Isabella Gasparini 2023
- Alexander Campbell
- Amelia Townsend
- Annette Buvoli
- Carlos Acosta
- Christopher Powney
- Iain Webb
- Isabella Gasparini
- Laura Morera
- Liam Boswell
- Madison Bailey
- Margaret Barbieri
- Nadia Mullova-Barley
- Ryoichi Hirano
- Sarah Lamb
First Soloist, The Royal Ballet
Interviewed by David Bain
American International Church, Tue 19th September, 2023
Isabella has recently been promoted to First Soloist at the Royal Ballet and she feels that she is having a slow start this season because as a First Soloist she no longer does try-outs or roles like gipsies, which means that she is finished by about 2.00p.m., with the rest of her day free. There are six new pieces due to be performed in February, but, currently, she is not involved in those and she is no longer performing in The Cellist. She is currently rehearsing “Don Quixote” and starts rehearsals for “The Dante Project” tomorrow.
In “Don Quixote” she is playing Amour, Kitri’s friend - roles and she has previously played - and Mercedes, a debut role. Also dancing Mercedes are Leticia Dias, Mariko Sasaki, Itziar Mendizabal, Mayara Magri, Annette Buvoli and Meaghan Grace Hinkis. Initially, Isabella was only a cover for Mercedes, but she found out three days ago that she, as well as Annette and Meaghan Grace who were also covers, would be performing. She has had her first costume fitting but does not yet know which cast she will be performing with. However, she does know that Benjamin Ella is her Espada.
Of the six new pieces programmed for February (Festival of New Choreography), rehearsals have begun for two. Recently, Isabella participated in workshops with American choreographer Jessica Lang who then continued working with individual dancers. English choreographer, Gemma Bond (previously with the American Ballet Theatre) will be arriving in November to work on her piece. David commented on the lack of mixed programmes throughout the Royal Ballet season; all of them seem to appear at the end of the season. These are actually what Isabella is most looking forward to when several Macmillan and Ashton pieces will be showcased.
David next asked Isabella how she spends her summers. For the past two summers she was busy teaching, rehearsing and performing. This summer she rested as she had had a heavy season; she was run down and started catching colds. She went home to Brazil for three weeks and enjoyed family time, doing activities like swimming and Pilates to keep toned, but mostly resting, sunbathing and eating good food. Her father was in hospital for a few days, so she spent some time with him (he’s fine now!) It was just great to be with family and she feels more and more that she wants to be home as much as she can. She is ‘guesting’ over there so that she can see her family more and is trying to pick up some guest performances. She is talking with Kevin O’Hare to see if he will allow her to do this.
At the end of the last season, Isabella joined the Royal Ballet on tour in Japan. It was the Company’s first tour in a while and Japan is very familiar to them. The repertoire was not too demanding for the majority: “Romeo and Juliet”, “Diamonds”, “A Month in the Country” plus a mixed bill which was a little more demanding. Unfortunately, she had to miss a few shows because she had a toe infection, but she recovered after three days. The tour ended with a gala in Himeji where Isabella got to dance the balcony pas de deux from “Romeo and Juliet” with Joseph Sissens. The gala included Laura Morera’s final performance in “Month in the Country”. Other highlights of the gala were the white swan pas de deuxfrom “Swan Lake”, excerpts from “Diana and Acteon” and “Cinderella”. Approximately twelve people stayed on for the gala as many dancers were extremely tired, but Isabella was just excited and it was the best part of the tour for her. They had one day off on which she went to visit the famous Himeji Castle and Kokoen Gardens. She also enjoyed a Japanese Tea Ceremony. She is looking forward to a new season of “Romeo and Juliet” where, perhaps, she can perform the whole ballet.
Isabella’s mother was a dancer who stopped dancing after giving birth to her son who is three years younger than Isabella. Her father was an engineer, and her brother was a tennis player for a while but now he is a mechanical engineer. Isabella was born in Sao Paulo, but the family moved to the countryside to a municipality called Atibaia which is approximately 45 kilometres outside of the city. The school, which her mother has owned for around 45 years, remains in the city and she and Isabella’s father, who now helps out in the school, commute there every day. When she attended the school, Isabella also commuted but says that it is quicker to get to the city from outside than to be part of the interior city traffic.
