Ashley Ellis has enjoyed a storied career that has taken her from American Ballet Theatre to Corella Ballet in Spain, and, during the last decade, to Boston Ballet, where she's been a principal since 2013. She's danced leading roles in works by George Balanchine, Sir Frederick Ashton, Natalia Makarova and Jerome Robbins, to name a few. She recently announced that she will be retiring from the company at the end of the 2020–21 season. But while her performance career may be coming to a close, she is looking forward to her next endeavor at The Dallas Conservatory's (TDC) new professional division, launching in the fall. The program will be directed by Ellis' husband, international teacher and choreographer George Birkadze, while Ellis will serve as associate director.
Pointe talked with Ellis, who is currently on maternity leave after delivering her new baby girl, Fiona, about her upcoming retirement and what's next for her in Dallas.
Ellis in Mikko Nissenen's Nutcracker
Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
What inspired you to make the decision to retire this season?
I feel like it was a combination of things. There is a lot going on right now with the pandemic, as we all know. But I also know that a lot of parents have appreciated this extra time they've been able to spend with their children, and I have definitely been one of those people. [Ellis also has a 2-year-old son, Gray.] I'm 37 now, so I am around the age where dancers start to think about retirement anyways. I just felt that with the new baby and everything slowing down due to the pandemic that it was a good time to explore what's next.
Will you have a farewell performance?
Since I am on maternity leave and Boston Ballet had to cancel its live performances slated for May, I won't be having a final performance. It's a little bit strange, since it would be a way for me to say goodbye to the stage and my colleagues and have that closure, but I am okay with it, since everything is so different right now.
Although there are going to be roles, places or choreography I'll always dream to have been able to dance, I am immensely grateful for all of the experiences and wonderful memories that I've been so fortunate to have experienced. I hold each moment dear to my heart.
Can you talk about this new opportunity with TDC and tell us about what the new professional division program is going to be like?
In the past couple of years, my family has made quite a few trips out to Dallas, since my parents were living there. As George and I were looking at what our next step would be, we started researching the Dallas area. We reached out to TDC because they have really good training and were one of the larger schools in the area. George had the idea of creating a program for their older students (15 to 21 years old) to help prepare them for professional careers, so they wouldn't have to leave Dallas to get that. We figured we were well-suited for that type of training given our own professional backgrounds. I'm excited to bring my knowledge to the school and invest in the next generation.
It sounds like a studio company experience.
That's what we want it to be. There are a lot of training programs out there, but my husband and I both think that performance opportunities are what really prepare a dancer for company life. Dancers in TDC's professional division will have a minimum of nine shows, ranging from full-length classics to contemporary works. We'll also have a well-rounded class curriculum, of course. George is really good with character dance, which is valuable for classical ballet but is somewhat lacking in a lot of American schools' training.
About what size will the group be?
Our first season will begin in August, so we will see how it goes. But I think the plan is to keep it around 15 to 20 dancers. That way you have an intimate environment, and the dancers can receive close attention from us.
I started my professional career at the ABT Studio Company, and it is such a great stepping-stone for professional life. You learn a lot from the stage experience of being in a second company, as opposed to just being thrown immediately into corps de ballet work, which can be a bit overwhelming.
Ellis in Jerome Robbins' The Concert
Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Have you worked this closely with your husband before?
We met dancing with Corella Ballet in Spain, and then we danced one year at Sarasota Ballet together.
Looking back, what was the most valuable piece of advice you were given during your career?
I've been told to not hold back and to just go for things, to not be afraid to take risks. My tendency is to sometimes play a bit on the safe side or be a little bit careful. It is a short career, and you don't realize it when you're in the middle of it. Let yourself go and don't hold back.
What are you looking forward to?
I am excited to teach more and raise my family. I also have a dancewear line, RubiaWear, and I am excited to dive more into that, as well. I feel like I have a lot to keep me occupied and inspired.