It is my honour to share the latest A&H interview with the one and only Isobelle Dashwood! This was such a heartwarming conversation and a beautiful reminder of the power we all hold over our lives and minds. Courage and kindness are two of Isobelle’s favourite words, and they sure were common themes dived into throughout this interview. Isobelle has such an authentic way of giving insight that takes into account the whole spectrum of her life and how the positive and negative come together to make one inspiring journey. Without further ado… happy reading!
Disclaimer* all of Isobelle’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word so answers have been condensed with her approval.
What is your current profession?
I am a soloist with the Australian Ballet Company.
What has your career path been to date?
My Mum is a ballet teacher and all my siblings have all danced at one stage or another. As a small child, my older sisters both danced and I wanted to do everything they did, so at six years old I began classes. At first it was just an after school hobby and I actually often cried because I didn’t want to leave my Mum’s side. Ballet didn’t start to really ‘click’ with me till I was around 10. At 13 I realised it was a career I wished to pursue; I loved striving for perfection, making beautiful lines, and moving to beautiful music. After my formative training in Queensland, I spent three years with the Australian Ballet School, before joining the Australian Ballet Company straight after graduation. I have now been with the company for 6 years and was promoted from corps de ballet member to soloist in May 2021.
When your mentality around ballet shifted from hobby to potential career, do you also feel your approach to training changed?
Yes. Mentally, I fell further and further in love with the art form and as a consequence I began taking more classes. I would get up really early to train at 6:30am before school a few days a week, and I was also part of Queensland Ballet’s Junior Extension Program, meaning I would drive from Toowoomba (where I grew up) to Brisbane for classes once a week. The extension program was such an amazing opportunity and I loved experiencing different training methods and conversing with other like minded kids. As time went on, I kept adding more part time and eventually full-time classes to my schedule. I remember getting to the point where I didn’t want to go to school anymore because I hated that during those hours I couldn’t dance. I believe my passion consistently grew alongside my training hours.
What values did pursuing a ballet career speak to?
There’s so much that ballet can offer you and it’s hard to pinpoint just a few values. I think I would have to narrow it down to creativity, integrity, and freedom. Ballet is such an amazing way to express yourself, even when you’re not portraying a clear story. If this past year and a bit of COVID where I couldn’t dance in a space with my colleagues and friends taught me anything, it was the importance of sharing what we create with others. I feel that connection shared through expressing movement is just as important for the dancers as the audience members. Generosity is also a value that I relate to through ballet. I am drawn to the discipline and dedication that this art form calls for. I don’t think that it’s something you can half-heartedly do, it’s just too hard and too much work. Ballet is a funny thing because you do it from such a young age most of the time, and so you grow up in this industry feeling like a student and always feeling like there’s someone that has power over you; you’re always told what to do. There’s a dichotomy where you have to be creative and you have room to be an artist, but at the same time we’re constantly told to do things in a certain way on a certain count. There comes responsibility with that ability to work as a team, but there’s also responsibility to be an artist and to find a way of expressing those certain counts in your own way. I think courage is another value cultivated by ballet. You need bravery to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, and come back each day when there are often so many things that seem to be working against you in such a hard industry. You might feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall sometimes, but the hard work pays off, and it’s really rewarding. It’s also really hard, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but that’s when it takes courage to keep going and to keep coming back. If you love it enough, that’s what you’ll eventually want to do.
Congratulations on your recent promotion! What was the first thought that went through your mind when it happened?
I’m so glad the promotion was filmed so I could watch it later, because at the time it didn’t feel like I was even in my own body. It was such an incredible moment, I was so emotional and just overwhelmed with gratitude. I spent a long time in the corps and worked so hard during that time. During my corps years, I was given some wonderful opportunities with soloist and principal roles and it was hard to not wonder if I was ‘good enough’ or if I was dancing those roles ‘well enough’. A new title shouldn’t give you more validation than what you give yourself, but having the support of my colleagues and role models whilst David Hallberg was standing there telling me he wants me to skip a rank and become a soloist was so rewarding, and in a way it was validating. I’m just so grateful, happy, and proud of all the hard work I’ve put in. The warmth and respect I received from everyone else in the room was so lovely, it helped me realise that people are seeing the kindness I try to bring to everything I do. The whole experience still feels a bit surreal.
Do you feel the promotion has changed the way in which you approach your daily training and/or given you a new lens on your career?
