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Ballet Scene | From Russia, With Rigor


Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s six-week summer intensive brings Russian style and tradition to the U.S.

By Joshua Bartlett

In Russian, “bolshoi” means large, or grand. Anyone who has heard anything about ballet equates the Bolshoi Ballet name with a real pedigree—an institution represented by stellar dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya, Yekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Galina Ulanova, Nina Ananiashvili, and more recently, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev.

Students read about their progress on comment sheets filled out by the Bolshoi Academy’s teachers. (Photo courtesy Bolshoi Ballet Academy)

And now there’s a way to experience the grand tradition of Bolshoi training without going to Russia. For the last four summers, the New York–based Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive has trained American and foreign students in the Bolshoi style and technique.

On a sweltering afternoon last July, in a studio near Lincoln Center, a group of teenage girls were being drilled in the four little swans’ choreography from Swan Lake. The dancers panted and sweated but didn’t complain. There’s no whining at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive. Dianna Mesion, a school administrator, translated for the students’ teacher, Irina Syrova, a Bolshoi teacher with a dignified posture and gracious manner. (All the classes are conducted in Russian.) She emphasized the sharpness of the head, the clarity of the footwork, and traveling through space as if pushing boundaries—all Bolshoi movement has a larger-than-life feel about it.

Cultural exchange
The idea for giving Americans an opportunity to study with Bolshoi teachers originated with the Russian American Foundation. Founded in 1997, it strives to foster interest and understanding of Russian culture and heritage in the United States, as well as to reciprocate similar interests in American culture in Russia.

The Bolshoi Academy’s summer intensive serves students in a number of ways, according to Rina Kirshner, a co-founder and vice president of the Russian American Foundation. “We envisioned it as much more than just about ballet—as something that could expand the students in their pre-professional agenda, but also could expand their horizons as global citizens,” she says. “We advocate for students to learn about Russian culture, the Russian language, and to understand the contributions of Russian choreographers, composers, and dancers. It’s also an opportunity to train firsthand with these master teachers from the Bolshoi here, an opportunity they wouldn’t have anywhere else.”

After national auditions in 10 states, more than 250 students enrolled in the 2010 Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive, directed by Marina Leonova, dean of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy of Moscow. The elementary and intermediate levels (ages 9 to 14) trained at studios in Middlebury, Connecticut, while the advanced level (15 and older) took classes in New York at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy studios.

The advanced-level classes, which ran from 10:00 to 5:00 daily, included technique, pointe, men’s classes, variations, repertoire, character dance, and partnering. Students had the option of studying for three, five, or six weeks, and many danced in performances at the end of the session.

The program fees, for all levels, ranged from $2,350 for three weeks to $4,400 for six weeks. Housing costs are separate and ran from $900 for basic housing for three weeks in New York to $2,400 for six weeks at the Westover School in Connecticut.

Why the Bolshoi?
With so many summer intensives available, one might wonder about the advantages of choosing to go with the Bolshoi intensive. “We never say anyone should choose the Bolshoi method over any other method,” says Kirshner. “But these are teachers who have danced in the style and gone through multi-year training at the academy to become a teacher. We believe Russian classical ballet has a great history and produced numerous icons of dancers. There are many students who are interested in this style and training with teachers who come from a school that has 235 years dedicated to the same style.” (The Bolshoi Theatre was founded in 1776 by Catherine the Great.)

Kelsey Piva, a 16-year-old from Rathdrum, Idaho, has studied in other summer programs and sees some differences. “Compared to the programs I’ve been to, this has smaller, more individual class sizes so that everyone gets one-on-one attention,” she says. (While some classes have as few as 15 students, generally, class sizes run between 25 and 30 students.) “This is a very detail-oriented syllabus because every movement has a specific head placement and épaulement.”

Maria Khlebnikova, 17, who trains at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, says, “I think the Russian training is the best. The teachers are directly from Moscow, so they carry the Vaganova tradition that has been passed through all those generations.”

 “I think there is a huge difference between the Russian way of teaching ballet as opposed to the American style. They know what they want from you and they will get that out of you.” —student Marshal Whiteley

Marshal Whiteley, 16, from San Diego, has always trained with Bolshoi-affiliated teachers, so it’s a style that makes him feel at home. “I think there is a huge difference between the Russian way of teaching ballet as opposed to the American style,” he says. “They know what they want from you and they will get that out of you—things like hand positions. I also notice that the Russian males are more manly. There is a difference onstage between the sexes. That’s something you don’t notice as much in other styles.”

