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    Isabella Gasparini 2019

    Isabella Gasparini & Romany Pajdak

    Soloists, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, October 18 2019

    After David’s welcome, our guests began by telling us how they got into ballet.

    Romany started at the age of 4 or 5 in the local leisure centre where she and her sister went for a half hour class every week. This continued for a couple of years until she was seven when she decided she didn’t want to dance but would rather be at home eating toast and watching TV. Later she went back to the local dance school. Her ballet teacher, Elizabeth Pomeroy, told her mother she thought Romany had something and they should explore options. So her mum did some research and found the Royal Ballet Junior Associates (JA) programme. She and her family went to Bristol for her audition, although they lived in London.  The kids all had perfectly sprayed hair and pink shoes, while Romany had red shoes and a black leotard and hair everywhere. She had fun and a couple of months later she was accepted. Romany remembered her first day at the studio in Baron’s Court, where the Company were still rehearsing. She was amazed at all those incredibly elegant, beautiful people with holes in their clothes and looking very glamorous, got the bug and thought it was something interesting for her to do. After that she went every Saturday. It was a combination of factors that attracted her.  She recalls the day exactly when she made the decision to be a dancer. It was Saturday 13 May 1995, she was nine, and she was prancing around the living room watching a video of Anthony Dowell’s production of Sleeping Beauty with Viviana Durante dancing Aurora and suddenly she knew she wanted to do that for ever. Her decision was made without any thought of her parents - she was determined to go to White Lodge. She passed the audition and went on to spend five years there. In those days it was quite open, an amazing building in Richmond Park, incredible to be somewhere where everyone has the same ethos, the same dream which is quite inspiring but it was very isolated.  It was very much driven towards the Royal Ballet Company only. She was very fortunate in getting on with all the teachers, starting with Shirley Graham and Christine Beckley. Gailene Stock took over when she went into the third year and there was a big change of syllabus, teachers and ethos. She felt very fortunate to have had a period with Dame Merle Park in charge before Gailene, so she enjoyed a bit of the old and the new regimes. Elizabeth Harrod was in her year which began with 23 of them, in Year 11 there were 12 girls but so many people were assessed out that finally just the three of them went from White Lodge to the Upper School. It was a year of very interesting people who all had strong ideas and there was a lot of interest in musical theatre.

    Isabella GaspariniIsabella, who is from Sao Paolo in Brazil, started dancing aged three and a half with her mum who was a dancer and has a ballet school. When she was 11, she went to a private Japanese teacher, Ms Kobayashi, who was quite tough and at 15 entered the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) and was awarded a scholarship. Her Japanese teacher didn’t seem to have had training in the Russian or Cecchetti style but watched lots of tapes so she took everything from them to make Isabella the best she could be. The teaching was normally one on one, or occasionally two girls. There’d be two hours of class followed by rehearsals till about 9 pm. She also went to an ordinary school for academic study. She lived a two-hour drive away from the private school and would eat and change in the car, driven by grandparents, and then go home to do her homework. Occasionally she even slept! She entered a competition in Brazil and, unbeknown to Isabella, they sent a video to New York and a couple of months later in 2001 she heard she’d been selected so went with her mum and four other dancers to New York for the YAGP. She was overwhelmed by so many talents and had no expectations and at 14 she was in the junior rank. You are given a choice of variations and Isabella danced Estrella from Carnavaland a contemporary solo which was choreographed for her. You go up to the semis, the finals and then the gala. She won the gold medal and a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, Stuttgart, American Ballet Theater and National Ballet of Canada. They chose Canada because the family knew a few people there. She was very young and her parents felt she needed someone to look out for her. They’d also heard good things about the school. The family made the decision though Isabella wasn’t even sure she wanted to leave home but as soon as she arrived in Toronto, she knew that’s what she wanted and where she wanted to be. The Canadian school had a lovely director who took care of her and gave her amazing opportunities. They had coaches from different places and she got to perform in school shows. It’s changed now but Isabella felt in her time there was too much academic work. They did classes till 12, had an hour for lunch, then ballet, pas de deux and variations, so not enough time for ballet. In her last year she couldn’t go out auditioning as she had to stay in school for the exams so she only auditioned for the home Company. She went to Canada aged 15 and stayed for four years. After three years of academics she graduated, did full time ballet training and then auditions. She wanted to come to Europe but doesn’t really know why except that there was a famous dancer in Brazil who went to the Royal Ballet and that impressed Isabella as she used to watch her on tapes. In school performances one year there was just Act II of La Sylphideand then they did the whole ballet, working very closely with the coach from Denmark. They also did some contemporary work. There was a week of shows with international performers coming in and there were people from the Royal Ballet, Hamburg and Stuttgart Schools, so Isabella was able to meet kids from other schools and countries.

