The first thing about Christine Shevchenko that commands your attention is her carriage. Regal yet approachable, she can tell an entire story with her expressive torso and lithe arms. But that's just a start. The lovely Ukrainian-born (but very American) 18-year-old member of American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company possesses a sublime symmetry of technical expertise and natural artistry. Shevchenko won a Gold Medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 2005, and when you see her in action, it's not hard to understand why. You can't find a weak link in her technical armor; she jumps, turns, and phrases with authority. But she is something of a rarity these days—a dancer whose classicism is completely unforced.
Though her original training is solidly Russian, Shevchenko relishes dancing many types of ballets. “She has a physical confidence that allows her to rise above the technical demands of a piece and work on the artistic approach," says Kirk Peterson, the Studio Company's artistic director. “She's not locked into one way of thinking, which can often be the case with Russian-trained dancers. She has a wonderful combination of that training and American sensibility."
At age 3, Shevchenko started training in rhythmic gymnastics at the Olympic Reserve School in the port city of Odessa. The entire family carries athletic and artistic genes: Her father was an accomplished gymnast and sprinter, her mother danced and acted, and her grandfather composed and conducted. When she began ballet lessons in Odessa, Shevchenko says, “I became addicted to ballet." Her parents befriended principal dancers with the Odessa Ballet, and the performances became magical experiences for Shevchenko. “Mom would take me backstage and I'd watch Sleeping Beauty from the wings," she says. “I couldn't get enough."
When she was 8, her family immigrated to Pennsylvania and enrolled her in The Rock School in Philadelphia. “I spoke no English, but learned really quickly, and have no memory of how I started speaking," she says. One of her teachers, Natasha Bar, provided a crucial boost in her training and coaching. At 14, she received the Princess Grace Award, which granted her resources to attend competitions. At her first outing, the 2003 Youth America Grand Prix, she placed first in the classical and contemporary sections of the Junior Division.
Primed to go further, she entered the Moscow International Ballet Competition. Two weeks and three grueling rounds didn't seem to faze Shevchenko, but initially the Bolshoi Theatre stage did. “It was nerve-racking because the stage is raked, and you have to adjust," she says. But her thorough preparation guided her through variations from Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, and Paquita, as well as two contemporary pieces. “I didn't expect to get the gold medal," she says, but when the judges' panel, headed by Yuri Grigorovich, announced her name as the winner at 1 a.m. on the closing night, she was ecstatic.
Through videos and DVDs, Shevchenko has chosen role models to emulate. “Natalia Makarova is so amazing, so perfect. Along with being technically great, she is a terrific actress," says Shevchenko. For this young ballerina, line means much more than lovely insteps and tipping-point extensions. Her neck, graceful shoulders, and épaulement resemble another role model, Eva Evdokimova. “She's so unique, there's no one like her," she says of the ballerina who choreographed one of her contemporary solos for the Moscow competition.
Under the intense coaching of Bojan and Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, the directors of The Rock School, Shevchenko earned a bronze medal at the 2006 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson. Later that summer, the Spassoffs took Shevchenko to ABT to audition for Peterson. He accepted her on the spot.
“My first impression was that she was an amazing talent," says Peterson. “She was so accomplished and self-assured. She has a wonderful musicality." Despite sustaining a sprained ankle last fall (her first serious injury), Shevchenko has been used to great effect in the Studio Company. Recently, she danced a ravishing Episode in His Past in Tudor's Lilac Garden, and was singled out by The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning for her performance.
On her free nights and weekends, she's a confessed reality TV junkie (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars) and she loves to cook Ukrainian food. Her specialty is holubtsi, a meat-stuffed cabbage marinated in tomato sauce and topped with sour cream.
Ultimately, Shevchenko has high ambitions. She'd like to attain top ballerina status in an international company. Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, and La Bayadère are on her list of coveted ballets along with her favorite, The Sleeping Beauty.
What's her secret to serene confidence? “I'm very disciplined," she says. “I never give up—even on my worst day."