Attracting boys to ballet is still a challenge but attitudes may be changing
By Janice Steinberg
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Photograph by Earnie Grafton
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Think “ballet dancer,” and you’ll probably picture a pretty young woman in a tutu. The choreographer George Balanchine saw it that way. “Ballet is the female thing. It is woman,” he famously said.
Now think of the superstars of ballet, dancers who attained rock-star fame. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev will leap — with dazzling height and power — into your mind.
For Steven Wistrich, director of City Ballet of San Diego, “When you see an incredible male dancer onstage like Baryshnikov, the girls might as well go home. They can’t hope to keep up with that level of excitement.”
Yet despite the athleticism of stars like Baryshnikov, ballet has been stereotyped as a girl thing in the United States. That’s made it hard to get American boys into ballet studios, with the result that many American companies are dominated by male dancers from outside the U.S. At American Ballet Theater, for example, six of the eight male principals are from other countries, as are all 11 principals at San Francisco Ballet.
The same pattern is evident in San Diego. Looking at the upcoming “Nutcracker” season, the male lead, the Cavalier, is being danced by City Ballet’s Gerardo Gil (Mexico) and San Diego Ballet’s Carlo Di Dio (Italy). At California Ballet, company principal Vitaliy Nechay (Ukraine) will rotate in the role, along with guest artists Vitaly Breusenko (Ukraine) and Raydel Caceres (Cuba).
West Coast Ballet Theatre (the performing arm of San Elijo Dance and Music Academy) is bringing in guest-artist Stanko Milov (Bulgaria), a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and San Diego Academy of Ballet will have American Ballet Theater soloist Gennadi Saveliev (Russia).
What makes a great danseur? Anyone who’s seen a man explode in turning leaps across a stage appreciates the power of men’s legs in solo dancing. What’s less obvious, because the man intentionally places himself in the background, is the upper-body strength required for partnering, when he displays the ballerina in graceful poses — by hoisting her…body in straight-armed lifts.
California Ballet’s Nechay talks about the “responsibility” of partnering. “You have to be really responsible when you do lifts, you do turns with the ballerina.” In “The Nutcracker,” the Cavalier performs dramatic lifts in his grand pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Like quite a few local danseurs, Nechay started out as an athlete, playing soccer in his native Ukraine. City Ballet’s Gil was a rock climber, and Ben Houk, who danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet and co-directs the San Elijo Dance and Music Academy, was an avid skier and did team sports.
“More than that,” says Houk, who grew up in Massachusetts, “just walking down the street, I was like, ‘Hey, how many times can you spin around jumping off that snowbank?’ When I discovered ballet, that put the structure on ‘How many times can you spin in the air?’ ”
Houk was thrilled by football player Reggie Bush’s dramatic leap in a recent New Orleans Saints game. “This guy did a total grand jeté,” says Houk. Check out Bush’s leap at www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHfmUkcpKV8
Marshall Whiteley, 15, started studying at the San Diego Academy of Ballet two years ago because ice hockey had stopped being a challenge. “One of my teachers invited me to come. I saw these guys (the advanced students), and they completely blew me away. I decided I wanted to do that.”
In the studio, Whiteley is a coiled spring of concentration, working so intensely that, in the course of a 90-minute class followed by a “Nutcracker” rehearsal, he has to change his ballet slippers twice because they were drenched with sweat.
Maxim Tchernychev, Whiteley’s teacher, has a mission to develop male dancers here. “It was my dream to have a strong boys’ program,” says the former Bolshoi dancer, who opened the San Diego Academy eight years ago with his wife, Sylvia Poolos-Tchernychev. About 25 of their 200 students are boys.
Former student Kiril Kulish thanked the Tchernychevs when he accepted a 2008 Tony Award for playing Billy Elliot on Broadway. Kulish, 15, currently lives in New York but is coming back home to dance in the Academy’s “Nutcracker.”
Tchernychev’s first goal in teaching boys is to “light up that flame in them and keep it going. You’ve got that, and you develop a dancer.”
Classes for little kids focus on having a good time. Houk’s school, for instance, offers gymnastics and hip-hop, as well as ballet. “We’ve got a longitudinal trampoline, where they can do cross-training for big jumps, and they love that.”
For the boys who become serious students, training involves precision and drill, often in daily classes as well as rehearsals.“They need to understand the physics, the mechanics of the jump,” Tchernychev says. “Exactly where does this arm go? Where is your head? Where do you finish when you land? All of that, I have to break it down for them. But understanding is not enough. We have to do it again and again and again for years.”
Getting that kind of work out of kids takes discipline. Oscar Burciaga, who teaches the boys’ class at California Ballet, has a standard response to students who misbehave. “I clap my hands and point at them and say, ‘Ten push-ups.’ ” Burciaga is equally quick to praise when a student does well.
In the U.S., ballet training also requires significant parental commitment and investment. Most instruction here is offered privately and outside of regular school hours. Parents have to schlep their kids to classes and pay fees that — for a serious student taking daily classes in San Diego — may top $4000 a year.
Compare that to Tchernychev’s experience in Russia. Selected at age 10 for ballet training, he attended a publicly financed school where academic and ballet classes took place on one campus.
For boys, the toughest hurdle may be getting over Americans’ hangups about men in tights. Kulish, who started training at age 5, says, “My mom actually had me say I was going to baseball practice instead of ballet.”
[Javier Velasco, co-director of San Diego Ballet] also sees ballet as a mother-daughter tradition: The mom took ballet as a girl, and now she’s bringing her daughter to class.
There are at least a few promising signs that Americans’ attitudes may be shifting, Houk says. “An aspect of male dancing that’s so exciting in our culture right now, with ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ I think it’s brought athleticism to the fore. Culturally, we’ve hit a better place than when I was younger.”
Among Houk’s male students, the four Tilton brothers stand out. Rex Tilton now dances with Ballet West in Salt Lake City, and Ray and Ron are a trainee and upper-division student, respectively, at San Francisco Ballet. Eldest brother Roy, a student at Palomar College, will be dancing the Rat King in Houk’s “Nutcracker” this year.
Adding to the growing “coolness” of dance in popular culture, there’s the Broadway success of “Billy Elliot,” celebrating a boy’s determination to study ballet.
Kulish says, “Sometimes when I come out of the show, there’s moms with 5-year-old kids saying, ‘My son didn’t want to dance until he saw the show.’” Kulish, one of the three boys who originated the role of Billy on Broadway, was with the show until last month.
Unlike Billy Elliot, Kulish has a supportive family, but he identifies with Billy’s determination. “I don’t let anything stop me.”
That might be the motto for quite a few male dancers.
Burciaga, who did a brief stint selling home alarm systems door to door, made a decision “never to do any work that wasn’t related to the arts, from dancing in the show, to setting up the show, loading trucks, sewing, to sweeping and mopping the floors, changing the light bulbs in the studios.”
Trystan Loucado, of San Diego Ballet, didn’t start dancing until five years ago, at 19. “I’ve been so hungry over these last years — saying somebody show me how to do this, show me how to do that,” he says. “The more hungry you are, the more you get fed.”
For Gil, who rejoined City Ballet last year, following a yearlong fight to recover from a torn ACL ligament, “I’m just so happy every single day because I’m still dancing.”
Janice Steinberg is a San Diego dance writer.
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