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Southern Stars

Three dancers of the Australian Ballet met on a recent Monday afternoon in Melbourne for a photo shoot, and giggles, lots of giggles. Meet Isobelle Dashwood, corps de ballet, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, soloist, and Amy Harris, senior artist. Photographed by Taylor-Ferné Morris with dancewear and styling by Keto.

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

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Isobelle Dashwood, the Australian Ballet. Photograph by Taylor-Ferné Morris

You could say that Isobelle Dashwood, 20, has dancing in her blood. From a family of dancers, Dashwood has four siblings who share her love of movement and her mother, a former dancer, was her first ballet teacher. Now in her second year in the corps de ballet with the Australian Ballet, the ravishing Dashwood is coming into her own.

Originally from Toowoomba, Queensland, her family moved to the cooler climes of Victoria when Dashwood's dancing became more than an after school activity. “I think I was 13 when I really couldn’t think of doing anything else; and I didn’t look back from there.”

At 15, she joined the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, and finished three years of full-time training before being selected to join the company. In spite of her pedigree the appointment came as a surprise.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all because I’m a very tall dancer. I was expecting to have to go overseas,” the soft-spoken Dashwood says.

She recalls the day it was decided. After a year of observation in the classroom, and always being 'on,' the graduating class perform a final concert in September. Post-curtain the students are interviewed one by one, to determine their future with the company. “It was nerve wracking but cool,” she remembers. “You get sweaty nervous as all the work you’ve done culminates in one interview, one conversation with another human being that can change your life.”

At 5'10" Dashwood is the tallest woman in the Australian Ballet. As a young dancer, she admired Olivia Bell, former Australian Ballet principal dancer. “It was nice to see tall dancers can make it and to see someone who had similar qualities and strive to be like that.”

In her first year, she joined the Dancers Company, the Australian Ballet's touring company, for a national tour of artistic director David McAllister's “Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty” a children's ballet based on the Tchaikovsky classic.

“It was a great experience. We did 104 shows altogether, sometimes three shows a day, touring around Australia. I got to dance Aurora and the Lilac Fairy which was amazing as I was fresh out of school. Good for my confidence as well.”

“I’m still very new as a professional dancer,” Dashwood adds, “but I found doing those roles last year that I loved the artistry side of it. I found the story-telling part really rewarding; just going on stage and becoming someone else and giving the audience an escape.”

Escapes came in other forms too. Free from the rigmarole of her school days, Dashwood has been adjusting to the independence of company life. “The freedom of not wearing a uniform everyday, and having a bit more say on what you need for your body, because it's your art.

“You have to find who you are in ballet, which is different because my whole life it’s been the structure. You go to class and wear the uniform, put your hair in a bun—but now the only thing that’s constant is your technique.”

Chris Rodgers-Wilson. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

For soloist Chris Rodgers-Wilson, dance has taken him around the world and back again. Born in England, Rodgers-Wilson grew up in Melbourne before returning to the U.K. to train at the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden.

He was first drawn to the world of ballet as many of us were, via the TV. “[My parents] had video tapes of the Australian Ballet and the Royal Ballet that I used to watch on repeat. The whole idea of what was going on up there on stage, what was behind the scenes and the story, the whole theatrical side of it fascinated me.”

He started lessons at the local dance school in Camberwell. “It felt pretty natural straight away and it was really fun.” By the year's end, Rodgers-Wilson was decided: “I knew that was what I wanted to do—to be on stage, dancing.”

In his early teens, however, he took a break from the rigours of the ballet classroom. “When I went to high school, I stopped dancing completely for a couple of years. There was so much else on offer in terms of sport and music and drama that I wanted to try. And just being a teenager, and ballet being so disciplined, my patience wasn’t a strong point so I let it go for a while.

“I ended up going to see Graeme Murphy’s “Swan Lake” and I got all upset and said, 'I need to do that again.'”

With his sights set on the prestigious Royal Ballet School, Rodgers-Wilson realised he had his work cut out. “I was aware of being fairly behind, as I was 15 when I started again. I had a lot of work to do. But my teachers were really keen for me to try to audition for an overseas school.” Gailene Stock, the Australian ballerina and educator was the then director of the Royal Ballet School. “She ended up being a really important mentor for me from the second I got there. She was always really encouraging and really honest about the reality of what you’re getting into.

“I’m so glad that our paths crossed that way,” he says of Stock, who passed away in 2014. “She was really clear about how hard I needed to work and what I needed to achieve, but also I think she had faith in me and saw potential, and gave me the chance to get there.”

His time at the Royal Ballet School gave him the lift he was seeking, in terms of expectation and inspiration. “It was really hard because it was such a big change, shifting from doing ballet after high school to going into full-time training; I was exhausted. I was super focused and determined to lift my game, and I had a strong year level,”—he counts Sergei Polunin amongst his classmates—“but it was an amazing year; it was awesome. I hadn’t been in a full boys class before, so it was incredible to see what was possible.”

Being exposed to the Royal Ballet's repertoire and dancing extra roles in company productions were also highlights of his time at the school. “Sylvie [Guillem] was still guesting, and Roberto Bolle, Tamara Rojo were dancing—it was inspiration saturation. It was brilliant,” he beams.

“I hadn’t thought that deeply about what would come next,” he admits, breaking into a grin. “I was lucky to get a job with Birmingham Royal Ballet early on in my graduating year with three others from my year level; so I took that and ran with it.”

Rodgers-Wilson danced with BRB for four years under the direction of David Bintley. Dancing in Peter Wright’s “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker" made an impression. “His productions are so clearn and pure; they do have something magical and grand about them.” In Bintley’s “Carmina Burana” he was cast as the First Semarian, a young, naive character. “It was a good time for that role to come my way,” he notes. “I’ve loved doing Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” both in BRB and here [at the Australian Ballet]—it’s really tiring but you really feel like you’re dancing for your life.”

The decision to return to Australia came with a hint of serendipity; having decided to live “somewhere where I had more balance outside of ballet—when I have a bit more work-life balance I feel I have more to give—you do have to live outside to live onstage,” he says, Australia seemed like the natural choice. “It so happened that Tzu-Chao Chou, who used to be with the company, was moving to Birmingham, so we virtually swapped.”

He joined the Australian Ballet in 2011, and two years later he won the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, Australia's most prestigious prize for dancers, and was promoted to coryphée. His second promotion to soloist came in 2016. The soloist work has him “more inspired and focused, and aiming higher. The more solo and principal work you do the more you are aware of what is needed to really fly in those roles.”

“In solo work,” he adds, “the freedom to dance your dance is so cool, but I love partnering as well.” He pauses to consider. “It's such an incredible experience that you share with another person that you don’t always have to speak; it's sensory and different with everyone. It is like a relationship—you do share a love together for each other and for what you’re doing, and that’s so beautiful.”

“It is like a relationship—you do share a love together for each other and for what you’re doing, and that’s so beautiful.”

Rodgers-Wilson names Count Albrecht as a role he aspires to dance. ““Giselle”—it’s so old, and it might be misconstrued as a dusty old thing but it’s so transcendent in the story. It’s heartbreaking and tragic, but what I love about it is that as awful as the situation is that they find themselves at the end of Act I, unlike in real life, they do get to be with each other once more in this otherworldly experience. There is a catharsis and resolution in that; there’s a consolation to it, even if it’s not a happy ending.”

Amy Harris and Chris Rodgers-Wilson. Photograph by Taylor-Ferne Morris

In “Faster,” David Bintley's Olympics-inspired ballet, Amy Harris dances the role of the Fighters. The pas de deux comes in the second movement, and Harris describes the role as “quite gruelling,” adding, “I had a ball.” Harris, a senior artist in her 16th year with the Australian Ballet, with a broad smile and sparkling eyes, it would seem, is having a ball.

“Faster,” currently on stage at the Sydney Opera House until April 26, is the title piece of the company's mixed bill, featuring Australian Ballet resident choreographer Tim Harbour's new ballet, “Squander and Glory," and Wayne McGregor's "Infra."

Harris counts McGregor's work amongst her fondest. “It's incredible, you’re mind-blown every time you work with him.

“I love the way he sets up a rehearsal—we talk about what we want to do, and how we want to take risks; we talk about a lot of things before we go on, rather than always doing. I think it’s a really nice tool.”

