By Miranda McDonald
Photos by Sam English
Ashley Thursby can still recall the precise moment she knew she wanted to be a professional ballerina. She was five years old, sitting at home with her mother and watching a performance of “The Nutcracker” on PBS. It was the first time she had ever seen a ballet. Now in her thirties, she has 11 years as a professional dancer under her belt and was recently cast as the face of the Louisville Ballet’s 2018 production of “The Nutcracker” for her highly-coveted role as the Sugar Plum Fairy. To say that things have come full-circle for Thursby would be completely accurate. However, not being one to settle, the dancer is looking to the future and contemplating how she can use her craft to help others.
The bar area is buzzing in Proof on Main when I meet Thursby, and she is accompanied by Cherie Perez, the ballet’s marketing director. Many credit Perez for helping take the Louisville Ballet into a new and modern direction with her witty promotion tactics and unconventional methods in branding (i.e. the strategically-placed “Dear, Chris” billboards the company used to announce the new season’s theme of romance, which actually had its own Reddit thread and had locals completely reeling for weeks).
“Are you all hungry?” inquires Thursby with a slight tone of eagerness in her voice. She just finished her second performance of the day in “The Nutcracker” and looks delighted to just be resting on the large leather couch we are sharing. Perez responds with an affirmative nod, while I take a moment to note my adoration for the restaurant’s gnocchi.
After Thursby and I decide to split the bison burger and plate full of fries, we begin to discuss how dance has shaped her life.
“Dance helps you become attuned to who you are and gives you an outlet to express what that is.”
“Let’s start off with what may seem like a fairly obvious question: why is dance so important to you?” I inquire.
“Finding your place in this big, wide world can sometimes be such a daunting task. Dance helps you become attuned to who you are and gives you an outlet to express what that is,” responds the ballerina. The confidence that backs each of her words is apparent.
Born in Richmond, Missouri, Thursby studied ballet, tap and jazz at the Dance Theatre Workshop in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, at an early age. At the age of nine, she auditioned for a spot in the summer program at the Kansas City Ballet. However, the company extended her training by asking the dancer to stay on for a year-round program on a merit scholarship. Her mother – who has always been dedicated to helping Thursby fulfill her dreams – took off work several days a week to drive her to class in another city an hour away. This tremendous sacrifice is one that does not go unnoticed by the ballerina.
“I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without my mom,” explains Thursby. “I owe her a lot.”
Perez quickly interjects: “Before I knew who Ashley’s mom was, I was at the office and had walked out into the hallway. I saw this lady taking a bunch of selfies with one of Ashley’s pictures on the wall. At first, I was confused, but then she explained that she was Ashley’s mom.”
“Oh yeah, that’s my mom!” laughs Thursby.
When asked what other important figures helped her in her career, Thursby says there have been many mentors who have helped her along the way. One in particular truly stands out to her: Violette Verdy.
Thursby met Verdy while training at the Kansas City Ballet. She describes the acclaimed ballerina-turned-teacher as having a thick French accent and an air of confidence that commanded the utmost respect from all who were in her presence. Verdy is also the reason Thursby pursued dance in college.
“She mentioned being on the faculty at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University,” she explains of her then-teacher. Though she is now a confident professional in her trade, Thursby readily admits that she never thought of exploring dance after high school. “It was Verdy who initially suggested it to me and made me feel brave enough to pursue it.”
It was Verdy’s joyous and generous spirit, however, that Thursby remembers most. “Her generosity is something that I definitely tap into now being a teacher myself,” she says.
This generosity and notion of giving back to others through dance has stuck with Thursby over the years. Even with a rigorous schedule at the Louisville Ballet, she still finds time to teach mixed level ballet technique as a volunteer at La Nita’s Rocknettes School of Dance in West Louisville. Thursby believes it is important that people of all backgrounds and demographics have easy access to dance experiences.
“Maybe ballet will inspire something in them like it did in me” she muses, hopeful.
Thursby believes that limited accessibility is an often-overlooked issue in the world of ballet. “To some people, a $35 ticket isn’t much, but for others, it is a whole lot of money – especially if you want to bring your family to a show. I think getting ballet outside of the theater and allowing people to experience it through free art installations or programs is just as important as getting them to come to the bigger shows,” she declares.
“Isn’t your own outreach program something you’ve wanted to work on for some time?” Perez asks her.
Thursby picks up her cocktail and pauses for a moment before answering. “Yes, I do, but it is a matter of the time being right,” she explains. “Right now, I am just so focused on where my career is. You know, your time as a professional ballerina can be so fleeting. I want to give all of my focus and energy to this moment and the projects I currently have going on.”
Time is something Thursby is constantly trying to find more of. Aside from the outreach program she is currently involved in on Saturday mornings, she rehearses for the Louisville Ballet Monday through Friday and teaches Pilates on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. She also teaches at the Louisville Ballet School on Monday and Wednesday.
“I see myself focusing on teaching and mentoring more in the future,” Thursby continues. “The angle would be as a mentor, teacher and, I don’t want to say therapist, but maybe more of an explorer.”
“Explorer?” I ask for clarification.
“Yes, I believe we can use dance to explore what it means to be human and what it means to be vulnerable,” she says, “and how the things we live through affect us. We are all just trying to find our place in this world, and we all sometimes experience disappointment while doing it.”
“Most people put ballerinas up on a pedestal as this untouchable being,” Perez adds. “I think the same goes for ballet. Many people may not see it as something that they can do.”
“We all experience successes and we all encounter failures that we have to overcome. This career is very humbling because no matter where you’re at, you can still have a good show or a bad show. It doesn’t matter if you are in your first year, last year or somewhere in between. Things happen. Every day you are starting over fresh. It is like you are constantly auditioning,” Thursby explains.
“How do you deal with feeling like every day is a new audition?” I probe.
“You have to constantly work on being completely present by embracing the things you get and accepting the things you don’t get. You learn how to balance the excitement, the joy and even the disappointments,” she responds.
Even with the constant pressure that comes with being a professional athlete, Thursby later explains how the moments of success can carry you through those moments of total failure.
“When you are giving yourself to the audience and you feel their warmth and energy radiating back at you during the pas (a ballet step) or variation, it is such an uplifting feeling,” she says.
By the time Thursby reaches for one of the fries remaining on her plate, we have already discussed upcoming projects for the Louisville Ballet, how she met her husband and what a clean leg line looks like in the world of ballet – something she eagerly shows us as she takes her boot off and gracefully lifts her leg from the couch we are still seated on.
“Your time as a professional ballerina can be so fleeting. I want to give all of my focus and energy to this moment.”
A week later, I follow up with Thursby about her adoration for the arts and how important it is to her that people have better access to them. In an email, she explains, “The arts require you to use your imagination – to be curious, to explore, to question. Art gives a platform to find what you are seeking and to share that with others. I believe that having access to art allows each of us to become better communicators with ourselves and with our communities.”
She also mentions that she will be returning to her hometown to dance at Farris Theatre on April 13. There, she will perform twice in an evening that will be curated by the Ray County Community Arts Association in celebration of its 10th season. In addition to performing, she will also be giving master classes at Shapes Dance and Acro, a dance studio located in Richmond.
Finally, I ask Thursby to describe the most difficult part of being a professional ballerina, and she is completely candid in her response: “Balancing the work, which includes constant self critique, peer critique, artistic staff goals and critique, with the aches, pains and injury while also not letting the pain or critique push you away from letting go and finding that sense of dance – something that is very joyous for me.” V