Arts July 3, 2018

Inspiring the Next Generation of Dancers

Ballet star Isabella Boylston returns home with Ballet Sun Valley

Isabella Boylston has danced in hundreds of performances as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. But the 30-year-old Sun Valley native woke up the morning of her Ballet Sun Valley Festival last summer with a big case of the nerves.

“I hardly slept the night before because I was so nervous,” she said. “We had spent nearly two years planning the Festival. I was terrified to speak in front of the crowd, and the Pavilion was packed. But I felt so much love from the audience and my fellow dancers and my family that night. I’ll never forget it, and I consider it my proudest achievement in my career so far.”

Bringing ballet to her hometown of Sun Valley had long been a dream of Boylston’s. And she did it in a big way. As Artistic Director for Festival 2017, she helped to bring ballet stars from all over the world to dance and to include a world premier original piece celebrating the Great American Solar Eclipse that had taken place a couple days earlier.

Boylston will get another chance to build on her proudest achievement this summer when she, again, acts as the Artistic Director of Ballet Sun Valley Festival 2018 on July 17 and 18 at the Sun Valley Pavilion. Like last year, there will be two very different performances featuring two dozen dancers from internationally acclaimed troupes, including Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. And, like last year, aspiring young ballet dancers will get an opportunity to study under some of those dancers during a free Day for Dance Education on July 19.

“I was beyond thrilled with how well last year turned out, and I think this year is going to be even better!” said Boylston. “We have a stellar dancer lineup. And, while most of the choreography will be new to the Sun Valley audience, they will recognize many of the star dancers from last year.”

Boylston is particularly excited about Justin Peck’s full-length work “In Creases,” which she describes as “a high-energy master-
piece for eight dancers done to Philip Glass.”

She is also featuring three female choreographers this year—Gemma Bond, who choreographed last year’s “eight/twenty-one/seventeen” inspired by the total solar eclipse. Bond will be joined by Pam Tanowitz and Danielle Rowe.

“Having three female choreographers, as we are in this year’s ballet festival, may not sound like a lot. But in the ballet world, it still is, unfortunately,” said Boylston.

The classes enlisted 200 youth last year, and Boylston hopes to enroll up to 250 this year. “My incredible producer Bob (Smelick) and I share the view that education is everything!” said Boylston. “When I was a kid, I benefitted a lot from scholarships and financial aid for my ballet classes.

And I wanted to make sure that no one would be barred from the Ballet Sun Valley Education Day for financial reasons. Thanks to a very generous underwriter, we’re able to offer all the classes for free, in addition to letting the young dancers see one of the performances.”

Her chief goal? To show the next generation that they can aspire to ballet’s highest level, whether they come from a small town or big city.

“Even if the kids can’t learn everything in a day, my goal is to inspire them and show them that to achieve their goals they need hard work, [with] enthusiasm and the belief that anything is possible,” she said.

That message clicked with those who took part in last year’s lessons.

They entered Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge in tights and balera camisole leotards. And each rested a hand on the barres, their posture ramrod straight, their eyes focused straight out as dancers like Stella Abrera exhorted them to focus on being one with the music.

For the dancers, who ranged in age from 8 through 22, it was the equivalent of having New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady show Wood River High School’s quarterbacks how to throw a spiral.


Isabella Boylston (in back) joins ballet students showing off their autographs during a workshop last year.


“They came in awestruck, and by the time they were finished, every single one was inspired,” said Footlight Dance Centre founder Hilarie Neely, who with Helen Colette taught Boylston her first dance steps when she was just 3. “They were so humbled to have the experience. Some of the dancers were wondering whether they should proceed in their dance career, and they ended up being so inspired not only by the class but by seeing performers that they decided to continue.”

Among those who took part in last year’s classes was Audrey Hernandez. Hernandez has been dancing with Footlight Dance Centre since she was 4. And, in the 12 years since, she has become passionate about dance, dedicating her time and energy to it.

Hernandez took a ballet class, as well as Gemma Bond’s choreography class. And she attended a talk by Boylston about her journey as a dancer.

“Being able to dance with principal dancers was really inspiring to me, and I can’t wait to do it again this summer,” Hernandez said. “Knowing that the dancers came so far to teach us in this small valley really means a lot to me as a dancer.”

Hazel Ludwig echoed her sentiments. “As a teenage dancer in Bellevue, Idaho, any opportunity to watch professional dancing is welcome,” she said. “To actually participate and learn from professional dancers is something we seek and sometimes travel many miles for. So to have Ballet Sun Valley bring this opportunity to us was incredible.”

Usually teachers and performers of the caliber of those taking part in Ballet Sun Valley only teach those who have passed auditions. But these classes are open to young dancers, with classes for third- to fifth graders, middle school students, and high school and college students.

“It was not so much about teaching the steps or techniques but conveying how they bring artistry to the steps they perform. They showed how they approach their dance from the heart,” Neely said.

Boylston’s personal favorite was Gemma Bond’s choreography class since Boylston had wanted to learn choreography as a youngster but never had the opportunity. She watched as youngsters made choreographic maps, then performed their dances. “I think one of the big reasons there are so few prominent female choreographers is that these kinds of classes weren’t offered when I was young,” she said.

The Ballet Sun Valley performances themselves offered a taste of the different styles of ballet from around the world.

“Isabella did a beautiful job of making sure there was an artistic variety,” Neely said. “The kids were mesmerized, as we all were. They saw what they could accomplish when you work hard.”


Isabella Boylston appeared as Jennifer Lawrence’s dance double in “Red Sparrow,” a newly released movie about a ballerina turned spy that was filmed in Budapest. While she doubled as Lawrence in the early scenes of the movie, she got to dance as herself in the parting shot as Lawrence returns to her former ballet studio. “I had a blast at the ‘Red Sparrow’ premiere,” said Boylston. “And I thought the dance scenes turned out amazingly well. Seeing my face up there in the final scene was surreal!”


This article appears in the Summer 2018 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.