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Photographs by James Hill
New York Times
May 31, 2010

Slide Show: Americans at the Bolshoi
Video: An American at the Bolshoi



MOSCOW — The curtain rose on the Bolshoi Ballet’s revival of “Esmeralda,” and soon boys and girls dressed in Renaissance costumes took to the stage, pairing off in a spirited dance that they had learned in the Bolshoi’s own hothouse of an academy.

They were the future of Russian ballet, heirs to centuries of glorious Russian tradition, an elite few who had been chosen from across Russia. Except, that is, for the one from Montana.

There he was, a boy named Julian MacKay, who not long ago was gathering eggs from a flock of chickens behind his home in Bozeman, who had turned his life upside down by moving to this strange land with its even stranger language to pursue his dream. All of 12 years old, he was having his Bolshoi debut in Moscow.

Leaving the stage, he glanced at the audience. “That was when it caught up with me that I was right there, an American at the Bolshoi,” he said.

The ballet pipeline used to run mainly in one direction. Russians — Baryshnikov and Balanchine, Godunov and Nureyev — went (or defected) to the West. But now a handful of young Americans are venturing the other way, apprenticing themselves at the academy here, which has long been the sweat-and-tears training ground for many of Russia’s ballet greats.

Julian is among the youngest, but there are a few others, including a Texan, Joy Womack, who arrived at 15 on her own last fall. She has also appeared on the Bolshoi stage and has become one of the best students in her class, her teachers said.

For the Americans, both the culture shock and the rewards can be profound. The school, formally called the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, was established in 1773, and while it accepts foreign students, it is not about to change its ways.

And so there has been no hand holding for Julian and Joy, no Russian-language interpreters or preparatory sessions. They were thrown in with students who had years of immersion in exacting Russian dance schools.

Both Julian and Joy had experience in prominent American dance academies, but at first the Bolshoi instructors seemed to greet the two Americans with frowns. Their muscles were not properly developed. Their technique was sloppy. And though it was difficult to see extra pounds, they needed not only to lose weight, but also to lose it in certain places.

The first months were all the more challenging because they spoke little if any Russian when they started. Yet the two said that despite the pressure and the physical toll — Joy often wakes up unusually sore even for a dancer — this is where they yearned to be.

“The standards are such and the work ethic is such in Russia that there is no room for failure, there is no room for laziness, there is no room to be nice when it is not appropriate to be nice,” Joy said. “Russia is the best because there is this demand for excellence that there isn’t in any other part of the world.”

They came to Moscow as part of a nascent program sponsored by the Russian American Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan that promotes cultural ties between the countries. In recent years the foundation has run a summer session in the United States at which American children work with Bolshoi instructors. The academy’s director, Marina Leonova, has shown a personal interest in expanding its ties with the United States.

Last summer the academy invited a few who attended the summer session, including Julian and Joy, to enroll as full-time students, said Rina Kirshner, the foundation’s vice president. One of them, a 13-year-old girl, dropped out at Christmas after her parents decided that the atmosphere was too stressful for her to be here on her own.

The academy is in a Soviet-era building that is drab but has a mystique. Walls are lined with photos of illustrious graduates. Pianists accompany the classes, and their music drifts through the halls. Outside the second-floor studios children warm up by contorting their limbs in unnatural ways. The younger ones bow and curtsy to guests.

This is a government institution with about 750 full-time students who range in age from 10 to 18. Among them are about 90 foreigners from numerous countries, including Japan, Britain, Finland and Greece. East Asians in particular are heavily represented. Russians study free; foreigners each paid $18,000 in tuition this year. It’s a struggle for both Julian’s and Joy’s families.

A visit to one of Julian’s dance classes offered a glimpse at the intensity of his day. His teacher, Olga Voynarovskaya, rattled off commands in Russian to a group of 10 or so boys in one of the mirrored studios.

She lectured. She cajoled. She grimaced, wagged her finger and shook her head. She even slapped their limbs into place.

“Misha, stand up,” she said. “Ilya, don’t annoy me. Pull your ribs in. Are you sleeping? You look like you are asleep. Come on!” At times she joked — and even praised.

She repeatedly pointed out Julian’s mistakes. While he was at the barre, she got down in front of him and repositioned his legs, shaping and pounding his thigh as if she were sculpturing clay. Her finger impressions were visible on his skin.

Afterward she spoke warmly of Julian, saying that he had made significant progress, and that she had formed a real bond with him. “He may not understand Russian very well, but he understands me,” she said.

Joy has formed her own bond with one of her main teachers, Natalya Arkhipova, who has turned Joy’s un-Russian name into the more palatable Joika. (When Joy is flagging, Ms. Arkhipova calls her babushka, which means grandmother, or Baba Yaga, an old hag of a witch from Russian fairy tales.)

