BalletX’s Ashley Simpson Brings Strength, Vulnerability, and Endless Curiosity to Her Roles
It’s a recent Monday in June and the dancers of BalletX are deep in the creation process with choreographer Jamar Roberts at the company’s headquarters in Philadelphia. Among them, Ashley Simpson and Jerard Palazo play around with intricate and precarious connection points, threading their arms and leaning off-kilter in a duet that demands they support each other equally. Roberts asks the couples to find a “horizontal energy,” in a risky move where the dancers fall backward and clasp their arms around their partner’s neck. Simpson’s long limbs and generous plié are primed to do just that as she fearlessly dips back low and unfurls her legs in a grounded sweep. Her body recombines in inventive ways as they develop the step further and begin timing the larger phrase to the rushing sound of Philip Glass’ score.
Simpson, 25, is now in her third season with BalletX, a small contemporary ballet company of 12 versatile, standout dancers. But even inside such an exemplary group, Simpson’s artistry is singular and uniquely compelling. In 2022, she was recognized with a prestigious Princess Grace Award Honoraria.
“What I love most about her is that she’s very open and always ready to take on anything you send her way,” says Roberts, who has worked with her on two occasions. “Onstage she’s an iron butterfly. Strong and vulnerable. Always elegant, always generous, and always honest.”
That honesty, he continues, reflects an artist who can both honor herself and connect with audiences onstage—the place where Simpson says she feels most at home. Artistic staff and choreographers note her extraordinary ability to adapt to different choreographic vocabularies, making use of the wide range of emotions she can embody and inspire.
“BalletX is an adventurous company,” says artistic and executive director Christine Cox, “so we really need to work with open-minded dancers who are willing to become part of stories that have never been told. And Ashley does that with every cell in her body.”
Dancing Towards a Degree
Simpson grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, taking her first dance classes at age 5 at a local studio. Towards the end of grade school her training became more serious; she began studying at School of Ballet Arts and enrolled at the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, a highly rated public magnet school. She credits her advisors there with reinforcing the importance of college. Simpson ultimately wasn’t set on a classical career; instead, her goal was to focus on contemporary and attend the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. She was accepted, but with an older sister already pursuing an engineering degree, the cost of private college tuition seemed insurmountable. Her parents, however, were equally committed, and a combination of their budgeting and scholarships made it possible for Simpson to move to New York City for the college program.
Her college years served her well, and she developed a network that led to performance opportunities with XY Dance Project and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, plus a trainee position with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. She even appeared in the dance ensemble for the movie In the Heights.
Simpson spent her senior year in Memphis dancing professionally with Collage Dance Collective, receiving credits for her performance experience while finishing her coursework online. Little did she know that, by March, the pandemic shutdown would force her entire senior class to be remote along with her. Nevertheless, she graduated magna cum laude in 2020, with a major in dance and a minor in communications.
The Road to BalletX
Throughout high school and college, Simpson supplemented her training with summer programs. A BalletX intensive she attended after her sophomore year at Fordham opened her eyes to a way she could truly merge her ballet and contemporary backgrounds.
“I got the chance to watch a company class and see them perform,” says Simpson. “They were doing everything that I wanted but didn’t know really existed in an American company. I still wanted to dance on pointe after college. But I also love how diverse the repertory is, how challenging it is. I wanted that to be my life.”
Simpson later attended a BalletX workshop in New York City, where Cox was drawn to her stylistic range and felt she’d be a great fit for the company. In January of 2020, Simpson auditioned via company class, and Cox offered her a contract a few months later. Her first day of the season that May was on Zoom (though the company quickly pivoted to working in small, quarantined groups on site-specific digital projects).
“At the time, we were working with Rena Butler, Caili Quan, and Penny Saunders,” remembers Cox. “There was a lot of leaning in and looking forward into a screen. And even through the screen, Ashley was able to connect with choreographers.”
Simpson also raised her hand when Cox offered the dancers the chance to choreograph for the BalletX Beyond digital platform—making a sweet short film in which she traverses the globe via iconic screensavers without leaving a chair—and work on committees focused on other facets of the organization, like marketing and fundraising.
“Ashley just surprises you because she’s so curious,” says Cox. “She is deeply invested in experiencing life, and that type of curiosity supports her work in the studio.”
Making Choreography Her Own
In just a few short years, Simpson has been a part of 25 world premieres at BalletX, working with choreographers like Nicolo Fonte, Robbie Fairchild, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Justin Peck, Tiler Peck, and Amy Hall Garner, in addition to Jamar Roberts.
“I immediately gravitated to her, because of how free she is in her expression,” says Garner, who first worked with Simpson in 2019 at Collage Dance Collective. She’s since seen her grow in confidence and gain authority in the studio. “She gathers a lot of information and immerses herself. She’s the type of dancer that you give specific direction and imagery to and she progresses it and moves it forward in such an intelligent way.”
Cox notes that Simpson can be quiet in the studio. “But when the material starts to really get into her DNA, she takes it to a whole new level that I don’t even know the choreographer expected it to launch into.”
“I worry when I meet new choreographers that I’m not coming across in the right way, because when I process information, I’m very focused,” says Simpson.“But when choreographers say, ‘Okay, it’s yours. I can’t give you any more notes’—I love that! It becomes mine and I know I’m going to own it, I’m going to step on the stage, do what I do best and have fun doing it. And something about that just takes away all the inhibitions.”
Even though Simpson’s career has been on the rise, she has faced personal setbacks. In the fall of 2022, the unexpected death of a close cousin left her reeling with grief.
“Darrell Grand Moultrie was with us creating a new work at that time, and I like to think of that experience as a gift, because even though I was experiencing the worst possible pain, Darrell had so many encouraging words for me,” remembers Simpson. “My co-workers were also the best—I was able to get out of bed every day because I knew it would be good for me to keep dancing and keep living my life, and I would have their support to lean on if I needed it.”
While she still feels the pain of losing a beloved family member, Simpson is coping.
“I’ve been learning to put the memories in a beautiful box that I can look back on with love and happiness in my heart. And I know she would want me to continue living my best life and striving for better. That’s my motivation now.”
Outside the studio, Simpson decompresses from her intense workdays with a book (she is currently enjoying Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy), practices French, and cares for the plants in her outdoor green space. She manages the stresses of being in a continual creation process—the demands of which can differ greatly week to week, depending on who is in the front of the studio—with a positive-affirmation practice.
But the choreography never leaves her.
“I go home, I make my dinner, I make my tea, and I relax, but it’s still there, turning over in my brain even if I am not actively looking at videos,” says Simpson. “The steps appear in my dreams.”