Isabella Boylston

ABT's real swan speaks up.

You have a peach of a role this season as the Ballerina in The Bright Stream.
Yay! I actually wasn't meant to do it at all. When I found out I was getting to do it, I was so fricking excited. People were injured and Alexei wanted to give me the opportunity, so it just felt like such a gift. It was my first time playing a character, really, besides Fancy Free, which is not as meaty. I love Alexei. He really helped me to get into the role; I feel that in addition to being a great choreographer, he's an excellent director. He's very specific, and he has a lot to say, which is great so you're never left wondering if you're on the right track or not. He had a lot of insight for me about the Ballerina. He would say things like, "She's always the star of the room but she wants people to like her." I think the Ballerina is used to being treated a certain way because she's a big star in her city; she's naturally a little bit of a diva, because that's what she's used to, but she's a good person. She doesn't think she's better than anyone else. I think the main thing, or one important facet of her character, is that she has to be extremely charming. She has a personality that people are drawn to, and she flirts with everyone—not because she means to, but because that's her personality. So people like Pyotr [the husband of Zina, a local amusements organizer] totally fall for it. A lot about her character is expressed in the movement itself. I think the execution of the steps has to be really dynamic and powerful. She is an independent modern woman. There's nothing Victorian about her. She's not a Romantic heroine. I think there's an element of girl power, too. She totally has Zina's back, and she doesn't betray her by seducing Pyotr, and they formulate a plan to bring him down. [ Laughs ] Or expose his ways. I think it's unique in ballet to portray a character like that. I'm so happy that I'm getting to do it again. I feel like I want to add more detail and try to build on what I did [in performances at the Kennedy Center]. At first, the scene where she cross-dresses was hard for me. I felt pretty self-conscious having to swagger around like a man, but Alexei told me some stuff to watch and by the end that was the most fun part.

What did he tell you to watch?
He told me to watch a Russian movie that I couldn't find except for excerpts on YouTube because it's really old. And I watched Marlene Dietrich. She was masculine, but still a woman playing a man. The part of the Ballerina—you're not supposed to be a man, you're a woman playing a man, so I think that can be a bit more over the top. Another thing Alexei said was that the Ballerina's always acting. She's always putting on a show for whoever's around, and so I feel like it's important to be genuine in that role, but at the same time she has a little extra flair. [Laughs]

Had you worked with Ratmansky before?
I had done the corps of On the Dnieper and Snow and Flowers in The Nutcracker. I always loved working with him, and I feel this might have been him giving me this opportunity based on the stuff that we had worked on together before. I feel very at home in his movement. I feel I can just move—it feels very satisfying to do his steps. It's so musical, and his way of hearing the music is unique. It's so rich: There are so many layers to it, and although it's a classical vocabulary, what makes it his are all of these beautiful subtleties and a humanness. His humanity is apparent in every work that he does. His humbleness comes across.

His humor is also so amazing—his ballets can be so beautiful, but they're also full of wit.
Yeah. And The Bright Stream is a comedy, but he definitely doesn't want you to be milking the audience for laughs. He would just be like, "Stop—do it again. That's not real. Do it how you would do it." That's important. For a ballet like The Bright Stream to work, it has to be not overdone.

What else are you dancing this season?
I'll be doing all of the soloist rep in the classical ballets that I've done before. I'm really excited to go back to those things with everything I've learned from doing other stuff this year.

How do you go back to dancing corps roles when you've danced the lead in something like Theme and Variations?
Actually, I enjoy doing all my other stuff now more that I'm doing these other roles because it's given me more confidence, I guess basically to really be myself in them. Those other experiences have given me more freedom in those parts.

You're in the new Wheeldon ballet too, right?
Yes. I'm in the new Wheeldon and the new Ratmansky. I love the choreographic process. I feel like working with a choreographer on something new, especially if I believe in their vision, is my favorite thing about dancing. When dancers believe that what they're doing is good and feel inspired by the choreographer's vision, they're more likely to give everything. If you don't think it's good or don't trust the choreographer, you're going to hold back. You can try your best to execute it well, but it's completely different when you're really inspired and trusting what they're giving you to do. The Wheeldon is to Benjamin Britten, and he made a really nice duet for Marcelo [Gomes] and me—kind of funereal. I can't really tell what the whole ballet is going to be like, but I've enjoyed working with him. I feel that he values the collaborative dynamic between dancer and choreographer very much, so it's been enjoyable.

And what about the new Ratmansky ballet?
There are five couples, so everyone's featured. So far he's just [choreographed] women dancing in unison and the men in unison, but I think I'm paired with Joseph Gorak, which is actually awesome. I've never danced with him before. He's great.

I read that you really admire Gillian Murphy. What other dancers do you hold in high regard?
It's hard to say. I have so many dancers that I admire all for different reasons throughout all the ranks of the company, not just the principals. One person I've admired since high school—because I got my hands on some VHS tapes—is [Diana] Vishneva. I love her. She's very unique and extreme. She doesn't hold anything back when she's onstage.