    Romany found out in the March while doing GCSEs that she was going into the Upper School when suddenly she thought she’d rather go to Rambert. It was a reaction against being out of control of her career which seemed to be decided by other people. At the beginning of the third year she made a concerted effort to go auditioning to London Studio Centre, Rambert, and ENB. But when she found she’d been accepted by the Royal she decided she wanted to go there after all. There were a lot of people from outside at the Upper School. One with an extraordinary body that they’d never seen anything like who joined them in Romany’s 4th year so that was a first glimpse of what was outside. It wasn’t so much the other dancers that created the shock but the big change was rather in the teaching and pace of the classes that suddenly escalated.  Their first ballet class with Katia Zvelebilova they had an adage which included a penché of 16 count. From her year the only one remaining in the Company is Lizzie Harrod. Gailene introduced the three-year course, so it was ‘A’ levels for the first two years and the third year they focussed on repertoire and auditions. The academics were a hotchpotch.  The first year she did AS level in General Studies (quite ridiculous and rather a waste of time) and her choice which was English Literature. In the second year the BTech was introduced to replace General Studies to try to incorporate more of what they were doing in dance classes. It was a BTech in stage management but as far as Romany was concerned they were just given handouts and filed pieces of paper rather than doing anything constructive. School performances: the first year they did Concerto so it’s wonderful that it’s coming back this season (‘Look how far she’s come!’). It was taught at school by David Peden. The second year Cathy Marston made a piece for them, Summer Twinings, which was wonderful. It was made for three couples and that was when Steven McRae and Lizzie realised they fancied each other without actually saying so!

    The experience of being in the studio with Cathy Marston was mind blowing as it was their first time having a work made on them by a professional choreographer

    The experience of being in the studio with Cathy was mind blowing as it was their first time having a work made on them by a professional choreographer. Romany recalled Cathy using Cory Stearns, now with ABT, like a climbing frame. It was a really intimate creative process as there were just six of them. (Cathy asked David if he could get sponsorship for that piece and BA helped find this for the costumes.) In the third year Romany wasn’t in the school performance as she spent most of the year performing with the Company and did all the Act II Giselle shows. She did one tour to Germany in the third year, performing in three pieces including Fearful Symmetries by Barry Moreland. She was given a contract in March 2004 and joined on 1 June that year, Steven and Erico Montes joined in the September and Lizzie three years later as she went to Norway, meanwhile.

