Google ‘Isabella Boylston’, and chances are that you’ll be presented with a list of Black Swan references. But really, it’s her white swan that’s had everyone talking. The dual role in Swan Lake was one Isabella had long dreamed of performing, and when the time came, her Odette was firmly in the limelight.
The vulnerable Odette tends to take a backseat to her flashier, sexier Odile counterpart, with the latter’s infamous black swan coda and pas de deux. Not so with Isabella. Critics described Odette as a “role she was born to own”. Her ability to convey the purity and otherworldly charm of the white swan has been much lauded, and it’s a role that has showcased qualities signature to her dancing: suppleness, strength, and faultless technique.
Isabella is also as ebullient off-stage as she is elegant on-stage – she’s a bookworm, a Harry Potter fan (Gryffindor!) and loves the movie Clueless. Heralded by fans as the next great American ballerina, there is a sense that this might be Isabella’s time. A bona fide American Ballet Theatre protege, she was promoted to soloist in 2011, after which a quick succession of roles the following season: Swan Lake, of course, along with Kitri in Don Quixote and the Firebird in Ratmansky’s Firebird. This year, she’s ticked a few other things off her wishlist – debuting with the Mariinsky in La Bayadere, and dancing the titular role in Giselle.
The American Ballet Theatre has oft-been described as a company of stars. Is there any chance Isabella might get lost amidst all the sparkle? To quote one Cher Horowitz: As if!
C&V SESSIONS WITH ISABELLA BOYLSTON
What did you have for breakfast?
I had one of my favourite breakfasts ever – bacon, egg and cheese on a fancy brioche roll.
Usually I have a simple breakfast at home. I make coffee – I need coffee – and frozen waffles with nutella. But if I need something fancy I’ll have bagel with egg and cheese or bacon, egg and cheese on a roll. That’s my idea of an awesome breakfast.
What do you wish you had for breakfast instead, if anything?
I think I nailed it this morning!
Like many dancers, you started ballet at a young age, and slowly became more and more involved with it, attending summer intensives and training at Harid. Even though your parents supported you, they were understandably concerned about your academic education.
My parents didn’t know much about ballet, and I was very self-motivated from a young age. They were caring parents and definitely made a lot of sacrifices to help me get the best ballet education possible. But they didn’t really know how it would work out. My mum would send me Harvard brochures, and she made me take my SATS until I got a really good score.
I got into ABT studio company the year before I finished high school. We got into a big fight because I wanted to come to New York and they wanted me to finish high school. Eventually we compromised and I got to come halfway through my senior year and I finished high school through correspondence.
But by the time I got to high school I knew ballet was what I wanted to do.
Was this something that was frustrating to you at the time, that you were pursuing a career that your parents were sceptical of?
It was definitely a huge disappointment to be when I didn’t get to join the studio company right away. But looking back I don’t think it would have made a difference if I went right away or waited a year.
I do think it’s too bad when you see dancers who have very little education. But your education is your responsibility. I think you have a responsibility to educate yourself and it doesn’t really have anything to do with school.
I know dancers who didn’t have much schooling but who are extremely educated because they read a lot. And then there are a people who have a good education but it seems like it didn’t pay off!
What made you keep at it despite your parents’ hesitation? Did you have a certain awareness or level of faith in your ability to succeed?
It took me a long time to feel confident of my abilities, actually. Even when I joined ABT I had a lot of self-doubt! It’s been a process for me, building up my confidence and finding my voice.
I think when I was younger I had a superiority and an inferiority complex at the same time. I was constantly fluctuating between feeling on a high and feeling rock bottom. But as I get older I’m able to approach my work with a lot of more joy now, than when I was 19 and just joined ABT, because I’m more experienced and more comfortable.
Then what was your motivation when you were younger?
Just loving to dance and loving to watch ballet. When I was in the corps I would love to watch certain ballerinas from the wings.
And being a naturally competitive person and feeling the need to grow and improve. You never feel like you’ve arrived. If you do it’s probably time to retire.
I think dancers are competitive people but at the same time it’s important to recognize each other’s abilities and appreciate it, and not let it shake your confidence or make you feel insecure. Instead look at what you can learn from others and appreciate what makes them unique, and what makes you unique as well.
Did watching others dancers when you are a corps member make you wonder if you’d ever be able to reach that level?
It was definitely more of an inspirational thing for me. Watching dancers like Diana Vishneva and Julie Kent and appreciating their greatness – that just made me want to dance more.
Credit: Erin Baiano
You joined the ABT studio company in 2005, became an apprentice and joined as a corps member 2 years later. Obviously moving from a school to a studio company was a big change with lots of challenges. Were you well-prepared from the demands of being a full time dancer by the time you were accepted into the corps?
It was a big transition for sure. Now the studio company is more like a top level of the school, but the studio company back then it like it’s own company of 12. My year was a really talented batch. We toured to some amazing places and danced some awesome pieces by Balanchine and new works from other choreographers. It was some of the best time of my life.
