Isabella Boylston, Principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre
"I think some people think of ballerinas almost the same way they think of vampires," Isabella Boylston, American Ballet Theatre Principal says. It's a weird comparison, but the self-proclaimed sci-fi geek asks me to hear her out. "Like they think we're a weird mythological creature or something, not like a real person that exists in society."
But ballet dancers are people, explains Isabella, and interesting ones, too. This past year has been particularly thrilling for Isabella: she guest-starred with the Mariinsky and the Royal Danish Ballet, performed Giselle for the first time, was promoted to a Principal dancer at ABT, and somehow found time to get married. "It's been so many awesome things all at once, I don't expect to have another year like that soon".
It'll be hard to top, but Isabella can't wait to settle into her new role as principal. "Now I can put more time and energy into the principal roles that I get to do, which is really nice. It's less taxing on your body and you can really focus your mind and energy." So what's next? A dance she produced with Justin Peck (more on that below) and a honeymoon in South Africa.
In between rehearsals for Swan Lake, Isabella caught up with NYC Dance Project at a cafe near the company's studios.
Being a Principal was always my goal, so it really was a dream come true. ABT is a really hard place to move up because they bring in so many guest artists from outside. That diminishes the number of performance opportunities for the homegrown dancers, and you need opportunities like this in order to grow. At the same time, I wouldn't as good of a dancer if I hadn't been around so many incredible dancers from around the world. The first person I called after the promotion was my mom, actually. She's definitely not a stage mom, but it's safe to say she's my number one fan. I had all of my friends in the room with me and they were texting my husband. Our wedding was gorgeous. It was in Idaho in my hometown, Sun Valley. I always knew I wanted to get married in Idaho. I feel like it's sort of undiscovered, people don't really know about Idaho. We had our rehearsal dinner up on the ski mountain in the historic ski lodge and everyone took the lifts up, including my husband's 99 year-old grandma. It's nice being with someone who's not a dancer and can teach you about something different, I think. Non-dancers can't watch ballet with a critical eye, which is really nice. In New York people get ballet, a lot of people know about New York City Ballet and ABT. But a lot of people don't, at the same time. It can be really frustrating. People will ask, "Oh, so are you going to college?" I have to say, "No, it's not really like that." I do think people are more and more starting to understand how athletic ballet is and the hours of training and artistry that goes in to it. Ballet just has to change and adapt. The more we can all try to bring in a new audience, the better for ballet. It would be cool if tickets were cheaper, and maybe we could do it in more site-specific venues that would be more accessible to different people. I got a grant last year and used part of it to make a dance film. Justin Peck choreographed it and it's kind of a dream-like event that takes place inside a movie theatre. We shot it in the AMC Times Square in the middle of the night. James Whiteside and I do a pas des deux, and it was tough conforming the movement to the space we had. It was different, but really fun and cool and I think we're going to submit it to festivals. I felt like a ballerina for he first time when I traveled to Denmark and Russia as a guest artist. At ABT, everyone's known me since I was a kid, and I feel like they always kind of saw me as a baby. Even though I was growing up and taking on roles. Then you go away and people are expecting you to be this prima ballerina, so you just kind of have to fill the shoes. Own it! I really relate to Giselle. She's impulsive and I feel like she's more like my younger self than me now. I've experienced betrayal and it can be quite devastating, but it didn't kill me. I think in the first act she's really really lively and vital, experiencing life to the maximum. She opens herself up completely and that makes it all the more tragic when everything comes crashing down. I do get nervous. When I first started getting lead roles, I would have crazy nerves. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. It's funny because people have told me that I seem like a really relaxed performer. Now I'm able to trust myself and perform in the moment. The nerves haven't happened in a while, thankfully. Wendy Whelan wrote a letter to her younger self, and she really hit the nail on the head. She said basically to view yourself "as a scientist experimenting." It's more self-accepting and more conducive to creativity and inspiration than to just be judging yourself. Doing a show and knowing that I just left everything on the stage, like my guts are on the stage, is literally euphoria. It's the best feeling ever. When I am able to be totally in the moment and free on stage - that's pretty rewarding!
Interview by Cory Stieg
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