What do Americans get out of training at Bolshoi Ballet Academy?
Waiting in the wings during rehearsal for an end-of-term BBA performance. Photo by James Hill/Contact Press Images
Moscow is at least eight times zones away from any city in the contiguous United States. The Russian language has a different alphabet. The floors are raked. The tuition costs more than $20,000 a year. And, well, it’s cold in Moscow. But none of those obstacles stand in the way of American students hell-bent on getting pure Russian training.
In the last few years, more young Americans have enrolled at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (also known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography) than ever before. Since 2007, the Russian American Foundation’s U.S. summer intensives and government-funded scholarship program have helped pave the road from America to Moscow as BBA has become increasingly open to foreign students. Now, Bolshoi-trained Americans still in their 20s are making their marks with top international companies, bringing with them a distinct blend of Russian training and American spirit.
Going Back to Zero
Despite being hand-picked for BBA, most Americans who arrive in Moscow have to start again from the beginning. “The first day I came into class,” relates Mario Vitale Labrador from California, “my teacher Ilya Kuznetsov made me do a tendu to the side and he smacked his thigh and yelled, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ He came up to me and said, ‘Would you like to be stupid for the rest of your life?’ For the next month we worked on tendus and turnout. He tore me apart and built me back up from the bottom.”
For American students, who often tackle variations for competition from a young age, this process can feel tediously slow. “I didn’t have the clean, polished technique like everyone in my class did,” says Philadelphian Gabe Stone Shayer, who had the same teacher. “So I started at the bottom, like a first-year student, with very slow tendus and port de bras.” But it paid off, especially for his elevation. “When working on jumps,” he says, “the teachers focused on getting as much power as possible from a deeper demi-plié with your heels solidly on the ground.” Now a corps member of American Ballet Theatre, Shayer says the technical effort has helped him in featured roles like Ariel, in Ratmansky’s Tempest. The approach eventually proved intellectually stimulating, too. “Ilya’s training helped me to ask questions,” he says. “I wanted to know why we were learning what we were learning…to find the root of everything.”
Precious Adams, a Michigan native who joined English National Ballet in 2014, found that the challenges developed sequentially. “Once you’re real whacked out—really flexible—then you work on building strength, consistency, control, style,” she says. At some point, the difficulty shifted to the psychological arena. “Your body can be pushed, but being able to tell yourself to do it every day, it’s more of a mental game.”
Acting classes drew Adams (left) out of her artistic shell. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.
Inspiration and Artistry
For many, the desire to train in Moscow stems from a love of “Russian soul.” Labrador, now a soloist with the Mikhailovsky Ballet, admires Uliana Lopatkina, longtime principal of the Mariinsky Ballet: “Every step she makes she’s in the now, she never dances two steps ahead of herself. You can feel the deliciousness of every movement, even just standing still, because she’s there with you.”
Adams enthuses over Natalia Osipova, the former Bolshoi star now with The Royal Ballet: “Her artistry is just so overpowering. ‘Bolshoi’ means big, so everything is very clean and precise and very long and beautiful, but then there’s this grandness, this artistry factor, that takes it outside the box.”
Adams found that artistry was cultivated in the academy’s acting classes. They taught her to get out of her shell, to explore different characters and feelings. “Then when you go back to variations class, you have a better understanding of how you should be doing it: not just with a plastic smile on your face, but really telling the story through movement.” While working on Roland Petit’s Carmen, for example, “we looked in depth at how you walk, how you stand by the window…playing with being sensual but not trashy.”
San Francisco native Jeraldine Mendoza appreciated the detail work. “My acting teacher described every single movement, every single eye gesture, every single feeling that I should have.” For her exam in acting—the exams can take months of preparation—she was assigned the role of a blind woman in love who didn’t want her lover’s help. “I didn’t feel like I was acting. I was just being.”
Shayer says the training at BBA improved his elevation. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.
Coping With the Environment
Despite rigorous expectations at the school, relationships with fellow students and teachers are nurturing. “I did see the ugly side of ballet: girls not eating and girls crying because their neck’s too short or their boobs are too big,” recalls Mendoza. “There are politics at Bolshoi, but we all were there for one thing—to become a ballerina. My group supported each other.” She admits she missed her family and American food. “But I was mesmerized by where I was.” She still stays in touch with her Bolshoi teacher, Vera Potashkina, through Facebook.