But it was a bit of a shock going from that to being in the corps and learning to dance in a completely different way, and working towards to fitting in rather than standing out. It was hard for me, but I think it’s great for everyone to experience the different ranks. It’s a humbling experience.
Physically it was not a problem, it was more mental.
Did you feel like you were under a lot of pressure between 2005 until your promotion to corps, that you had to constantly prove yourself and not make mistakes to stand a chance of being hired?
Kind of, because you don’t get a lot of feedback as a corps member. It was like swimming in the middle of the ocean, and not knowing where I was. But when I started getting solos and working with a coach one-on-one, it helped ground me.
So how do you stand out while fitting in when you’re in the corps? Because if all you do is fit in, you might never get noticed.
I always tried to take the corrections that I got, and be very respectful and deferential to the women who had been there longer than me; they uphold the standard of the ABT.
But of course every time I got on stage I would be dancing my ass off. Just trying to dance my ass off.
You had a pretty tumultuous year before you were promoted to soloist the next year. Did it help, during that period, to put your head down and focus on the work?
The year before I got promoted was a really gruelling year. I think people in the ABT go through that, dancing core soloist and principal roles. I was on every night, doing the corps in Theme and Variations one night, then doing the principal the next, and then back in the corps the night after.
It was a physically gruelling time. It was hard on my body for sure, but I was so excited to be getting these huge opportunities that I was so happy to be out there performing?
Is the dream now to be a principal at the ABT?
Oh definitely that’s the dream. It’s what I’m working towards for sure, in addition to performing well and developing my artistry, of course I do want the title.
I notice changes in myself. I feel like the way I approach a role now is more individual than I would have 2 years ago. I know how I want it to feel and look and of course I need a good coach to guide me. I think I’m getting off track here!
ABT is of course a very difficult place to rise through the ranks because there’s so much talent but not enough shows. But I’m working hard and controlling the things I can control, trying to improve what I can.
Does it bother you know than non-ballet fans might know you more for your personal life than your work?
I never think about it really, to be honest. I think anything that brings more attention to ballet is awesome. All of those events were out of my control. If anything, it made me stronger and more independent.
Now you’re engaged! How long have you been engaged for?
I’ve been engaged in August 2013. I was dancing for the Vale dance festival and he [Dan] totally surprised me by proposing. We’d only been dating for about a year and he totally surprised me!
Is he a dancer as well?
No he’s not a dancer! Just a normal dude.
It’s hilarious how you refer to non-dancers as normal dudes.
Yes, totally pedestrian! No, he’s an exceptional dude. But not a dancer.
How did you guys meet?
At a Cinco de Mayo party.
My fiance Dan is the friend of [ABT colleague] Lauren Post’s fiance. That’s how we met. Lauren and I are best friends. When we were in high school, we said we were totally going to be best friends forever and dance together at ABT and marry brothers or best friends and be neighbours. So far our plans are right on track!
We’re not neighbours though. She lives in Brooklyn and I am in Manhattan.
When’s the wedding going to be?
We’re getting married in June! In my hometown in Sun Valley, Idaho.
I have to say, I am the most disorganized bride in the world. We have a wedding planner and Dan’s sister is helping a lot because I’m not very good with details! My mind is way too filled with ballet stuff right now, but it’s going to great.
You performed one of your dream roles in 2012, the lead in Swan Lake. Tell us a bit about what that experience was like!
It was so amazing. The weight of it was not lost on me. It really had a feeling of ceremony to it. There were a lot of nerves but it was such an amazing experience. I’ll never forget it.
How often have you danced it since then?
I’ve only danced it 3 times since then. There are so many principals at ABT that you only get it once or twice a year! Every time I perform it I’m able to enjoy more because I have to worry about the technique less each time. There is only so much you can get from rehearsal, and then there is that next level you can only get to from performing it more and more on stage.
Is the role fully your own yet or do you still have a long way to go?
I think both. I think I have made it my own and I still have a long way to go. It’s really a role of a lifetime, one that you work on your whole career. And the way you see Odette and Odile hopefully evolves, and you change with every performance.
It’s so boring when you see someone and every show they do is exactly the same. I’d rather see someone who lives on the edge a little more when they’re on stage.
There have been a lot of good things said about your portrayal of Odette/Odile, especially Odette. It seems like Odette is the harder role, both dancing and character-wise. It’s much slower to dance than the Black Swan, and Odette doesn’t have that spectacular fieryness and the infamous coda with which to excite audiences.
With that in mind, what do you, personally, do to create a compelling Odette, one that can hold her own against Odile?
I definitely analyze the steps a lot, just thinking about what I want to say with the steps. And I think it has to look spontaneous even though it’s really adagio. So I try to use the music to help with that.
My favourite part in the ballet – and in ballet ever – is when she does the entrechat-passé-entrechat-passé as the music builds. It’s such a passionate role.
What do you do to get into character?
Preparation in the studio to gain the stamina and strength so I don’t have to think about the steps and try to be present and focus on the feeling. And trying to make sure my nerves don’t get overpowering! Just listening to the music and being in the moment – I always find myself talking about that. That’s when you’re at the pinnacle. When you’re in the moment and everything happens organically.
