We recently caught up with Isabella Walsh, newly promoted to corps de ballet with San Francisco Ballet, to talk about her year as a company apprentice. Photographs by Karolina Kuras, dresses by Louiza Babouryan.
Of dancing in the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s“Frankenstein,” Isabella Walsh notes, “it’s kind of a sad ballet, but really interesting. It’s like nothing I’ve done before.” Walsh, who joined the company in 2016 as an apprentice and is newly promoted to corps de ballet, is getting used to traversing new ground.
And it doesn’t faze her one bit. Originally from Palos Verdes, Los Angeles County, Walsh moved to San Francisco aged 15 to join San Francisco Ballet School. “I was so ready to be on my own. I’ve always been more independent, and my family is so supportive, and Los Angeles is close so I didn’t feel anything drastic was happening; only exciting things, only things I could handle.”
From an athletic family, Walsh’s mother is a nutritionist and former Olympic Taekwondo athlete, and her father is an avid skier, the young Walsh was encouraged in various outdoorsy activities from skiing to horse riding, but it was ballet that became her passion. “It was just something that I loved to do. I felt so drawn to it, so I stuck with it.”
After a successful showing at Youth American Grand Prix in New York, making it to the final round, Walsh participated in San Francisco Ballet School’s summer intensive, where she was invited to join the school’s year round program. For her, it was a natural fit.
“I loved being in a classroom. I loved the uniformity of it all, the discipline. I feel like it was harder for me to let go of all that and just be free,” Walsh says, noting that the jump from school to the company requires a rapid adjustment.
She joined the trainee program at SFB School, dancing parts in Helgi Tomasson’s “Swan Lake” and John Cranko’s “Onegin,” which “kind of gives you a taste of what its like to be in the company.” Typically trainees spend two years in the program before being considered for company positions, and so at the end of year one when artistic director Helgi Tomasson selected her as an apprentice, it took her by surprise.
“You need to make a quick transition into becoming not so academic and something more of an artist. I think that’s the hardest part for an apprentice is finding your individuality while keeping everything classical.
“What’s really different is in the school you have people looking out for you, watching you progress and giving you constant corrections. All of that goes away instantly when you join the company. No one’s babysitting you; you may not even get a correction daily.”
For the astute apprentice dancer, it’s a process of watch and learn. “You have to find a different eye for yourself. You look around in the company, with so many beautiful artists, and you should take from them. I’m a tall dancer, so I study what the tall dancers do and apply it myself.”
As for dancers to look up to, there is no shortage of role models at SFB. Principal dancer Sofiane Sylve gets a nod in particular. “I look up to her for everything. She’s a perfect technician, perfect artist. Everything’s always spot on.”
As for her own style, Walsh describes it as lyrical classicism. “My training was Russian and Cuban,” she says, adding, “I find that I’m more of a classical dancer. I love neoclassical pieces, but I’m kind of long limbed and I see myself more in classical pieces.”
Aside from the challenges of adapting to company life, the role of an apprentice can be a physically gruelling one. “Apprentices have to cover so many people; sometimes learning three spots even if the chances of going on are not likely, you still have to know the part. If you’re under-rehearsed you might have to go and watch some videos to learn it; homework, if you will.”
Walsh makes taking care of her body a priority. “I feel like its so important to cross train. It’s equally important as actual ballet. I take pilates, gyrotonics hot yoga, things that are more parallel to ballet and let you strengthen your internal as well as your external rotators because if you’re not even, your body will overcompensate and something will start hurting.”
She adds, “I think it’s important to keep the body itself fit, not just being ballet-capacitated, but able to do other movements as well.”
The annual “Nutcracker” put her through her paces: Walsh reels off the parts: Party scene, Snow, Flowers—33 shows. “The most important thing before going on stage, and that you can rely on if anything goes wrong, is having your abdominals activated.” More advice: say a prayer, and book a holiday. “I grew up going to church, so I always like to set a little prayer for everything to go well. I recovered with a trip to Hawaii!”
Other highlights of her apprentice year include working with William Forsythe. Forsythe reset “Pas/Parts 2016” on SFB having originally choreographed the ballet for Paris Opera Ballet in 1999. “Just listening to “Pas/Parts” makes me want to get up and start improvising.”
A budding choreographer in the midst? “I let the music go inside of me, and I move around slowly until something looks like something and then you just keep moving.” Clarifying, “I’ve always loved making up things, but it’s important to become a more put-together dancer before a choreographer.” She says from experience: “Last year we tried a choreography session, and I found it gruelling and difficult because we were also doing a season of “Swan Lake.” I’d love to choreograph one day but I need to do one thing at a time.”
Living in San Francisco, Walsh admits she’s more of a city-girl but takes advantage of the environment. “On days off I love to go to hot yoga, just to keep my body moving. I also love going to the beach, going hiking and getting outside, looking at the sky without looking directly up through all the buildings.”
Stepping into a company of seasoned, world-class dancers tests the spirit as much as the body. Walsh’s approach is to dance who you are. “There’s always someone who you feel is better than you; but it’s really the wrong way of looking at it. Everyone is a different dancer, there’s so much room for new artistry and new dancers. If you’re looking at ballet as an athletic artform then its going to be very competitive, but if you look at it that everyone is unique and you’re all there in the same classroom, then it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a way you can support each other.”