Isabella Boylston

ABT's real swan speaks up.

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Photograph: 2010 Rosalie O'Connor

At American Ballet Theatre, Isabella Boylston's career is just taking off, and this season you'll see plenty of her. She is cast in two premieres—by Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon—and will also perform the role of Ballerina in Ratmansky's stellar full-length comedy The Bright Stream. The 24-year-old dancer, known as Bella, will be notably absent from one new work, Troika, by her ex-boyfriend Benjamin Millepied. The backstory: He choreographed Black Swan and is famously now the fianc of a pregnant Natalie Portman. Previously Boylston, who possesses a magnetic smile and steely legs, was his muse. Yes, the past year has been trying. But she's fine. Now please go and watch her dance.

You started dancing at three?
Yeah. My mom signed me up for ballet classes at the local gym. We were living in Sun Valley, Idaho, and it wasn't really ballet—it was just skipping around to music and pretending to be animals and stuff. Actually, my family was really into skiing. Sun Valley is a total ski town. I think my mom just felt like it was really important for us to do a lot of physical activity. I did ice-skating and gymnastics.

I was an ice-skater.
You were? I can so see that. [Laughs] I loved skiing. It was just something that she felt was good for me, and it hadn't crossed anyone's mind that I would or could become a professional dancer. There was no professional ballet in my town, so it wasn't really anything I was exposed to until later.

Where did you first get proper training?
We moved to Boulder, Colorado, when I was seven, and then I started at Boulder Ballet and got pretty good training there from Ana Claire. Her daughter is actually in the JKO School. Small world. I think that's when I first started to develop a real passion for dancing and dropped all my other activities. I had one ballet teacher who really inspired me; she was Russian and would end every class with us taking scarves out of a bag and we'd improv around to scarves with music. It's hard to picture me doing that now, but I loved it. She encouraged me to audition for the Kirov's summer program in D.C., so I went and thought I totally bombed it because I was really not good compared to everyone else.

How old were you?
Eleven. I was so young. Everyone was older and I remember trying to do a promenade, and I got stuck halfway, so the teacher had to lift me back around. She said, "You're just a baby!" I felt so humiliated, but to my surprise I got in. There were some other people my age there. Melanie Hamrick was in my class, which was interesting. She was way better than me. It was the first time I had Russian training and I feel I progressed a lot in a short period of time. After that, when I [returned home], I felt like the level at my school wasn't as high, and I started to go to Colorado Ballet. I was about 12. I loved it, but it was challenging to balance everything, because I would finish school at 3, get on a bus—it was an hour away—and I'd come back at 10. I did summer programs. I went to SAB [School of American Ballet]. That's where I wanted to go [year-round]. I auditioned, and it was pretty late in the summer. I think that they had filled most of their spots. Also, the audition was on pointe and I had, like, no experience. I totally choked. It was a combination of, we don't have space and you're pretty weak, so come back next year. I went to Harid [Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida], which turned out to be a great thing. I was there for two and a half years. It was mostly Russian and French training. I think one reason I picked it was because it was close to the beach.

Did you audition for SAB again the next year?
No. I really loved Harid. I felt like I totally found my niche. I went to the ABT Summer Intensive and John Meehan offered me a spot in the Studio Company when I was 17, but my parents wouldn't let me take it because I hadn't finished high school. I had a year left. It was pretty frustrating. In retrospect, either way would have been fine. I graduated high school, but I would have done correspondence or something. Now my parents love ballet and they're totally appreciative of it and so proud, but I think they were very much urging me to be cautious. My mom would send me Harvard brochures in the mail. Anyway, I did come to New York in the end.

So you joined the Studio Company—that's where I first saw you dance.
Yeah. John Meehan was already on the way out. He was technically the director, but we didn't really work with him. It was mostly Clinton Luckett. I loved it so much. We had so much fun. I overlapped with a few different groups because I was there for a year and a half and people were coming and going, so Cory [Stearns], Nicole Graniero, Gray [Davis], Tom [Forster]...

It's like mini ABT.
Totally. Leann Underwood was there at the end. Mary Thomas. It was such an amazing group.

Why did you like it so much?
It was my first time being independent in New York City with so much freedom, which I think was overwhelming but wonderful. It was good for me to learn to pick up choreography more quickly, because at Harid we'd work on one pas de deux for four or five months. It was a shock at first to start trying to absorb so much information at once, but it was a necessary transition from school to a company—for me. It was a perfect segue. Of course, I really cherished doing that Benjamin ballet [Capriccio]. [Laughs] It was wonderful. Oh, and I loved Divertimento No. 15. That was awesome. Working with Merrill Ashley was so wonderful. That was also my first time doing any Balanchine, which I love. Balanchine is my favorite choreographer of all time. I love to watch New York City Ballet, and I love their rep so much, but I feel like ABT is my home, and especially now that we have Alexei, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I feel like it took me awhile to feel good here, and that I could be myself.

How so?
I don't know. I just felt like when I first joined I was trying to conform to my idea of what I though ABT wanted me to be, and now—especially in the past year, with all the opportunities I've gotten—I feel like I'm finally working toward my vision of what I want to be like.

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