NYCB’s Isabella LaFreniere on Injuries, Time Management, and Her Passion for Pickleball
With her strong technique and hypermobile limbs, New York City Ballet principal Isabella LaFreniere seems to have it all—including an economics degree from Fordham University. But she hasn’t always had the easiest journey. Early in her career she overcame two major injuries—setbacks she now credits as growth opportunities that contribute to the rest of her ballet story.
As a kid you also trained in tap, jazz, gymnastics—do you think that helped shape you as a dancer?
To this day I believe that my background has made me more open to all movement styles. I loved taking hip hop and jazz at summer programs—I was never shy in those classes. Even now I take [other dance] classes at Steps on Broadway, just for fun—it doesn’t happen often, but when I can, I’ll grab a friend or two and bring them along with me.
You’ve dealt with some large-scale injuries. What was that like and what did you learn in the process?
I had two injuries early in my career that were incredibly frustrating. In those moments, I doubted whether or not my body could keep up with me; maybe it was telling me this was too much. While it was a whole flood of doubt and emotion, I had the support of my family, friends, and now-husband, who kept encouraging me to take it one day at a time. All you can do today is your best, and then figure out how it can be a little better tomorrow. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Looking back, I think there were weaknesses that I had to address. As poor as the timing seemed then, now I think it was a beautiful growing experience that has matured and equipped me so much.
You recently balanced graduating college and planning a wedding while dancing full-time. What was that like?
Due to the nature of this career, you easily become really good at time management. I had to set a schedule and plan every single day. I tried to take it day by day and not overwhelm myself with the big picture—staying present and maximizing each hour.
What role has taught you the most about yourself as a dancer?
Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. It is notoriously one of the most challenging story ballets. At NYCB, we’re so accustomed to doing short, 30-minute ballets, whereas a two-and-a-half-hour evening is a whole other ball game. It was a learning process in how to stay mentally in it, and of not being super-critical of myself if something didn’t go perfectly—there was so much more of the evening left to perform.
Which do you enjoy more—telling stories or abstract neoclassical works?
At this moment, I would say story ballets. I remember thinking after my first show of Firebird that it felt so much less nerve-racking because I was portraying a character. If you’re going onstage in a leotard for Agon, you just have to be yourself, and that can be more intimidating. I also just love sinking into the plot and having that context during a performance.
What’s your favorite ballet so far with NYCB?
Chaconne—that first pas de deux is just heavenly—and then Firebird. Two very different ballets, one with no plot and one heavy with story, but I love them equally.
What’s your pre-performance routine? Any superstitions?
I have my routine in terms of makeup and warming up, but I try not to be superstitious because I don’t want to go into a performance thinking, Oh, no, I didn’t do that one thing, so it’s going to be a bad show. If I’m starting to get a little bit nervous, though, I try to remind myself that I’ve done the ballet on good days and bad days, when I felt tired or felt energized, when I had super-hard shoes or super-soft shoes, and I can still do these steps no matter what state I’m in.
If you weren’t a dancer, what would you be?
I would be in the medical field, like a physical therapist. I do wonder if I would say the same thing if I didn’t have my dance experience and the injuries. But I love helping others, so helping someone no longer be in pain would be so gratifying.
What is your favorite part of life in New York City?
Being able to see so many different shows. Recently I had a little more time and started entering the Broadway lottery. I got really lucky and I got to see five Broadway shows in two weeks. I felt like I was winning the actual million-dollar lotto! And all the connections you can make and people you can meet—there are opportunities everywhere.
Do you have a secret talent or hobby?
I love pickleball. I picked it up during COVID with my husband and his family, and we play very frequently. His family is very competitive, so now I’ve gotten really competitive with it too. Oh—and I’m a roller-coaster junkie!