Dancer Brillante: NYCB's Ashley Bouder

July 31, 2007
As Ashley Bouder runs onto the stage and into a crisp, high pas de chat, arms held overhead in delight, there is no doubt that she is queen of that pearly underworld that is George Balanchine’s
Ballo della Regina
. And when, after the flirtatious little polka on pointe that opens her first solo, she suddenly launches herself into a jeté, back foot almost kicking her head, we know indisputably that here is a dancer who can take on anything and make it her own.
At just 21, Bouder has a cast-iron technique; an extraordinary, plush jump; and an instinctive, acute musicality. Her rendering of
, a bravura allegro work that Balanchine made for virtuoso Merrill Ashley, turns its fiendish difficulties into joyous play. The speedy batterie; the sharp, fast relevés and jumps on pointe that punctuate the ballerina’s solos, and the quick transitions between steps, are not simply technically impeccable. Bouder is so at ease with the choreography that she also phrases the sequences in an entirely personal manner, lingering in a momentary balance or speeding up the movement at will.
Her exceptional technique is always at the service of the ballet she is performing, rather than displayed for its own sake, and her sheer joy in movement is always visible.
“The great thing about Ashley,” says principal dancer Joaquin De Luz, who has partnered her in a number of ballets, “is that she really shares her energy, and it makes you want to jump higher and dance better.”
Bouder grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When she was 6, she started studying with Marcia Dale Weary, the founder of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, well known for her rigorous teaching and famous graduates (see “Teach-Learn Connection,” July 2005). “When I found out that my mother had danced, I had to do it too,” says Bouder, perhaps demonstrating the first signs of her competitive edge.
Bouder loved ballet classes, but also took gymnastics, and actually stopped ballet at 8 to focus on that. Her father encouraged her to go back. “He said, you’re really good at that. Don’t give it up,” Bouder recounts. She began to dance in the annual performances given by the school, and to realize that she loved being onstage. At 9, she told her friends at school that she was going to become a principal at New York City Ballet.
Sean Lavery, assistant to ballet master in chief Peter Martins at NYCB, remembers staging a local
Midsummer Night’s Dream
in Carlisle when Bouder was 12. “She did Butterfly, and she just flew across the stage.” Merrill Ashley reports seeing Bouder perform the role of Dewdrop in CPYB’s staging of The Nutcracker. “She was breathtaking,” says Ashley, “her power, her facility, the way she expressed joy in dance.”
Around that time, Bouder won a scholarship to American Ballet Theatre’s summer program, but wasn’t able to go because she was too young to live alone in New York City. When, at 15, the School of American Ballet offered her a similar scholarship, she exhibited the steely determination that has marked her trajectory. “My mother was still not sure about me heading off to New York on my own,” says Bouder, “but I had made up my mind. I just told her, ‘I’m going.’ ”
Bouder’s parents, divorced by then, yielded to the inevitable, and she spent a year at SAB, dancing lead roles in
Danses Concertantes
and Stars and Stripes at the school’s 2000 annual workshop. At the final performance, she was given a Mae L. Wien award for outstanding promise, and was standing alongside other Wien awardees Glenn Keenan, Amar Ramasar, and Andrew Veyette, when Peter Martins made a casual reference to all of them taking company class. “The boys knew that they had been made apprentices,” says Bouder. “But Glenn and I just looked at each other.”
After a summer apprenticeship, she became, at 16, a full-time company member, and was performing the demi-soloist role in Balanchine’s
La Source
in the first week of the winter season. Her buoyant bouncing-ball jump, boundless energy, and confident happiness in finding herself center stage made, as Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times, “more than one jaw drop at the New York State Theater.”
During the winter and spring seasons of her first year, Bouder continued to shine. “From the beginning she stood out onstage,” says Merrill Ashley. “Besides her technical strength, she really feels and expresses the movement and clearly she loves to dance.” Lavery also noted her facility for learning new parts. “I was very aware of how closely she watched everything,” he says, “which is always a telltale sign that someone is ambitious, and smart.” That facility was called into play when Bouder was asked to learn the title role of Balanchine’s
in a matter of hours after principal Margaret Tracey injured herself in 2000. “I had an hour with Sean alone, learning my solos, and an hour with my partner, Charles Askegard,” says Bouder. “Then I got into the costume and big headdress for the first time, and Sean pushed me onto the stage. I remember hearing him count the Stravinsky music; in fact, by the last solo, he was yelling from the wings!”
Given the circumstances, Bouder gave an incredibly polished rendition of the role, weaving the choreographic phrases into a dancerly whole with clarity and detail. The critics were abuzz, and she was named one of
Dance Magazine
’s “25 to Watch” in 2001.

really pushed me into working on adagio,” says Bouder, who is matter-of-factly self-critical when her technical qualities are mentioned. “I have a good technical foundation, but I have so much to work on,” she says. “I don’t have great feet. I’m really conscious of working on my arms and head, because I’m very energetic, and I can throw myself around if I don’t think about it.”
After a spate of ankle sprains that kept Bouder intermittently offstage during a couple of seasons, she returned with new strength and determination in the 2004 winter season, becoming a soloist (“I thought, now I’ve got to get to principal!” she says.), and making an impressive debut as Aurora in
The Sleeping Beauty
. “Rarely,” wrote Kisselgoff (who has seen a few Auroras) “has the first solo been danced so vividly, so full of energy and joy and even ordinary jumps made outer form breathe with animation.”
Bouder admits to loving “the acting side,” which would be clear to anyone who saw her, last season, make a real character out of the small, unfeatured role of Graziella, Riff’s saucy girlfriend in
West Side Story
. “I loved working with Sean on Aurora’s character,” she says, “and with Susan Stroman on Double Feature. She told me I was a good actress, which was an amazing compliment.” She would like, she says, to do more story ballets in the future, particularly Giselle: “I have to do that!”
Even before she was promoted to principal in January, Bouder was demonstrating a new maturity and elegance—and seemed to be onstage at almost every performance. Her range of roles—from Balanchine and Robbins works, to new pieces by Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, and Albert Evans, to Aurora—shows her remarkable versatility. Her capacity to make slower, more legato roles as beautiful as her pyrotechnical accomplishments has grown.
“I think there has been a conscious decision to expand my repertoire,” she says. “It’s easy to always give me the jumping roles, but I’ve learned the most from ballets like ‘Emeralds.’ That was a turning point for me.” The opening section of Balanchine’s
, “Emeralds” requires a kind of glamorous serenity from its lead dancer. Jared Angle, who partnered Bouder in the pas de deux, says, “It’s all about the perfume of the piece, and that’s mostly what we worked on. Ashley is so technically secure that we could really focus on a romantic way of moving together. The only problem was that because she can do everything, I sometimes have to tell her to let me do my job and take control.”
Now that Bouder has achieved the goal she set for herself at 9, what next? She looks slightly nonplussed at first, then says, “Now I have to become a ballerina. When Peter promoted me, I thought, OK, you’re a principal now—you have to dance like one. When you see a real ballerina like Wendy Whelan or Alessandra Ferri, they take your breath away even if they are just walking onstage. That’s what I want to be.”

Roslyn Sulcas has written on dance for
The New York Times and other publications.