    Isabella auditioned for the Royal, Northern and English National Ballet. She took a contract with Northern Ballet as David Nixon was a Canadian which was how she heard of Northern Ballet. She really enjoyed being part of the company which at the time had about 40 dancers. They were in a very old, quite intimate building but coming out was a bit scary as it was difficult being on her own, taking care of herself and everything. Sometimes it felt like being at school as she was doing certain exercises every day. After a couple of years, they moved to a new building in the city centre which was a nice transition. They did long tours all over the country, would return to rehearse and then go away for eight weeks which she found quite tiring. Isabella’s first ballet was Midsummer Night’s Dreambut they also did Dracula, Hamlet, Peter Panand Wuthering Heights amongst other works. Asked if it was different from what she’d done in Canada, as Northern is known for its dramatic pieces, Isabella said she’d never been part of the company in Canada though she’d done Sylphideand Swan Lake. She really wanted to do the big classical ballets which she missed at Northern where they didn’t invite other choreographers, performing mostly David’s works, so it became quite repetitive. She liked the dramatic side of his work and it taught her how to act. She danced Cecile in Dangerous Liaisonsand did a Don Q pas de deux in a triple bill on a raked stage which wasn’t easy. Finally, she was with the company for almost six years. She had ambition and wanted to get to her goal of doing classical work with the Royal. She auditioned a second time for Monica Mason and didn’t get in so asked at ENB but they didn’t have any contracts. However, they were preparing Swan Lake in-the-round and needed extra dancers so she did it, hoping to be given a full contract in the end. It was a great experience, and she had to learn so fast as she took every swan position. Working with Derek Deane was a bit scary but OK. She then auditioned for English Ballet Theatre and got a contract for three months. The company didn’t have a proper studio or facilities but it was fun and they did a gala in the Linbury. She emailed Monica again to ask her to watch the Linbury performance! She doesn’t know who actually saw her but hearing nothing she went home to Brazil. From there she contacted Tamara Rojo again as she’d heard they had a lot of injuries and Tamara hired her for Nutcracker. A week later Isabella received an email from the Royal offering her a three-month contract to do Sleeping Beautyand Giselle. That was the season where they had only two friends and the Lilac Fairy was also one of the friends for some performances!  Kevin suggested she join them after she’d done Sleeping Beauty and that was what happened.

    Romany’s first impressions of being in the Company. She was very lucky as she’d done a lot of work with them already and knew most of the girls in the Company, like Bethany Keating, Emma Jane Maguire and Helen Crawford. They had been her seniors at White Lodge, and so were familiar. Once you’re in the dressing room, age goes out of the window and they welcomed her really warmly particularly as she was the only girl to join the Company at that time. They took her under their wing and Iona Loots in particular looked after her. It was quite different from now when lots of apprentices are joining the Company. Romany remembered Les Noces, Scenes de Ballet, and particularly Daphnis and Chloe where she was covering Bethany. When she wasn’t on, she’d stand watching from the wings or out front. One particular show she was watching with her mum. In the interval there was a call for her to come back stage, Bethany wasn’t feeling great, so she had a crash course in the final scene of the ballet, got into full make-up and costume and then Bethany said she was fine! Her first solo role was Effie in La Sylphide, thanks to Johan Kobborg, who took great care of his artists, and this will always be one of the most special rehearsal periods she’s ever experienced. Sorella Englund came over and it was lovely to get so much detail of each character and the story. You came out of rehearsal feeling as if you’d had a big meal, absorbing so much information. Romany’s first featured solo was Princess Louise in Mayerling. Monica Parker taught the pas de deux to Romany, Leanne Cope, Martin Harvey and Thiago Soares. Again, the level of detail she gave and why you did certain steps was amazing, and informed the whole narrative. That really fuelled Romany’s understanding of how to dance MacMillan. It’s fiendish – it’s never the way you want to go and never the foot you want to step on but when thought through, as if you are talking, the choreography completely makes sense. Her first Rudolf was Ed Watson and he continued to ask for her which was very special. Although initially only a cover, Isabella has also done that role, partnered by Federico Bonelli. Romany said MacMillan never judges a character, he just presents a whole person and not just one aspect of the character. It requires you to do quite a lot yourself and challenges you to observe others. That’s what makes it an art form and so interesting as it goes beyond the superficial. It’s the same across the Company, and it’s quite challenging for the corps who are left with a lot of space to ad lib and create atmosphere with minimal direction but then you have to remember when it’s your turn to dance that you need to be on the right side of the stage! As a harlot in Manon Romany was always on the wrong side when she was telling her story around a table! But you do get better at it. They are both doing Manon this season and, finally, after 15 years Romany has graduated to being a courtesan. Manon has changed over the years. Romany said it’s a wonderful thing being a repertoire company in a big house, that they don’t do things as museum pieces and they evolve over time.  She’s sure if Kenneth were here he would do it differently and it would continue to evolve. This Manon does feel very different and since Kevin has been director, he and Deborah MacMillan have brought in different people to stage the work. Monica Mason and Monica Parker used to do it in Monica’s tenure as director. The music changed about six years ago. The focus this season seems to have shifted on to the Company direction, in terms of the amount of energy and input the Company was giving over what Des Grieux and GM were doing. It feels as if the volume has been turned up on them and it has a fresh look. They used to do Manon a lot and Romany recalled the second act feeling very long to be ad libbing round the sides, and in some performances it would lose its energy, as if everyone got a bit sleepy. The lighting is also quite different and it takes a while to get used to it. Anthony Dowell’s Swan Lake was done for many seasons and although Romany had never danced in it she grew up watching it. David commented that the classical rep is fiddled with but Romany said that it is evolving like life, according to the people at the front and those in the room who contribute. They’re now working on Concertoand the notator, Gregory Mislin, is amazing and goes into everything in such depth in order to prepare himself and he’s discovered things which weren’t noticed before so they’ve been incorporated.