It has only been a week so far, but I feel it has. The other day David Hallberg asked me if I feel the promotion has given me more confidence, and I absolutely feel it has. The fact that someone recognised how hard I’ve worked and feel I’m of a soloist standard has helped me feel it’s ok to be confident… which is something I’ve always struggled with. I feel more settled in the company just because I know that everyone around me supports and respects me, and that’s because of the way my colleagues reacted to my promotion. It has been a really humbling experience and the pressure is not lost on me. I really want to live up to the title and not ever get complacent or slack off now that I am a soloist. It inspires me to work harder and harder because I want to make sure that people know I will fight to always be the best I can be, regardless of what opportunities I’m given or what title I hold. I always want to approach my work with as much diligence and passion as I can and I guess this promotion has made me even more motivated. I feel more validated when stepping into roles, and feel I can embrace opportunities fully rather than being afraid to come across as ‘over confident’ or still trying to prove myself.
Have you ever experienced doubt or fear around your art? If so, what helped you through it?
Absolutely. Lots of doubt, lots of fear! I think it’s inevitable in an art form where you have to be so vulnerable and your body is your instrument. You’re constantly critiquing it, looking in a mirror, being compared to other people, and judged. I don’t believe it’s ever intentionally personal, but because it’s something you’re so passionate about it can be hard not to take it personally. It’s hard to separate myself ‘Isobelle’ from ‘Isobelle the dancer’, and when you’re trying to grow and push and learn it’s hard to not feel moments of doubt and worry I’m going to make a fool of myself, or wonder if people think I deserve to be here, or what their opinion of me actually is. I think you’re constantly in a stream of self doubt and trying to fight with your self worth in the studio. Critiquing yourself can be a really good tool for learning, but it can easily switch into something negative, and personally I’ve struggled with that. I’m the tallest girl in the company and so I’ve felt a bit like I don’t belong at times. Now there’s so many different body shapes and that variety is actually really beautiful and sought after, but my height has not always been something that’s felt easy for me. I remember in my first year with the company I was standing in this triangle in Swan Lake and I looked in the mirror and saw everyone’s heads and then mine just popped up at the back because I was a lot taller than everyone else; being new and navigating how to fit into a new work environment, moments like that made me feel a little bit more self conscious. I have internally fought with utilizing my height, because it can be a great asset as long as I’m confident in it, but I did struggle to find that confidence. Aside from the height thing, I struggled with having confidence in myself that I might not be great at this step right now but I’m going to work on it, I’m going to get it, and I’m going to feel proud. Sometimes I feel a bit shy and I don’t want people to judge me if I fall over. Since being in the company I’ve noticed in myself that I have a fear of failure so if I can’t quite do something right at the start I get really mad at myself, and that’s something that I will always have to work on. The journey is really important and it’s okay to not be good at something right away to have to work on it.
COVID-19 was such an uncertain time for artists. Can you speak a little about your mental landscape during those times?
Yes, COVID has been a very challenging time. In some ways I’m quite grateful for the time that we’ve all had to step back from our busy lives and I think I’ve actually done a lot of growing and learning about myself. I have never felt more confident and stronger, even physically, after this year of not really being able to do my job. I also feel more connected to so many different aspects in my life. I’m really lucky that I still live with some of my family, and that was great in COVID because I had a lot of space to do class in the family home. My mum’s a ballet teacher and she taught a lot from home and my younger siblings were dancing, so they always kept me motivated. I feel like because I had them around it motivated me to do my work and to do class every day. They kept me sane mentally, I think we all grew even closer… if that’s possible. I’m so grateful and know not everyone was that lucky. I learned a lot about myself and how motivated I actually am, because I didn’t have external stimulations, so all motivation and discipline had to come from me. I was quite proud of how my lockdown shaped out and the way I approached things. I think the first lockdown was quite novel in a way, but then it just dragged on and on and that second lockdown was really hard to stay motivated through. There were some days where I would break down crying. I logged on to our class every morning, but didn’t always get through all of class. There were a handful of days where I couldn’t pick up an exercise or I couldn’t do it because of space, and I just would stop, fall on the floor, and sob for a while. You didn’t know when we were going back and we were training in less than ideal conditions for our work, and for so long. Having my family around was my saving grace, and on those tough days they would say ‘just take a minute, take a breath. You don’t have to finish this class, do something else with your day today and come back to it tomorrow’. There were moments that made me question what I was doing it all for. Those moments were few and far between, but they were so difficult and frustrating when they arose. It was so tiring, because one day you feel great and motivated and the next you feel like you’re at the lowest of lows. It was draining and I think at the end of it we all felt just tired of having all these different feelings. It has just been a crazy time! These times of uncertainty really helped me go within and remember I do ballet and come back to class daily because I love it; ballet brings me joy, and being able to work on this art form in whatever capacity makes me happy.
