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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