ballet long?

ID: Yeah, I had been. It was my sixth year. Obviously with Covid, there was a year away from the stage. I had been featured in a few things at that point, which was amazing, but a promotion— everyone wants to feel like they have that recognition.

CL: To validate your work?

ID: Exactly. I think at that point I had tried to tell myself, “just keep working hard, it doesn’t matter, you’re out there doing the work so that’s really what matters.” Then when I got that recognition, it felt amazing, but along with that, especially with skipping a rank, I think I put a lot more pressure on myself. After the promotion I was like, do I deserve to be here?

CL: Having spent some years in the corps de ballet, do you get into the mindset that maybe you'll spend your career in the corps?

ID: Yeah. I think people do. And I just want to say that having a career in the corps is amazing, it’s incredible. You’ve made into the Australian Ballet, or whatever company and that may be, and that is something to be so proud of; you’ve made it. But I think when you’ve been in the corps a long time, it does start to play on your mind. But you have to try not to think like that, you still might get promoted after being there for a long time.

CL: Amy Harris spent nearly a decade in the corps de ballet before rising to principal.

ID: Yes! And now she’s one of the most amazing principal dancers. So I guess everyone’s path is different, and that’s the main thing to take away, that you can’t compare yourself to other people and it’s really hard to do in this industry, like you said, it can be competitive, but some of my best memories were being in the corps. I miss the change-room dynamic and being on stage every night and doing so much work that you’re exhausted. They were really beautiful moments and memories.

CL: Oh wow.

ID: Most of my friends are in the corps de ballet, so when I was promoted I was like, everything’s changing. I was with the soloists, and a lot of them are older than me, but it’s been really amazing getting to know those girls better and spending more time with them. I’m so inspired by them as dancers, and we share the same roles and every day it motivates me to continue to push.

CL: You come from a ballet family; your mum is a ballet teacher, is that right? And I know you’re one of five children. Is everyone involved in dance?

ID: It’s a big ballet family. My dad, while he’s the most lovely man, he’s not that graceful [laughs] but yes mum is a ballet teacher! Three of my siblings are involved in the dance Industry. So my beautiful sister Emily is a Nurse at Royal Children’s Hospital and she’s just the best person I know. Sammy is working at the Sydney Dance Company in the Education Department, and my two younger siblings, Charlie, just got into West Australian Ballet and Lily Sophia has just started training at the Royal Ballet School in London. So there is a lot of ballet going on.

During [Covid] lockdown, my younger siblings, my mum, and I were in the same house and we had to write schedules up to say who could use what space when. On Saturday mornings I’d wake up to ballet music booming through my mum’s computer and I’d be like, I need to get out of here and go for a walk! If you walked into our house on any day in 2020, you would just think we’re crazy, but it was also really beautiful too. My mum just loved watching us take class at home, and she’d be teaching kids online. It was quite beautiful, and a time that we got to spend together that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. We talk about it often, actually, how grateful we are; we look back with very fond memories .

Isobelle Dashwood. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

CL: And if you had any advice for aspiring young dancers, what would it be?

ID: I think for me I was often told my height was something would or could be an issue, and so I would say don’t listen when people say you don’t have the right type of body to be a dancer.

CL: Can I ask how tall you are?

ID: I am just over 5' 10" . . . and then add pointe shoes to that and I’m over 6-foot, so I’m pretty tall. But now I wouldn’t have it any other way, I love being tall. But I have had my moments with my height where I’m like, it’s really just hard to be this height.

CL: And just to finish, what would it mean to you to win the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award?

ID: It would be just such an honour. It already is, just to be nominated, but I think it provides another boost of confidence that you’re on the right track.

The 2023 nominees for the Telstra Ballet Dance of the Year are: Adam Elmes, Isobelle Dashwood, Lilla Harvey, Katherine Sonnekus, Riley Lapham. To vote for your favourite dancer head to Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards here.

Claudia Lawson

Claudia Lawson is a dance critic based in Sydney, Australia, writing regularly for ABC Radio National, ABC Arts, and Fjord Review. After graduating with degrees in Law and Forensic Science, Claudia worked as a media lawyer for the ABC, FOXTEL and the BBC in London, where she also co-founded Street Sessions dance company. Returning to Sydney, Claudia studied medicine and now works as a doctor. She is the host of the award-winning Talking Pointes Podcast.



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