    About Isabella’s first experiences of being in the Company she said it’s really intense with the work load, the amount of shows and changing rep rather than doing the same thing for eight weeks which she was used to. The theatre is magical, on stage it is something else, but she feels they could enjoy it more if they weren’t so tired! She’s worked in so many places and there are always unexpected things you have to get used to and you do adapt. Her first named role in the Company was Clara (Nutcracker) which was a dream come true.  Is it an advantage having been in other companies? She appreciates things here whereas some people might not know what it is like elsewhere. No-where’s perfect, so you need to be open minded. Sometimes when you are so focussed on work, she likes to remember she’s been part of another world particularly when she was freelancing and knows how it feels to be alive, being able to do different things, spend time with family and friends and this is a very good thing to have experienced. If she gets upset at work she can think of this and knows there’s life outside her dance career. There are so many Royal Ballet highlights but hers are probably Clara, Patineurs and Crystal Pite. Romany did Patineursat school but not in the Company. For Isabella it was a challenge but it was good. She’s always nervous about fouettés so doing them by herself on stage was her biggest obstacle but once you’ve done it you feel you’ve overcome a big hurdle. Apart from that, the ballet is so enjoyable to do so she tries not to think about the things which make her nervous and just go with the music.  As for Clara, Isabella said she enjoys being a kid on stage and it comes naturally to her. For some dancers it’s hard work to be so alive all the time but she enjoys exploring the child’s world. It’s a role with two very different parts, first the acting and then the dancing. It’s a long first act but you learn how to pace yourself and she tries to bring acting into the dancing as well so the story continues seamlessly.

    Romany danced Isadora. She doesn’t know where the idea came from but found it intriguing that she had been put down to cover. When rehearsals began she entered the process thinking ‘I’m just going in and doing it’. Lauren went off and Kevin generously gave her the chance to do it. It’s an epic solo which doesn’t look like much but it’s big. Camille Androit coached her as there’d been a falling out with Lynn Seymour over rehearsal time. It is one of the hardest solos stamina-wise and needs to be repeated constantly every day, as there are so many variables with scarves and petals etc so repetition is the only way to recreate the magic that Ashton remembered. You have to know every detail so as to be totally free on stage but it’s difficult to fit in with the rep they have and the amount of things they’re working on at the same time. Romany felt lucky to have Camille who’d worked directly with Lynn and Sam Raine was a wonderful support in helping her continue rehearsing once Camille had left. Serenade is another favourite. There is something magical about standing with 16 other women on stage with that lovely music. Infra was great and it was pure pleasure doing the pas de deux with Matthew Ball! She should have danced it and Swan Lake earlier on but sprained an ankle, and last season it was the right time for her. She also loved the Emerald’s pas de trois.

    Working with Crystal Pite and other choreographers. Hofesh Shechter came first. It was a totally different way of moving and thinking. When they started work-shopping with him he would ask them to improvise across the room. Normally they get told what to do and then just do it so it was a challenge to do your own thing and know it was OK just to be your body. But it was really fascinating. Once he began choreographing, he was really clear in the intention of his movements so if you followed his instruction you could work it out. His intention: the pressure you feel in your hands so they’re not just a pretty shape, or dead things at the end of your arm. It’s like moving through a thick viscose so everything is exaggerated.  There’s not a lot of tension but a physicality that you aren’t just one shape. You’re quite internal and not performing as you do in classical ballet, and there’s more an awareness of your body and the people around you. The group energy was really powerful and you had to balance and do everything together. It was because of Hofesh that Isabella began to enjoy contemporary dance as she became more free, and found it an enjoyable experience.

