MEET OUR RISING STARS

Posted on 01 October 2019 By Rose Mulready

The six nominees for the 2019 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award - Isobelle Dashwood, Sharni Spencer, Yichuan Wang, Jill Ogai, Marcus Morelli and Cristiano Martino - sat down with us to talk most challenging roles, favourite costumes, funniest moments on stage and more.

Did you know that you can vote for your favourite dancer(s) in the People's Choice Award? Let them feel the love! 

CRISTIANO MARTINO

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

One of the most physically and technically challenging roles I’ve done is Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. When I was in my third year at The Australian Ballet, we did a triple bill of Ashton ballets: Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream. I was in all three ballets, and dancing the lead role of Oberon. I was exhausted but I absolutely loved it! I don’t think we’ve done a season since that I’ve loved as much. Each of those ballets, especially Symphonic Variations and The Dream, will always hold a special place in my heart.

Funniest moment on stage?

When you’re doing a long season of a ballet, a shared glance between you and your best mate from opposite sides of the stage can be enough to tip you over the edge. In Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella earlier this year, I was sharing the stage with three of my best girlfriends. I was the Prince and Lisa Craig, Jessica Wood and Jasmin Durham were Cinderella’s Stepmother and Stepsisters. They had me in stitches in the rehearsal studio and there were definitely moments when it was challenging to keep a straight face on stage because they were totally awesome and hilarious. Those are some of the best parts of the job, getting on stage with the people you love and just having the best time. They’re the unforgettable moments!

What is your favourite costume, and why?

It would probably be the white suit that the Prince wears in Cinderella. With the exception of the unforgiving full-sole jazz shoe, it really made me feel the part and I loved it. A close second would be the Wolf in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. It’s almost a bit Dracula-esque and it had an epic cape, which I loved swooshing around in on stage! Total cape-ography!

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

It’s completely impossible for me to sit still so I don’t think I could ever have a desk job. But I’ve always been passionate about cooking, and baking in particular. I would love to do a patisserie course and work in a kitchen – anything to do with food, actually. Otherwise, to scratch the itch of my restless energy, I’d love to be a personal trainer or do something in the fitness industry, because exercise endorphins are real!

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers, or to a younger you?

I’d probably say don’t be so hard on yourself, and work smarter, not necessarily harder. I spent so long wanting every little thing I did to be perfect and getting angry when it wasn’t, not acknowledging that technical perfection is just one of the many goals we strive for in ballet. At the end of the day some people don’t care if you can do seven pirouettes or how high your leg is, they just want to get swept up in a story or watch you move to the beautiful music. Ballet is completely subjective and you might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s totally fine. It’s absolutely still about striving to be the best you can be, but also about being kind to yourself along the way.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

That’s a tough question! I’ve been really fortunate in my career so far to have ticked off some amazing roles that I honestly never thought I’d get the chance to dance. But des Grieux in Manon is a bucket-list role for me, and so is Siegfried in Swan Lake. I also would love to dance Espada in the Nureyev version of Don Quixote. I remember watching Andrew Killian as Espada and Amy Harris as the Street Dancer in my first year with the company, and every time it was their cast I would sit in the wings to watch, totally wrapped up in their chemistry and awesome performances. In terms of partners I’m not really sure I have a dream one, I’ve shared the stage with lots of incredible ballerinas whom I really admire and will hopefully continue to do so!

Cristiano as Oberon in The Dream. Photography Kate Longley

MARCUS MORELLI

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

It would have to be the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, and Spartacus. The Prince has a lot of partnering to do and is quite a physical challenge to get through, whereas Spartacus is still very physical but the challenge is much more mental and emotional.

Funniest moment on stage?

Misty Copeland was dancing her first show with us in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty in 2017. I was performing the Bluebird and right at the very end I fell out of a tour onto my bum and had to quickly think of a way to keep going. It was very embarrassing, but when I look back now it gives me a great laugh!

What is your favourite costume, and why?

One of my favourite costumes is the Duke from Act II of David’s Sleeping Beauty. It’s very debonair, and the coat just feels cool to dance in. However, the best costumes are always the ones that help you truly feel like you are that character.

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

I think I’d gravitate towards journalism, or something to do with video games. Those are things I could still be creative with. Writing has always interested me, and video games can 100% be an art form if you know where to look.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers, or to a younger you?

Stay resilient. This industry can be brutal and unforgiving, and not everyone you meet will be on board with this lifestyle. You have to remember what means the most to you and not allow anyone else’s thoughts or opinions to stop you from dancing, if that’s what you want to do.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

Two of my (many) dream roles would be Romeo from Romeo and Juliet and des Grieux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon. I’d be a lucky man to dance these roles with any ballerina, but I’d love the challenge of partnering Robyn Hendricks (who is taller than me en pointe), of whom I am a huge fan. I have also had many opportunities to dance with my fellow Senior Artist Jade Wood in less serious roles, and it would be great fun to tackle a more dramatic story together.

Marcus Morelli as the Bluebird in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. Photography Jeff Busby

JILL OGAI

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

Unspoken Dialogues by Stephen Baynes. I danced it earlier this year in New York with Kevin Jackson. It’s a 17-minute pas de deux about a couple who can’t live with or without each other. It’s physically demanding, because of the length, and it took a lot of trust between Kevin and I to make all the partnering work. Artistically, it was even more challenging because the mood and acting had to be so nuanced for the piece to work. I had never danced anything so mature and real before, and I loved stepping up to the challenge.

Funniest moment on stage?

Dancing the Dumpy Stepsister in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella.

What is your favourite costume, and why?