Isabella grew up watching her mother teach ballet and then started “baby” classes at the age of four. She was encouraged by her mother to learn all kinds of dance including tap, flamenco and jazz. When she was 12, she gave up the tap, flamenco and other dance styles to focus on classical ballet and also started private coaching with another teacher at her mother’s ballet school, Toshie Kobayashi, with whom she trained intensely and who prepared her first for national then international competitions. She began to win national competitions and at the age of 14, she went to compete in New York - the first Brazilian to do so at the time. Whereas now it is quite common for young Brazilians to go to the YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix) or the Prix de Lausanne, then it was quite a rarity. She performed a Saturnalia Variation plus a neo-classical solo. She won a Gold Medal and was offered a few scholarships, including one from the Royal Ballet School. Her parents were afraid of the politics in Europe so they agreed that Canada was a safer country, especially as her parents had friends there who could keep an eye on her. So, they accepted the scholarship to Canada’s National Ballet School.
Leaving home was the hardest thing she had to do as she was very attached to her family, especially her mother. She was very homesick during the first year, but she tried to focus on what she wanted to do with her career and she stuck to it, trying to keep herself occupied so that she didn’t constantly think of how much she was missing home. Initially she could understand but didn’t speak good English because she was shy, but she eventually made friends and her English improved.
David asked about the differences between teaching in Brazil and Canada. Isabella explained that her coaching in Brazil was private and therefore much more intense, rehearsing non-stop for six hours, repeating variations over and over. There was no let up for breaks or even snacks, plus she had her academic curriculum to attend to. In Canada she had specialist lessons and some academics but, by comparison, she felt that she wasn’t doing enough. The training, however, was excellent and they did take very good care of her. During her second year she was laid up with an injury she had prior to joining the school in Canada and she was unable to attend ballet classes, so they found alternative things for her to do such as piano lessons and French tuition to keep her distracted. The school believed in supporting the dancers’ mental as well as physical well-being. The Canadian teaching style was quite Cecchetti-like with focus on placement, and slower than the Brazilian-style which was tougher and more Russian.
Just as the Royal Ballet is the company that ballet dancers aspire to in the UK, in Canada dancers aspire to the National Ballet of Canada. Unfortunately, Isabella was found to be too petite for that ballet company so when she graduated in 2006, she didn’t do many auditions because she still had academic exams to complete. Europe was her second choice so she stayed on for an extra year, doing the Post- Secondary Programme so that she could audition and get a contract in Europe. Initially she only auditioned for UK ballet companies: the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and the Northern Ballet. She also tried to get an audition with the Birmingham Royal Ballet but didn’t succeed because they were on tour at the time.
Sorella Englund, her Drama and Expression teacher in Canada was staging “La Sylphide” in the UK at the time and she helped Isabella to get an audition with the Royal Ballet where she attended three days of classes. Monica Mason came to watch and though she was not able to give Isabella a place at the time, she gave her several tips including how to break her pointe shoes to make them softer around the metatarsals. In any case, Isabella did not feel comfortable in such a big company. (She remembers standing next to Zenaida Yanowsky at the barre and feeling very small). Next, she tried the English National Ballet and did two to three classes when Wayne Eagling was Director. She did not speak to him, but she did receive an acknowledgment from them afterwards by e-mail. For the Northern Ballet, she had a closed audition in London with the then Director, Canadian David Dixon, who really liked her and she offered to go up to Leeds to take a few classes with the company. Though she had a nightmare journey due to train cancellations, she made it to class and had an enjoyable time because everyone was very friendly and the teacher was amusing, so she was happy to join the company. David Nixon had links with Canada’s National Ballet School and Isabella’s teacher was friends with him.
Her first role with the Northern Ballet was a fairy in David Nixon’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which starts in a ballet studio where the dancers are rehearsing for “Romeo and Juliet”. Then the ballet company is on a train going on tour when something happens. They fall asleep and start to dream.
