ABT’s Jake Roxander Is Unstoppable

July 2, 2024

In May of 2022, American Ballet Theatre director of repertoire Carlos Lopez was preparing Alexei Ratmansky’s Of Love and Rage. On the day Ratmansky joined rehearsal, Lopez was uneasy because he had to put in a new apprentice, Jake Roxander.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, Alexei, we have a lot of people out today,’ ” Lopez recalls. But the young dancer caught them both by surprise. “Even when Jake wasn’t in the right place, he was just so committed. Alexei said to me, ‘Wow, he’s special.’ ”

Jake has been eliciting that reaction a lot lately: The New York Times called him out as a breakout artist of 2023 (of any discipline, not just ballet). He was later named one of Dance Magazine’s 2024 25 to Watch and a Clive Barnes Award winner. In March ABT promoted him to soloist, less than two years after he became an apprentice. It’s easy to see why. Jake, 22, is a consistently virtuoso turner with breathtakingly powerful jumps who never plays it safe, giving his performances a daring—yet effortless—edge.

“Jake is not only extremely coordinated and technically exciting, but he is also a wonderful performer who is passionate, charismatic, and authentic,” says ABT artistic director Susan Jaffe.

Perhaps what’s most exciting is that he gives audiences the feeling of watching one of the best male dancers of this generation blossom and push the art form to new heights.

Jake Roxander, wearing a unitard in red and orange hues, jumps up in front of a blue backdrop. He faces stage right, and his right leg is straight and his left leg is bent in attitude derrierre. His lleft arm is bent and frames his face, while his right arm is stretched back behind him.
Photo by Emma Zordan.

A Homegrown Talent

Jake grew up in Medford, Oregon, and trained with his parents, David and Elyse, at Studio Roxander, along with his brother, Philadelphia Ballet principal Ashton Roxander, who is four years his senior. When the boys decided they wanted to dance, their parents were determined to personally steward them to success through rigorous, individually tailored instruction.

Both boys started home schooling in middle school to focus on ballet. Jake describes going to the gym with his father (who danced with National Ballet of Canada for 17 years; his mother went straight into teaching), then taking a private class with him, followed by the studio’s regular classes and rehearsals.

Jake Roxander jumps high into the air with his left leg in passé. His right arm is to the side and his left arm is up, and he looks down towards his left leg with a confident smile. He wears white tights and ballet slippers, a rust-colored tunic, and a black mask over his eyes. Behind him, dancers in Renaissance court costumes watch him.
Roxander as Mercutio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy ABT.

This didn’t leave much time for socializing. “What my brother and I wanted was to be principal dancers in a major company. I wasn’t partying or going out with friends a whole lot,” says Jake.

Jake idolized his brother and strived to dance like him. But at age 17, Ashton left home to join Boston Ballet’s trainee program, leaving 13-year-old Jake without his role model. “You can’t underestimate Ashton’s influence on Jake,” says David. “If he wore Ray-Bans, Jake wore them. If he wanted to be a principal dancer, so did Jake. So when Ashton left, Jake had to show he was committed to this on his own.”

Becoming “Bulletproof”

David and Elyse noticed that Jake didn’t always take responsibility for his mistakes or technique issues. “Jake had a lot of excuses if something didn’t go his way—his shoes, the floor, the tempo,” David says. “I’ve seen people fail because their head wasn’t screwed on right, and it was up to us to build his character.”

David describes long car rides where he’d talk to Jake about responsibility and hard work, and compared success in ballet to how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone built their careers. “Nothing was handed to them, they had to overcome a lot—and then raised the bar higher,” David says. “It’s the same in ballet—the difficulties never stop. So we had to make his mind bulletproof before leaving home.”

Jake Roxander, wearing a black unitard, does a high grand battement devant with his right leg. He reaches his left arm down and in front of him, hand flexed, and his right arm behind him. He dances in front of a gray backdrop and looks down towards his left hand.
Photo by Emma Zordan.

David describes moments where he felt he was getting through to him, such as at Youth America Grand Prix, which Jake competed in four times, between ages 13 and 16, winning the Grand Prix at semi-finals each time. One year, there was a problem with his music. Rather than get frustrated, he calmly stood onstage and waited for the track to restart.

Reflecting on his father’s mentoring, Jake says, “I wasn’t always motivated, but I am now. My dad really taught me you have to fight for what you want.”

Going Pro

David and Elyse view summer intensives as ways to help students connect with companies for a job. But they don’t think a short time with new teachers is ideal, so Jake stayed home in the summers to keep on his training course.

