We chat to the six talented dancers from the Australian Ballet hoping to be crowned this year’s winner.

Historically, the art form of ballet has always been hierarchical, with dancers achieving different ranks as their skills progress. The most inexperienced dancers begin their careers in the Corps de Ballet, with the most advanced dancers, those who perform the leading roles, becoming Principal Artists.

Since 2003, the annual Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year Award has offered another unique milestone for the elite young dancers of the Australian Ballet. Each year six talented dancers from the company’s ranks are selected by the Australian Ballet’s artistic staff, previous winners of the award and the Principal Artists, and throughout the course of the season their performances and ongoing development is judged.

Ahead of the announcement of 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year this evening, we meet this year’s finalists.

Ako Konda

Born in Nagoya, Japan in 1991, Ako began her training at Shiho Kanazawa Ballet Studio aged just three-years-old. She joined The Australian Ballet in 2010 and was promoted to principal artist in April 2015 following her debut as Giselle.

“I have danced so many wonderful roles with the company. But I have two special roles that stay in my heart. One is Kitri from Don Quixote. This role had been my dream role since I was young. And this role was my first principal role with The Australian Ballet. So when I got to do it, it was like a dream come true! The second one is Giselle. This ballet was my mum’s favourite, but I never got to do it until this year. When I debuted as Giselle, my mum was in the audience and in playing this role, I was promoted to Principal Artist in front of her. It was so special.

Being promoted this year was a huge honour. Becoming a Principal Artist was always my aim, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. To me, becoming a Principal is not the end, I think it’s the beginning of new ballet career. Now I have many responsibilities to represent The Australian Ballet and to be a good role model. It is challenging but I’m really enjoying this new challenge!

To stay motivated I ask myself sometimes, Why did I work so hard in Japan? What was that for? The answer is: to do what I love as my job. Thinking back to my time in Japan really helps me to stay focused.”

Robyn Hendricks

South African-born Robyn Hendricks began learning ballet after her grandfather observed her dancing on her toes when she was eight. After training at the Australian Ballet School, she joined The Australian Ballet in 2005 and was promoted to soloist in 2011.

“I have been incredibly fortunate to have had opportunities to travel and receive training in many different schools and companies, with some of the world’s best teachers. Ballet is such a beautiful language that is understood all over the world and each company has their own unique style of movement. I think I’ve always been very intrigued by the way Australian dancers move. Australian dancers are known for their athleticism and ability to move. I think I’ve always been impressed by how diverse this company is and how incredibly hard this they work. There are fantastic dancers here who challenge and inspire me every day to be better and, as a dancer, that is so important.

I have done great modern works since joining the company, by some of the world’s most popular choreographers of today. I love dancing these new works because they really do challenge my body and really encourage me to push past my comfort zones. I love a good challenge! These modern works do differ from the classical works. As I mentioned before they do ask a bit more of your body in a sense and require us dancers to be freer and let go. But the classical works most definitely challenge your body in other ways- technique and purity in execution. The more roles I do, the more I realise they actually work together hand in hand. One can really help the other.

But choosing my favourite choreographer is impossible to decide. There are so many great choreographers, both past and present, who have created some beautiful ballets that have enriched my life and I’m sure the lives of the audiences who have seen them. As a dancer, all I could hope for from a choreographer is to be challenged physically, mentally, but most of all emotionally, and be encouraged to do better and be better than what I thought possible.”

Marcus Morelli

Melbourne-born dancer Marcus Morelli started dance classes aged ten. He studied at the Jane Moore Academy of Ballet followed by The Australian Ballet School, and also toured with The Dancers Company in 2013. He joined The Australian Ballet in 2014 and is currently in the Corps de Ballet.

“There are so many stereotypes about male ballet dancers but I suppose one of the most stereotypical things we hear is that we do exactly the same thing as the ladies. This of course is not true. Although us men have to work with the exact same balletic technique as the women, we also have certain steps (generally allegro, or jumps), that we do that the women don’t. And we also don’t go ‘en pointe’!

I love turning and jumping so my favourite kind of repertoire are the roles that have an abundance of either! I also really love the roles that you have to emotionally invest in to create something real and magical out on stage.

Being a professional, full-time dancer you face many challenges, including frequent pain/soreness/injuries; adapting your technique and personal style to suit all roles within the classical and contemporary repertoire; and also just the fact that what we do is incredibly skilled and takes a lot of practice and dedication! Our days at The Australian Ballet are demanding and long, but at the end of the day we put on spectacular performances as a result of all that hard work.”

