On the Rise: Ashley Jackson

August 2, 2009

In Alonzo King’s Dust and Light, Ashley Jackson falls backwards grace­fully into David Harvey’s arms. He gently raises her into a turn that finishes in a serenely stretched arabesque. For a moment, Jackson is the iconic ballerina. Then she lands on her back behind Harvey, lending an arm and angled leg to support him in a backbend. A few days later, rehearsing King’s Signs and Wonders, Jackson, sinking into a deep plié on pointe, allows every ounce of energy to drip out of her body. She looks like a rag doll.

Those contradictory impulses—classically striking, completely contemporary—have shaped Jackson’s dancing since she joined Alonzo King’s LINES  Ballet in San Francisco four years ago. “In my life, I like to be in control,” the 22-year-old with the Modigliani face says. “In this company you have to learn to give and accept support.”

With beautifully tapered legs and flowing arms, Jackson is the youngest of LINES’ formidable women. Yet the spirited clarity of her classical training and the calm assurance she brings to even the fastest-paced and most complex of King’s combinations have made her stand out, though at 5′ 7″ she is also one of the company’s more petite women. The choreographer noticed Jackson’s ability when he saw her audition. “I saw right away how technically well-trained she was,” he recalls. “I also saw her will­power and her belief that she could do anything. Ashley has honesty and humility and can lose herself in her art.”

Jackson, a native of High Point, North Carolina, began gymnastics when she was 3. She went on to dance classes at Dancers Headquarters, a local studio, until she was 10, when she switched to Susan’s Dance Unlimited in nearby Kernersville and became enthralled with ballet. “I loved the movements that the older students were doing whenever I walked by the studio,” she remembers. “But my teachers also encouraged me because ballet is the base from which you can branch out.” Owner Susan H. Bodsford remembers Jackson as loving all forms of dance. “Right from the beginning,” she says, “Ashley had a magnetism that simply drew you in.”

As a sixth-grader, she joined the preparatory dance program at the North Carolina School of the Arts. When she reached the high school division, Jackson decided to focus on ballet. Studying with Melissa Hayden and Nina Danilova gave the young dancer varied perspectives on classicism. “It’s good to learn several styles,” she says. “The differences were in little things: the way you hold your head or the port de bras.” Jackson still finds herself drawing on her training. “Melissa Hayden taught me to focus on   the steps, the rhythms, and the tempo,” she says. “But Ms. Danilova has been a light in my life. She was the first to tell me, ‘You can do this; you have to do this for you and not anybody else.’ I still see her whenever I go back.”

At NCSA, both college and high school age students pursue academic work. Jackson took college-prep courses and kept up with her jazz, tap, and lyrical at her former studio, as well as sometimes going to competitions with them. “We tried to accommodate her schedule,” Bodsford explains.

Graduating in 2005 with both college acceptance letters and a one-year contract with North Carolina Dance Theatre2 in her pocket, Jackson entered the professional world. She performed in Balanchine’s Serenade and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Carmina Burana with the main com­pany. With the second company, she danced in Ailey’s The River. She also realized that college would have to wait, though she has started the LEAP program to earn her BA.

“I was in an audition phase,” she says. Then during Ballet Austin’s 2006 summer program, former King dancer Tanya Weidman-Davis suggested that Jackson audition for LINES. At first Jackson felt she wasn’t ready. “I had never thought about auditioning for Alonzo until years later,” she says, “after I had more training and more experience.” But she decided to try and requested a private audition. To her surprise, King gave her one—and an offer.

Looking back today, Jackson is glad that she challenged herself to try. “Alonzo wants you to think about the detail of every step,” she says. “He will give you perhaps a phrase or some steps. They are the skeleton onto which you put the flesh, the muscle, the ligaments. He wants us to explore. Every night has to be different.”

It is this willingness to constantly work on herself that has helped her to grow in the company. “When I look at Alonzo’s work, I see a chance to better myself, not just in dance but in my mind as well,” Jackson says. “He’ll say to dance bigger than yourself, bigger than this room, bigger than San Francisco. It’s really nice to look at things from that perspective.”

Rita Felciano is a San Francisco dance critic.