    Crystal was an extraordinary woman, they were mind-blown and Romany said that every dancer would have done anything for her

    Crystal was an extraordinary woman, they were mind-blown and Romany said that every dancer would have done anything for her. She was so respectful. From the beginning she knew everyone’s name in the Company and was very gracious, treating everyone as equal so you were part of a group and everyone was given the same attention. There was no shouting, she never raised her voice and always remained calm. Her choreography felt less different from Hofesh’s as she was classically trained and worked with Forsythe so they had a common ground. Everything was so clear in demonstration and explanation, giving keys to where the movement was coming from. The challenge was the grounding and lowness and depth of lunges rather like Balanchine but sustained for longer. It was nice to remove pointe shoes and work in socks! Romany recalled  Isadora where she was bare-foot and blistered!

    Sweet Violets with Liam Scarlett was a highlight for Romany. He is wonderful in the studio, really clear, very musical. Also, Asphodel Meadowsis the greatest, a real joy to dance with wonderful music. Frankensteinwas another. Isabella finds Liam nice to work with, she likes his movements and they flow well. His Swan Lake: because of the level of pressure and expectation around it, the process felt compressed leading up to opening night. It was not Liam’s natural choreographic vocabulary. The swans were taught and rehearsed by Kristen McGarrity and Liam came in later to finesse and give directions. It was not a usual experience of new choreography. It was a weird situation where you were in a ballet you know really well but not actually, so they were all a bit conflicted in parts. But it was very exciting to be part of a classic being made on the Company as it is now and Romany said they were proud to be part of it and it’s coming back later this season.

    Questions for Isabella: how do you manage not to smile on stage? She struggles if it is a story ballet as has to think if she needs to be serious. Monica Mason has said not to smile so much with her teeth but it is how she feels.

    Has she been back to dance in Brazil? Not actually to dance but she does go home twice a year. She did dance there with Thiago as someone got injured and luckily she was able to stand in.

    Romany did a number of galas earlier in her career including one for Vivienne Westwood which was an extraordinary experience.  It was a pas de deux which Fernando Montaño choreographed and she wore a corset which Vivienne had painted. In her third year in the Company she went on Mara Galeazzi’s tour, dancing Two Pigeons and Elite Syncopations which was wonderful as it was an intimate group of dancers travelling around and gave her the opportunity to do more featured roles. Romany has also trained as a therapist as she wanted to understand her body better to try to avoid injuries. She did a course in sports massage therapy to see if it was something she might like to pursue further along her career.

    They were both promoted to soloist quite recently so what were they looking forward to in the coming season? Romany said she’d made a pact with herself long ago not to expect anything but just to make the most of every moment because cast changes or injuries happen. When casting went up for Manon she was down as a harlot but ended up by doing all the shows as a courtesan. She’s loved everything she’s done and it’s enabled her to enjoy her work fully. The opportunities are in Kevin’s hands, and she’s enjoying Concerto and for the first-time doing Winifred Norbury in Enigma Variations which is a beautiful solo and tricky. She’s also doing the grand pas in Raymonda. She’s also going to Paris next week to do Cross Currents.  It’s a season of possibilities.

    Isabella doesn’t know what’s coming up but everything will be quite new and she hopes there’ll be a bit less work not being on every night so she can rest and recover. She doesn’t expect much fas it is only her first year as a soloist, but hopes things pick up in future. If she really wants something and is a cover it might happen as it did in Rhapsody which she loved.

    In thanking our guests, David said he knew we would all look forward to watching Romany and Isabella in their soloist careers and was sure there would be many more highlights for them and us to enjoy.

    Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Isabella Gasparini, Romany Pajdak and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2019