Isabella Boylston on Creating Ballet Sun Valley and Her Perfect Cast of Dancers

Jayme Thornton

Between her work as a principal with American Ballet Theatre and her ever-increasing number of side projects in the fashion world, Isabella Boylston's schedule is pretty packed. But she is showing no signs of slowing down, currently working on her biggest project yet as the artistic director of Ballet Sun Valley. Running this week in her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho, the inaugural festival includes two nights of performances from some of ballet's best (Boylston and pals James Whiteside and Tiler Peck are among the dancers participating). Plus, an education day consisting of free dance and choreography classes taught by some of the stars from the program.

Given that more dancers seem to be trying their hand at directing and curating festivals, we spoke with Boylston about some of the challenges of putting Ballet Sun Valley together, and why it means so much to her.

How did the idea for Ballet Sun Valley come about?
For a while I had been thinking that I wanted to curate my own show, and then when I was back home visiting family and saw the Sun Valley Pavillion for the first time, I thought it would be perfect. I reached out to my first ballet teacher, Hilarie Neely, who put me in touch with Bob Smelick, who would become my executive producer. He brought his friend Dan Drackett on board as the head of the sponsors committee, and we were very lucky to get Viking Cruises as our lead sponsor. Bob and Dan had actually presented San Francisco Ballet several years ago, so they were really excited about now presenting a dancer-organized event.

We've been working on this for almost 2 years, but it took a long time to get everything going. I had gotten to a point in my career where I was able to spend some of my creative energy on something new.

How did you approach your programming choices?
I made a wish list of dancers. All of them are close friends so I sent everyone a message on WhatsApp or asked them in person. And then I thought about rep that would be meaningful to me and that I thought the audience would enjoy. I wanted to feature choreographers I have worked with like Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, Pontus Lidberg and Christopher Wheeldon. And I really wanted a new commission, so we hired Gemma Bond to make a ballet for 10 dancers. It was actually like working on a jigsaw puzzle!

Is there one piece you're most looking forward to performing or watching?
I'm really excited to debut in Justin Peck's Bright Motion with Calvin Royal III. It's a gorgeous ballet and we will have live music! Actually over 80% of the music is going to be live which was very important to me. And I can't wait for Gemma's world premiere. Honestly I can't pick just one! I can't wait to see the Royal Danish Ballet dancers in Kermesse in Bruges and Kimin Kim and Cassandra Trenary dancing together for the first time in Don Quixote.

What were some of the challenges planning a festival in Idaho while living in NYC and traveling for work?
Honestly, it has been a huge challenge. I knew it would be hard, but I never could've imagined how much work it would actually be—endless emails and phone calls. There were so many factors to consider, like housing for the dancers and musicians, bringing in a dance floor, rehearsal space, hiring a music director and stage manager, coordinating the education day, along with raising an enormous amount of money and getting the word out. There's no way I could have done any of it without Jen McGrath who has been the tour manager and overseer of all operations.

What will the education day consist of?
We met our goal of enrolling 200 kids! There are kids from the Sun Valley area and a number from out of state as well. There will be ballet, variations, jazz and a choreography class taught by some of the stars who are coming. And thanks to a generous sponsorship, we are able to offer all the classes for free! Scholarships were a huge help for me and my family growing up, so I'm happy that no one will be barred from attending for financial reasons.

What do you hope to achieve with Ballet Sun Valley?
Hopefully it will be a moving experience for all the kids and adults who are in the audience, and if it inspires kids to take a dance class or pursue a career in dance, that's even better. I think we need art and performance in our lives now more than ever!

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