Isabella Gasparini In Conversation with Fiona Erleigh

April 8, 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Isabella Gasparini to the evening’s In Conversation. Brazilian by birth, Isabella initially trained in Sáo Paulo and then at the Canadian National Ballet School. Now a First Soloist with the Royal Ballet, her career development had been an interesting journey, somewhat different from that of most dancers. This evening she would be conversing with the very knowledgeable balletomane Fiona Erleigh, who Susan also warmly welcomed.

To start the conversation Fiona wanted to explore Isabella’s early years and her introduction to dance. Born In Sáo Paulo, she said that from her earliest years she had always danced around and tried out different steps. At about three and a half she joined the ‘baby’ class at Ballet Marcia Lago, her mother’s dance school, where over the years her teachers enabled her to experience many different styles of dance, for instance, tap, contemporary, and flamenco. 

Her mother taught ballet to the older children, so although she was in her mother’s school she was not taught by her until she was about 11. In fact much of her ballet training in Sáo Paulo was with a Japanese dancer, Toshie Kobayashi, a teacher very well known in Brazil. ‘How was that?’ asked Fiona. She explained that a choreographer friend of her mother had been working with Isabella on a tap routine when he noted her talent for ballet and suggested that she study with her.

That, said Isabella, was when it really got serious; she remained with Toshie Kobayashi for four years during which she took part in several Brazilian national ballet competitions. At one of these competitions there happened to be international jury members, one of whom took a videotape to the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) resulting in Isabella and a number of fellow students being invited to compete. The first Brazilians to take part in the YAGP, they all went off to New Yorktogether with her mother who provided the English language so necessary for them to survive in the United States.

For the competition Isabella performed a Saturnalia Variation plus a neo-classical solo. She had no expectation of winning or even doing well; accordingly she felt under no pressure and found the whole experience exciting and most enjoyable. She was completely surprised, therefore, to be awarded a gold medal. While at the competition Isabella received five scholarship offers, including one from the Royal Ballet School (RBS). ‘Did you expect to receive offers?’ asked Fiona. ‘No’ said Isabella, adding that decisions then had to be made quickly, by the end of the week. 

Taking up any of the offers would obviously involve going away which she really did not want to do – she confessed that at 14 she was scared of leaving home. However, she realised that she had been offered opportunities which it would be foolish to turn down, and she was very drawn to the offer from the RBS. Her father, however, was not entirely happy at the thought of his daughter going off to London on her own, and so it was her parents, along with her teacher, who more or less decided that Isabella should accept the offer from Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto. As well as being an extremely good school, her parents had friends there who might prove useful should some emergency arise. 

She became 15 in August of that year and a month later moved far away from home to start training in Toronto. She stayed in a residence along with other international students and graduated after three years. The school offered good opportunities to perform, with two week-long ‘showcase’ events each year and the opportunity to take part as extras in company productions. As well as dance, the school offered a strong academic programmefor all of its students. 

Fiona then went on to explore what Isabella’s plans had been for the next phase of her career, as her years of study in the school had not culminated in a contract offer from the Canadian company. She explained that she had decided she really wanted to dance in Europe. ‘Why was that?’ she was asked. It was something that she had in her head; that Europe, and especially the RB, was the epitome of the art of classical ballet. Not that she had seen much of the work of the RB, although she did cite a video of the great Romeo and Juliet balcony pas de deux danced by Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling. What she wanted at that time was to spend a final year of training at the RBS. And so she remained in Toronto for one more year, during which she auditioned in London for a number of places, including the RBS, English National Ballet and Northern Ballet. She even took a couple of classes with the RB and met with Dame Monica Mason but there was no offer of a place.

However, following her audition with Northern Ballet she was asked to go up to Leeds to take class with the company. She liked the atmosphere, felt that she would be a good fit with them, and in 2007 was offered a contract by David Nixon, then Artistic Director of Northern Ballet. Her parents were supportive of a move to Leeds. In fact, they went with her and stayed on for a couple of weeks to ensure that she was well settled in the city. Isabella felt that living in Leeds and away from her family was actually rather easier than it had been in Toronto; probably, she thought, because she was now a more mature individual. 

Northern Ballet at that time was a relatively small company with a repertoire including many works by David Nixon himself. The regime in Leeds was tough and thorough. Dancers were continually encouraged to think about and care for their bodies. That excellent initial training, thought Isabella, might be one of the reasons why she had not sustained major injuries along the way. There were also quirks to which she had to get accustomed, for instance, the wearing of pointe shoes throughout class. 

She expressed appreciation over the wonderful way in which she had been looked after by David and his wife,Yoko Ichino. She also noted that the day-to-day discipline was quite a bit tougher than might be the norm these days. Indeed, Isabella suggested that today’s newcomers might sometimes be permitted too much licence and thus feel a bit ‘lost’. 

Northern Ballet provided her with many good opportunities to perform, for instance Clara, Sugar Plum, and Odile. She actually had a role created on her – the title role in Ugly Duckling. She stayed, very happily, with the company for several years but eventually began to realise that she would be performing the same roles over and over again and might never have the chance to do the big classical roles which she really wanted. Accordingly, after some five years, she took the decision to leave – without having secured a new job….. She felt that she had to be brave and make the jump, even if it was into the unknown. Isabella reported that David Nixon was not happy that she was to leave, suspecting that he may have had plans for her of which she had not been made aware.

Isabella moved to London and auditioned for a number of companies, both in Britain and abroad. She was able to get a job as a swan in the English National Ballet’s Swan Lake in the round at the Royal Albert Hall, hoping that Tamara Rojo would see that she was a dancer that ENB could not afford to ignore, and accordingly offer her a contract. That didn’t happen. 

