Embodying Sweat and Beauty

An Interview with Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder

By Elisabeth Donnelly

As a dancer, Ashley Bouder’s speed, technique, and attack makes her an audience favorite — and she's also an incandescent performer who can apply all that power to impeccable classical artistry. 

After early years with Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (the first home of many NYCB dancers), Ashley came to the School of American Ballet in 1999 and joined New York City Ballet in October 2000. She was named a Principal Dancer in January 2005, and her repertory includes iconic roles in classic full-lengths from The Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake to Coppélia, Jerome Robbins’ ballets – including Dances at a GatheringThe Four Seasons, and Other Dances, and a slew of principal roles in Balanchine ballets, including, but not limited to Apollo, Serenade, Symphony in C, Firebird, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Tschaikosvky Suite No. 3. She has also originated roles in new works from numerous choreographers including Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky.

Outside of NYCB, Ashley is impressively busy. She founded and is the director of her own company, The Ashley Bouder Project, an “arts collaborative dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts,” where she’s worked as a choreographer and performer. She's also majoring in Political Science at Fordham Univeristy, and can often be seen keeping up with young daughter Violet Storm on Instagram.

She answered our question on sweat and beauty over email in September, when she was performed a number roles that reflected the expertise and grace of her range: Rubies from JewelsLa Sylphide, and originating a role in Kyle Abraham’s 2018 Fall Gala premiere The Runaway.

What does this Balanchine quote mean to you? First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.
To me, this quote means that you put in the work to get the results you want, and have faith in the process.

Who in the dance world inspires you the most, and why?

I’m inspired daily by my colleagues at NYCB. The workload in this company is extraordinary and our dancers handle it with grace and an unparalleled determination, never giving away tiredness or pain in performance. 

I’m also inspired by the new crop of female artistic directors making positive change in the landscape of the ballet world: Aurélie Dupont, Tamara Rojo, and Eleonora Abbagnato.

Is there a performance that resonated with you in a significant way? 

I remember the first time I saw Alessandra Ferri perform. It was Manon with American Ballet Theater. Her first entrance is is not a big deal and is sort of covered up by action on another part of the stage. But the minute she walked on, my eyes immediately found her and never stopped watching. Her very presence was mesmerizing. It was truly the definition of a ballerina.

What is your favorite music to perform to?
It seems cliché, but I love Tschaikovsky’s big orchestral scores: the fourth act of Swan Lake, the apotheosis in The Sleeping Beauty.
Tell us about a personal or physical challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career. How did you approach it?
In 2012 I found out that I have a full ACL tear in my right knee. I heard a pop, which turned out to be the last piece of scar tissue or ligament attaching my femur and tibia. After two MRIs, many doctor appointments, physical therapy sessions and discussions, I decided to forgo surgery and attempt to complete my career without an ACL.

This decision was not taken lightly because I am a fast mover and jumper by nature in my repertoire. This decision means constant strength training and deliberate thought with each move I make when dancing, with a real possibility of further injury. Surgery would mean about a year off the stage, whether I did it now or waited for another knee injury. I’m willing to take the risk and enjoy my time performing as much as I possibly can.

Ballet is mentally demanding as well as physically grueling. How do you maintain your mental strength on top of your physical strength?
I start every morning with my two-year-old daughter Violet, and I make a point of spending as much time with her and my husband as possible. I also make sure I have plenty of relaxing outlets to destress when life and work feel like too much, like knitting and reading. In fact, I like knitting leg warmers for my fellow dancers to spread warm feelings both literally and figuratively.

What kind of cross-training do you do to support your dancing?
During my downtime from NYCB and freelancing, I like to keep my stamina up by running on the elliptical or treadmill and taking barre and bootcamp classes.
Do you play any sports?
I love golf, but don’t play as much as I’d like. In fact, I’ve been on the winning team for the NYCB golf event two years running. 
Have you ever struggled with a particular step, variation, or role? How did you overcome it?
I’ve always had a struggle with fast double pirouettes from fifth. And I’ve had issues with that step in both Serenade and Theme and Variations. The only way to overcome it is practice, practice, practice. And staying mentally in the zone during those passages on stage. 
How has the discipline of ballet shaped your identity?
Ballet has taught me the importance and payoff of hard work. It has helped me through college classes and given me the determination to keep going, no matter how far off my degree feels. Succeeding in ballet for anyone is a testament to that person’s ability to put their faith in the long haul.
As a dancer and an athlete, when do you feel the strongest? When do you feel the most artistic?
I feel both strongest and most artistic when I can complete a performance and have forgotten to be tired and who I am — when I can just inhabit my character, or the choreography, and live in the moment.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ashley will be performing throughout the 2018/2019 season. See her in featured roles during George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®, on stage NOV 23 – DEC 30, and performances in winter and spring of 2019.

Ashley Bouder Sweat/Beauty Photos ©  Gabriela Celeste