A Chat with Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis

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When I was a little girl, I loved going to the ballet. We didn’t go often, but the few times that I saw The Nutcracker were downright magical. I’ve always been impressed by how gracefully ballerinas move. Ballet is such an art!

We recently caught up with Ashley Ellis, principal dancer at Boston Ballet, to learn more about what life like a ballerina is really like…

How did you get into ballet? Was being a ballerina always a dream for you?

I started dancing like most little girls, too young to really know what it could hold for them in the future. I think it was around age 10 that I really started to take it seriously and from then on out I was all about it. It was my dream and my love.

What does ballet mean to you?

Ballet is a living art. It is a beautiful seemingly effortless display of athletic movement intertwined with music. It should take you away from reality and evoke raw emotions. For me, dancing takes me away and I enter the world of what ever I am dancing.

Do you have a favorite ballet that you’ve been in? Is there one that you’d drop anything to participate in?

I love the variety of Boston Ballet’s repertoire, and it is one of the main reasons that I wanted to come dance for this company. However, I am a sucker for the full-length dramatic ballets. I think its because I grew up with them and started my career in the corps dancing so many of them while watching some incredible artists become these characters that would just take your breath away. I haven’t danced the role of Giselle or Juliet yet, two of my favorites.

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I can only imagine how much hard work and discipline it must take, what do you do to keep motivated and inspired?

It really does. There are many professions out there that take incredible skill and hard work, but ballet is an extreme example of this. It takes so much of you on so many levels. There are the obvious physical demands of rehearsing and performing, then there is the emotional depth that you try to achieve when dancing which is what really makes it art. Also it takes such dedication, constantly trying to refine what we do and reach new levels. It is a true commitment, there is no real coming and going from it, it is a lifestyle. As much as we like to relax and play outside of work, there is needs to be some level of consideration for how it will effect the way you feel, such as the length of a vacation or intensity of an activity.

I find it essential to find inspiration around me on a daily basis. If things ever start to feel a bit monotonous then it is so hard to keep going at a high level. You must find something to light that fire inside of you. I like to find inspiration around me by watching a video of a dancers I admire, watch dancers in the company, or even watch a movie if it relates emotionally to something I’m doing at work. Motivation and inspiration play such a large role in any art that is created and even in each of our lives day to day.

When you have a day off, where can we find you and what are you doing?

I’m usually home with my husband and our big dogs. We like to spend time outside and in Boston’s beautiful parks. When it’s warm we’ll cook in our backyard and spend time relaxing with friends.

Are you from the Boston area? If not, what brought you here? Do you plan on staying here?

I’m from Torrance, CA but I’ve lived on the East Coast for quite some time now. I’ve lived where I have because dance brought me there, and I am grateful to have experienced many places. I started my professional career in New York, went to Spain for a few years, after that I spent a year in Florida, and then I came to Boston. One thing I’ve learned its that you never know where life will take you, so years down the road I can’t say I know exactly where I’ll be. For the time being I love living in Boston, it is a beautiful and culturally rich city with a lot to offer.

What is your favorite thing about living in Boston? Favorite restaurant? Favorite neighborhood?

Boston has a wonderful appreciation for the arts, and I am grateful for it. My husband and I live in Jamaica Plain and we just love it. We have wonderful neighbors, beautiful parks, and it’s a nice way to feel like you get away but are still just steps from the city. JP also has great restaurants; one of my favorites is Tres Gatos.

As we gear up for the holidays, what are you most looking forward to?

The Nutcracker is always a very big part of almost every dancers’ holiday season, and this is especially true in Boston. It seems that just about everyone I meet has been to a Boston Ballet Nutcracker at some point in their life and consider it a holiday tradition. I look forward to it for various reasons. Being a part of the production is very rewarding and you really feel the magic of the season come to life. It brings me such joy seeing families come and go from the theater, especially the little kids all dressed up and eyes glowing.

What would someone be surprised to know about being a ballerina?

We have to be versatile. Its not just pink tutus and glitter. I mean, sometimes it is, but we have to be able to do all sorts of movement, characters, and styles. In fact this is something that we thrive on, it is exciting to experiment with new choreography, and expose ourselves to new ways of moving and feeling.

Walk us through a typical day.

I get up, have breakfast and coffee and head to class. Each day is different depending on our individual schedule. When we aren’t performing, class is at 9:45 and I like to get there about 45 min early to change, stretch, and do various warm-up to get my body ready for the day. After class I will head to rehearsals which run from 11:30-6:30 with a one hour lunch break. Once I’m done I head home for dinner and its time to put my feet up.
When we are in the theater our hours get pushed around a bit to accommodate for the shows. Class is a bit later, sometimes as late as 12:00. There will be a few hours of rehearsals and then a few hours where I go out to eat and then come back to the theater to prepare for the show. On these days it’s normal to get home around 10:30 or later, so it’s important to rest when you can. Also if something is hurting, physical therapy gets worked in some time during a break.

What piece of advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?

As I’ve been told before, there is no reason to save for tomorrow, just give all of what you have today. So, don’t hold back. Take opportunities and give it your all. Don’t be afraid of what others think, or if you won’t do it well on the first try – it will get better. Live in the moment and focus on how you are going to make what you are doing special. When you feel lost know that you will find your way again, the important thing is to learn from every experience. With hard work and determination you will get there, so have faith.

Thank you, Ashley! Catch Ashley at a performance of The Nutcracker, now running through December 31st!

Image credit: 1) Rosalie O’Connor, 2) NYC Dance Project.

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