Isabella Boylston’s Ballet Sun Valley Brings Together Dance and Fashion in a Gorgeous Way

Fashion and ballet have enjoyed an ever-increasing relationship over the past five years. New York City Ballet has actively commissioned costumes from high-end designers like Valentino, Dries Van Noten, and Jason Wu for the past few of their fall seasons. Dancers are starring in campaigns for fashion companies like Cole Haan and MM.LaFleur. And brands like Opening Ceremony and Viktor & Rolf have used dancers in their runway shows, the former even going so far as to use a ballet performance in lieu of a traditional catwalk.

Isabella Boylston, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, has quite possibly been one of the most visible ballerinas in the fashion world. A relationship with the designers behind Cushnie at Ochs (they designed her wedding dress) and multiple appearances on the pages and websites of fashion magazines (including Allure), has made her somewhat of a fashion darling. And with her newest project — directing Ballet Sun Valley, a two-day performance series and educational workshop in her home state of Idaho from August 22nd to 24th — Boylston continues to meld ballet and fashion by collaborating with designers Reid & Harriet.

If you follow any ballet dancers on Instagram, you may have already seen Reid & Harriet’s work. This summer, they designed two rainbow-colored bathing suit/leotards that launched during Pride Month and could be seen modeled by some of the finest ballet dancers in the business, including Boylston. In fact, one of the suits —the “Bella” — was named after her. (You can still buy the suits on their website.)

Ballet Sun Valley is Boylston’s first foray into directing, and an opportunity for her to both stretch her leadership wings and bring top-notch dancers, teachers (some of the performers will be teaching class to area children on the 23rd), and choreography to her home state of Idaho, a place that doesn’t normally come to mind as a big ballet destination. “I had always thought that I would really love to direct a show of my own and, a few years ago, I was back home in Sun Valley and saw they had built this gorgeous amphitheater that wasn’t there when I was a kid,” says Boylston. “And I just thought, This would be the perfect place for a really world class ballet show.” And world-class is an understatement in this case. Boylston has brought on some of the best dancers from around the world — many of which are her close friends — performing dances by some of the best, including Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Justin Peck. “Everyone participating are people whom I have personal relationships with and love as people as well as dancers,” says Boylston. “There are no divas on this tour, just cool people.”

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One of those cool people include Boylston’s fellow ABT dancer, Gemma Bond, who is choreographing a piece for the program. Over the past two years, Bond begun to choreograph on a grander scale, winning the Princess Grace Award Fellowship for Choreography and putting on her own show at the Joyce Theater in New York City back in July. “Her star is rising and I’m just really excited to have her onboard for the project,” says Boylston. “It just feels like such a natural collaboration, because we have been friends for so long, and I’ve been watching her choreography for a while.”

And it’s Bond’s piece — a 25-minute ballet loosely inspired by today’s solar eclipse — where Reid & Harriet come in. “I love their work, so it was kind of a no-brainer to bring them on,” Boylston says of designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.

While Bartelme and Jung had worked with Boylston before (they admit she was integral in the design process of the “Bella” bathing suit, acting as their set model), they had never worked with Bond. “It was a fun idea to put us all together, which was sort of the impetus for us working on this project,” says Jung.

Knowing of the piece’s nod to the total solar eclipse — a historical event that hasn’t happened in the United States since 1918 and won’t happen again until 2024 — the designers noted that while they were thinking about space and eclipses, they made an effort to not get too carried away “with the spaciness” of it all. In fact, their inspiration for the costumes, which you can see in the sketches below, was something much less astronomical and much more traditional. “When we saw the choreography on video, there was something kind of graphic that we felt hearkened back to the aesthetic of the Ballet Russes,” says Jung. “So we started looking through a book of costumes from the Ballet Russes and landed on this idea of the costumes being very graphic and bold and simple.”

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Courtesy of Reid & Harriet

Unlike many of the fashion designers we’ve seen create costumes for ballet companies, Reid & Harriet are no dance novices. They’ve done this before, and have learned a thing or two about making functional-yet-beautiful pieces that won’t inhibit the performers. “With this current trend of [fashion] designers designing for ballet, you can kind of tell when people weren’t thinking about the functionality as much,” says Jung, which is something she admits takes practice and observing costumes that have been successful as well as costumes that haven’t. “For example, with ballet costumes you have to be careful about putting anything around the torso or waist area because it can make partnering difficult, which is something you don’t have to worry about in everyday fashion,” says Jung.

Durability — the ability to hold up against extreme amounts of sweat and extreme kinds of movement, is also something Jung and Bartelme have learned, while Boylston notes that her main concern with costumes is always lightness. “There are times I’ve had to dance in a costume that’s literally so heavy that it’s hard to lift it off the hanger,” she laughs. “For example, for our production of Sleeping Beauty, that costume feels like 10 pounds, and the role of Aurora in that piece is the hardest role.”

“The crotch area is also key,” adds Jung. “I know it sounds funny, but we’ve done pants for pieces and that’s an area that we’ve had to develop patterns for because the dancers have to be able to wack their leg up to their head without splitting their pants.”

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With all their experience – and a huge emphasis on athleisure wear in today’s culture, it would seem logical that Reid & Harriet would start their own leotard line. And while it’s something they’ve thought about, they’re hesitant on making the jump from costumes to ready-to-wear. “We have a very pared-down idea of what we think a leotard should be, which isn’t really what’s being bought by younger dancers these days,” says Bartelme. “I think the more mature ballerina might like our kind of leotard so we’ll have to see.”

As for Boylston, Ballet Sun Valley is just the beginning for her. “My dream is that this could be an annual event,” she says, hinting at more directing opportunities on the horizon for 2018. Which hopefully means more amazing collaborations with fashion designers like Reid & Harriet, as well.

Ballet Sun Valley runs on August 22nd and August 24th in Sun Valley Village, Idaho. For tickets, head to balletsunvalley.com.

Watch Isabella in action in the video below:

[“Source-allure”]