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It’s a curious thing interviewing someone the week after you’ve critiqued them balancing their genitals on a bench in front of Pierre Bonnard’s The Bath. Izzac Carroll was one of the seven spirited members of Sydney Dance Company who fronted up to perform in Nude Live, an hour-long event that took place after hours at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its Nude Art from the Tate exhibition. Winning a string of rave reviews, Rafael Bonachela’s site specific choreography was smart, funny and moving all at once, while Carroll stood out not just for his brave and brilliant dancing, but also for being easily the tallest dancer in the room.
Sydney Dance Company in Nude Live. All photos © Peter Greig
This, I am told, will be the 19-year-old’s first interview, and thanks to my unusually intimate knowledge of his physique, I’m keen not to seem to have an unfair advantage over my subject. Rocking up nervously – me, not him – I find myself idly worrying that I might have to whip my clothes off to level the playing field. Luckily for Carroll, who turns out to be bright, chatty, articulate and pleasantly chilled, he is spared any such unpleasantness.
The latest in a string of SDC success stories, Izzac Carroll grew up in Warialda in northwest NSW, a rural community with a population of 1,120. “There's not a lot going on there,” he laughs, “no traffic lights or roundabouts or McDonalds or anything.” Maybe not, but there was the odd event to catch the adolescent interest, in Carroll’s case a local dance camp drawing attendees from across the region. “I went to get a week off school and to meet chicks,” he grins, “but I ended up loving it. I came home and said, ‘Mum, I actually really liked it. I think I wanna be a dancer’ and she said, ‘OK, if you’re sure this is something you want to do.’” Good barometers, mums.
Carroll in pre-publicity for Rafael Bonachela's Ocho
So, in 2013 Carroll found himself moving in with his aunty in Brisbane while he studied dance full-time at the Australian Dance Performance Institute. It was soon after he gained his Advanced Diploma in Performing Arts that he was spotted by SDC’s Linda Gamblin when he successfully auditioned for a place in their Pre-Professional Year, of which Gamblin is Course Director. “The course is usually only an 18-plus course,” he explains, “but Linda must have seen something in me – the long legs probably!”
Royal Ballet School-trained, and for many years a principal dancer with companies like The Australian Ballet and The Royal Ballet in London, Gamblin is now a sought-after teacher thanks to her knowledge of biomechanics and the physiology of the muscular and skeletal systems. She’s cited as a guru by many a young dancer who has passed through her classes. As a result, Sydney Dance Company’s nationally accredited Pre-Professional Year (PPY) is regarded as one of the best ways for young practitioners to explore their individuality as dancers and build on their creative potential. Gamblin doesn’t just work on bodies, she aims to engage the whole mind.
Moving to Sydney at the tender age of 17, Carroll lived in Regent's Park in a house with two 30-year-olds – a taxi driver and a tradie – who he admits he never really saw. “It was a bit weird to start off, so I moved out within a couple of months and found a girl who I'm still living with. We’ve moved houses a couple of times since then.”
Carroll in Rafael Bonachela's Anima
Unsure what to do next, after his PPY, Carroll was planning on leaving. “I was just going to do my own thing, which was a very bad idea,” he says. “I probably wouldn't have done anything, to be honest, but Linda and Sydney Dance Company found a full scholarship [the Time Fairfax AC Scholarship] to give to me, so last year, I did the PPY again.”
For Carroll, as for all the young dancers on the PPY, Gamblin has been an enormous influence. “It’s Linda, really. Linda. She's just the greatest person I've ever met in my life,” he says, genuinely fired up. “If you ask any of the ex-PPY students, they will vouch for her 100 per cent. She helped me through a lot of stuff. She changed my life.”
“I think she promotes being a human before a performer,” he explains. “Her philosophy is human first, heart second, dancer third. I tell that to everyone who ever asks me anything, because that stuck with me, and I really liked her philosophy in the way she addresses dance – like, in order to be an amazing dancer, you have to be a whole person.”
As part of the course, PPY students get to work with SDC guest choreographers, a process facilitated by Gamblin that allows them to pick out and develop aspects of dance that work for them. “She really wants you to strip back all the fabricated personalities that you've built up over the years – all the fake stuff that you've created about yourself in order to get people to perceive you as a better dancer, or perceive you as a different type of person,” Carroll explains. “But when you talk to her, she's like an angel,” he adds with another grin.