In practice Ms. Arkhipova also sometimes grabs hold of Joy.

“I had never had a teacher come up to me and say, ‘Use your bottom muscles, use your shoulders, use your abs,’ and touch me there,” Joy said, later adding, “In America it is more about, ‘O.K, this is what I would like you to do.’ ”

Ilya Kuznetsov, a Bolshoi instructor, said the emphasis on rigorous practice and physical contact helps explain why dancers at the academy shine. He said that when he worked in California, it was all but taboo for teachers to touch ballet students. He said he was startled to learn that he needed a $2 million insurance policy there in case a parent sued him.

Referring to the Bolshoi students, Mr. Kuznetsov said: “I can give them a very, very, very, very hard time, and still, they will be happy with that. Their parents will say, ‘You can kill him, but just teach him.’ ”

The Russian children reacted with curiosity to Julian and Joy. Yuliya Artamonova, Joy’s best Russian friend, said the girls were impressed with — and perhaps a little jealous of — Joy’s talent.

“She is a fanatic,” Yuliya said. “She is exceptional. There are not many who work as hard as Joy.”

Yuliya speaks hardly any English, but Joy’s Russian has improved enough that they seem to communicate well. Still, as the school year is ending, Joy sometimes misses the nuances of instruction. At one practice Ms. Arkhipova criticized her for “twisting yourself up.” Joy later said she had not quite understood her, though she thought she had gotten the gist from Ms. Arkhipova’s tone and body movements.

Julian said he also tried to intuit what his teachers are saying when he cannot grasp the words. Whether in Russia or the United States, dance terminology is generally in French, so both Joy and Julian already knew that.

Bolshoi students spend three to eight hours a day rehearsing, six days a week, in addition to their academic classes. Foreigners receive Russian-language instruction.

Julian lives in an apartment in Moscow with his mother. His brother, Nicholas, 9, has been accepted at the academy for the fall. The boys have two half-sisters who are professional dancers in Europe, though their mother, Teresa Khan MacKay, does not have a dance background. Julian’s father, a computer consultant, is in the United States, but travels here regularly.

“Julian sees the results in himself,” his mother said. “It is different than if a parent is observing, saying, ‘This is too strict, this is too much.’ He says he loves it here, and then I say it’s O.K.”

Joy, whose dark hair sets off her pale skin and almond eyes, has the maturity, not to mention the discipline, of someone far older. She moved to Russia on her own and lives in the dormitory with Russian and foreign students. On some days she does not leave the building.

Growing up in Texas and California, Joy learned about Russian ballet from videos on the Internet. She so idolized Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi star who is appearing with American Ballet Theater this season, that she burst into tears the first time she saw Ms. Osipova perform live.

“I had never seen dancers like that,” she said.

At first her large family — she has six brothers and two sisters — thought that her longing for Moscow was a teenager’s fantasy, but her parents allowed her to go. While she has never regretted it, she has had bouts of loneliness, especially during holidays like Thanksgiving.

And the whole adventure nearly came crashing down over the winter.

Joy was among a group of students selected to perform for a regular Bolshoi audience in a special gala, along with the stars of the Bolshoi Ballet itself. It was an honor. But on the big day she had excruciating pain in her foot. She could not imagine withdrawing, and there was no understudy.

Her teachers applied cold to numb the throbbing, and somehow, she danced. She later learned that she needed surgery for a bone injury common to dancers. But she did not have the money for the fee. Her parents then told her they could also no longer afford her tuition.

She would have to come home.

“I was just desperate, absolutely desperate,” she said.

The next day, at her English-language church in Moscow, where she goes regularly, a parishioner offered to pay for the surgery. Her parents — her mother is a doctor who is only now resuming her practice and her father works in the energy industry — later said they would scrape together the money so she could stay through June. She had the surgery and recovered in a month.

Her teachers said Joy had so blossomed that she was being prepared for a major role in a Bolshoi production featuring teenagers. She said her goal is stay here long enough to graduate from the academy and become one of the few foreigners to join the Bolshoi company itself.

She recalled the first time she appeared on the Bolshoi stage. “It changed my whole perspective on dancing, knowing that is what I want,” she said. “In America I never really felt that I fit in. I want to be Russian. It calls to me. Russia calls to me.”

Julian said he too felt a pull here. The first months were bewildering, he said, and he was grateful that his teachers did not give up on him.

“There have been times when I was like, ‘I don’t know whether I am ever going to be able to actually get it right,’ ” he said. “But if I didn’t come here, I would probably end up being a mediocre dancer. I want to be here as long I can.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] was featured on June 1, along with 15-year-old Joy Womack of Texas, in a New York Times report, “Young Americans Embrace Rigors of the Bolshoi.” The article described how Julian – “who not long ago was gathering eggs from a flock of […]

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