After joining Boston Ballet as a second soloist in 2011, Ashley Ellis was promoted to soloist in 2012 and to principal in 2013. Since then she has taken on such starring roles as Swanilda in “Coppélia,” Nikiya in “La Bayadère,” and Sugar Plum in “The Nutcracker.” This month she will appear as the title character in Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella,” a version of the classic fairy-tale ballet new to her and the company, which runs from March 13 through 23 at the Boston Opera House.
CD: Tell me about your training.
AE: In California I had wonderful teachers at South Bay Ballet who all believed in clean and strong technique, including Diane Lauridsen, Charles Maple, Mario Nugara, Alicia Head, and Kimberly Olmos. They were perfectionists who were not lenient with me, and their consistency helped me develop a good work ethic that will always play a role in my career. Having spent several summers studying at ballet schools around the country, such as American Ballet Theatre, School of American Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet, I graduated from Torrance High School in 2001 and joined the ABT Studio Company. The next year I became a member of the ABT corps de ballet.
CD: It’s obvious that you work very hard on technique. What are some aspects of technique that you focus on?
AE: Good technique is about executing the steps well, but it’s also about the quality of the movement. A line isn’t just a line, it’s movement too; it has three dimensions. Also, movement has to be controlled; you want it to look effortless, but you don’t want it to look so easy that it doesn’t matter. The controlled weight in dancing helps you create transcendence – the sense that you can escape time. I love to feel that. It gives the audience the sense that they’re with a performer.
Part of what influences my style as a dancer is trying to apply what I see in other people that I admire. Watching a good dancer helps me improve, and I definitely enjoy watching someone who has effortless port de bras. Having that beautiful upper body tops off beautiful dancing.
When I was younger, I was focused on perfecting my technique. Over the years I’ve come to realize that perfection is not just about the steps. It’s about how you interpret the music and what you feel when you’re dancing. That’s what makes a great performance. I learn from other dancers all the time as I try to figure out the most beautiful way of dancing for me. Now I see that perfection is everything coming together: the music and the artistry.
CD: Tell me about the relationship between dancers, live music, and the conductor.
AE: When you’re onstage, you become connected with the conductor, and it’s a nice relationship. Dancing to live music is completely different from dancing to recorded music. You have more freedom, and you feel the music so much more, not only because it’s being played so close to you, but because the tempo can change. If you’re feeling a certain instrument and you want to let it carry you, then you can let it and have that kind of play back and forth.
A good conductor, like Jonathan [McPhee, Music Director of the Boston Ballet Orchestra] can see what we’re trying to express about how we hear the music. He’s always so positive and makes us feel comfortable.
CD: Jonathan once told me that speaking to dancers about musical issues is like engaging in “international diplomacy.” Does that sound right to you?
AE: As dancers, we hear the music differently than musicians do. We count it as it applies to our steps and movement, even though that may not be “accurate” in terms of how it’s written. Dancers tend to find their own way to navigate through the music, and it’s so helpful when the conductor understands this and is able to interpret what we want or need as dancers.
In general, I prefer not to count, although sometimes it’s necessary when learning new choreography or when the music is especially complicated. By the time I’m onstage, the counts and choreography should be second nature.
CD: Your dancing has a kind of grandeur that seems to come from taking your time with each and every movement. Is that important to you?
AE: I do not like to be rushed. I like to feel the breath of the music and show it in my dancing; when I’m rushed, I don’t feel I can do that. The ideal for me is when I really feel that I’m inside the music. It’s a kind of spiritual experience. Those moments seem natural and honest to me, and I want to be able to project that honesty to the audience.
CD: Tell me about working with ballet master (and former Boston Ballet principal dancer) Larissa Ponomarenko.
AE: My timing in coming to Boston Ballet was fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. Unfortunate because I couldn’t see her dance onstage [she had just retired], but fortunate because she became a ballet master, and I feel privileged to be working with her. She gives so much to us as artists because she’s such an artist herself, and she’s so genuine in the way she works with us.
I remember when she was rehearsing me for the Sugar Plum variation. At the beginning of it there’s this simple, beautiful step, and Larissa said to me, “You are a fairy, and you’re stepping on fluffy, puffy mushrooms.” She helps you visualize how the movement should look by putting certain words in your head. I thought of these words when I was onstage, and it immediately made the experience feel more magical.
Also she has so much technical knowledge. I love to be picked apart; it makes the outcome more pure and beautiful. I definitely feel better when I’m being worked on and pushed to perfect every movement. I want to learn as much as I can from her in terms of refining my style and becoming a mature ballerina.