To increase his job prospects, he attended Philadelphia Ballet’s one-week Company Experience summer program when he was 15 and 16. This led to an offer to join Philadelphia Ballet II when he was 16. He turned it down because his parents didn’t think he was ready to leave home, but he accepted the position the following season, 2019–20.

Joining Ashton, then a soloist, at a major company and being roommates was a dream come true. But before starting the season, Jake participated in his first full summer intensive, with ABT in New York. Sascha Radetsky, director of ABT Studio Company, says Jake “impressed in every way” and told him he’d keep in touch. In January 2020 Radetsky invited Jake to audition, and quickly offered him a Studio Company contract for the 2020–21 season. Jake had to choose between that and another year in PBII.

Jake Roxander crouches low to the ground and stretches his right leg out to his side. He wears a unitard in red and orange hues, white socks and white ballet slippers. He bends his right arm in front of him with splayed fingers and looks intensely at the camera. He poses in front of a blue backdrop.
Photo by Emma Zordan.

“I felt it was where I needed to go, not because it was ABT, but because it would provide the opportunities for me to improve the most,” he says.

Jake’s “bulletproof” mentality was integral at Studio Company, joining when the pandemic was at its “darkest, with isolated ‘bubble’ residencies,” says Radetsky. “He charged his work with a never-surrender attitude. He was game for anything and seemed to have a bottomless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm.”

Quick Ascent

After two seasons, Jake became an apprentice with the main company in May 2022. Within weeks, he performed the Neapolitan dance in Swan Lake, a showstopping piece for two men, and the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes on the Metropolitan Opera House stage for ABT’s annual children’s matinee.

“I’d be in the wings trying not to cry because I couldn’t believe I’d made it here,” Jake says. “I’d just tell myself, ‘You’re right where you should be, you were born for this.’ ”

Jake Roxander, wearing white and blue striped tights, red headband, and a white and blue tunic with billowing sleeves, jumps up into the air and pikes his body to his left with his right leg tucked slightly behind him. He reaches left with his upper body and looking towards his right foot. He smiles energetically. He performs onstage in front of an elaborate ballroom set.
Roxander in the Neapolitan Dance from Swan Lake. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy ABT.

He was promoted to corps de ballet that September, and was immediately cast as the lead in Ratmansky’s Whipped Cream. But he sprained his ankle during rehearsals, and though he believed he could be back in time, ABT decided he would not perform. Feeling defeated, he returned to Oregon to rehab with his father.

“I needed to get out of New York and rebuild my ankle and mental state,” he says. “This was the biggest opportunity they’d given me, so it was a really hard situation.”

Lopez says it’s common for young dancers to want to push through an injury because they believe they won’t get another opportunity. “We tried to help him understand that recovery was most important and there would be other roles,” he says.

Jake was back in time to debut the Harlequin in The Nutcracker, setting himself up for 2023, a year of debuts: Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet (with Jaffe calling his performance “astonishing”); peasant pas de deux in Giselle; Puck in the The Dream (wearing his father’s old costume); and lead roles in Études and Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. “He seems to take on every challenge with great relish,” says Jaffe.

Jake’s quick success is rare, but his mother, Elyse, wasn’t surprised. “Since he was a child, he’s been so expressive, playing all kinds of characters and morphing into them,” she says. “The emotional connection, the charisma—he’s always had a special gift for that.”

A Soloist Looking to the Future

Jake has made friends at ABT and is still close with Ashton, visiting Philadelphia recently to see him premiere Puck (also in their father’s costume).

He makes time for his other artistic pursuits, including the cover illustrations for the YA series by Kora Kari, Chronicles of the Silent Night, and using his interest in stage, lighting, and prop design in producing a conceptual piece at Studio Roxander, Surealia.

Jake Roxander, wearing a black unitard, sits casually on the ground and looks off to his right. He rests his left arm on his raised left knee.
Photo by Emma Zordan.

So far, 2024 has brought debuts such as Benno in Swan Lake and a featured role in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works. And Jake stretched his range as Lensky in Onegin, where he showed impressive line and depth in the soulful Act II adagio solo. But at 5′ 9″, he’s hoping he’ll move beyond soloist roles and play a prince.

ABT principal Skylar Brandt would be happy if he did. Given her small stature, she was paired with him last fall and was hesitant initially because she’s seen shorter male tricksters who are lacking in partnering skills. But she found him “intuitive, totally capable, humble and open” and is “excited to watch his career blossom.”

Lopez is also optimistic: “He has all the tools. I think his future is bright.”