Fiona interjected that sometime later Isabella had gone back to Leeds as a guest artist and she explained that she had been to a Northern Ballet show at Sadler’s Wells, after which she had sent a card to David Nixon saying that she would love to guest with the company. He did indeed invite her to do so in 2021 and she played Cecile in Dangerous Liaisons, which was great.

Isabella then spent a couple of months with a newly formed company, New English Ballet Theatre (NEBT). A lovely group of people, she said; she very much enjoyed her time with them. For this company she had the role of Wife in Andrew McNichol’s The Kreutzer Sonata created on her. It was, however, a very new company and lacked all manner of facilities, no proper studio, sometimes not even a proper barre. During her time with NEBT they took part in a gala in the Linbury Theatre; at least, thought Isabella, I’m now actually inside the Royal Opera House!

After her spell with NEBT she decided to return to her home in Brazil, because there seemed no other choice open to her. She would go back and wait – but also make a start on some other studies. She had been home for just a couple of weeks when she learned of the need for extra dancers, due to injury, in a production in-the-round of The Nutcracker by ENB. She contacted Tamara, and was invited to return to London to take part. And shortly after that – amazingly!  – an email from the RB arrived offering a temporary 3-month contract to perform in Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty when her employment with ENB was over.

She danced in both productions, with an ability to cover so many different spots which clearly proved invaluable. Isabella stressed the enormous value of being a dancer who knew all the roles and thus could cover for almost any part. It’s a skill, agreed Fiona, not always appreciated by the audience, because they would not necessarily be aware of what was happening on stage. Isabella believed that her versatility stemmed from experience, reinforced by her rigorous training while with Northern Ballet. Certainly it proved her worth to the RB and she was – at last! – offered a permanent contract with the company.

Dancing with the RB was rather different from anything she had previously experienced, much of which had involved touring with a show every night plus two on matinee days. Because the RB had such a range of shows in their repertoire one might be involved in and learning roles in four different productions at the same time. Rehearsal would go on until 5.30 and then one had to be ready – fed, rested and made up – for ‘curtain up’ just two hours later. And it was quite clear that she was surrounded by enormous talent, with the slight air of pushiness and competition which accompanies it. Although she was reasonably self-confident now she thought that, had she joined at 18 when she first came to London, she might have found the early experiences quite intimidating. 

Being a member of the corps was an enormous challenge. On stage in almost every show, having to hold difficult poses for seemingly endless lengths of time, for instance, as a swan. Having to deal with cramps, and sweat running down your face and obliterating your view. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable time, and because of her depth of experience she was frequently called on in an emergency to cover for any number of different roles. Within a year she had been promoted to First Artist, and is now a First Soloist, which she loves, but a position in which one does not appear on stage anything like as frequently as when she was a more junior dancer – because there are only so many roles appropriate to a First Soloist…..  For instance, she rather missed being a cygnet in Swan Lake.

Isabella commented that she is still ‘parachuted’ into roles at the last minute. For example, in the recent MacMillan Triple Bill she was just completing rehearsals for the pas de trois in Danses Concertantes which, with its complex Stravinsky score, was a ballet new to many members of the company.  She then had to cover for other, more high profile, roles as not just one but in due course two Principals had to drop out of the show. Laura Morera, who was coaching, asked Isabella to rehearse the main female role just three days before the first stage call on the Friday – with the opening of the show the following week. And eventually Isabella was the only dancer left who had rehearsed the role….. And so she danced the main role, partnered by Vadim Muntagirov and other such luminary male dancers. Isabella felt that she probably produces her best work in such circumstances; she likes to accept such challenges.

What would Isabella like to perform in the next few years ? Juliet, obviously, although actually she had already danced the balcony pas de deux, with Joseph Sissens, at a gala when the company was touring in Japan. Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin had coached them for the roles, and it had been a fabulous experience. And a favourite choreographer? Probably Ashton; she loved his story telling and the sheer musicality of his ballets.

For the past couple of years Isabella has returned to Brazil to perform in a local version of The Nutcracker. A video (filmed by Andrej Uspenski) was then shown of Isabella rehearsing in a studio at the Royal Opera House, ahead of her performance in Brazil.

And so for something completely different. Isabella revealed that over the past six years she has been studying university courses in English Literature and Creative Writing, and in June 2023 obtained her degree. She paid tribute to Dancers Career Development, the organisation which had supported her both financially and practically through her degree studies. 

It had sometimes been difficult to juggle dancing andstudy, but very much worth it. She had always loved reading and writing, keeping a diary, and hoped one day to write a book – in fact she had already started on a novel. In Portuguese she said, because her command of English, while adequate, was not sufficient to enable her to compose passages which flowed smoothly. 

An audience member then inquired about communication within the company. How does a dancer find out which roles they may have been cast for? One might be informed in advance if a major role was involved, Isabella replied, but usually one did not discover until the rehearsal schedules were posted. 

When asked if any artists had particularly inspired her Isabella replied immediately that it was her mother. And more recently perhaps Martha Leebolt at Northern Ballet, maybe Natalia Osipova and Francesca Hayward at RB – although they were just individuals among so many talented dancers. And she took particular inspiration and delight from messages sent to her by members of the audience who had enjoyed her performance; that really made the job worthwhile.

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, thanked both Isabella and Fiona for the conversation which had flowed so smoothly, with great rapport between them. Discovering Isabella’s varied career journey had been so interesting and hugely entertaining and she thanked both contributors most warmly.

Written by Trevor Rothwell. Approved by Isabella Gasparini and Fiona Erleigh.

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