Isabella Boylston | In a Dream the Movement Was as We See It Now
Looking through Isabella Boylston’s Instagram feed is like peeking into the wings before the curtain lifts on a ballet performance. We can see the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principal stretching in legwarmers, holding her tutu and phone. We see her goofing around with her fellow company members on performance sets. There are fitness videos, dog photos, and several snaps of her rehearsing in studios, her long legs and arched feet cutting through the air as she perfects her grands jetés or a new piece of choreography. Boylston’s social media allows us to see past the fantasy of a performance, the world that so many young girls and women only dream of, up close and only moderately filtered.
One video, posted on January 8, 2018, shows Boylston in a rehearsal studio, wearing a pink crop top and black leggings, her hair pulled back but not slicked with spray, throwing herself around the studio floor as she practices choreography for a work in progress. Boylston slices and sweeps aside the air around her as a voice out of the frame, presumably the choreographer, calls out “Yes!” and “Nice!” She turns in chainés and developpés, the satin of her pointe shoes still pink and unsoiled. We can see her ribcage and the muscles of her stomach pulse with movement and breath. We see her face without stage makeup. We gain access to a fantasy for as long as the video lasts. It becomes more real while remaining just out of our grasp.
“I’m glad I didn’t grow up with Instagram,” Boylston tells me, “because my ballet boarding school days and my early years in New York would have been a mess if it was on the internet.” Still, she knows young dancers now look up to her as a role model, and she tries to project the image she wishes she’d had as an aspiring teenage ballet dancer. “I think people in the past probably have had the idea that ballerinas are divas,” she says. “I think it’s interesting for people to see ballerinas as people.” With hundreds of thousands of followers (over 228,000), Boylston shows her audience both the glamor and the grit that make up the life of a professional ballet dancer.
In March, Boylston’s fans will have a chance to see her on a bigger screen—as Jennifer Lawrence’s dance double, and in a small role as a dancer in the spy thriller Red Sparrow. Lawrence plays a former ballet dancer who, after a career-ending injury, becomes a Russian intelligence officer.
“The great thing with film is you can perform as much as you need to get the shot right, whereas in live performance you get one shot,” Boylston tells me in regards to working within the new medium. Still, filming provides its own set of obstacles for a dancer. “It was challenging to stay warm between takes to not get injured.”
Although the dance scenes in the film are fairly brief, Boylston was excited to work with New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck, who rarely has the opportunity to work with other companies, like ABT. “We were inspired by the Firebird, and at first we used the Firebird music. I’ve performed the Firebird for several years, so I had to unlearn the version I know,” she explains. Boylston’s partner in the film is Sergei Polunin, the star of the viral “Take Me to Church” ballet video.
As a debut actress and veteran ballet dancer, Boylston has achieved more by age 31 than most people dream of. "Now that I've established myself as a principal dancer," she reveals, "I still have a lot of artistic goals I want to achieve, but I also have more time to focus on creative projects outside of ballet. I'm up for anything." In addition to the film, one of the projects dearest to Boylston's heart is a dance festival she began in her hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho.
"I rounded up a bunch of my friends and we put on two shows," Boylston says of the festival. "We had a day of free dance classes taught by some of the stars. We enrolled 200 kids and no one had to pay for it." After she wraps up ABT's current season, she's looking forward to holding the festival again this year.
One of the lessons Boylston hopes to teach her festival students is the fine line between pushing themselves to improve as dancers and beating themselves up over what they can't change. "I feel like it's definitely harder when you're younger," she says. "I did struggle with confidence when I first joined ABT. When I first got soloist parts I would be so hard on myself and was never happy with my shows. But the more experience I've had getting out on stage the more I've been able to get over it. I just try to turn off my brain if I get into a negative cycle."
So much of ballet depends on external validation--the validation of a teacher or choreographer, of an audience, of a dance partner. Boylston has finally given herself permission to validate herself. Confidence, she admits, comes from experience and preparation, which take years to build up. Now, I can write my own review after every show," she explains. "I know if it was good or not."
Boylston will have plenty of opportunities to review her own dancing over the next few months as she tours first the country and then Asia during ABTís spring season. Later in the spring, the company will begin their season at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Boylston will perform as Nikiya in La BayadÈre for the first time with ABT and dance in a new production by Alexei Ratmansky called Harlequinade, which he's putting together from old notations. "It's like doing ballet archaeology," Boylston says of the process.
As a child in a tiny Idaho town far away from the centers of ballet, Boylston would check out VHS tapes of ballet performances from the library, fantasizing about one day joining their ranks. It was a long path to the top, and now that sheís there, she wants to help pull others up as well. "It's always been one of my goals to bring ballet to more people," she says. She's accomplishing that more than ever this year, both onstage and on screen. Red Sparrow should give a much bigger audience an idea of what ballet fans have known for years: Isabella Boylston is no aloof prima ballerina who performs only for those who can afford tickets to the ballet. She is a contemporary artist for a new age, a ballet fantasy stripped of its tulle and artifice.
Written by Ellen O’Connell-Whittet
STYLIST: CHRISTINE DE LASSUS AT ART DEPARTMENT.
HAIR: JEROME CULTRERA USING SHU UEMURA ART OF HAIR AT L’ATELIER NYC.
MAKEUP: KUMA FOR MAC COSMETICS.
LOCATION: RUBY BIRD STUDIO.