Dancer Spotlight: A Quest for Quality

Few of her colleagues in New York City Ballet could have been surprised when they learned that Ashly Isaacs was one of the four corps members ballet master in chief Peter Martins had cast in his latest work, Mes Oiseaux. Lauren Lovette, Claire Kretzschmar, Taylor Stanley and Isaacs were not only its entire cast, but they premiered it at the company’s 2012 Spring Gala. Also featured on the program were the world premiere of Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts, and the first look at the new costumes for Balanchine’s teeming masterpiece, Symphony in C. Quite an evening for your first time in the spotlight.

A 5' 6" brunette with a big, open jump, willowy arms and long legs, 21-year-old Isaacs has always been hard to overlook. Fellow dancers note her persistence in class and rehearsals. Lovette testifies to Isaacs’ dedication when Mes Oiseaux was taking shape: “Taylor, Claire and I would be catching our breath during a break; Ashly would be in the corner, still working on a jump or a tendu.”

Isaacs knows whom to credit for her dance overdrive. “You could say I had a ‘ballet father.’ He ran Michael’s Academy of Performing Arts near Fort Lauderdale, and I learned everything from acrobatics to ballet,” she says. “I loved anything involving movement.”

As unlikely as it was that a dance-obsessed child would feel affection for the clumsiest creatures that ever roamed the earth, Isaacs also had a passion for dinosaurs that continues to this day. As it happened, such paradoxes were typical. Magda Auñon, her Cuban-trained teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, where she enrolled full-time at her father’s urging, recalls a child so shy she had to be coaxed out of the corner when a photographer was in the studio, yet who came to glowing life onstage  in the school’s Nutcracker.  “When Ashly first came to me for a private lesson, she was 10 or 11,” recalls Auñon. “She already had a lovely arch to her feet, exceptional turnout and the flexibility to execute intricate steps. Even with such natural gifts and what I soon realized was an incredible work ethic, it was still necessary to stress style and self-expression. I told her, ‘Your goal must always be: Quality, not quantity.’ ”

The bond between Auñon and her pupil remains especially close. “Magda shaped me into the dancer I am today,” says Isaacs. “She never let me settle and always pushed me into refining my ability as a dancer. She put strength in my dancing, but more importantly she put strength in my character. I think of her every time I step on a stage.”

In 2006, at age 15, Isaacs was accepted to the School of American Ballet. Three years later, she earned a Mae L. Wien Award, SAB’s highest honor. An NYCB apprenticeship for the 2009–2010 season came next. She entered the company’s corps in 2010.

Any dread Isaacs may have felt at shouldering the responsibility for a world premiere on a gala evening faded while working again with Taylor Stanley. Now on the soloist track at NYCB, he had been Isaacs’ partner for a workshop for SAB. Stanley knew he would have his hands full partnering three women and also tossing off an occasional 180-degree grand jeté on his own. But, he says, “I never doubted that Ashly would be with me all the way.”

There was extra pressure to performing Mes Oiseaux at the gala. “We had no covers for this ballet,” says Isaacs. “It was all up to us four to deliver. I was tempted to give more by getting a bit flashy—then I thought of Magda. I concentrated on ‘Quality, not quantity.’ “

At a Glance

Ashly Isaacs

Age: 21

Schools: Michael’s Academy of Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique, School of American Ballet

College course: Philosophy

Favorite ballet performed: Peter Martins’ Fearful Symmetries

Dream role: The novice from Jerome Robbins’ The Cage

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

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Courtesy CPYB

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If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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