I love the costumes from Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. I wore a striped pyjama top and a striped tennis skirt with red pointe shoes. As the piece went on we stripped off the ‘pyjamas’ to a little red dress that was worn underneath. So cute and so easy to dance in!

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

I’ve always loved fashion, textiles, design and the visual arts. The dream would be to open a little boutique where I could design and tailor clothes for women, and maybe stock some ready-to-wear too.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers, or a younger you?

To trust yourself and to always remember why you started dancing. Even though steps can be difficult, muscles can get sore, pressure can get high, it should always feel good, and always feel like dancing.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

Probably Kitri from Don Quixote - so much allegro and vivacity. My dream partner for that would be [former Principal Artist] Daniel Gaudiello, it would be an absolute hoot. I’ve always admired his charisma and showmanship.

Jill dancing Unspoken Dialogues with Kevin Jackson at the Joyce Theater, New York. Photography Justin Ridler

YICHUAN WANG

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

The Lead Pontevedrian from Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. The steps in the solo are all on my bad side, so it’s hard to find the coordination. It also takes a lot of stamina!

Funniest moment on stage?

In Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus, I was one of the noblemen who gets drowned in a bathtub by the rebel slaves. A couple of the rebel dancers picked up the bottles the nobles had been ‘drinking’ from and tucked them under my arms. I had to hold my dead pose without laughing!  

What is your favourite costume and why?

I like the tutu that Aurora wears in Act III of David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. It’s simple, but just so beautiful and luxurious.

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

I’d want to be a voice actor for anime.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers, or a younger you?

No pain, no gain. Always push yourself to the limit.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

I’d love to dance Albrecht in Giselle with Marianela Núñez from The Royal Ballet.

Yichuan as the Frog Footman in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photography Jeff Busby

SHARNI SPENCER

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

I think dancing a General of the Nymph Army in Stanton Welch's Sylvia this year was a really great challenge for me. It’s a very strong, powerful role with dynamic jumps; I’m naturally a very controlled adagio dancer with lyrical qualities, which is great for some things but not in this instance. I really had to work hard on this role, on how to hold my head and body differently, on my eyeline, on clipping some movements while throwing others away. It was initially very tiring to dance in this way and felt absolutely terrible, but after performing it more I really started to enjoy it! I’ve found another side to my dancing, and I feel that’s helped me add a new dimension to my performances.

Funniest moment on stage? 

It was during a show of Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace. My partner was Calvin Hannaford (I always had trouble keeping a straight face with him at the best of times) and Daniel Gaudiello, as the Cupid, had to swing me around and fling me onto Calvin. That night he flung me with extra gusto and I sent Calvin stumbling backwards into the scenery, with me clinging on for dear life around his middle like a koala. To make matters worse our costumes then became entangled; all we could hear while I was trying to regain my feet and my composure was ripping buttons and fabrics. We were in tears and convulsing with trying not to laugh out loud. We still have a good laugh remembering that moment!

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

I like the idea of working in an office but I just can’t sit still for long enough! It would definitely have to be something that kept me active.

What advice would you give to young aspiring dancers, or a younger you?

Work with passion, honesty and integrity, only good can come from that and you will be happy knowing you are doing the best that you can each day. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself. I’ve realised that when I’m truly happy and enjoying myself, that's when I dance and perform at my best.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

That’s a really tough question! There’s so many I would love to perform and so many amazing partners. I really love the classics. I would love to dance Manon or Juliet. I’d also really love to perform Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain©. The music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, is just so beautiful, and the music is always a big factor for me.

Sharni as a Nymph General in Sylvia. Photography Lynette Wills

ISOBELLE DASHWOOD

What’s been your most challenging role, and why?

I was fortunate enough to perform the Queen of the Wilis in Giselle earlier this year, which is a dream role of mine. The character herself is so layered, with a heartbreaking past that makes her vengeful and relentless. On top of that, the dancing is extremely technically and physically challenging. I really enjoyed diving into this role and discovering that power within myself and indulging in the expression of a personality quite far from my own.

Funniest moment on stage?

I had one just recently in our season of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker. The corps was waiting in the wings to go on in the Snowflake scene. The Snowflake costumes have these spiked headdresses and mine got caught in the netting of the wing next to my head. I was the leader of my line and had to go on stage. I ended up yanking on the netting, very ungracefully, to free myself so the line wouldn’t domino onto me ... There are so many moments on stage when things don’t quite go to plan. But I always just love that we get the giggles and the more you have to hold it back, the funnier it gets!

What is your favourite costume and why?

I absolutely love the Lilac Fairy tutu from David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, which I’ve been fortunate enough to wear! It’s incredibly impressive in its detail and the colours are so beautiful. It also has some great memories of my first solo role on stage, from my second year with the company, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a performance so much or felt so much love and support.

Photography Daniel Boud

If you weren’t a dancer, what would your dream career be?

I hope I’d still be doing something creative and inspiring. I’m so grateful that my job is something I’m passionate about, so it never feels like work. Choosing a different career is a daunting thought but I hope as I continue to experience things within my world right now, I am taken on new paths that I love as equally.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers, or a younger you?

Always be yourself. Own what makes you stand out and be proud of yourself. I know that I’m different to most dancers, being extremely tall, but I want to show others that that’s ok: it’s actually a really beautiful thing to be different. I think if people can have that mindset from a young age they will be able to give so freely, which will help them grow into their own unique style of dancer.

What would be your dream role, and which dream partner would you dance it with?

There are so many amazing roles I’d love to dance, it’s hard to choose just one. I’m very interested in Balanchine ballets and in the role of Nikiya from La Bayadère. I love long fluid movements and challenging myself to be more expressive, but also aim to make my movement faster and more dynamic.

Isobelle as the Queen of the Wilis. Photography Kate Longley