At a recent All Star Ballet Gala in Toronto, you could watch Isabella Boylston melt into a role, and then, distinctly, conquer it. The American Ballet Theatre principal, Bella to her friends, showed off her fleet footwork in the pas de deux from Bournonville’s “Flower Festival in Genzano,” before literally diving into Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” smiling all the while. The crowd roared its appreciation.
We spoke by phone recently as the company was concluding its annual run of “The Nutcracker” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, California. Brightly, sunshine pouring down the imaginary telephone wires, she explained that the nerves that once plagued her as still there.
“It was the first time for me and Jeffrey Cirio dancing together, so I was really nervous.” It went off without a hitch, and Alexei Ratmansky, ABT resident choreographer, was pleased—“he never gives a word of praise, but I could tell he was happy. He started giving me corrections right away. My dresser had to pull me away to get me out of my costume!”
As far as “Nutcracker” seasons go, ABT is considered light—the dancing is done by the holidays, and a short break ensues before the beginning of the new season. For the off-duty ballerina, who is half Swedish, drinking glögg, a traditional Swedish mulled wine, and going for hikes in the Colorado mountains are activities of choice during the holidays. Originally from Sun Valley, Idaho, time off for Boylston means getting back to her roots.
“My parents met on a ski-lift in Sun Valley,” she recounts, “my dad was a drummer and a ski-bum and mum was an electrical engineer. We lived in a trailer—it was very, whatever.
“My mum signed me up for some dance classes in the local rec centre, and I did a bunch of activities like skiing and iceskating, but dance was immediately the thing I loved above all else.”
She trained at the Academy of Colorado Ballet, where her talent shone through. Having won the gold medal at the 2001 Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, she continued her training at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, on a full scholarship.
For the leggy and hyperextended teenage Boylston, technique wasn’t her starting point. “My technique came a little later for me. I was a late bloomer because my body was still growing.
“I feel I got a good mix of Balanchine and Vaganova training. I got the fundamental Vaganova training when I was 15. The first semester at Harid, we never went off the barre.
“Control for sure was an issue. It was so hard for me as a teenager to wrangle my body. I’m hyperextended and my ankles are so loose that I’d sprain them all the time. It was hard to get everything to work in harmony.”
“Control for sure was an issue. It was so hard for me as a teenager to wrangle my body.
It wasn’t until she was faced with the rigours of performing that she shored up her technical ability. “I was never the one who could do all the pirouettes and stuff; I would struggle to do a double. I think because they gave me those ballets, “Theme and Variations,” “Don Q”—that’s how I built my technique.”
Prior to her senior year in high school, she attended ABT’s summer intensive, where she was offered a contract with the Studio Company. “But my parents didn’t want me to go since I still had to graduate high school and still had a year left, so they wouldn’t let me go. Finally they compromised and I got to leave half way through the school year. I moved to New York in 2005 to join ABT junior company.”
A year later she apprenticed with the main company, joining the ranks as a fully-fledged member in 2007. Two years later she won the Princess Grace Award and was nominated for the 2010 Prix Benois de la Danse. With a rich and varied repertoire, and several years of hard work, Boylston was promoted to principal in 2014 after a break-out performance in the role of Giselle.
“Hard work, talent, luck and timing is a big part of it. Also, having the right mentors at the right time, like Susan Jaffe and Julie Kent, Irina Kolpakova. Each is so different from the other but each has helped and nurtured me. I was really lucky to have that; because you can’t really do it by yourself.”
Confidence, she adds, is another key element—one which didn’t come naturally to her. “When I first started doing feature roles, I really lacked the confidence at the time.
“What has helped my confidence grow throughout my career is experience. I would have to do things where I thought I was in over my head and then you just do them and then you’re like, holy shit, you can do this.”
Her confidence may have built over time, but drive was a constant. “Maybe it’s a hard thing to admit that I’m ambitious because it feels like there’s this thing in society where women aren’t supposed to be so ambitious.
“But I always knew what I wanted and I worked really hard to get it. Every time I go to my principal dressing room, I feel so thankful that I got here, because I know how hard I had to work to get here.”
“Maybe it’s a hard thing to admit that I’m ambitious because it feels like there’s this thing in society where women aren’t supposed to be so ambitious.”
Having attained the highest rank of principal, Boylston now is looking to go deeper into her roles, particularly in the classical canon. “‘Swan Lake’ is the ballet that I’ve probably done the most in my career but it’s also the one that I feel the most inadequate in.
“There’s such a long way to go with it. I think that’s always there. Hopefully I’ll always have that feeling because I think it’s something that keeps me going. I really, really enjoy performing. I get such a thrill out of it. Whereas it used to be this almost traumatic thing because I used to get so nervous. And now it’s one of the main reasons why I dance.
“I know to expect it; I’ve been here before and I know it’s not necessarily a bad thing to feel like that. It’s part of it.”
Having made peace with nerves, she now tunes in and enjoys a pre-stage hit of caffeine. “Music is number one—I tune into Spotify. That and coffee.”
This season Boylston will reprise a beloved role, dancing Giselle in the company’s season at the Met. “I’ve only danced it a couple of times, and was still a soloist when I did it. Now I hope I have more artistry to bring to it.
“Up until that point I hadn’t really done anything that was really a romantic, dramatic role. I’d done all the really hardcore ballets like “Theme and Variations,” “Swan Lake,” “Don Q,” but that was the first time that I got to do a Romantic ballet so it was really a challenge for me. But it’s interesting because that’s what I now feel most comfortable in.”
“When you join a company, the roles you see yourself doing could be very different from the roles the director sees you being a more natural fit for. I think for me, that was one side of me; I feel like I am more of a lyrical dancer but I don’t know. Maybe everyone doesn’t see me that way.
“In “Swan Lake” I feel much more comfortable in Odette than Odile.”
For Bella, New York is a constant source of inspiration. “I love New York, it’s awesome. New York is, like, it’s everything. I think American dancers have very strong musicality; it’s something that American dancers excel at. There is so much excellence in New York, and it’s also so diverse, it feels like its own entity. It is unlike anywhere else, and I’m noticing that more and more.”
A different source of inspiration, perhaps a more insistent one, is Alexei Ratmansky. Boylston had one of her first big breaks dancing the Ballerina in his acclaimed work, “The Bright Stream,” which she says “was so fun.” She also created the Diamond Fairy in Ratmansky’s new version of “The Sleeping Beauty.”
“I’m never more inspired than when I’m in the room with him. And I never work harder than when I’m in the room with him. It’s cool working with someone who has such a high standard for you.
“I think he’s energised the company in a way.”
A wish for the principal? “I would love to have a full length ballet made on me. I just want to do more new work. I’d love to work with Justin Peck, and more choreographers.”
Not one to wait for wishes to be granted, Boylston is commissioning a new ballet from choreographer Gemma Bond to perform next summer in her hometown with Ballet Idaho. Stay tuned.