With more experience it becomes easier and easier to access that.
Conversely, what’s your take on Odile?
Odile’s definitely harder for me character-wise, because I don’t want to be her! I just try to make her interesting and not a dull stereotype, not someone without complexity. And the technique is more daunting for me. I feel less comfortable with the steps than with Odette.
For me, I haven’t analyzed the role of Odile than Odette. It’s about finding the right feeling that gives her the right movement quality. But every time I perform it I become more comfortable with it. I do prefer dancing Odette for sure. But hopefully that could change – you’d never know!
Ballet is becoming so interconnected – you’ve had the chance to dance with a few different companies, and on many different stages. You danced with the Mariinsky in April. Are you totally a pro at dancing on a raked stage now?
I had 9 days of rehearsals in Mariinsky. By the end the rake didn’t bother me, but at the beginning it was like, oh my God, how do they do it?
My first time on a raked stage was in Theme & Variations at the Bolshoi. It was not my finest performance. It was definitely memorable!
Your first principal role was in Theme & Variations, as well with David Hallberg. Were you really nervous?
I was really nervous. And Theme & Variations is the hardest ballet there is! It’s not something you can ease into. But it’s such an amazing ballet, and when you’re done you have such a sense of accomplishment. Even if it didn’t go as well as you wanted it to, you can at least appreciate the fact that you got through it. That was in Cuba. It was a great show.
Do you get to enjoy the various cities you visit?
A little bit! I try to see as much as I can. I’m an adventurous person and I want to try new food.
Have you picked up any Russian phrases during your brief time in Russia?
And uzhas, which means terrible! The Russians don’t sugarcoat things!
Was it challenging, trying to adapt to the Mariinsky style?
I had a lot of Russian training growing up, in addition to other styles. But I really tried to soak up everything while I was there.
My coach, Tatiana Terekova, she was brilliant. I felt so lucky to work with her, and if there was a way I could could work with her more, it would be great for me. She any my coach in Amerina, Irina Kopakova are really good friends, so their approaches are very parallel.
But at the same time while Tatiana was tough and tried to help me, I was also very open-minded and didn’t try to force anything on me that didn’t look right. It was a very open relationship.
I was very inspired after my short time there.
Is there any company you’d particularly like to dance/guest with one day?
Mariinsky was at the top of my list, so the fact that that’s happened is insane. Other than that, Paris Opera and Royal Ballet are amazing. And my time at the Royal Danish Ballet [for the dancer exchange program] was incredible. I loved it.
Credit: Erin Baiano
What did you enjoy most about your at the Royal Danish Ballet?
The dancers there were really warm and embracing. It just felt so comfortable. It was a joyful working environment.
Conversely, what do you love about the ABT? What keeps you there?
The dancers, honestly. The dancers are amazing. World class.
And it’s a unique thing to grow up in a place. You’ve seen everyone’s ups and downs and you know how hard everyone’s work. It’s a cool feeling seeing your colleagues succeed on stage when you know what they’ve been through.
It’s different from when someone comes in from the outside.
What sets an ABT dancer apart?
I think it’s such a diverse company that you can’t really say there are qualities that are ABT-style. Perhaps individualism.
There’s always room for improvement in ballet. The quest to get better is neverending. How do you avoid being overly critical of yourself?
It’s hard! Some days are better than others. If I’m having a very bad day then I try to work even harder because I know I’ll feel even better for it. Just not giving in to feeling bad if you don’t feel good about yourself that day.
If you know at the end of the day that you worked your hardest, you’ll go home feeling good.
Is there ever a time when you can be satisfied with what you put out on stage, or in rehearsal, even if it isn’t perfect?
Definitely. When I feel myself improving or it was better than the last performance.
After all these years dancing, do you know when to keep pushing, and when to take a step back let it go?
I think so. But I also think I’m not one to take it easy. Everyone’s body is different, but I definitely do better when I push it.
Do you live for the applause?
The applause is great and when you feel the audience is with you. But for me, I’m happy with my show if I feel I was in the moment and honest with myself on stage.
What’s a typical day like for you, currently?
Wake up, make coffee, have breakfast. Go to the studio, take class, rehearse all day. And then either come home and order something or go out to dinner with my fiance. My life is so thrilling!
I’ve also been working on some outside projects. I got an Annenberg grant this year, so I just shot a film with Justin Peck and James Whiteside. We haven’t decided yet when to release it, but I think it has the potential to be really cool.
I’ve also had the chance to work with an acting coach, which has been amazing. It’s definitely to give me a new way to approach a role.
What’s one piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
Work your hardest, try to do your work with joy and always keep a sense of humour. Focus on yourself and don’t worry about what others say.
What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
I don’t think it’s one thing. I think it’s seeing how far I’ve come in the best 7 – 8 years as a dancer and a person.
Many years from now, when you’ve retired and hung up the pointe shoes, what sort of dancer would you like to be remembered as?
A dancer who never held back and gave it her all on stage, and made people feel something.
Isabella was promoted to principal dancer in June 2014, shortly after this interview.
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