The advantage of starting in a smaller company is that you get to do more featured roles and Isabella managed to build up an enormous amount of repertoire during her time at the Northern Ballet. Her first main role was The Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol”, then Clara from “The Nutcracker”. This was followed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and even the “Don Quixote” pas de deux as part of a mixed programme. Towards the end of her time with them she danced the role of Beatrice in “Ondine” which was a strong but challenging role. She feels that had she stayed, David Nixon would have pushed her to become a principal.
Most of the ballets the company performed were David Nixon’s choreography, but they also performed more classical ballets such as “Giselle”, staged by Yoko Ichino, David’s wife. Isabella loved the storytelling element of David’s choreography and she learned a great deal from watching other dancers’ interpretations. There was great stagecraft as he wanted everyone involved in the scenes in order to bring them to life. This is something that is possibly lacking at the Royal Ballet where the focus is much more on the main roles. His choreography was difficult, involving many lifts for the men during pas de deux, but it was important to portray the character and show emotions via the steps.
One of the reasons Isabella left the company, after just over five years, was to get experience of more varied choreography and experience the more classical ballets by choreographers like Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. She auditioned again for the Royal Ballet but, for a second time, she was not accepted because Royal Ballet students get priority. There are no open auditions and it is difficult for outsiders to join a class, so she feels lucky that Monica Mason allowed her to return for an audition. She also auditioned for the Hamburg Ballet and the Stuttgart Ballet with no success, but she was hired as an ‘extra swan’ with the English National Ballet for their performance of Derek Deane’s “Swan Lake in the Round.”
She danced in several performances and was hopeful that Tamara Rojo would give her a job. Performing at the Royal Albert Hall was amazing but tough as there were several performances, but usually with only one cast. Due to her expertise as a dancer, she was also included in Act 1 which not all the extras got to do. The English National Ballet clearly liked her because was called back to dance in “The Nutcracker”. However, she did not get a full contract with them.
She then won a 3-month contract with the New English Ballet Theatre for a gala performance at the Linbury Theatre. This is a company she had never heard of before and discovered whilst she was looking for auditions to get work after the run of “Swan Lake” finished. She had a ballet created on her: the “Kreutzer Sonata” choreographed by Andrew McNicol. There were only six or seven women involved including Sophie Allnatt. After the gala performance, Isabella returned to Brazil, unsure of what would happen next but, two weeks later, she was contacted by Tamara Rojo and invited to perform in the English National Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the London Coliseum. She arrived for rehearsals in November and a week later she was contacted by Jeanetta Laurence of the Royal Ballet, offering her a three-month contract as an extra dancer for ‘Sleeping Beauty” and “Giselle”. Isabella wonders how this callback happened. Had someone seen her at the gala in the Linbury Theatre (inside the Royal Opera House) or had they simply gone through all the CV’s they had received? Whatever the case, it felt like a miracle that she was given this opportunity after all the previous rejections, and at a point when she was considering giving up and maybe going back to study something else.
So, after performing in “The Nutcracker” at the Coliseum, she went straight to the Royal Opera House to rehearse for what she thought were two ballets only. She remembers Kevin O’Hare, who was now the Director of the Royal Ballet and didn’t yet know her, coming to watch class and welcoming her. Because the run of “Nutcracker” was not yet complete, for a while she had to rehearse at the Royal Ballet and then go straight on to the Coliseum for performances which she did with Tamara Rojo’s blessing.
On January 6th, 2014, Isabella started with the Royal Ballet. In “Giselle” she was a peasant, did several ‘spots’ and was a Wili in Act II. She remembers one performance when Mayara Magri was unable to continue so she had to take over her spot. She was very good at doing this because of her experience in the corps de ballet and, at the Northern Ballet the dancers had to learn the details of several roles so that they could change sides quickly as required. This turned out to be very good training to prepare her for what was to come. In “The Sleeping Beauty” she danced a Lilac Attendant and performed in the Garland Dance. After one of the “Sleeping Beauty” performances her dream came true when Kevin O’Hare approached her and offered her a full-time contract. During the rest of the season, she performed in “DGV” (“Danse à grande vitesse”) and covered many other roles which she feels was more a reward for her hard work than just luck. They had seen her in “Sleeping Beauty” and “Giselle” and knew she was capable.
