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Merrill Ashley is currently the Teaching Associate at New York City Ballet. During her 31-year career as a dancer with the company, she was considered one of the great Balanchine ballerinas, and she now helps keep his legacy alive by staging his ballets for companies around the world.
Ashley was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised in Rutland, Vermont, where she began her ballet studies at the age of seven. In 1964, at the age of thirteen, she was awarded a scholarship to continue her training at the School of American Ballet as part of its Ford Foundation Scholarship program.
In 1967 George Balanchine invited Ashley to join the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet, where she soon appeared in both corps and soloist roles in almost all of the ballets in the Company’s repertory. In 1974 she was promoted to the rank of soloist, and three years later she became a principal dancer. After a career of 31 years with the New York City Ballet, Ashley danced her final performance with the Company as part of the Opening Night Benefit on November 25, 1997.
Balanchine choreographed both Ballo della Regina and Ballade for Ashley, and she also originated roles in Jerome Robbins’ Concertino and Brahms/Handel, which he choreographed with Twyla Tharp. Her repertory included roles in ballets as diverse as Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Firebird, The Nutcracker (as both the Dewdrop and Sugarplum Fairy), Prodigal Son (as the Siren), Serenade, Square Dance, Stars and Stripes, Swan Lake, and Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 (in “Theme and Variations”), as well as Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. During the New York City Ballet’s 1988 American Music Festival she originated a principal role in Peter Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto. She also originated principal roles in Martins’ Fearful Symmetries in the spring of 1990 and The Sleeping Beauty (as Carabosse) in the Spring of 1991.
Ashley danced throughout the world, including the major capitals of Western and Eastern Europe and in China. In 1978 she danced at The White House for President and Mrs. Carter, and in 1986 she was chosen as the American ballerina to represent the United States at a gala celebrating the 40th Anniversary of UNESCO. The gala was held at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and televised throughout Europe and the USSR. Ashley’s broadcast appearances included PBS’ “Dance in America” series (including Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina, Divertimento No. 15, Jewels (“Emeralds”), and The Four Temperaments, and Bournonville’s pas de deux from Flower Festival at Genzano) and the “Gala of Stars” in 1980, 1982, 1984, and 1985.
Ashley was a guest artist with many ballet companies, including the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in London (dancing in Paquita and The Sleeping Beauty). She also led her own group, Merrill Ashley and Dancers, on tours in 1980 and 1981. Ashley’s autobiography, Dancing for Balanchine, was published in 1984 by E.P. Dutton Inc. In addition, Ashley is the co-author and co-artistic director of the video series “The Balanchine Essays.” In 1987 she was the recipient of the Dance Magazine Award.
Ashley has also conducted lectures for The George Balanchine Foundation at the Boston Ballet and Massachusetts Youth Ballet. She has staged Ballo della Regina for The George Balanchine Trust at Ballet Nacional de Cuba (2000), San Francisco Ballet, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and also frequently teaches master classes at such companies as the Paris Opera Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet.
The staging of Ballo della Regina is Ashley’s first work for American Ballet Theatre.
Source: New York City Ballet