“I pretty much dance from 10 to 7,” says Isabella Boylston. As a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, she’s always in motion, keeping her muscles warm and strong so as to avoid injury. (She’s already sprained her ankle 15 times and had surgery once — when she stepped on a broken Champagne glass.)
If she’s not rehearsing or performing, the 31-year-old is doing one of the following: meditating, sleeping or consuming pasta, her “must-have” before a show. She’s also been thinking of taking on the big screen and on Friday, she’ll make her debut in “Red Sparrow,” the Francis Lawrence-directed thriller about a ballerina-turned-Russian intelligence agent. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, and Boylston plays Lawrence’s dance double.
“I think they were really committed to being as accurate as possible, so they wanted a principal dancer, a real ballerina,” Boylston says. “Justin Peck, the choreographer, is a good friend of mine — we had worked together before on our own film that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival a couple of years ago. He called me and was like, ‘I think you’d be a great fit for this project.’ And I was like, Francis Lawrence? Jen Lawrence? Sign me up.”
Boylston is no stranger to the “magic of live performance,” but filming presented new obstacles. “Sometimes I rehearse for up to nine hours in one day, which is insane, but we were doing 12-hour shoot days,” she explains. “You’d wake up at 4 a.m. to get into hair and makeup, then you’ll do 10 takes of the same thing and sit around and your muscles get so cold. It was basically trying not to get injured with all the stop and go.”
There are upsides. Mess up a move and there’s always the next take to get it right. Plus, she got to travel to Budapest and meet Jennifer Lawrence, who Boylston describes as “super real and hilarious.”
Having climbed to the highest ranks of the ballet world, Boylston is in her prime. She’ll soon embark on an American tour, followed by shows in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines and, finally, Lincoln Center in May. Still, she feels she has more time now than when she was in the corps de ballet doing eight shows a week. So she’s spending some of those extra hours giving aspiring dancers the tools they need to pursue their dreams.
“It had always been a dream of mine to bring ballet to my hometown, Sun Valley, Idaho,” she says. “It’s a ski town, but there’s a beautiful amphitheater there, so I brought a bunch of dancers from ABT and ballet stars from all over the world to Sun Valley for two shows and then we did a free education day for kids. We enrolled 200 kids and this year, we’re gonna try to enroll up to 300. I was happy that we were able to offer the classes for free ’cause I wouldn’t be here without scholarships and I think most aspiring dancers come from families without a lot of money.”
Boylston says it’s important for young dancers to develop a thick skin: “You get critiqued and criticized constantly and that’s not a bad thing ‘cause you need that to push you to grow and get better.” She struggled with self-confidence when she first joined ABT 13 years ago, but eventually learned that asserting herself was necessary in order to take control of her career.
“The world isn’t a perfect meritocracy, so you have to be able to speak up for yourself,” she advises. “Always be curious and realistic about things you need to work on and what you need to do to get to the next level.”
Assertiveness, curiosity and a desire to grow are essential to making it. And, Boylston says, a positive attitude helps when times get tough.
“Be nice to everyone and keep your sense of humor,” she adds. “‘Cause things don’t always go your way.”