What was the first thing that made knowing you would perform again feel real?
We always do a full rehearsal day the Saturday before we open a show. I remember being in our first Saturday rehearsals since we went into lockdown the year before (this was in February before our summertime gala) and I remember the feeling in the studio that Saturday; there was so much energy and excitement in the room. We were watching everyone do things that we hadn’t seen rehearsed yet and everyone was so supportive. I just remember feeling so grateful and so lucky to be there. I love what I do and I had real teary moments. It was a strange week, I felt out of practice doing makeup, I think I bought all this stuff from the chemist, I was like ‘I might need something for my makeup, I might need to buy extra cotton pads and four pairs of eyelashes’. It felt so silly because when you’re usually in season you have your routine and know you have everything you need, but I just felt unsure about the whole process… it had been so long. Due to our first performance being in an arena, there was no curtain, meaning the audience could watch class. Whilst warming up for our first show, the first two audience members entered the arena, they were an ederly couple coming to watch the ballet. As they entered, the whole company just stopped and applauded. It was a really heartwarming and exciting moment, it felt like we had finally made it back.
Do you have a morning routine?
I wake up and start preparing for the day ahead, including breakfast of course (I love avo toast!). During the pandemic I fell in love with doing yoga in the mornings. I often took a class led by my colleague Evie Ferris (Find Evie’s Artistic and Holistic interview via this link). Now that I’m back to my full schedule, I’m often tired and need more of a sleep in, but some mornings I still fit in yoga. I generally arrive at the ballet center 40 minutes before class. I get changed then find my space in the studio. I focus on my essential pilates exercises in my pre class warm up, and find it works best for me to do the rest of my pilates spread throughout the day . Some of my favourite pre class exercises are toe push ups, deep rotator activators, and hamstring bridges.
What does the word holistic mean to you?
Having balance and a wholesome approach to every aspect of your life.
Do you feel being an artist affects the way in which you approach everyday life?
I think it has allowed me to feel more empathy. I look at life in a broader way. I can see beauty in lots of different things, and I think it might just be my personality, but I always like to see the good in everyone and everything. I try to always seek what is artistic and beautiful.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into a helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
I feel there have been a multitude of hurdles in my life, and every time I overcame one I felt a bit stronger. In my first year at The Australian Ballet School, I struggled to find the balance between my sensitive side and the strong disciplined side of myself. Due to growing up in a small town, a lot of my training had been very one on one, so all of a sudden being in a big class with teachers who worked off a set syllabus was a big adjustment for me. I didn’t realise how big a shift that was until I looked back years later, the experience certainly helped me develop a thicker skin though. There were times where I questioned if I could push through all the awful insecure thoughts I was having about myself, in the end these doubts just made me try harder. I had to learn to turn my lack of confidence into motivation, because I loved the art form so much. I had to learn to acknowledge my fear, but lean on my inner strength.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
I have to pick two… courage and kindness.
I’m a big believer in living by these values. This world can be so harsh, so kindness can go a long way, and for anything in life, you just need a little bit of courage. I love the saying ‘20 seconds of courage and something great will come of it’.
What tools do you use when the fear gets loud?
I love quotes and keep inspiring poetry beside my bed. I also lean on my family, they are great listeners and always help me unjumble my thoughts and find perspective. I find it grounding to remember why I started and how far I’ve come as well. I genuinely have such a deep passion for this art, so in the tough moments I always try to remember that. We are supposed to enjoy ballet, it’s not life or death, we do it for love.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
I hope that readers take away an insight into how I approach the difficult moments in life. I hope they remember to keep courage and kindness in their hearts, and know that hard work really does pay off. If you are passionate and care deeply about something, then just be brave and do your best every day… that is always enough.
You can find Isobelle on IG @elledashwood or reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Pic Credit- Daniel Boud