What inspired ballerina Isabella Boylston to start her own ballet festival


A childhood on the move

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton’s mother, Latisha Edwards, says from as far back as she can remember, that Ashton, the sixth of Edwards’ seven siblings, is constantly on the move, dancing on any flat surface of the House. “He would crash into plates in the kitchen,” she laughs. She knew she had to find something to focus all this energy.

The year following the family trip to Nutcracker, when Ashton was only 4 years old, Latisha enrolled them in a dance class offered as part of Flint’s Head Start program. Karen Jennings, now president of the dance division at the Flint School of Performing Arts, was running the Saturday program at the time.

“There was this little guy in the hallway,” recalls Jennings. It was Ashton, and Jennings saw that the kid was copying the students in his middle class.

“I was afraid he would fall and split his head,” she said. “So, I invited him into the studio.”

Jennings recognized Ashton’s natural flexibility, rotation and body proportions, physical strengths that often propel a hopeful ballet dancer to success. Beyond these gifts, Ashton had what Jennings calls a “spark”: enthusiasm and self-discipline to devote to regular ballet lessons. Once the Edwards family decided that Ashton would continue her ballet training, Jennings was happy to place them in her classes with the more advanced students. She has kept a close eye on the aspiring dancer throughout her 12 years in the Flint School of Performing Arts program, although Ashton’s journey has not always been an easy one.

Ashton was one of the few boys in the school and one of the very few black students. And while Ashton never felt treated any differently, their keen awareness of being Black in a room full of white dancers created pressure to excel.

“I must have been 12 times better than everyone else my whole life,” says Ashton. “We have no choice but to be the best if we are to be treated equally.”

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Find a dance house in Seattle

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By the time Ashton was 11 or 12, it became clear that they had the raw skills to pursue ballet in earnest, and Jennings met with the Edwards family to explain what that would mean: leaving Flint for more pre-professional training. rigorous. Latisha Edwards was worried about sending her child out of town, but she supported their decision to enroll in summer school at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and then the Houston Ballet.

Although Jennings believed Joffrey would be a good long-term fit, at the age of 16 Ashton decided to audition for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive. They traveled to Chicago where the Seattle-based dance company was hosting a large regional audition. PNB art director Peter Boal said chief executive Denise Bolstad spotted Ashton before him.

“Her eyes widened, then she showed the name and audition number on the card.” Boal immediately saw what Bolstad noticed in Ashton. “Its lines, its energy, its placement.”

But something even more special struck Boal: this teenager had the kind of stage presence that’s hard to teach. “There are dancers you are just watching, and they have their own special projector.”

Boal offered Ashton a summer place; Despite their mother’s qualms about the distance between Flint and Seattle, she let her son travel west, where they fell in love with both PNB and Seattle. After the summer, Boal accepted Ashton into the training program in the company’s professional division.

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Pursue the dream of dancing on the pointe

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

While the move to PNB made sense in terms of preparing for a professional ballet career, it did not guarantee that Ashton could immediately pursue ballet training regardless of gender. In fact, the teenager didn’t even think about it at first.

“Growing up, I always knew all the choreography of female roles,” says Ashton. “I learned everything, but they were unreachable dreams, just crazy fantasies.” So when Ashton first came to PNB, they focused on traditional men’s classes and strength building, to become what they call a “man for men.”

But the pandemic struck midway through Ashton’s first year at GNP. When the ballet school closed, Ashton had time to reflect on his efforts to adapt to the stereotype of the male ballet dancer. At 5’6 “with long, slender limbs and androgynous facial features, they didn’t necessarily look like a Romeo or an Albrecht. And deep down, they still dreamed of dancing Juliet or Giselle.

So, during quarantine in the spring and summer of 2020, Ashton embarked on a rigorous self-directed training program. They researched pointe technique videos online, studying them carefully. A friend gave Ashton his old spikes, and each day they would go outside on the patio to practice what they saw in the videos.

“I was there six hours a day, as soon as the sun came up,” says Ashton. “And I realized, maybe this dream is possible.”

So, last fall, Ashton approached Boal and Bolstad with a proposal: The dancer would continue with the official men’s program if the school allowed them to take advanced classes as well. And they showed the teachers what they had learned over the summer.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Boal recalls. “If someone had told me ‘This student has only been dancing pointe shoes for nine months and that’s what he can do’, I wouldn’t believe it!”

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

The Lewis and Clark of the ballet world

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Since the resumption of classes last September, Ashton has juggled a tight schedule: two days a week, they take advanced classes with their female colleagues in the professional division; the other three days they work with the male students, although sometimes they also take this course in pointe shoes.

Former PNB principal dancer Jonathan Porretta, one of Ashton’s instructors, said he never knew his student wanted to dance on pointe until last fall, when Ashton started dancing. post photos on his Instagram account.

Porretta says he’s always approached teaching his classes outside of male and female roles. For him, ballet consists of working on technique and developing the artist.

For her part, Porretta calls Ashton a “star,” someone he believes can help prepare a new future for men and women in ballet. Porretta says it’s time for the art form to loosen its skin-related gender roles.

“Some companies will be ready to embark on the future of dance, while others will be more grounded in their ways,” said Porretta. “But art is there to push the limits and the possibilities.”

PNB soloist Joshua Grant agrees. Years ago, when he was a young college student, Grant’s ballet teacher suggested he take advanced classes to strengthen his ankles. He loved to dance on pointe, but professionally that didn’t seem like an option. In 2006, after stints with the PNB and the National Ballet of Canada, Grant auditioned and was hired by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male troupe known for their camping sends of classical ballets.

“I was told it would be career suicide,” Grant recalls, because “men on edge? It’s either flirtation or comedy.”

After five years as a lead dancer with the Trocks, Grant returned to PNB, where he resumed his traditional male roles and developed his own choreographic career. He is currently creating a dance for Ashton and some of his comrades, for Next Step, the showcase of the choreographers of PNB. Ashton will be on peak. Like Porretta, Grant is overjoyed that a young dancer like Ashton wants to push to transform a centuries-old art form.

“I said to Ashton, ‘You’re like Lewis and Clark, you make your own way,” “Grant said. “‘There is no precedent, so do whatever you want.'”

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Look ahead

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton hopes to embark on a career as a dancer with companies that will screen them not only in contemporary genre-blind works, but in the traditional roles of the classical ballet canon, everything from Odette / Odile to Swan Lake to the coveted Clara in Nutcracker.

“I want to be part of the change, to move these traditions into modern life,” says Ashton. “We can preserve these ballets, these classical works, but also make them reflect our modern world.”

Boal believes in Ashton’s ability to be a change agent in ballet; more than that, he is convinced that ballet should welcome castings without distinction of sex and men performing on pointe as more than an act of novelty.

“We’re not going to laugh at it or point fingers at it,” Boal says. “We’re going to admire it, and ultimately we’re not even going to talk about it as something out of the ordinary, because it continues to evolve.”

Despite the support Ashton has received in his quest to become a professional non-binary dancer, landing a job is difficult for any ballet student, let alone a black dancer. But Ashton professes the faith that they can make their dreams come true.

“I just decided, all my life, this is what I’m going to do. It makes me happy, so I have to do it,” Ashton said. “There is no other way for me to exist.”

Photo by Lindsay Thomas


Gerald R. Schneider

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