Company Life: Learning Fearlessness

American Ballet Theatre soloist Isabella Boylston on why dancers can’t afford to be afraid—and how she’s conquered her own anxieties
Published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue.

The picture of confidence: Isabella Boylston as the Ballerina in "The Bright Stream." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising that ballerinas are terrified sometimes. There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re launching yourself through space, being lifted and caught, and pirouetting on pointe—all in front of a few thousand people.

But when you see a dancer who appears supremely confident, you shouldn’t assume that she doesn’t feel anxiety, among other things. Over time, you learn to perform at a high level regardless of what you’re feeling. Any great dancer, and anyone who aspires to be a great dancer, is always pushing her limits. You can be a safe dancer and perform very competently, but you will never be really captivating unless you learn to work through your fear.

When Pointe asked me to write this essay, I was frankly a little surprised. I don’t necessarily consider myself the most confident performer. Like everyone else, I deal with nerves, anxiety and self-doubt. But over the course of my career so far, I’ve learned how to work with those negative emotions—and even how to use them to my advantage.

When I was a teenager and joined the ABT Studio Company, I was fearless onstage. I wasn’t really thinking about what I was doing; I was just doing it. I had an almost childlike absence of self-consciousness. Once I joined the corps of ABT, I had to learn to be patient. I was eager to do more, and because the roles didn’t come immediately, I began to doubt myself. I wasn’t getting the attention that I did as a student and in the Studio Company. I think many dancers experience that difficult transition when they join a big company. I wanted so badly to prove myself that I was overly sensitive to criticism from my director and my coaches. It became harder to enjoy performing.

The first soloist role I got to dance with American Ballet Theatre was the jumping girl in Swan Lake’s pas de trois. I was beyond thrilled. But when the show came I found myself paralyzed with nerves. I was on autopilot; my face felt frozen. I started critiquing my dancing while I was still performing. I felt like everyone could see my lack of maturity.

Luckily, after my initial meltdown, I had more opportunities to dance the part. Soon, I began to get other soloist roles. My nerves got a little better; I started to have moments of freedom onstage. But I still knew that I could get a lot more out of those roles.

A couple years later, I found out I was going to dance the principal role in Theme and Variations with one of my idols, David Hallberg. I put all my physical and mental energy into preparing for the part. My coach, Susan Jaffe, worked with me on the steps and the style without trying to impose any unnatural directions. Focusing on the feeling and not the look of the dance helped ease my fears. When the show arrived, I was nervous, but I felt ready. I had rehearsed it so much that I knew I could physically get through it. I told myself to breathe and listen to the music, and the experience was magical. Since then, I’ve found that connecting to the music is the best way to work through nerves onstage.

I feel a million times more confident in performances now than I did when I was first starting out, but I still deal with nerves and am constantly questioning myself. Since I can’t make the nerves go away, I’ve found ways to use them to my advantage. One benefit of being nervous is that it makes you extremely focused. For example, when I do Swan Lake, I try to channel my nerves into the fear that Odette is feeling when she first meets Prince Siegfried. And the more roles and performances I do, the less anxious I feel, which allows me to take more risks and make new discoveries. In the end, experience is the best way to build confidence.

Since I’ve become a professional dancer, pretty much everything that I was once afraid of has happened to me: —falling onstage and spraining my ankle, forgetting choreography, getting dropped, not finishing my fouettés, getting a bad review. But at the end of the day, none of it makes any difference because my goals are still the same. I’m still going to keep working and trying to improve and grow and evolve as an artist. The nerves and anxiety are all worth it for those moments of freedom onstage.