“It’s a hard environment to survive in, but if you do, you will prosper from it,” says Shayer. His advice? “Never get defensive or offended by how things work there.” He now considers Moscow his second home and will be happy to return to Russia when he guests with the Mikhailovsky this summer in St. Petersburg.
Labrador, who was recently coached in the role of Albrecht by the Mikhailovsky’s ballet master, admits, “There’s always gossip going on, but it’s not the same gossip as in the States. The students make fun of you and talk behind your back, but once they get to know you, they’re your friends.” And now, he says simply, “I’m happy here.”
Wendy Perron is Dance Magazine’s editor at large and the author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer.
Gateway to Moscow
How do Americans make their way to BBA? Every summer about two hundred students 15 or older study with top Bolshoi teachers at the BBA summer intensive in New York City, while younger students, 9 to 14, study in Middlebury, Connecticut. For some, the summer ends in an invitation to Moscow. Starting in 2006, BBA has also partnered with the Russian American Foundation to offer scholarships for one female and one male student to perform at the BBA gala in Moscow. RAF also works with the NSLI for Youth Scholarships to Study Language Abroad program to send 15 American high school students to BBA for six weeks to immerse themselves in ballet, Russian culture and language—and to experience a raked floor—on full scholarships funded by the U.S. Department of State. For more information, go to bolshoiballetacademy.com. —WP
Bolshoi to Joffrey
When Jeraldine Mendoza steps on stage, she arrives with a cool, regal bearing and a sense of control that suggests she cannot be rushed. It’s a quality that seems to come naturally, making her an ideal fit for such lead roles as Odette/Odile, Nikiya, Sugar Plum Fairy and Juliet, all of which she has danced with the Joffrey Ballet since joining in 2011.
Now 23, Mendoza began her training at the City Ballet School of San Francisco, mentored primarily by its artistic director, Galina Alexandrova, a product of the Bolshoi Academy who danced with both the Bolshoi and San Francisco Ballet. Mendoza confesses that she grew up “in a San Francisco Ballet bubble,” idolizing the company. When she auditioned at 17, artistic director Helgi Tomasson told her she needed more stage experience and put her in the trainee program. But when she saw the initial casting list, she was disappointed, so she decided to accept an offer from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Alexandrova knew Mendoza possessed the sort of innate conservatory-trained elegance that would fit in at BBA. And not only was the dancer invited to be one of the first Americans to take part in the Russian course there—which she attended from October 2009 through June 2010—but she graduated with honors. During her stay, she danced the Odalisque variation from Le Corsaire and a Paquita variation in showcase performances.
At the Bolshoi she had a two-hour daily ballet class that began at 9:30 each morning, followed by a 45-minute language class. Deciphering the “ballet language” in class was never a problem, but once she left the studio she couldn’t communicate, so she picked up a working knowledge of Russian.
Shortly after joining Joffrey, Mendoza won the prestigious young artists’ scholarship of the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund, which she used during the 2012–13 season to visit major ballet institutions in France, the Netherlands, Germany, England and Russia.
“Jeraldine is a very bright and determined young woman,” says Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director. “When she went to Europe she made sure to take classes in Hamburg, at the Paris Opéra Ballet and The Royal Ballet, too, and stopped in London to have a last made for her pointe shoes.” (Mendoza’s Tumblr is aptly titled “A Window Seat View: Fly With Me.”)
“Just getting used to company life, which is so different from school life, was a big adjustment,” says Mendoza, whose “real life” partner is fellow Joffrey dancer Dylan Gutierrez. “And learning contemporary choreography has been a challenge, although I’ve now gotten to the point where I’m not afraid to be weird in rehearsals. I’m basically a very shy person, so I think that has helped me. But I’m still attached to that rigorous Vaganova training where something is either black or white, with no room for gray.” —Hedy Weiss
Above: Mendoza works on Swan Lake with Christopher Wheeldon. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
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"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.
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