Arts June 20, 2017
From Eccentric to Extraordinary
Isabella Boylston is an Idaho original and an international gem

Next time you see a 6-year-old show up at school in a swimsuit with a blow-up swim ring around her waist—in winter—or something equally fantastical, memorize that face.

That tiny provocateur might grow up to be a star. In this case, the swimsuit (subbing as a leotard) and the swim ring (serving as a tutu) were being purposefully—if not sensibly—worn by Sun Valley’s own Isabella Boylston, who has become one of the world’s foremost ballerinas. Today, that teeny eccentric from a trailer park south of Ketchum is, at 30, the youngest principal ballerina of the venerated American Ballet Theatre.

Boylston joined the company in 2005, rose to soloist in 2011 and became a principal dancer in 2014. She has captivated critics and audiences with her dense and dynamic lead roles in “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and is preparing “Swan Lake,” “Onegin,” and “Whipped Cream” for the 2017 Met season.

“This season is really special for me,” she said in a phone interview during a break from ABT’s season launch. “There is a lot of range for an actress in there.”

Still, it is a summer ballet festival that she has curated as a gift to her beloved Sun Valley that has Boylston most on her toes these days. In August, audiences will get a chance to see this fantastical creature in the flesh when she unwraps the package of imagination and power across the Sun Valley Pavilion stage. Ballet Sun Valley is poised as an annual endeavor.

“It’s been a dream of mine to bring world-class ballet to Sun Valley,” Boylston said. “I put together two different programs and invited people that I love. It feels very personal to me. You guys will be blown away by the talent.”

From The New York Times to Twitter, the media and her fans are fascinated with every aspect of her life: from her meals in a day (hearty, frequent and with a side of dark chocolate), to her makeup (she does her own hair and face as a warming-up ritual), who she’s dated (choreographer Benjamin Millepied), who she married (financier Daniel Shin in Croney Cove in Ketchum in 2014), and where she washes her leotard at night (she and Shin share a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom, high-ceilinged, white oak-floored, terraced Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, space.)

Boylston is as humble and understated about her ascent as her accolades are verbose and grand.

Her physicality, originality and depth have been singled out as being the new hope for ballet’s future. Forbes called hers a talent that comes once in a generation. The prodigy status that was noted by her local ballet teachers Helen Whiting Collette and Hilarie Neely in her first classes at age 3—based on the extreme arches of her feet and the breadth of her vigorous leaps—are causing renowned choreographers to stretch themselves to create more intriguing challenges for their muse.

The parts of Boylston that the public knows from street to stage come largely through countless interviews, Instagram and her own web page. The Harry Potter fan with the girlish giggle is a mesh of contrasts, but she morphs from one to another in seamless, but considered, characterizations unique to each moment.

She describes her off-stage style and fashion sense as a combination of experimentation borne of thrift and feel. Pink is relegated (and relished) to costumes only. Her day to day merges athletic-fashion with spontaneity and a well-made bag.

In numerous interviews, and within this short but vivid conversation, she oscillated smoothly from technical and historical speak about the art and drama of ballet without being too important, to sharing tips on eating, sleeping, and even how to have a great booty, like hers. (Nine hours a day of ballet practice is a start.)

But within the verve is the consistent vibe that she does and always has taken it all more seriously than many of her peers on her path.

The genesis of her performance standards was the merger of her parents, a drummer/ski bum and the Swedish businesswoman he shared a ski lift with three decades ago.

She started skiing “as soon as I could walk,” Boylston said. At age 3, she began her first ballet classes. “No one in my family knew anything about ballet; it was more that my parents wanted me to have as many opportunities as possible,” she explained.

A brother was born, her parents built a house, and Boylston danced and ski raced. Though she didn’t take up an instrument like her dad, when ballet became the hardest thing she ever did, a magnetic force was born.

“What resonated with me was the physicality and the musicality.”

S17_ARTS_isabella_boylston_banner_2

Photo by UNGANO + AGRIODIMAS

Her body became her instrument and she beat it like a drum.

“I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t in pain, honestly,” she said. But she remembers the first. “When I was 11, I got accepted into a summer program. It’s something serious dancers do; they go into a summer dance intensive. I got a scholarship, and I was the youngest kid there. I had these Russian teachers that were really hardcore. I was invited to stay in the year-round boarding school, but my parents said I was too young.”

But seeing how much she could improve inspired her, she said.

By 12, her parents relented and she was sent to the Academy of Colorado Ballet in Denver.

“I was so ready; I was never a homesick kid. I felt immediately that I (had) found my niche,” she said. For the next three years, she would spend half day in public school and then take a bus to six hours of dance lessons. “I didn’t fit in in public school. I was so serious about what I was doing compared to the others.”

Finding her niche and her place in that niche would not be the same thing for many years to come.

“I think I was pretty naive as to where I would fit in. I aspired to join ABT, but I didn’t think it was a real possibility. You get a lot of criticism as part of the culture when you are students and it’s pretty hard,” she recalled. “It’s hard to deal with when you are that age and impressionable. You need to find that nurturing that makes you better.”

After stints in Japan and Brazil, she joined the ABT in 2005, and made the choice to give up skiing to be on the safe side. She devoted the next decade to establishing herself as a charismatic, animated and engrossing dancer whose physical control was unparalleled.

She takes the spotlight joyfully, and dutifully.

“I know a lot of my fan base is little girls, and I try and represent a strong woman who is independent and healthy and creative. Dance changed my life,” she said. “I know for sure I can change lives. I am hopeful that we will inspire these kids.”

As she shared in a Self Magazine video series with Walgreens called “Beauty Unfiltered,” ballet is always reaching to get to the next level, which is always just out of reach.

“At the end of the day, it should really look effortless and poetic.”

 

Sun Valley Performances

When: 

August 22 and August 24, 2017

What: 

Two different programs, including choreography by George Balanchine, August Bournonville, Pontus Lidberg, Wayne McGregor, Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, and a world premiere by Gemma Bond that is inspired by the August 21 solar eclipse. The week of the performance, there will be a rare and total solar eclipse that can be viewed from Sun Valley. In honor of that, Boylston commissioned a special performance from friend and fellow dancer-turned-choreographer, Gemma Bond. Divined around the eclipse, there will be 10 dancers, a new score by Judd Greenstein and video designs by Kate Duhamel.

Who: 

As curated by American Ballet Theatre’s Isabella Boylston, each evening’s event features ABT dancers and members of The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet.

Education and Outreach: 

Free classes with Boylston and friends on August 23.

Tickets:

BalletSunValley.com or call 208.727.7437.

This article appears in the Summer 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.