As the dancers took their bows at the Sydney opening night of The Nutcracker, you could glimpse the streamers that some of them had hidden in their hands in readiness for the announcement of this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards.

After the final bow, The Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister and Telstra CEO Andrew Penn took to the stage to announce the names of the winners. As the six nominees stepped forward, joined by last year’s winner Jade Wood, it was finally the moment which has now become an Australian ballet tradition at the end of the year.

Jill Ogai (centre) with Marcus Morelli on her right, and Andrew Penn and David McAllister on her left. Photograph © Lisa Tomasetti

Jill Ogai, a Soloist with TAB, looked as if she could hardly believe it when she named the 2019 Rising Star of the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards – a cash prize worth $20,000 from Telstra, a Principal Partner of TAB for 35 years. Marcus Morelli, a Senior Artist, took out the 2019 Telstra People’s Choice Award worth $5,000.

“Jill has had an exceptional year,” said McAllister. “She has worked extremely hard and taken up every opportunity thrown her way with passion and determination. Jill is a powerful, expressive dancer who shines brightly on stage transitioning from classical to contemporary programs with ease. I’m excited for her future and I’m certain she will continue to be an inspiration to young dancers across the country and thanks to Telstra she has the support to propel her career even further.”

“Marcus has taken on 2019 head first and never looked back. His determination and commitment to dance has seen him excel in multiple principal roles through the year and it was evident the audience always felt the same way about his talent as we do. His athletic, authentic and expansive performances are something special to behold and he has an extremely bright ballet career ahead of him,” said McAllister.

Now in their 17th year, the Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards recognise the rising stars at TAB and are aimed at helping them reach their full potential. Eight previous winners have risen through the ranks to become Principal Artists, among them Benedicte Bemet who had just danced the role Clara.

Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli. Photograph © Lisa Tomasetti

Ogai was born in Sydney in 1993, and grew up in Bondi Beach. At the age of four, she and her twin brother begged their parents to let them start ballet classes after their tennis-coach father played them a film of Swan Lake. Ogai was accepted by The Australian Ballet School to study ballet full-time at the age of 14, and joined TAB in 2012. She was promoted to Soloist in 2018.

The nominees are judged throughout the year on their contributions both on and off the stage to the company. This year’s judging panel consisted of McAllister, Libby Christie (Executive Director, TAB), Genelle Sharples (Media and Sponsorships Principal, Telstra), Carmel Mulhern (Group General Counsel, Telstra), Nadia Fairfax (Editor, Fairfax Journal) and Sophie Tedmanson (Executive Editor, Qantas Magazine).

The People’s Choice Award is decided by the public through online and SMS voting. This year there were 50,000 votes – the biggest to date. Morelli also took home the Telstra People’s Choice Award in 2015.

The other nominees in 2019 were Corps de Ballet Dancer Isobelle Dashwood, Senior Artist Cristiano Martino, Soloist Sharni Spencer, and Corps de Ballet dancer Yichuan Wang.