Entrechats with Gabrielle Johnston

With nearly 20 years under her belt, it could be concluded that Gabrielle Johnston is part of Queensland Ballet Academy’s DNA. A keen ballerina from the start, Gabbie pursued a professional dance career before transitioning into arts administration. She now works as the Academy’s Head of Operations, giving back to the aspiring dancers starting on the same path she did.

Entrechats with Gabrielle Johnston

Where does your story begin?

My Mum was a calisthenics teacher, so my sisters and I started dancing as tiny tots, and I continued with ballet and other genres of dance training and reached a professional level.

One of my ballet teachers, Vivianne Sayers, co-founded the Queensland Dance School of Excellence (QDSE). My sister and I both auditioned successfully and went through the two-year program and then I spent a further two years training at QUT completing an Associate Diploma of Arts (Dance).

While I was a student, I performed with Queensland Ballet as a trainee artist in La Sylphide (1990) and Giselle (1992) under Artistic Director, Harold Collins. After university, I moved to Sydney to join The Australian Opera’s ballet ensemble, where I was lucky enough to work with some of Australia’s leading choreographers and companies in collaborative productions with the Opera, such as Graeme Murphy and Sydney Dance Company and Meryl Tankard and Australian Dance Theatre.

When did you make your big career change?

After my time at the Opera I moved into musical theatre. It was an amazing job – I toured for almost a year with Hello Dolly. It was so much fun, but quite gruelling with eight shows per week. I also performed in the musical My Fair Lady and in many other freelance engagements in the modelling and commercial dance world.

During my early twenties I was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma and although I wasn’t all that unwell at the time, the effect of the diagnosis certainly sparked a change in my focus, and I started to dream of settling in one city and eventually having a family.

When a job opportunity came up to assist my dance agent in Sydney, I jumped at it and ended up completing a 12-month traineeship in arts administration with her. Before I knew it, I had transitioned out of being a professional dancer and into an administrative office employee… the beginning of an alternative pathway in the Arts.

When did you join Queensland Ballet?

I discovered there was an administrative position open at QDSE under Coordinator Angus Lugsdin, one of my former teachers. Coming full circle, I moved back to Brisbane and worked there all the way through until the program transitioned into the Queensland Ballet Academy’s Senior Program. I did take a few breaks across the years when I had my children and completed a Pilates Instructor certificate, teaching privately as well as at QDSE.

Until QB moved out of the Thomas Dixon Centre for renovations in 2019, I had been working in the same office for about 18 years!

What’s your favourite part of your role?

One of the real highlights of my role is seeing the students develop through their time at the Academy, because I experienced that journey first-hand. The level of training intensity alongside the weight of your senior academic years, as well as the reward you achieve from pushing through such an immense challenge, certainly shapes and strengthens your character. I can relate to the passion of our dancers, and it’s lovely to see them work their way towards a career.

Overall, I feel so privileged to still be working in the industry this far down the track. I love that the Academy has evolved and grown, and I feel very proud of the work we have done to arrive where we are now. What makes me passionate isn’t only about contributing to our students’ journeys, but also having been a part of the growth and evolution of this organisation is incredibly satisfying on a professional level.

What advice would you offer to your younger self after such a big career?

Every ounce of effort, all the sweat and tears that you put into your work will pay off in one way or another. You may not become a prima ballerina, but the resilience, grit and passion you develop as a teenager definitely won’t be in vain should you not fully achieve that specific goal. Although I didn’t end up having a strictly classical ballet career, I’m still very proud of all my professional achievements both on and off the stage and know that they have all led me to where I am today.

Images: David Kelly and Sesh Raman

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