In "Infra,” (2008) a haunting ballet mapping complex human relations, Harris is cast in the final pas de deux. Having watched the entire ballet from the wings, she says, “you're bringing the last bit of hope,” repeating McGregor's words to her. “The audience gets a bit teary,” she says. “I feel really lucky to be a part of a small cast, and part of this ballet.”

McGregor's work holds a place in her heart for more personal reasons, too. In 2014, Harris was set to dance McGregor's “Chroma.” With its nothing-to-the-imagination costumes, the then pregnant Harris decided to step aside. “I don’t know what it is about the Australian Ballet, but we all seem to end up getting pregnant when we’re wearing next to nothing onstage!”

Which, at the Australian Ballet, means a chance to pitch in in other ways. “[The Australian Ballet] has set up ‘safe duties’ so you can still be a part of the company,” she explains. “I chose to go into the philanthropy side of things and company management, which was incredible. You know what goes into an overseas tour and raising money, but I realised that I knew only a small part of the ‘other’ side of the company.”

The Australian Ballet implemented a groundbreaking parental leave and family policy in 2007, offering dancers generous leave, travel assistance on tours, and medical support in preparing to return to the stage. The policy has been so successful that the Australian Ballet is experiencing an unprecedented ballet baby boom all of its own.

Harris, together with husband, fellow dancer Jarryd Madden, enjoyed some family time with their new addition, before looking to return to the stage. With lessons in patience coming from Willow, Harris took each day as it came. “From the beginning, I went to lift my leg, and thought how am I going to get it back up there? I’d taken it for granted.”

She returned for a season of “In The Upper Room,” Twyla Tharp's sneaker ballet. “I literally jogged all the excess off!” she laughs.

“The company is so supportive in returning. Willow has her time in the studio, which can break the tension sometimes. Being a mum is so much like ballet—you’re continually learning and it’s never the same one day to the next.”

“It’s been an amazing two years; it makes me feel gooey inside. I love being a ballerina and a mum and all it brings,” she says warmly, adding, “some days you feel a lot fresher than others!”

Aside from Willow, “career highlights,” she muses, “it might not necessarily be the lead; it might be the memory, or the time in your life when something really sat well with you. Off the top of my head is “Nijinsky” where I got to play Romola.”

“Nijinsky,” John Neumeier's 2006 homage to the dance legend Vaslav Nijinsky, opened in Melbourne in 2016. “You have to be prepared for anything—I was third cast and then ended up dancing on opening night. It was quite something. I never thought I would love it so much.”

“Dancing Romola was really raw. I think people saw me in a completely different light, which is always really nice that that can still happen so far into your career. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Slated to reprise the role in Sydney in November, a sudden injury put her out for the remainder of the season. “It was a definite full stop,” she says. “In my sixteen years in the company, I’ve been lucky. The longest I’ve ever had off was the year off when I had Willow.

“When I was younger, I felt like rehab was stopping my career. I thought I’m not on stage doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but I really kind of enjoyed it this time. I’m still getting a lot out of it; you have the time to iron out little things, change things here and there.

“I don’t always like saying that you have to find a silver lining, but I did, I found the silver lining.”

Back under lights and loving it, Harris is feeling revitalised. “When I returned to stage, it was like, yes, this is a feeling you do not get anywhere else. ”

“There's a comfort in the studio—when you step on stage there’s not the same comfort. The anxiety, or stress and nerves; it puts fire in my belly.” It wasn't always the case. “My mum laughs because I used to do dance competitions and we’d drive all the way there, we’d get ready, doing the hair etc., and I wouldn’t go on stage. Now you can’t get me off the stage.

“There’s just something about being onstage—I love it. I don’t want to think about the day that it’s not there. But even from the other side of the curtain, it’s never not going to be a part of my life.”

The Australian Ballet presents “Faster” at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, New South Wales, April 7-26, 2017.

Penelope Ford

Penelope is the founding editor of Fjord Review, international magazine of dance and ballet. Penelope graduated from Law and Arts with majors in philosophy and languages from the University of Melbourne, Australia, before turning to the world of dance. She lives in Italy.



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