Skip navigation

By Jennifer Modenessi
Contra Costa Times
Photographs by D. Ross Cameron/Staff
August 24, 2010


As Mario Vitale Labrador peers into a classroom at Berkeley’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, his focus goes far beyond the group of dancers bending and stretching their long limbs into elegant lifts and pliés.

“See the barres?” Labrador whispers, pointing to the long wood handrails where dancers line up to practice in front of a row of mirrors. “At the Bolshoi, the best pupils are placed in the center. And at the center of the center go the very best.”

The Alameda resident has a shot at occupying one of those coveted spots when he begins classes Sept. 1 at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world.

It’s a great achievement for any young dancer to be accepted into the 273-year-old academy known for its demanding curriculum and highly skilled performers. It’s even more remarkable for the 19-year-old, who didn’t begin training until he was 10, an age at which many young dancers have been studying for nearly half their lives.

Ronn Guidi, former artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company, noticed Labrador’s raw talent when he accepted him as a student at the Oakland Ballet School, now known as the Oakland Ballet Academy. Six months later, Guidi gave him the part of Fritz in the school production of “The Nutcracker.” After increasingly demanding and high-profile roles, Labrador, then 16, was invited to join the Oakland Ballet Company as an apprentice.

Last year, when Labrador was asked to perform with the Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet, he was the youngest dancer ever to work with the troupe of seasoned professionals. Lauren Jonas, Diablo Ballet’s artistic director, says Labrador has the potential to become one of the greatest dancers of our time.

“He is amazing. He doesn’t look like a young dancer on stage,” Jonas says about the mature, lyrical qualities of Labrador’s movements, his jumps and clean lines. “He’s just one of those people you look at and think they must have done this in another life.”

Despite the accolades, Labrador remains humble. The idea of applying to the Bolshoi came from a conversation with a friend who had recently been admitted to the school and wished Labrador could also attend, he explains. He auditioned on a whim, with the help of friends who helped him put together an amateur video to submit to the Moscow-based institution.

When he unexpectedly received a letter of acceptance, he was overjoyed. Then reality hit home. The tuition alone is nearly $14,000, no small challenge for Labrador and his mother, Gina Vitale, a single parent.

Still, “somewhere within 24 hours (of receiving the letter),” Labrador says, “we decided I was going to go.”

Undaunted, the pair have reached out to friends, family and the community to help with the tuition, expenses for translators, a plane ticket, food, clothing “and all the usual things you need to go out of the country if you’re a ballet dancer,” Labrador says.

When he starts school next week, he’ll dive headfirst into a curriculum of ballet, modern, contemporary and Russian folk dance. He’ll learn a new language and surround himself with Russian arts and culture.

And assuming all goes as planned, when Labrador graduates next year from the choreographic arts program as a certified Bolshoi-trained dancer, he’ll be one of the first young American men to complete the internationally renowned program which has, until recently, been closed to foreigners.

It was only last year that two young dancers — Emma Powers and Jeraldine Mendoza, of City Ballet School of San Francisco — became the first American women accepted to the Bolshoi’s Russian program.

“They’re very strict and they like to be very physical,” Labrador says of his initial taste of the school, which he experienced earlier this summer at a training workshop in New York. But the intensity appeals to Labrador who is the picture of determination and concentration. While his exposure to the school has been fairly recent, thanks in part to YouTube, he’s deeply knowledgeable about Russian ballet history and its stars, whom he watches constantly in online videos.

Still, he’s keenly aware of what he’s accomplished.

Although he’s not sure which company he’ll join after he completes training at the Bolshoi, he says he’s not going to worry about the future.

“I just really want to dance for the pure enjoyment


Copyright © 2010 – San Jose Mercury News

%d bloggers like this: