There’s a lot that separates Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis and I. A couple of oceans, for one thing. And there’s the small fact that she’s a principal dancer in a top ballet company, talented and graceful and whipping out complex choreography with elegance and ease, while I can barely remember the adage combinations as I fumble through my weekly ballet classes. When I spoke to Ashley, we talked first about the rigorous life of a ballet dancer. I am aware of the demands such a life entails but cannot fully understand it, having never so much as performed a tendu on stage before, and to hear Ashley’s talk about her journey and process is as interesting as it is insightful.
But then I bring up the subject of RubiaWear, her legwarmer company, and as we talk about the ways our brands started (gradually), the 5-year-plans we were supposed to make (but didn’t), the process of running a small business (demanding), and the care we put into it (a lot), and I find that I have something in common with a top ballerina after all. Our lives are still a little different: I’ll never be able to do multiple pirouettes and Ashley can probably do 10 (at least!) – but I’ll take it.
C&V SESSIONS WITH ASHLEY ELLIS
What did you have for breakfast?
Let’s see, I had some fruit and oatmeal. And coffee of course.
What’s your dream breakfast?
I don’t know. I like a simple breakfast, actually, like pretty healthy.
A dream breakfast that I probably wouldn’t eat every day… I really like French toast.
Tell me about your training when you were younger. You’ve said before that it was very beneficial to you that your teachers were ‘not lenient’. Was it very strict training?
Yea, they were not lenient. They were very strict, but it was a very healthy environment. So it was like a nice balance.
I think in ballet you have to be very strict because it’s such a demanding physicality. I think without that kind of strenuous training, it’s hard to really refine it as much as it needs, but there are places that are maybe a little too strict and then it becomes unhealthy. So it was a positive environment, so that was really good.
It was very encouraging. The level kind of varied because it was a smaller school, you know, it wasn’t just people were homeschooled and just did ballet. Most of the people went to school during the day and then they did ballet after, so people were very well-rounded.
But my teacher definitely enforced the fact that you have to be extremely focused if you want to progress in ballet and make a career of it. I think she was really good at instilling that mentality.
Ashley Ellis, principal at Boston Ballet, in “Diamonds” tutu.
Credit: Ken Browar-Deborah Ory/NYC Dance Project
In that case as a young dancer, then what was your source of enjoyment? I can imagine that when you’re younger you’re sort of trying to figure out whether to do this, there has to be something that keeps you going, keeps you coming back to class.
It’s funny I feel almost like it’s one of those things where it’s like addicting in a way. I love the challenge of it and even though when something is still hard but it’s almost like there’s a joy in trying to conquer it.
So I think that’s part of it. But there were definitely days when I was younger where I didn’t want to go to class for whatever reason. And my mom made me go on those days. My parents were really good too about, like, when you commit to something, you commit. If you make a decision and you don’t enjoy it, you don’t want to do it then you don’t have to. But if you commit to it, you know you can’t just be lazy some days and work hard the others. I’m thankful that I had that too – people pushing me.
But there were also days when my mum would say, ‘You know, if you don’t want to do this you don’t have to do it.’
How did they feel about the fact that you wanted to dance professionally? Were they very on board with the idea?
They were super, super encouraging. Nobody in my family was an artist, so they kind of became educated about it as I did, as I grew up. They tried to learn as much as they could from my teachers on how to get me to where I wanted to be.
I had a lot of support and encouragement and maybe people telling them that it was possible for me to achieve this goal, so I think that gave them a bit of reassurance in supporting me even more. I think it was just that one thing led to another. No matter what they were going to be supportive, so I’m extremely thankful for that. But they always made me focus on school also, that was always very important.
You finished high school, and did you do college as well?
I didn’t go to traditional college experience because I went straight into dancing professionally, straight into ABT. But I started college maybe two years into it. I started with some correspondence classes and it was really drawn out because I would do some classes here and some classes there. When I was in Spain, I started online classes. I saw these advertisements online for certain schools and I was like, ‘Oh you know what, maybe I’ll just try to do that,’ so I did. Eventually and through a couple of different programs I ended up getting an associate’s degree in business.
Actually, Boston Ballet has a really good connection with Northeastern University, which is a really good school. They developed this wonderful connection and a great deal for classes for the dancers in the company, so I really need and want to take advantage of that. Move forward. It’s good to be learning more.
Do you find all these courses beneficial to you as a dancer, maybe broaden your perspective beyond ballet?
It definitely broadens perspective beyond ballet, which I really enjoy. It opens your mind and gets you thinking about different things, having an outlet from ballet. I have some people say that it helps in dance. But I think for me it’s more of a nice outlet, nice kind of exploring different areas of life.
So do you get exam jitters when you have to take papers?
I haven’t heard that before, that’s cute. Exam jitters.
A little bit. The online courses that I took were more about having to write graded papers. That was one of the biggest things that I felt I gained – just having to write so much. I never really enjoyed writing much in school, I just wasn’t very comfortable with it, But having to do it so much while I was taking these classes made me more comfortable with it. I’m really thankful for that.
I would get nervous in the beginning, you know, when you’re just not comfortable doing something. I kind of got over that after taking more classes. Recently when someone asked me to contribute to a dance blog, I was more comfortable kind of signing up for that and contributing because of having taken these classes.
You’re probably a pro at going out on stage and dance – it’s a confidence you have to develop. I was wondering if the nerves are different when you take a paper versus when you’re about to go on stage in front of five thousand people?
As a dancer you learn how to cope with different kinds of stress. It’s funny to think about because the majority of people they would just freak at the thought of even going on stage like that, but after dancing for so many years you develop skills.
So for dancers, you have to find your way to be comfortable with that; you find your way to control the adrenaline and the stress and the nerves so that in the end it actually helps you.
But then I know so many dancers – definitely speaking for myself as well – that are super uncomfortable to speak to people in public. It’s so different because we never really have to use our voice.
Ballet is about using your body right?
Yeah, so it’s completely different if we had to go speak in front of a bunch of people. We don’t develop in that way.
But that’s another thing that if you practiced and you kind of make yourself do it more, you get more comfortable and you develop those skills.
Ashley Ellis and Bradley Schlagheck in Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia.
Credit: Gene Schiavone
Performance-wise did you always have a lot of confidence? Or was it something you had to build up over time?
I built it up over time, definitely. Even in the studio…it’s funny because a lot of professionals will talk about how it’s interesting that sometimes it’s more comfortable.
It’s easier to go out onstage and perform and let go and act and do whatever you want than it is sometimes in the studio when everybody is watching and you can actually see people’s eyes. Somehow it can also be very nerve wracking, so it’s funny about that.
It’s more intimate in a studio, isn’t it?
Definitely. It’s interesting because it’s a lot less people, but on the stage you don’t necessarily feel each individual.
I imagine it’s like a sea of anonymous faces, whereas in the studio it’s your colleagues looking at you, and your teachers.
And people you know.
You danced in several companies – ABT, and I’m going to mangle his name now – Angel Corella?
Angel Corella. He was a principal with ABT for a long time. Yea, he was very well known. He’s Spanish and he was preparing to start a company, because Spain didn’t really, well still doesn’t really, have a classical ballet company. They had a professional company that was more contemporary. So that was kind of his incentive – to make one classical company. And it was going well, but then the crisis hit and there wasn’t much funding.
That’s a shame.
It was a wonderful experience, while it lasted. It was so exciting. Some of us were just talking online the other day, just saying how memorable it was because everybody came together for the start of it. So there’s something about it that’s so special. That was a really fun time.
You moved from ABT to Corella Ballet and Boston Ballet. Switching companies is a pretty big decision because you’re not just changing your workplace. You’re moving your whole life to a different city or different country. Were these transitions very difficult for you?
I mean, you just kind of do it. Once you make a decision, I guess yeah, it’s hard. You have to get rid of a lot of stuff, especially moving overseas.
Leaving ABT was the hardest decision, because it was my first company. And it’s such a strong company; it’s kind of hard to let that go because there’s a lot of risk. Especially the step that I was taking moving to Spain, there was some uncertainty to it. The company hadn’t started yet, it was really far away.
But even more than that it was leaving this really secure place. You know, there’s something special about ABT – that was something I knew I was leaving. I was ready for a change, but it was hard. I don’t know, a lot of people stay there for their whole careers. So that decision was a little harder.
But after that I realized how much dancers move around. You gain so much from being in different places. You learn a lot. You see many new dancers, you work with different people because every company has a different rep. You get to experience different choreography and watch different dancers and maybe visit different places. I’m so glad that I decided to kind of move around a little bit in my career.
So are you fairly fluent in Spanish now?
More or less.
I’m sure that’s handy skill to have in your pocket.
It’s great, I’m very grateful that I got to pick that up. I definitely made an effort. It took me a while, but I caught on eventually. I wouldn’t say I’m that natural with languages, but I did catch on eventually. It was my first new language, so it was really exciting. Everything about it was really fun and the culture too.
Ashley Ellis, principal at Boston Ballet, in Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker.
Credit: Rosalie O’Connor.
You have had a very steady progression in your career. As you progressed, did you have an idea of where you wanted to go and what you wanted to achieve at certain stages of your career?
You know what, I have a bad habit of second guessing myself. And I wish, I had a better idea of when I wanted that end goal to be and to come in and say, ‘I really want to dance this role or be a principal.’
But it took me a while to realize that I could get there and that I really wanted that. And not for the title so much as to be able to experience the roles that go along with being principal, just being fulfilled in new ways.
My first taste of that was going to Corella Ballet in Spain. Angel gave me the opportunity to dance some principal roles pretty quickly, so I started getting individual coaching and I started to do roles that required more character and were much more challenging. It made me realize how much I liked it and how different it can be to dance those roles.
I think after that I realized, ‘Okay, I want to keep moving forward and keep challenging myself.’
Now that you’ve been sort of dancing for a number of years have you find found identity or artistry as a dancer?
I feel like I have. I think as people we’re always evolving and changing, and it took a while, but I’m feel like I finally either I found it, or I’m closer much closer now to really being an open dancer on stage.
Could you elaborate?
I guess not holding back. When you ask if I’m closer to the artist that I want to be I would say yes, but it definitely has taken time and the journey is definitely not over. I’m always going to be trying to grow more and to be better and to open up more. Like when I have to be in character, just to completely let go and become that role that I’m playing and just to be free on stage
This may be difficult to answer, but what would hold you back from immersing yourself in that?
It did kind of take me a while to get more comfortable doing principal roles, and I think it’s just about being confident. When I started to feel more comfortable, I found myself letting go.
I guess what I mean is, instead of trying to be something, just letting it happen. If you’re watching a movie, you’re watching someone act. People really believe that they’re that character, right? You don’t think, ‘Oh they’re trying to be that character, or they’re pretending.’
Ideally, when I watch a dancer or when I’m dancing, I want to not be thinking of anything else. You don’t want to be thinking, ‘Oh Ashley’s trying to do this.’
You want to just watch and be brought into that world that the dancer is in. So to do that, you have to let go and you have to dive in to whatever you’re doing with a full heart, with an open heart.
I think I watched an interview where you said you prefer classical ballet, but that it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to you. Which is interesting to me, because critics have suggested otherwise.
I guess it’s because I see myself working so hard every day. I feel like there’re very few people that it actually comes naturally to! In classical ballet, we’re not just like roll out of bed and we’re a classical ballerina!
In a way it feels more comfortable, more natural than things that I don’t do as often. But when you work so hard for something… and if I stop working hard, then I feel like I digress. There’s always more that can be given, that can be refined, made stronger. I think it’s hard for me to say that it comes naturally because it’s a lot of work.
Ballet is about an impossible quest for perfection, how do you balance that with personal satisfaction in your work?
You know, it’s really hard. I definitely struggle with that a lot, even now. It can be a little frustrating.
But it can be so fulfilling in those moments – being on stage and getting to that sort of end mark. When you’re preparing for a role, the first day can be so hard. But then you know from experience it will get better, day by day.
I have to remind myself sometimes that okay, I don’t like what I see today but I’ll get there, I’ll get strong enough, my stamina will be better. That kind of stuff.
And every day is different; some days feel so much better than others.
It’s a day to day thing, but I think it the end what makes it all so worth it is being on stage. Dancing and performing can give you this high and just brings you out of reality. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Ashley Ellis and Nelson Madrigal in George Balanchine’s Serenade.
Credit: Gene Shiavone
Now you’re settled in Boston with your husband and two dog?
Yeah, we have two big dogs. They’re bull mastiff, like 120 pounds. I don’t know how many kilos, but they’re really big.
How do you manage to take care of two dogs when you’re in the studio or in the theater all the time?
George, my husband, actually does so much. He’s he’s not in the company, he teaches. So he has the opportunity to come home for lunch, so he’ll walk them and feed them during the day. And then if he’s working at night, that’s when I come home so we just kind of switch. It works really well, but if we were both dancing in the company it would be a lot harder.
So he’s like a retired dancer now? He’s hung up his slippers and has moved on to educating the future generation?
Yes, he hung up his ballet slippers when we moved to Boston. We met dancing in Spain. He also joined Angel Corella’s company at the beginning. So we met there and moved back to the States after we got married.
Did you guys have lots of opportunities to dance together?
Not a lot, but a little bit. Like we did a Nutcracker guesting here and we danced a little bit together in the Sarasota Ballet, when I was there for one season. Now he teaches around Boston and then he choreographs a bit just here and there, around different places.
Has he ever choreographed anything for you?
Actually when we first met he choreographed a piece with the company out there in Spain. There was a piece that involved the whole group. It was really beautiful. So he did that on me. But not so much recently. I keep talking about it and we keep saying we’re going to go in the studio and make something. We both keep getting busy, so it hasn’t happened.
What’s on your bucket list as a dancer? Do you have a wishlist of things you’d like to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
I would love to dance more full length ballets. I would love to do Juliet and Giselle. Those are two classic favorites of mine. I love each new opportunity and I do have a special place in my heart for the full length story ballets. I think it was because I grew up watching them. It was my first experience. Like at the ABT, that’s the majority of what they do. I think I found that really inspiring.
The great thing about Boston Ballet is that it has such a nice balance. We do both. We do the like the extreme contemporary stuff and we still have the full length ballets.
As far as places, I love going to new places. I haven’t been to Russia yet. I don’t know that I would perform there, but even to visit. There are so many inspiring artists that come out of there and my husband is Georgian.
Honestly I love going to new places. I’ve been fortunate to dance in many places already. I had the chance to go to Japan with ABT and really many places all around Europe, but anywhere new, I would say.
Ashley wearing her Cloud & Victory ‘Odette Ain’t Right’ tee.
Tell me about your legwarmer company, RubiaWear.
The name Rubia came from a nickname that came from when I was in Spain. It means blondie. People there called me Rubia. I didn’t want to use my name in the name of the brand, so I thought that’d be cute, so RubiaWear.
It started in October 2014 and it was kind of a fluke because I didn’t really plan on starting a business, or sort of making a line. But I always like to be creative and make things; I’m always kind of doing random things.
At the time, I had started making some legwarmers for myself just because I kept leaving mine in the studio. And they would disappear, so then I would make more. It like the fairies come every night and steal everything from the studio.
So some of my friends started asking, ‘Oh can you make me some?’ and I did.
Then over the summer break, I was like, oh you know what, maybe I’ll brainstorm what I would do if I were to order a couple of fabrics and start making legwarmers to sell.
And then I thought, ‘Oh but if I sell them I should have like a tag on them or something.’
Then my mind started going and then I was like I need a logo and then I need a name. Then I thought, ‘Oh well if I’m going to offer you know sell them to people outside of Boston Ballet then I should make a website,’ you know, who knows if people will like them? I had no idea. I decided to do it anyway and it just kind of caught on and I was having fun with it, so I just kept it going. And I really enjoy it and hopefully it will continue.
But I didn’t really expect it.
I totally relate, that’s kind of how I started too. I was like there are no cool dance tops – everything’s either animal print or in neon for tween-agers. Then you start making some for yourself and then you kind of keep going from there, so I definitely relate to your business journey.
Exactly! Isn’t it fun though? I mean it’s kind of fun way for it to happen. It’s exciting and you don’t expect much.
You read all these business magazines of how people like started… ‘I had my five year business plan and raised money from my investors and everything!’ I’m like, I did none of those, no!
Yeah, I was doing some research online and I ran into the same information. They’re like, ‘Well you have to have a business plan.’ I was like, ‘What?’
I mean I’m sure all that stuff is really good, but there’s some things that I think it’s okay to skip.
I mean I’m constantly trying to educate myself because, like you too I’m sure, we wear many hats. We have to do a lot.
Yeah customer service, I answer the emails, I ship stuff. I mean I have people making stuff now, but you know we work hard to keep it running, right?
Yeah, gotta have the skills to pay the bills.
I’m not sure it’s the same thing for you, but for me, if you had asked me to go through all those steps I probably wouldn’t have even gotten started, you know?
It was like, ethical dance clothing from Singapore? You bring that to any investor and they’d be like, ‘This idea is never going to take off!’
And you’re putting this huge weight on yourself too, all this pressure.
Planning is good, but at the same time sometimes you just gotta try it, I think, and see if it works.
But I think for our stuff maybe its okay. Maybe for things like a restaurant, that’s more applicable.