She began at the Royal Ballet as an Artist, but Kevin O’Hare recognised that she had already done five years in the corps de ballet and had reached the level of Coryphée at the Northern Ballet, so he was keen to get her to First Artist as soon as possible. This he did during her second year.
Isabella has enjoyed performing in ballets such as Frederick Ashton’s “Rhapsody” and was disappointed when she was not recast in it the last time it was brought back into the programme. She also danced the pas de six in “Giselle”. This came about when she covered in rehearsals for Romany Pajdak and she was eventually cast. In “Sleeping Beauty” she started in the corps de ballet but has since performed the “Songbird”, “Red Riding Hood” and “Bluebird” which she did during a mixed bill performance when they came back after Covid. In “Swan Lake” she has played both of Prince Siegfried’s sisters. The first time she performed she danced what she calls ‘the turny one’ and the next time she did ‘the jumpy one’. According to Isabella both roles are challenging but ‘the jumpy one’ is particularly hard on the shins and requires a great deal of stamina. It is one of the most difficult roles she has had to dance. In addition, she has danced one of the cygnets, been one of the princesses and performed the Neapolitan Dance, which she performed the first time it was created so it was wonderful for her to be featured in this way.
More recently she was the Spring Fairy in “Cinderella” and, at the last minute, she also had to learnt the Autumn Fairy. David commented on the fact that when Wendy Ellis dance the Autumn Fairy there were hundreds of leaves; they were a real highlight of the performance because she had them hidden everywhere on her body and would produce them throughout the dance. But, in the new production there were very few. Isabella explained that dancers kept slipping on the leaves and injuring themselves, so they were given fewer and fewer and by the time of the performance she only had two or three in her hands. She didn’t get the opportunity to work much with Wendy Ellis-Somes because she was mainly coached by Laura Morera and Samantha Raine.
On the subject of Kenneth MacMillan ballets, Isabella remarked that, in the past, they had not been her favourites because, as a member of the corps de ballet, you simply played roles like prostitutes or harlots. However, for the principals it is a wonderful experience because the ballets take you on a journey. Last season she played Princess Stephanie in “Mayerling” and it was one of her favourite roles because of the physicality, the drama and the feeling that you are portraying a real character and not just a pretty princess. For this she was coached by Zenaida Yanowski and Leanne Benjamin. She was also fortunate to work in two casts, one with Marcelino Sambé and the other with Vadim Muntagirov. These are both very different dancers which became obvious when she ended up rehearsing with both casts. She had very painful ribs because it involved her being “thrown around”. Marcelino’s style was very forceful and she sometimes suggested to him that she could pretend to fall so he didn’t have to actually push her down. It was totally understandable because one gets carried away in the moment. By the performance, they had perfected the action. Vadim, on the other hand, was very gentle and she had to encourage him to push her harder. She loved working with both of them.
Since joining the Royal Ballet, Isabella has mostly performed contemporary ballet which surprised her as she always saw herself as a classical dancer. During her second (or third) season Hofesh Schechter, an Israeli choreographer, produced “Untouchable”. She very much enjoyed the process of learning the steps and how he taught them to move in a different way. This helped her with other types of choreography. She also enjoyed performing in Crystal Pite’s works. She has only been added mid-way to any of Wayne McGregor’s new works, so she still has to experience his choreography properly, though she has been doing more of it and is getting used to him. She performed in Christopher Wheeldon’s “A Winter’s Tale” during her first season as one of the main four couples in the corps de ballet, replacing a dancer on maternity leave. She is hoping to get a more prominent role when the ballet returns this season. She danced the role of Chencha, the maid in “Like Water for Chocolate”, though she would have liked to have had more steps to do and finds that Wheeldon did not use the corps de ballet enough. She was also support for Francesca Hayward. She has read the book “Like Water for Chocolate” and knows how difficult it is to keep up with all the characters, so she feels that Wheeldon was brave to attempt to choreograph this and try to get across concepts like the food being infused with Tita’s emotions. A classical role that she has danced is Vera in Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country”. She loves dancing Ashton because, as the casts are small, it feels like being in a family and you are telling a story, so you can be very expressive. She danced it most recently during their recent tour of Japan with William Bracewell and Natalia Osipova in the lead roles.
