What Inspired Ballerina Isabella Boylston to Start Her Own Ballet Festival

Photo by Sophie Elgort, courtesy Isabella Boylston

Last year, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston decided to bring world-renowned ballet to her hometown of Sun Valley, ID. The first three-day Ballet Sun Valley festival featured stars including Maria Kochetkova and Misty Copeland, performing solos, pas de deux, and a world premiere by Gemma Bond. Audiences raved so much that the festival will continue this year, July 17 and 18. The talent list has expanded: There'll be 25 dancers from companies including the Paris Opéra Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and New York City Ballet, and the festival will again offer a day of free dance classes for local students. Dance Spirit caught up with Boylston to get all the details—and to find out what starting a ballet festival is really like.


What inspired you to start a festival?

I had always dreamed about having the opportunity to curate my own show. When I was back home in Idaho a few years ago looking for a place to get married, I saw the Sun Valley Pavilion, which wasn't there when I was a kid, and immediately thought it would be the perfect place to put on a world-class show.

What were the reactions to last year's festival?

The response from the audience was completely overwhelming. There were tons of standing ovations and so much community support.

How did you approach programming this time around?

I always start with dancers in mind, by making a wish list of who I want to come. Then I try to strike a balance between work I find interesting, work the audience will like, and work the dancers will shine in. I always choose work that's meaningful to me. Luckily, I've developed great relationships with some amazing choreographers throughout my career, which makes it easier. As a female director, I also feel a responsibility to present work by female choreographers. This year we'll have pieces by Gemma Bond, Pam Tanowitz, and Danielle Rowe.

What are you most excited about this year?

I knew I wanted to present a group piece, so we're really lucky to be performing In Creases, by Justin Peck, with eight dancers from ABT. It's a masterpiece, and I think it'll be fun for the dancers, too, since we don't usually get to perform work by Justin at ABT. This year, we're also increasing the number of spots for our free education day for young dancers. Last year, we enrolled around 200, and this year we want to enroll even more.

How do you balance planning a huge festival with your company career?

Honestly, it's really stressful and a ton of work, but it also brings me a lot of joy! The hardest thing is answering the hundreds of emails. There's no way I could do it without my tireless executive producer Robert Smelick and the rest of my amazing team.


A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Ballet Sun Valley Is Back."

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