Dancers & Companies

Becoming Isabella Boylston

It takes pluck to grow up with a name like Hildur.

For Isabella Boylston, born Hildur Isabella, it was just a part of her unconventional, free-spirited upbringing. Her parents met on a ski lift in Sun Valley, Idaho. Her father, Mike, was a country/blues drummer and "ski bum"; her mother, Cornelia, a Swedish electrical engineer. They fell in love and got married, raising two kids in a trailer in Sun Valley, with frequent road-trips to her dad's shows in "crappy towns," as Boylston, now 30, puts it. "It was totally Wild West," she adds, with an easy laugh.

She was named after an Icelandic great-grandmother ("a cool lady") and had never thought of changing her name until a company director planted the seed. Isabella Boylston—it does roll off the tongue. "I think growing up with an unusual name shaped my personality in a way," she reflected just days before the start of American Ballet Theatre's fall season.


Photo by Jayme Thornton

She may be right. Isabella Boylston—or Bella, as just about everyone now seems to call her—is one of the most strikingly individual dancers in the company, or anywhere. She's musical, she has great facility and strong technique, but, really, what one notices most is the boldness and joy of her dancing.

Three key moments come to mind: first, her debut in Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream, in 2011 when she was still in the corps. In this spoof of Soviet-style ballets, she played a haughty Moscow ballerina who visits a collective farm during a harvest festival. In the midst of a raucous ensemble, Boylston rocketed onstage with the propulsion and elevation of a torpedo. Who is that? everyone wondered, scrambling for the program.

Another was her debut in Giselle, in 2014, as a soloist. She was high-spirited in the first act, emphasizing the character's love of dance. "I don't think she should be half-dead already," Boylston explains. Her mad scene was understated. But in the second act, she did something extraordinary. It was that moment when Giselle—now transformed into a Wili—raises her leg slowly to the side, then shifts her torso into an arabesque: She did it with such deliberateness and control that the movement became disembodied, like that of a ghost.

Finally, there was her Juliet, a role she debuted last spring season (along with Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée and Sylvia). Her dancing was impetuous. But there was this one detail: the way she rested her chin on her forearm in the balcony scene, as she dreamed of Romeo. It was totally natural, slightly gawky, exactly what a teenager might do in an unguarded moment.

In Romeo and Juliet with James Whiteside. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.

This freshness is what Damian Woetzel, who made her artist in residence at his Vail International Dance Festival last summer, loves about her dancing: "She's alive in a way that is totally in the moment."

The effect is a combination of her personality—open and relaxed—and her very real physical abilities. "The jump is remarkable," says Woetzel, "and it comes out of nowhere."

"She is very alive person," echoes Irina Kolpakova, the great Soviet ballerina of the 1960s who is now Boylston's coach at ABT. "And her body is very talented. She can do everything: jump, turn, stretch, extensions. She is free onstage, and that's not boring."

Still, she's had to work hard. Because of her facility, and, especially, her loose joints, it has taken her some time to achieve a more composed, classical form. She was a late bloomer, she says: "From the time I joined the studio company to when I was 21 or 22, I grew three inches. I have gangly arms and long, hyperextended legs, so it took me a little longer to get the whole package to gel."

She and Kolpakova, and Boylston's previous coach, Susan Jaffe, have spent endless hours on her arabesque line in Swan Lake. "A lot of it is holding my torso strong, keeping my body together and not ricocheting around." Boylston and Kolpakova often use video of her rehearsals to pinpoint exact details that can be improved.

When it came to acting, she initially lacked confidence. She was self-conscious, in part because she hadn't yet found her way into the stories. As she explains, "a lot of the ballets we do"—especially the 19th-century classics—"the stories are pretty far out." She was more comfortable in new pieces by Christopher Wheeldon and works by Balanchine, where she could just be herself. Boylston is someone who needs to believe in a character in order to fully embody it.

"Classical works of character weren't organic to her," says Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director. "She had to work hard to grasp certain behaviors."

Photo by Jayme Thornton

A few years ago, she enlisted the help of an acting coach, Byam Stevens. The two of them read the scenarios and talk about the stories, analyzing the particulars of her character, moment by moment, scene by scene.

Another important experience has been working with Ratmansky. In addition to The Bright Stream, she has danced lead roles in his Firebird, Sleeping Beauty and Chamber Symphony. He pushed her to dance bigger—"Just, jump!" he told her in Bright Stream rehearsals—but also to find more nuance in the characters.

Isabella Boylston Chamber SymphonyIn Chamber Symphony. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy ABT.

"He directed me almost like a film director directing an actress," she says. "For every step or facial movement he has about 15 notes."

When approaching a new role, she goes to the New York Public Library to seek out archival recordings, if possible with original casts. When she was preparing for her debut as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, she watched tapes of Margot Fonteyn. Before Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, a friend bought her a DVD starring Nadia Nerina, the original Lise.

"With Fonteyn, it was her dynamics that impress me. The way she emphasized each step with such clarity. With Nerina, it was the vivacity of her jumps and energy. Ballerinas today have a more homogenous look."

But she knows that in the end, it's up to her. She has to shape her own interpretations. "At a certain point you realize you can never please everyone."

Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT

She's like that offstage, as well. Her friends speak affectionately of her independence of spirit. "One of the first things that struck me about Bella was her incredible sense of who she was, and her wonderful ability to laugh at herself," says ABT corps member Lauren Post, who's known Boylston since the two were students at Harid Conservatory. (Post is the person responsible for her unevenly pierced ears; she pierced them with a sterilized needle and some ice cubes in the Harid dorm.)

One thing Boylston has lacked so far is a strong onstage partnership. That may soon change. Last fall, she performed in Twyla Tharp's Brahms-Haydn Variations with the company's newest Danish import, Alban Lendorf. This spring, they're scheduled to dance together in Swan Lake (on opening night), Ratmansky's new Whipped Cream and "Aurora's Wedding" (the third act of Sleeping Beauty).

Isabella Boylston Alban LendorfWith Lendorf in Brahms-Haydn Variations. Photo by Marty Sohl.

The pairing seems promising; he's strong, with a solid Danish technique and an appealing stage presence. "He is a dream!" gushes Boylston.

This summer, Boylston is planning a show of her own, back home in Sun Valley. She has commissioned a new evening-length work from her colleague, the budding choreographer Gemma Bond. The score, too, is a commission, from the Brooklyn composer Judd Greenstein, whom she discovered on Spotify. Kate Duhamel will contribute video designs. Plans are still in the initial stages, but she's hoping to use a story or theme that relates to Sun Valley.

In 2015, she and fellow ABT principal James Whiteside collaborated with the filmmaker Yoonha Park and choreographer Justin Peck on a short film, Early Sunday Morning, shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. She's currently working on a Hollywood film project, Red Sparrow, also with Peck.

She's branching out. "When I was a kid, I was always directing and making things," she says, "and I feel like now I'm ready to spend a little more of my creative energy. I want to do something creative. I want to make things."


Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

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