This is Isabella Boylston’s big bird season. The engaging American Ballet Theatre soloist, who has been injecting a vibrant personality and crisp virtuosity into her roles since joining the company in 2007, is taking on two big new assignments: those iconic ballet birds, the Swan Queen and the Firebird. She makes her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake on June 27 and will dance the title character in Alexei Ratmansky’s eagerly anticipated new version of The Firebird June 13 and 22.
The Idaho native has plenty more to keep her busy: this week, she performs the demanding role of Gamzatti in La Bayadère (a New York debut), and next week reprises her impressively personable and confident performance as the Ballerina in Ratmansky’s Bright Stream, a work brimming with humor and warmth.
Choreographers creating works for ABT have tended to cast Boylston in their premieres; last year she was in the cast of both Christopher Wheeldon’s 13 Diversions (which returns this season) and Ratmansky’s Dumbarton. But having proven herself as a very contemporary ballerina, responsive to a choreographer’s vision, she is gradually taking on the more tried and true roles that are the barometers by which ballerinas are evaluated and compared.
Recently, she was rehearsing the opening scene of Swan Lake’s famous second act, in which Prince Siegfried, weary of the social pressures of castle life, escapes into nature to hunt and encounters Odette, a maiden trapped by an evil sorcerer’s spell. Both Boylston and fellow soloist Daniil Simkin will be making debuts in the ballet, and as they worked under the watchful eye of ballet master Clinton Luckett, all illusion of ease vanished.
There was frequent pausing to gasp for breath between attempts, and intricate parsing of minute details. “I can’t find those arabesques,” Boylston said plaintively at one point. “They’re better than yesterday,” Luckett offered by way of encouragement, adding, “Those are two of the hardest steps in the repertory.”
Shortly after rehearsal, Boylston sat down for an interview in ABT’s conference room, plopping her powder-blue practice tutu on the table. She recalled that when she learned last fall that she’d be dancing Swan Lake, “I was overwhelmed. It’s my dream role. I feel like out of the classical ballets, it’s what I would be most suited to. I think at my core I’m more of a lyrical dancer, but lately I seem to have found more strength in my technique, so I’ve been given a lot of technically challenging roles.”
She has performed the famous third-act bravura pas de deux on its own before, but learning the entire ballet has been a consuming process. She has watched many videos of different versions and interpretations of the ballet.
“Now I’m trying to leave that and just go be Odette. There are still so many sections that I’m really unhappy with, so I have a lot of work. With Swan Lake, there’s a lot of freedom, because there are so many different interpretations.
“It’s amazing when you see a dancer and they’re able to really do the choreography and make it look spontaneous—like it was just created for them. To me, that’s the goal. So many people have done so many ballets so well, but I want to try to make every role that I do my own,” she said.
She has that chance as one of the three ballerinas Ratmansky chose to interpret the title role of his new version of The Firebird. The ballet had, in essence, a February out-of-town tryout in Orange County, Calif., and Ratmansky has continued to develop the production in the intervening months. From the start, Boylston said, he worked equally with all three Firebirds (Natalia Osipova and Misty Copeland also perform the role), allowing each to find her own interpretations.
“He didn’t want to pigeonhole anyone; he seemed to like how different each of us was from the other and wanted to draw out our unique qualities, rather than make us all conform to one idea. The Firebird is a wild exotic creature, really powerful, like a force of nature, as well as mysterious. I really want her variations to be physically and dynamically, and musically, quite brilliant—to have a lot of clarity as well as freedom. In my first performance, it came together in a way it never had in rehearsal. So I was very relieved. But I’m still finding the role—and he’s still developing it.”
Working with Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence since 2009, has been particularly challenging and stimulating for Boylston. They developed a positive rapport while he was creating his 2010 Nutcracker for the company. “He seemed to really push me. I feel like Alexei really brought a lot out of me that I hadn’t tapped into before.
“I always feel that when I’m in the studio with him, I really bring my A game. I feel comfortable, but never relaxed. With him, more than anywhere else, I feel I’m really pushing myself and trying my best to produce his vision, because I really believe in it.”
The season promises to showcase many aspects of Boylston’s talent, as she takes the stage in both iconic 19th-century roles and bracingly contemporary ones. “I’m loving all the opportunities that I’m getting and the variety of it,” she said happily. “I feel very lucky not to be pigeonholed into classical or contemporary; they seem to find me suitable for both, so I’m really happy about that. I would feel incomplete doing only one or the other.”
American Ballet Theatre
Through July 7, Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, www.abt.org; times
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