The method
The essence of the Bolshoi Academy’s methodology derives from several sources. “The school finds its origin in the combination of the best practices of the French and Italian styles,” says Tatiana Petrova, who danced with the Bolshoi Ballet before earning her professorial degree to teach in the school. “The Vaganova method selected the best from each of those styles, combined them, and has perfected and evolved them in Russia since then. Today it separates itself from other styles by a very strong emphasis on expression, emotion, and musicality in classical dance.”

The practice of teaching the classes in Russian can be challenging for the students and the teachers but has its positive results. The teachers try to learn some English and the students pick up some Russian in the mix. “We do not look for literal translations of what we say but rather the essence, and we always see in the eyes of the students that with the help of the great translators they understand everything we need them to understand,” says Petrova. “The English/Russian issue is secondary. Our primary language is our body, as we show the students everything and they are very quick to understand.”

Corrections are heavily emphasized in the Bolshoi summer intensive. “I have a really short plié, so my teacher is always telling me to plié more and to relax the upper body,” says Khlebnikova. “Here they encourage a lot of bending back. They want more and more and more. It’s grander.”

Whiteley was told by his teachers that he needed to work on his turnout and his musicality. “They have a very precise musicality. It has to be on the instant it happens,” he says.

The culture of class
Beyond the technical necessities, the Bolshoi intensive cultivates a particular environment. “When you step into class every day, you can tell it is rooted in culture and tradition,” says Piva. “I like to be in a class where the teacher cares [about it] just as much, if not more so, than you do.”

For example, in each class there are two révérences, one at the beginning and one at the end of the lesson. “I think it’s really cool—it’s a sign of respect,” Piva says. “In other classes I’ve been to, they don’t do that. They don’t revere the art as much. It almost feels like to [the Russian teachers] it’s a religion. This is a way of life instead of just an activity or a sport.”

What Whiteley likes most about the Bolshoi training is the strength that comes with it. “And I don’t mean that just in a physical sense,” he says. “It’s more in showing who you are and what you are trying to say through your dance. It gives it so much more of a theatrical sense. It makes it real art.”

According to Petrova, there are no real differences in teaching American and Russian students. “In the summer program in New York and Connecticut, what we teach them is much more concentrated,” she says. “We try to give them the maximum amount of training in six weeks, and they get much more than any student would get during the same period in the academy during the regular year-round program.”

On to Russia
Recently, through the U.S. State Department, the National Security Language Initiative for Youth is offering annual summer scholarships for 10 students to study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow for six weeks. Among those chosen this year were Whiteley and Piva, who were set to fly to Moscow the following Saturday. Any Bolshoi Academy summer intensive dancers can apply, as long as they are ages 15 to 18 and are American citizens. The scholarship recipients, with all expenses paid, are selected on technical and academic merit and have demonstrated an interest in learning about Russian culture.

Naturally, it would be an exciting adventure for any American ballet student. “I am looking forward to getting to study at the actual academy,” says Piva. “We will have two and a half hours of Russian language classes each day. During the week we are housed at the academy. On the weekends we go to the host families, who are not connected in any way to dance, to see the opposite spectrum of living in Russia. We are encouraged to tour the city also.” There are no translators in the classes, which include Russian students, so there is an incentive to learn basics of the language quickly.

There are American students who study full-time at the Bolshoi Academy during the regular year-round session. And some Americans, like Whiteley, dream of dancing with the company.

Could there come a time when Americans are accepted as company members of the Bolshoi Ballet? “Everything is possible,” says Kirshner. “Obviously it is an extremely competitive process. Our countries are becoming more and more open and interested in cultural exchanges. So I think if any dancer has that goal in mind, they should work really hard towards that goal to be the best they can be. If not that, there are so many other companies in the world who would be thrilled to have them and they can have a fulfilling career.”

A shared passion
In the meantime, interested students can study with the Bolshoi teachers at the summer intensive in a concentrated environment. “They should be prepared to work very hard and a lot,” says Petrova. “They will be physically and mentally challenged because they are expected to learn a lot and demonstrate it back to us.”

Piva thinks this intensive is geared to a specific mind-set: “This is not for someone going to a summer intensive just to goof off or have a good time, but someone who really wants to become a good dancer and wants to grow and develop that talent—someone with a lot of passion and heart.”

“We hope to see our students return so that we can appreciate how they develop from year to year and be part of their progress,” says Petrova. “And we also hope to see more American students in our year-round program in the academy.”

“There are a lot of rewards with this training,” says Whiteley. “For someone interested in Russian companies this is as good as it gets. These teachers have taught all the stars.”


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