Photograph by Steve Dondero

The Art of Coming Home

Words by Ryan Waterfield 


World-Renowned Ballerina Returns Home to Sun Valley


Some things are just meant to be. That doesn’t mean that hard work, determination, risk-taking, and collaboration aren’t part of the equation. But when things are meant to be, there’s a sort of grace to them that makes all of it seem effortless. 

Speaking of grace—enter (stage left) Isabella Boylston, a Sun Valley, Idaho, native who is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and the artistic director of Ballet Sun Valley Festival 2018. In other words, she’s at the top of the ballet world and at the top of her game. But she’s anything but a diva. 

Boylston’s parents met on a ski lift in Sun Valley and she spent a good portion of the first decade of her life in the shadow of Bald Mountain. And it was in this ski town that she initially discovered ballet. After her family moved to Colorado, Boylston continued to develop her passion and her talent and was commuting two hours by bus to study at the Academy of Colorado Ballet in Denver by the time she was 12.

She has now lived away from the Sun Valley area for far longer than she ever lived there, but Boylston has always wanted to bring world-class ballet to her hometown. She says, “It’s such a beautiful venue; not only did I want to bring dance to Sun Valley, where I started my own journey, but I wanted to bring Sun Valley to my friends and colleagues in the dance world.” 

Photograph by Steve Dondero.

Now, use your imagination here; we have a bit of a deus ex machina moment in the form of Robert Smelick, a Sun Valley-/San Francisco-based proponent of the arts. An 18-year board member for the San Francisco Ballet, Smelick first introduced world-class dance to the Sun Valley area in 2012 when he organized a visit by San Francisco Ballet to Sun Valley’s Pavilion. “That night,” Smelick says, “was magical. With the Pavilion being an outdoor venue, the drama is increased by the natural setting.” 

But sealing the deal to bring world-class ballet to the arts-savvy mountain town wasn’t easy. Smelick says, “We had some convincing to do. People were worried about the unusual set-up—no curtain, no fly system, no backstage—at the venue. Would it be awkward for the audience to see dancers warming up on the side of the stage where they would usually do it backstage? Would it be awkward for the dancers not to have that separation between audience and performer?” 

In fact, Boylston and Smelick agree, the venue has the exact opposite effect. “There’s an intimacy that develops in a setting like Sun Valley’s Pavilion,” Boylston says. “Not only do you have the amazing natural setting and the elements at play, but as dancers we’re sharing the same space with our audience—there’s no barrier, there’s no screen—we can share in their reactions to our performances and it lifts us even higher.”

After the success of 2012’s San Francisco Ballet performance, Boylston knew that her hometown was hungry for more. She told Smelick that she wanted to do something a little different than bring a company in to do a leg of their tour. Instead, Boylston wanted to “shake it up and bring a collection of dancers from various companies.” Boylston’s approach took its first Sun Valley curtain call last summer during the weekend of the big solar eclipse. It’s hard to say what was more memorable.

Photograph by Karolina Kuras.

It’s no small task for one dancer to bring 25 or so dancers from various companies from all over the world and get them on one stage. But, according to Smelick, “Isabella has such a warm personality and such a clear vision of what she wants to create, that people just want to work with her.” In the competitive world of ballet, you might think dancers would be more cutthroat, but, as Boylston says, “At American Ballet Theatre, we’re like a family. Someone else’s success is your success, and we thrive on supporting each other.” So it’s no wonder that Boylston has maintained close relationships with dancers and choreographers all over the world. In other words, she had some chips to cash in and cash in she did.

In reality, it was a win-win situation. Boyslton was also presenting her peers, colleagues, and friends with the chance to perform in a place they’d never experienced before. “The dancers went hiking. A few even went paragliding off of the top of Baldy,” Boylston says, a bit amazed by their risk tolerance. “They were blown away by the beauty of the place and the warmth with which they were welcomed to town.”

This year’s program has some special surprises in store, including a recent piece from a rising star in the choreography world, Justin Peck, entitled “In Creases.”

With dancers like Misty Copeland, Tiler Peck, and Dmitry Zagrebin joining her for this year’s festival, Boylston says, “The dancers coming this year are some of the best in the world. And everyone involved is working hard to put on a festival to remember.”

But of course, to the rest of us, it will look effortless.

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