CD: How does it feel to be taking on the role of Cinderella?
AE: I’m enjoying discovering her character. Cinderella is alone so much, and it’s important to make her thoughts and emotions project to the audience. In her scenes at home in front of the fire she’s left to her imagination, and her imagination gives her hope. When she’s dancing with the broom in Act I, for example, she’s already imagining her prince. She has such positive internal energy that even though she has horrible sisters, she always finds something good to focus on. It’s her goodness that inspires the stepsisters’ jealousy and hatred.
CD: Does having the right partner help?
AE: Yes, I think it is very important. I’m rehearsing with Eris [Nezha] as the prince, and I’m very excited about it. He is wonderful to dance with. I love having that connection with a partner onstage. Even just standing with him, you can feel his enthusiasm, and you can see in his eyes right away that he’s a prince.
When you’re onstage, you want to be connected with your partner, and I’m realizing you don’t always find that relationship. For me, having this connection is very important, and it has to come from both partners. Eris has wonderful energy, and that’s what makes each performance special. I appreciate it so much when the energy is there and the connection happens.
CD: Tell me about that amazing entrance in Act II when you come downstairs on pointe without looking down.
AE: You go down a few steps, then you bourrée forward on a platform. When you get to the edge, the Prince is there by your side, and he squeezes your hand; then you go down a few more steps. It’s such a nice entrance. Cinderella is excited to be at the ball, but it’s surreal to her, almost as if she’s in a dream. Then she wakes up, looks around her, sees the Prince, and it’s love at first sight. Wendy [Ellis Somes, who staged this production] said, “That moment has to be magic.” There’s another lovely moment right before the grand pas de deux, when Cinderella bourrées to the Prince. I love that music.
CD: What do you make of the style of the Act II grand pas de deux?
AE: It’s very square. Usually, in a pirouette into arabesque you try to get your leg up, but not in this case. You have to keep your leg down to complete the line in the hands. Wendy told us not to use our fingers at that point; she wanted clean, sharp lines, like the hands of a clock. Some of the steps, like that arabesque, are hard to get used to. The squared-off style is found only in that pas de deux; otherwise the ballet is not so static. I enjoy watching the video of Alina Cojocaru in this role. She is a model Cinderella.
CD: Do you like the choreography for the stepsisters?
AE: It’s amazing how different the stepsisters are in different versions. I love the [James] Kudelka version in which the stepsisters are played by women, but in the Ashton choreography it is totally different because it’s two men, and you have the comic lifts. The stepsisters in drag are very cute and goofy.
CD: How do you like being in Boston?
AE: I like it very much and appreciate all that the company and city have to offer. I started out with ABT, a very large company, then I went to Corella Ballet, where we were a smaller group and like a family.
Boston has a nice balance because it’s a large company with incredible talent, but still has that feeling that we are close, with dancers who are very supportive of each other. One of the things that drew me to this company is the repertoire. There’s a wonderful mix of contemporary and classical styles in addition to the full-length ballets, which I don’t think I could live without. Of the contemporary ballets, I feel so fortunate that we dance so many works by Jiří Kylián; he is one of my favorites.
CD: How would you describe yourself in terms of acting skills?
AE: I’m trying to grow in my ability to create and inhabit different characters. I really love acting, but I have a tendency to be shy, so it doesn’t always feel natural to me to put myself out there. With each ballet, I feel I am becoming more comfortable and having more fun with this aspect of performing.
I think character creation is about expressing your thoughts. What you’re thinking has to come through your eyes. For me, it’s about letting it happen and not holding back. In “La Bayadère,” I loved working with Anaïs [Chalendard] as Gamzatti on the Act II fight scene. There was a moment in the music that needed to be filled, and she came up with this evil laugh. Nobody told her to do that. It was genius. She has charisma, and that’s such a valuable quality in a dancer.
As Cinderella I have another chance to develop as an actress. I hope to be able to share with the audience various aspects of her character, such as her ability to imagine what it would be like to go to an extravagant ball, the pain she feels at being left behind by her stepsisters, the overwhelming joy of entering the ball and falling in love with the prince, and her near disbelief the next morning when she realizes it wasn’t just a dream. Acting is something I’m excited to keep exploring. Continuous growth is a good thing.
Boston Ballet dances Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” at the Boston Opera House, March 13-23. For tickets and more details visit www.bostonballet.org/cinderella