Amanda McGuigan

Born in Sydney, McGuigan attended the prestigious McDonald College, as well as studying at Tanya Pearson’s Classical Coaching Academy and The Australian Ballet School as a junior associate. At the age of 15 she moved to London to study at The Royal Ballet School. After graduation, she joined American Ballet Theatre (2007-2010) and then the Dutch National Ballet (2010-2013). She joined The Australian Ballet in 2014 and was promoted to coryphée in 2015.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have an international career and I’ve loved my time, the opportunities, places and people that I worked with and met when I was overseas; I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But being so far away from home is tough. Working and living across the pond meant that, free time-wise, I was limited as to when I could travel back to Sydney.  I made it back every two years or so, and sometimes I managed an extra short visit around the New Year if I could get away.  The last couple of years, I have to admit, it got harder and harder for me to make the return trip back to Amsterdam. I missed the Australian lifestyle; I missed the weather, the beaches and of course, the people. The Australian Ballet was actually the first ballet performance I went to and fell in love with. When I was given the opportunity to join, I just knew it was the right move for me. I’m really loving being a member of the Company and being back in Australia.

Being a dancer is a challenging profession, but when I leave the studio or the theatre after a good day ‘in the office’, I don’t take my work home with me. One of my tricks to keep me loving my job is having a normal life outside of dance. I actually think it makes me a better dancer.”

Jasmin Durham

Originally from Hong Kong, Durham moved to Canberra aged three months with her family. She started learning ballet at the age of three at the Lisa Clark Dance Centre and studied a huge ranges of styles including jazz, tap and contemporary dance. In 2009 she moved to Melbourne to study at The Australian Ballet School and in 2012 she joined the Australian Ballet. She is currently in the Corps de Ballet.

“I studied many types of dance forms growing up but ballet was always my main focus. I had a huge appreciation for the artistry and grace that ballet instils in you as a person. The focus and drive required to succeed in ballet is greater than most other dance forms which is another reason why it gained my full attention. As a kid I always remember ballet feeling like an outlet, something I could make my own and could rely on to make me happy. Studying other dance forms growing up has proven to be very valuable to my career now. I enjoy the contemporary seasons just as much as the classical ones. The Australian Ballet’s recent 20:21 was a career highlight, performing in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, which are both modern works. I am grateful that I trained in different dance forms as it has made me a valued member of The Australian Ballet with their diverse classical and contemporary repertoire.

I see my future career dancing in Australia, as I love being able to dance in front of my family and friends. I hope to progress through the company and continue experiencing those exhilarating moments onstage that make the hard work and sacrifices worthwhile.

To me, the most important attribute a ballet dancer should have is the ability to find the balance. To work hard, yet ensure your life is rich enough with experience to draw upon. The ability to hold on to the beautiful moments (performing) and letting go of the negative ones (self-criticism and insecurities). I’m a huge believer that a dancer should be physically strong; at The Australian Ballet we often perform 7-8 times a week, it is important to take care of yourself and aim to be fit and healthy to ensure you are reliable for the shows and busy work schedule.”

Benedicte Bemet

Benedicte Bemet was born in Mackay in 1994, but grew up on the Gold Coast. She started ballet at the age of three training at the Ransley’s Ballet Centre. When she was ten her family relocated to Hong Kong, where she continued her ballet training but she eventually returned to Australia when was accepted into The Australian Ballet School at age 14. She joined The Australian Ballet in 2012 and was promoted to coryphée in 2013.

“Having gone through the Australian Ballet School with my colleagues and dance partners I definitely feel that we share a special bond on stage that helps create that extra buzz when we are performing. It’s such a beautiful thing to watch your colleagues grow and evolve throughout their careers and to be able to support each other.

In the future I hope to spend many more years healthily and happily dancing with The Australian Ballet and I’m looking forward to our exciting repertoire for next year. We always have a really great range of classic ballets and more avant garde contemporary pieces that keep our minds and bodies inspired.

For me, the best thing about my job is that as it is an art form, and so there is no definitive way to do something ‘correctly’. This means you are constantly learning and changing how you approach steps/choreography or adapting to different characters and roles. It’s a beautiful thing because you can learn so much from watching others, and seeing how different dancers portray different characters or express themselves through their musicality in their own unique way. And that’s what I love about this job, the endless possibilities that are created.”