It’s not difficult to imagine that a tough-as-shit ballerina would also make a badass spy.
Such is the plot of Red Sparrow, the upcoming Francis Lawrence-directed thriller in which Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, crown jewel prima of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet company, whose career is destroyed by an on-stage injury. No longer able to dance professionally, Dominika is sent by her state-employed uncle to master the art of potently sexual espionage: she becomes a “sparrow,” whose body serves only the interests of the Russian government.
But if the swift pirouettes and sky-high extensions in the opening scenes of the film actually look like Bolshoi caliber technique, it’s thanks to American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Isabella Boylston, Lawrence’s dance double.
“Dancers are so disciplined and tough that they can be successful in whatever endeavor they choose following their ballet careers,” says Boylston, who would know.
On a “bad day,” she could practice for up to nine hours without breaks. During ABT’s eight-week-long spring season at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House (what Boylston refers to as “the playoffs”), dancers live in the theater, performing a different production every week.
So it makes sense that Lawrence/Boylston’s fictional Dominika is able to bear the trauma her character continuously endures with a veneer of elegance and a formidable, frosty beauty—she is, after all, a top Russian ballerina.
Boylston, 31, is from Sun Valley, Idaho—a ski town that sounds like the sun-kissed, grinning, golden-haired opposite to the chilly, despondent demeanor of Moscow. Of tiny stature, and lean with muscle definition chiseled by Michelangelo, she is certainly prone to grinning and definitely golden-haired. If she’s not so sun-kissed at the moment, it might be because she’s lived in New York since she was scouted at 18 years old for American Ballet Theatre’s studio company, promoted through the ranks over her 13 years with ABT, the last four of which she’s been at her professional peak, as a principal.
Luckily, she’s going back to her hometown this summer to curate Ballet Sun Valley, an international festival she launched last year that brings together top international dancers: from Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky to San Francisco Ballet. Boylston has been taking on things outside of strictly classical ballet. She worked on a short film with superstar choreographer Justin Peck before landing Red Sparrow, which he choreographed (and for which he recruited Boylston), and is interested in doing more, although the logistics may be fraught for a ballerina in the background of Hollywood blockbuster.
“At first I did have [some] misgivings about being a double,” she admits. “Because it’s like, I’ve worked so hard to get to the top of my field.” But unlike her ABT contemporary Sarah Lane, who felt cheated out of recognition, and not without cause, after dancing as Natalie Portman’s double in Black Swan, Boylston found the experience to be a great opportunity. She noted, “If you need a ballerina for a movie, call me!”
In her early teens, she left regular high school behind for a Florida boarding school in order to get better training; as soon as she was of legal voting age, she left home to share a two-bedroom apartment in the East Village with five other girls, taking a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at one of the world’s most impressive ballet companies; once there, she struggled with being a “small fish in a big pond.”
“As a student in ballet you’re criticized so much and taught to be so deferential,” Boylston says. “What I was lacking was confidence and I think that translated into me not being a confident performer.”
But it’s clear now that this is the thing for Boylston. Even then, she says, she loved her crowded East Village apartment, she loved really traveling the world for the first time, she now loves the dramatic ballets that once gave her pause, like Giselle and Romeo and Juliet, where good acting is vital to a good performance, and she loves sharing it all with her scores of followers on social media.
This ballet life is not the cold, cruel world of Dominika Egorova—it’s the sunny, spirited world of Isabella Boylston.
RED SPARROW HITS THEATERS ON MARCH 2, 2018.