His real break came in August of 2016 when he was awarded a trainee contract with Sydney Dance Company under a Wales Family Traineeship, going on to make his premiere with the Company in Untamed in October that same year after SDC regular Daniel Roberts hurt his knee, what Carroll describes as “a bit of fortune off misfortune”. In fact, his performances in Bonachela’s Anima and Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest helped earn the show a slew of positive reviews and ensured his continuing involvement with the Company. “They must have liked me because I'm still here,” he jokes.
It was shortly after his SDC debut that Bonachela sought him out for a rather more challenging assignment: Nude Live, a project for which both Bonachela and Gamblin thought Carroll would be perfect. “They were like, ‘it's completely fine if you don't’,” he recalls. “They were really supportive if I didn't want to do it or if I felt uncomfortable.”
Despite an almost tangible confidence and his give-it-a-go manner, it took him a solid month or two to make up his mind. “It was a pretty big thing,” he admits. “I called my mum, and she had absolutely no idea what to do. ‘If it's for art, does it make it okay?’ she said. And ‘I don't know how I feel about you getting naked for money’. I was like, ‘Mum, I don't know how I feel about it to be honest’.”
Carroll in Nude Live
In the end, both decided to place their trust in the caring and supportive atmosphere that surrounds all SDC projects and Carroll took the plunge. “I'm so glad I did. It was the funnest thing I have ever done in my life!” he says. “Once you get past the first 15 minutes when everyone's naked – oh my God, it's beautiful, absolutely stunning. Just to be a part of it all, it's such an experience.”
Of course, day one of rehearsals, with each of the seven dancers in the same nervous state, was the greatest hurdle – “there's a lot of sneaky looking around,” Carroll admits – but he soon took to it like a duck to water, for want of a better metaphor. “Of course, there are going to be days when you just feel shit about yourself,” he says. “You're not going to feel 100 per cent about being naked everyday, but you just have to accept that and move past it.”
Of course, a trained dancer has the advantage of a body that looks good and does its work really well, but then there’s the added complication when the bits that are normally strapped down decide to take on a life of their own. Although Carroll describes it as more of a mental challenge than a physical one, there were still some basics that needed to be figured out. “You don't want to bend down, for instance, and have the people behind get a rude awakening,” he laughs. “We definitely got to know each other a lot. When we first started doing the partner work, it was a bit like, ‘Uh oh, there's a ball-sack here – like dangling in front of me’, or like boobs in my face. There’s definitely a bit of shock factor, but you just get used to it and then you are able to invest in the choreography a bit more.”
Carroll in Rafael Bonachela's Ocho
Carroll is full of admiration for Bonachela’s work on Nude Live, describing the process as gently guided but definitely open and collaborative. “Sometimes you'd end up doing something really serious and profound. Other times, it would turn into something absolutely hilarious. We didn't really see a problem having the two in the one piece, and I think that really paid off.”
Some of his favourite moments, however, were where the dancers were given space to improvise. “We had one section called ‘Object, Subject’ that originally was about framing bits of the body, but it evolved into something where we were able to play around. If an audience member was sitting on a bench, we'd go and sit next to them. We might put our hand on their shoulder and they're like, ‘What do I do?’ You catch people's eyes looking at your junk, and they're like, ‘gasp’. They don't know what to do – it's so funny.”
If the Nude Live experience gave Carroll an appreciation for art, his next stop would be more geographically enlightening. A few days after our interview he would jet off on SDC’s American tour to Swathmore, Amherst, Boston, and New York. “The longest flight I've ever been on is four hours, and that was to Perth,” he confesses. “I don't know how I'm going to go sitting down for 13-and-a-half hours because I'm pretty energetic.” In fact, the US tour would bring a number of firsts, not least of which would be his first live encounter with snow.
Carroll with SDC's Janessa Dufty in New York
After that, it’s straight into rehearsals for Orb, the latest SDC show opening at the end of April and featuring new works by Bonachela – Ochos, a work for eight dancers – and Full Moon by Taiwanese choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung. All that in less than a year. Not bad for a 19-year-old from Warialda.
Orb runs at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre from April 29 – May 13