Dancer Isabella Boylston's journey from Idaho ski town to big-city ballet to 'Red Sparrow'

"Swan Lake" photo by Gene Schiavone

Isabella Boylston has been dancing with the American Ballet Theatre since 2005 and was named a principal dancer in 2014.

Isabella Boylston's parents met on a ski lift, so perhaps it was kismet that their daughter would be a natural athlete. Coming from a family of self-described "ski bums" who spent their free time on the mountains, Boylston was on skis almost as soon as she could toddle around their hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho. 

She signed up for every sport imaginable, from figure skating to gymnastics, and enjoyed them all. But it was an unexpected activity that felt "right." Boylston, who started taking dance lessons at age 3, instantly loved the artistry and creativity of ballet. Dance was a gift for her, and she relished the opportunity to perform.

"No one in my family knew anything about [ballet], or thought I would become a dancer," she says over the phone. "But I had this one teacher who saw my potential, so when I was 13, she urged me to enter a ballet competition. I trained on this little solo, and I won the regional round, and then they sent me to New York City to compete in the national round.

"I ended up winning the gold medal [at that competition]. I had been telling my parents that I was serious [about my dance career], but it wasn't until I won that I think they thought, 'OK, maybe she is talented.'"

Today, Boylston, 31, is a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. She's also an Instagram influencer with more than 228,000 followers and will be making her feature film debut as the dance double for Jennifer Lawrence's Russian ballerina-turned-government spy character in "Red Sparrow," which opens in theaters on Friday. 

Her improbable journey from a small mountain town with a population of about 1,400 to the most celebrated stages in New York City included a stop at the HARID Conservatory, a ballet-focused boarding high school in Boca Raton, Florida. Which was followed by an invitation to join ABT at just 17 during her senior year. A scout from the company had discovered her and asked her to join immediately, but her parents wanted her to graduate high school first. However, halfway through the year, they finally caved to her incessant pleas, and she headed to the Big Apple. She finished her degree remotely while balancing the demands of being a professional dancer. 

"Firebird" photo by Rosalie O'Connor

"When I get onstage, I don't want to think. I just want to be in the moment," says Isabella Boylston. "It doesn't always happen, but that's my goal every night."

Leaving the comforts of her boarding school for an unfamiliar city wasn't exactly a fairy tale, at least not right away. Sharing a tiny East Village two-bedroom apartment with five other dancers, Boylston desperately wanted to prove her worth at a company full of some of the best dancers in the world.

"I was taking classes with the dancers I looked up to, Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera, and there are pictures of [Mikhail] Baryshnikov on the wall," she says. "It was intimidating. At my boarding school, I had been one of the top students, and then I got to ABT, and I was a total nobody. I struggled with confidence in my first few years of the company and with finding my way."

Eventually, with time and experience, Boylston felt more secure in her abilities and in knowing that she deserved to be there. She initially was a member of the corps de ballet (like a chorus or an ensemble member of a play) and performed in eight shows a week. It was physically tasking, but it helped her grow as a dancer and a performer. She was promoted to soloist in 2011 and principal in 2014. While she now typically performs eight shows a month -- a far cry from her earlier days with the company but typical for a principal dancer due to the demands -- she is often onstage for several hours at a time. It's grueling, but she appreciates every moment of it. She feels lucky to be able to do what she loves, even when it involves eight-hour rehearsals and additional work with her trainer (a fellow ABT dancer who received his certification), and she is grateful to have never experienced a significant injury that could sideline her for an extended period.

And while the prevailing stereotypes of prima ballerinas is that of perfection-seeking, singular-minded obsessives who don't eat and are only out for themselves, Boylston is adamant about dispelling such notions. In fact, she credits the warm environment of ABT, and the encouragement of her peers, several of whom she counts as her best friends, as a large part of her success.

But, yes, she gets asked about "Black Swan," the 2010 Academy Award-winning film about the life of an unstable ballerina fighting for the lead role in "Swan Lake," on a regular basis, and you can practically hear her eyes roll when it's mentioned.

"Oh, my god, I get asked about that all the time," she says. "I think there's something entirely misogynistic about the stereotypes surrounding ballerinas. The hating each other and the backstabbing, it couldn't be further from the truth. I'm tight with a lot of the principal women.

"Maybe ABT is a unique place to work because it really is a family. But in my experience, it's always been the opposite -- very, very supportive. It is competitive, but it's a family. For the best possible production, everyone has to work together."

Boylston was determined to ensure dance was presented realistically in "Red Sparrow." Lawrence's character, Dominika Egorova, is a Russian professional ballerina who is recruited to be a government spy after suffering a career-ending injury, and Boylston portrays the actress during the dance scenes. In January 2017, she spent a month filming in Budapest and was impressed with director Francis Lawrence's (no relation to Jennifer) dedication to present an accurate portrayal as well. According to Boylston, he frequently asked for her input and made the experience far more collaborative than she was expecting. 

While Boylston's face isn't prominently featured -- although she does appear as another dancer in one scene -- she was grateful for the opportunity to expand her creative chops and enjoyed working with Jennifer Lawrence. The Academy Award-winning actress worked for months before filming began with famed ballet teacher and former New York City Ballet dancer Kurt Froman, who previously worked with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in "Black Swan." While only Lawrence's upper body is featured in the dance scenes, and Boylston handles the brunt of the dancing, the actress still learned all the choreography and was invested in making it as believable as possible. 

"Jennifer's awesome," says Boylston. "She's genuine, hilarious and such a talent."

Boylston is interested in working on other movies, or anything that helps ballet gain exposure, but only if time permits. Performing with ABT remains her top priority, and she hopes to do it for as long as she can.

But despite the success that has taken her all over the world, she hasn't forgotten about her hometown in Idaho. Last year she organized a dance festival called "Ballet Sun Valley," and she brought several of her notable dancer friends, including Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, to join her for two days of performing and teaching classes to area kids. They're holding the second annual event this July.

"It had always been my dream to bring ballet back to my hometown because I never got to see that when I was a kid," she says. 

"Seeing all of my friends there, and seeing the looks on the kids' faces, was amazing. I cried every day. It was such an emotional experience. It was as [important] as anything I've ever done professionally."

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