That’s the nice thing about the internet. You can start and your overheads are relatively low.
Exactly, it’s wonderful; it’s so much opportunity.
If I had to put twenty thousand dollars into it I’d be like, ‘No I don’t have twenty thousand dollars when I’m just out of college.’
Exactly, same here like no, no, no. I don’t need to risk that, thank you very much.
Ashley Ellis and Eris Nezha in Mikko Nissinen’s Swan Lake.
Credit: Rosalie O’Connor
So how did you get it to build up? You said now you have people like sewing the legwarmers for you. Was it very difficult for you to source for that, find people?
It was harder than I thought to get people that do really good work. Because I wanted…I care, you know?
It’s something, I’m sure you can relate to, where when it’s your baby kind you care so much about the quality of things. Because I was making it all myself, I knew all the details. I knew exactly what I wanted, so I would kind of audition people.
I’d say, ‘Okay you know make this’ and when it came back and it just wasn’t right.
I stressed out and I felt this pressure that I wouldn’t be able to find people. But I had to just be patient and I have some fantastic wonderful people. I’m just so thankful for them because they make it happen because otherwise at this point I just wouldn’t be able to keep up.
Not that it’s super crazy, but you know I also need and want to focus on my dance career. I knew in the beginning, I can’t do this forever, making them all myself.
I would have visions of you, you know, wondering how does she manage to do it? Thinking after a performance, you’d be a sewing fairy making your leg warmers late into the night.
It was pretty crazy in the beginning. Every single moment I had I was just trying to make it happen. It was okay in the beginning, you kind of got some more adrenaline, I guess. Like okay like you’re starting out, it’s all exciting and new. I had to keep up and was like go, go, go, go, go. Then when I first started having people sew, I felt like a breath. Like oh my gosh, you know, I had to take a break.
Burnout is a thing. I imagine for you it’s almost like doing two jobs, so it’s totally easy to burn out.
Yea, it’s definitely a risk, so that’s why I’m so thankful that people are helping me.
Do you think it’s something that you might do full time eventually? when you’ve decided that you know want to hang up the pointe shoes.
Or you could keep going.
I don’t know how much longer.
You could keep going like Plisetskaya, do Dying Swan when you’re sixty or something.
No, that’s not in my plan, haha!
But as far as making Rubia a more full time thing, I would like to give more of myself to it.
But I’ve had to say no to a lot of things in the process so far, when I have ideas at home, I want to do this, I want to add a new product, I want to do this special edition, you know? And I have to learn to accept when I have to say no to something and that it’s going to go at its own pace right now. I don’t want it to jeopardize my own career as a dancer.
Later on when I’m done dancing, like you said, I will definitely give more of my energy to that, but right now there’s a certain pace that I have to take. And I love doing it and I love that it’s exciting for me.
I’m grateful that it’s doing as well as it is.
I hope that it will slowly grow at a nice easy pace that’s manageable. But in the beginning I was so nervous going into it. I was making everything one at a time so I wasn’t making huge investment, but at the same time I told myself, ‘Okay if this gets in the way of my dancing then I’m just going to kind of close up shop and put it away,’ but then after that time passes you kind of get attached to it.
I get it. It’s like no, I gotta make this work!
Yea, either way I want to make it work, I just have to find a way to manage it. I’ve been able to do that so far, so it’s good.
Yes when you told me that you need to have things go at a gradual pace, I can relate. You need to have patience. Yu have all these ideas with what you want to do with your business, like different products, and you realize you need to take your time to develop things. You can’t just go full speed because it’s not going to work out.
Exactly, yea just to be smart about it, be realistic sometimes.
It’s a huge learning process.
Yea, but it’s fun to learn about it. I find so.
Yea maybe one day we’ll do C&V and RubiaWear legwarmers or something, put pizza on the legwarmers.
Oh my gosh, yeah.
That would be really cute like little pizza motifs on the legwarmers.
Yeah that would be cute.
We’ll figure it out one day.
I always see your Instagram. For me as well, that’s what really got the word out. As long as the dancers start to notice, the word gets out so easily and you reach the whole world. It’s so amazing.
Yea, it’s kind of crazy. When I started I didn’t know anybody. I had no connections to the dance world at all. I don’t know anything; I just knew I understand social media and I could design. And you slowly raise your way up from there. It’s a bit crazy when I look from where I started to where I am. And I’m sure you feel the same way with RubiaWear as well.
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Original header image: Boston Ballet