A Townsville teenager has beaten thousands of international dancers to take up a position at one of the world’s most prestigious ballet academies.
Zai Calliste, 17, has been accepted into the English National Ballet School, following in the footsteps of his dancer mother.
“Everything I had been working hard for sort of just came into fruition and it was the most amazing feeling and I felt so proud,” Zai says.
The application process began in December 2021 via video, with the teenager later invited to London for the final round of intense and “nerve-wracking” auditions.
As a male dancer of Caribbean heritage, achieving his dream has had its challenges — especially in a regional city.
“There are many things that come with being a male dancer and a male dancer of culture. [It] hasn’t always been the easiest,” Zai says.
His mother, Nikki Robinson, is also no stranger to the world stage, with a dance career spanning over 21 years.
Ms Robinson was the key reason behind her son entering the dance studio 11 years ago.
“I knew he had a bit of a performance bug and, even way back when he was little, he had a really endearing quality that he was able to communicate to the audience,” she says.
“It’s been really wonderful to watch him bloom and progress and, of course, I’m super proud of how he’s adapted to everything he’s faced over the years dancing.”
Zai started dancing at the age of six when he was sitting in one of his mother’s ballet classes.
“I decided I wanted to try it and she said she would give me a week and after that if I still wanted to do it, she would get me sorted,” he says.
“I lasted the week and I’ve been dancing ever since.”
Now that he has secured his spot in the school, Zai has his sights set on joining the world-renowned English National Ballet Company.
Dance teacher and co-director of the Ann Roberts School of Dancing Jane Pirani says there continues to be a stigma around male dancers, despite their talents.
“I’ve lost quite a few boys [from the dance school] because they were being ostracized at school or out in the community for [dancing],” she says.
Ms Pirani says for many young male creatives, dance is a safe place to express themselves.
The English National Ballet School has been operating since 1988 and is held in high regard as a feeder academy into the company.
“The English National Ballet Company is now in alignment with the likes of the Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet,” Ms Pirani says.
Zai is due to move to London later this year.
“This is the stepping stone now, where it is make or break and he will have the opportunity to be offered a contract with [the English National Ballet] or audition for other companies,” Ms Pirani says.
She says it is incredibly rare for a regional dancer to make it on an international stage but believes once Zai secures his first job, he is going to be huge.
“Townsville is behind him; it’s been his dream from a little boy, and he really deserves everything he gets because he is a natural performer and that’s something you cannot teach people,” she says.