On the subject of Frederick Ashton ballets, Isabella says that she loves them and when she watches them she imagines herself dancing in them but when she is actually learning the steps, she finds them hard and extremely quick because today’s dancers do not train in the more organic way previous dancers did. Nowadays dancers have to consciously think about bending in the correct way and sometimes that gets in the way of trying to portray the character. She feels that she still has a great deal to learn, but if she could perform solely Ashton, she absolutely would. During the season when she was promoted to Soloist, she danced Ashton’s “Les Patineurs” which gave her nightmares as she had to turn fouettés which made her quite sick with worry. However, she really enjoyed the rest of the ballet... when she wasn’t having to turn fouettés.
When asked about working with Hofesh Schechter and Crystal Pite, Isabella remarked that she admires the energy and focus of external choreographers and also their eagerness to create something good on the dancers of the Royal Ballet. They give so much attention and care to the dancers and explain in detail what they require from them to give meaning to the movements. With the standard repertoire everything is done much more rapidly which only gives you time to learn the steps and you need to put in the work yourself to really understand the meaning behind them. But when the creation is something contemporary that is not the usual “language” of the classical ballet dancer, the choreographers need to help them develop another type of physicality. Crystal Pite is a good example of a choreographer who does this and Isabella danced her “Solo Echo”, “Flight Pattern” and “Light of Passage”. She would like to see Crystal come back and do more as she is a great person to work with although, from feedback she has heard, she thinks that the choreography may be more enjoyable for the dancers as some of the audience struggle to understand the meaning. Crystal’s style is different as, for example, she requires the dancers to wear socks and the choreography involves much sliding across the floor.
Away from the ballet world, Isabella has completed a degree as part of a funding scheme called “Dance Career Development” which invests in the future of professional dancers whether they want to continue in the field of dance or move on to something completely different. She is keen on studying and has always loved writing, having kept a diary for most of her life. She also enjoys reading books, so she started a part-time online degree in Literature and Creative Writing through the Open University. This takes six years rather than the normal three for a full-time degree. At times it was difficult, because during her lunch breaks or between rehearsals and performances she was studying so that she could keep her evenings and weekends free. She could often be seen in cafés with her laptop studying. Moreover, she started the degree when she was at the busiest time of her career during her second season at the Royal Ballet. She completed last June. She hopes to write a book one day about her experiences as a dancer from Brazil, living away from home and about the commitment that it takes to be a professional dancer who succeeds in joining one of the best companies in the world. During the Covid outbreak she started a blog and has now written over thirty about various things. In these blogs she tries to provide information about her life, but if she wrote a book, it would be more of a story. She feels that the blogs have been good practice for writing a book. Whether her book is fiction or not, she wants to write it in the first person as writing in the third person did not work for her.
The course gave her the opportunity to write in different styles. Could it be an autobiography like Gelsey Kirkland’s “Dancing on my Grave”? Would it be written in Portuguese or English? Although she talks daily in English and she writes her diary in English, she still feels more comfortable writing in Portuguese; also she is not always confident that she is using the right words in English. She is even considering doing a degree based in the Portuguese language, but she feels that she needs a break. However, when she saw her light performance schedule, she thought that this might be the right time to be studying something. A Masters degree may be in the offing. An audience member suggested she write a children’s short story about two cats because Isabella has two Siberian cats who, she says, will definitely feature in her writing. Although she thought she was a “dog person”, having grown up with dogs at home, she sees these cats as her “kids” and they give her a hard time, waking her up at four a.m. This is because they are indoor cats for whom you have to sign a contract stating that you will not allow them to go outside. But because they are housebound, they sometimes go crazy in the evenings when she is home. If they had more space to roam around, it might help them be calmer.
