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By Ashley Rivers
Boston Ballet's new second soloist has grace and power.
Ashley Ellis moves with womanly grace. In one piece she seems to float through classical steps; in another she punches out jazzy movement with flair. Her pristine technique permits her great range, yet behind the grace lies a power that can ignite her presence onstage.
Ellis is one of Boston Ballet’s newest additions, bringing experience and versatility to artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s diverse repertoire. “She is a very balanced dancer—in her nuance, her exuberance, her fluid quality,” says Nissinen. “She’s in a great place in her career.” The 28-year-old joined the company at the start of the fall season as a second soloist, but her journey to Boston Ballet has taken some turns. Today, 10 years, four companies, and two continents into professional life, Ellis’ bold career moves show she is no stranger to life-changing risks.
As a student at South Bay Ballet in Torrance, California, Ellis fell in love with ballet long before she got her first pointe shoes at 10. Her teacher, Diane Lauridsen, taught Ellis to tackle her weaknesses without hesitating. (For Ellis, this meant lots of jumping.) “She always emphasized that you can’t just have one strong area. You have to be able to do everything,” says Ellis. Her hard work paid off: After a summer intensive in New York at American Ballet Theatre, she joined ABT’s Studio Company in 2001 before moving into the corps a year later.
Ellis’ five years in the ABT corps proved a demanding training ground. “When you’re dancing in a line, you learn to be very aware of your surroundings,” she says. She loved watching her dance idols, like Alessandra Ferri and Julie Kent, in the studio. As someone who had to work hard to feel comfortable in a role, Ellis admired their dramatic abandon.
But after six years in New York, she was ready for a change. While no one doubted her technical mastery, she was struggling to find her place as an artist. “I was young and a little bit intimidated when I was at ABT,” she says. “But I learned that I have to just go for it and always try to show what I’m capable of.”
When Ellis heard that ABT principal Angel Corella was starting a company in Spain, she approached him. He remembered seeing her perform lead roles in the studio company and hired her. Within months she was in Spain. “I think I was just really excited and didn’t realize how risky it was,” she says. “But it turned out to be a great experience. Angel is so positive—it was what I needed at that moment.”
Ellis arrived in Spain in 2007 knowing little Spanish, but she soon found a new sense of freedom to her dancing. “She grew artistically at a speed that sometimes other dancers don’t even experience in their entire careers,” says Corella. Ellis spent six months dancing with Corella’s touring group before his company officially launched, and by the time it did she was a soloist. Soon Corella cast her as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. “Surprisingly enough, against her natural personality,” he says, “she was almost more convincing as the Black Swan.”
In Swan Lake, Ellis danced with Joseph Gatti, who now also is at Boston Ballet. “As a partner, she’s very calm and easy to communicate with,” he says. “She makes you feel at ease.” A natural, unaffected performer, Ellis feels most at home onstage. “It’s almost an escape. In rehearsal, you can feel the people around you watching, but onstage you’re in your own world and it’s easier to be in that world. You can just let go and delve into whatever you’re doing.”
While dancing with Corella Ballet, Ellis also met her husband, choreographer and Corella corps member George Birkadze. In 2010, Ellis and Birkadze moved back to the U.S. and spent a year dancing together as soloists at Sarasota Ballet before Boston Ballet’s wide-ranging repertoire lured her to New England.
Just a few months into her most recent move, Ellis is ready to settle down. Her husband, 35, has been teaching in Boston as well as pursuing choreography. This season, Ellis will perform as a gypsy in Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, a pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, the second girl in Robbins’ Fancy Free, and the stately queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote.
Her varied company experiences have given Ellis perspective on herself as a dancer. “I’m looking forward to being challenged in new ways,” she says. Challenge her is exactly what Nissinen plans to do: “It’s very obvious what she has now,” he says, “but I think there is much more in there. My job is to find the ‘more’ and have her be so strong that she can be vulnerable enough to have that deeper artistic experience. It’s up to the individual how far they are willing to go before they get scared.” But Ellis’ track record shows that she’s already accustomed to jumping without a safety net. She is ready to soar.
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
Jumping to a new level: Boston Ballet tests Ellis’ strengths and helps her explore her range. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.