Another audience member asked whether a special floor is laid at the Royal Albert Hall for dancers. Isabella says yes, especially as the English National Ballet does several performances there.
Asked what her favourite role to dance is and what she would like to dance in, Isabella replied that she has difficulty specifying just one role as they are all so different, but she likes dancing Princess Florine from “Sleeping Beauty”, Vera from “Month in the Country”, Princess Stephanie from “Mayerling” and Clara from “The Nutcracker”. She would like to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy at the Royal Opera House, also Juliet and Giselle and Perdita from “A Winter’s Tale”. She sees herself as more of a lyrical dancer but she is looking forward to dance a role like “Don Quixote’s” Mercedes to see whether she feels comfortable doing it. Several of MacMillan’s characters are sensual and she does not usually get cast for this type of role, but she would like to try Mitzi from “Mayerling” or Manon which would be “a dream”. In short, as David summarised, the rest of the Royal Opera’s repertoire.
Isabella was asked the ubiquitous question about a favourite partner and she quickly responded that she cannot comment on those she has not yet danced with, specifically the tall men, but among her favourites are Vadim Muntagirov (who is actually quite tall), Benjamin Ella (who was her first partner in “The Nutcracker”), Luca Acri, Joseph Sissens, with whom she has a good chemistry on stage and Ryoichi Hirano, a really strong, good partner, with whom she danced in “Mayerling”.
She returned to Brazil to dance in “Don Quixote” and she was asked how that opportunity came about. Isabella replied that the opportunity came via a ballet school in Brazil, Ballet Vera Bublitz, that is famous for training local ballet students to go abroad. They sent some of their students to the Royal Ballet Summer School and this is where Isabella met up with the son of the school’s director. He told her that they were thinking of doing a production and invited her to dance. She said yes but wasn’t sure that she would have space in her schedule. A few months later they had decided to do “Don Quixote” and asked her when she could come over. She suggested August, which is the Royal Ballet’s summer break, but the Brazilians could not find an available theatre, so it was moved to the end of September. She discussed it with Kevin O’Hare who gave her permission to do it. It was difficult because she had to rehearse on her own in the UK, but with help from her partner, Kevin Emerton, she was able to build up the stamina required to dance three acts even though she did not have the support of the other dancers around her. Her dance partner in Brazil, who had danced with the Joffrey Ballet and was very experienced, had only three rehearsals with her. The dancers looked up to her and were inspired by her because she was from the Royal Ballet and she was equally inspired by them because they supported her. It was her first time doing a full-length classical ballet and performing it made her realise that she would like to do more of this with time in the studio for one-on-one coaching to build up her stamina to manage to dance three acts.
On the day she returned from Brazil, she had a “Mayerling” stage call for her role as Princess Stephanie. followed by a general rehearsal and two performances. This was after a horrendous return journey with a six-hour layover in Sao Paulo. The result was that she became ill with fever and, in future, she will definitely ask Kevin O’Hare for a day to recuperate.
David asked why there have been so many Brazilian dancers in the Royal Ballet. Isabella believes that it is because there is only one old classical ballet company in Rio de Janeiro, whereas there are several good ballet schools. As a result, Brazilian dancers are obliged to go abroad if they want to progress and win a contract. This summer she took two classes with the company in Rio, but they were not rehearsing for any performances. This school has a very famous ex-director, Tatiana Leskova who was 100 this year. Isabella had lunch with her during her visit to Rio and finds that she is still very present. When she was still active, she staged ballets for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. She was a member of the Ballet Russes who visited Brazil in her thirties on one of their tours and remained there. She started a school and eventually became director of the theatre. She staged several ballets and invited many dancers from Russia over to Brazil to perform. She is one of a kind and very much the last of her generation.
David finished by wishing that Isabella gets many roles this season as we do not want her spending her time doing nothing as First Soloist. She agrees as she is happier being busy.
Report written by Herma John and edited by Isabella Gasparini and David Bain.
© The Ballet Association 2023