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U.S. ballets look abroad for male dancers

By Vandana Sebastian
Photograph by David Wallace
The Arizona Republic
August 3, 2012

A ballet studio can be an awkward place if you’re a young boy. In all probability, you might be the only boy in the class. You’re just starting to notice the opposite sex, when you have to practice gawky squats and lifts in a room of girls. Topped with that, your friends have a hard time understanding why you choose to spend time in a ballet studio instead of going out for football or baseball. It’s just not a boy thing.

“On my first class, I remember feeling uncomfortable about being the only boy in the class. I hoped that another boy would join the class soon,” said Nathan Weng, a 16-year-old Ballet Arizona student. “I’ve been dancing since I was 5, and this is the first year where I happen to have other male students in my class. I feel so much more comfortable as we can talk about stuff together.”

Ballet may be seen by many as unmasculine in the United States, but that doesn’t hold true in other countries. “Going to the theater or to ballet performances is part of European culture,” said Zherlin Ndudi, a Ukraine-born dancer with Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. “In America, men prefer going to a football or baseball match.”

Not having a culture that widely incorporates ballet means classes at U.S. dance schools are predominantly — and sometimes even exclusively — female. “Boys in America don’t have an affinity towards ballet,” said Roman Zavarov, a company dancer with Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. “All over the world, classes are skewed in favor of women, but the figures are more tilted in the U.S.”

Before coming to the States, Zavarov trained with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. “In Moscow, we had separate classes for boys and girls,” he said. “But we obviously don’t have enough boys who join classes here to have separate classes for them.”

Of Ballet Arizona’s 15 male dancers, 11 are foreign-born, from such countries as Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Albania. By contrast, only four of the company’s 19 female dancers are from outside the U.S. “We have to recruit dancers from abroad because there aren’t enough male dancers in the U.S.,” said Katrina Olson, public-relations executive at Ballet Arizona.

The trend is evident in ballet companies across the country. Out of the four male principal dancers in New York’s American Ballet Theatre, none is U.S.-born. Italian Alberto Liberatoscioli, company dancer for Ballet Nebraska, says that three out of the four male dancers in his company are international, while all the women are American.

Money plays a part, some say. “There are not many ballet scholarships given out by the state, and the industry isn’t state-supported,” said Carlos Valcarcel, director of the School of Ballet Arizona. “This affects the popularity of the industry, especially among men, who tend to be more affected by lack of monetary support.”

The popularity of ballet in other countries can mean that the competition to get into top companies is more intense than in the U.S. “In Russia, you can be disqualified from joining a company on the basis of your feet. You can’t join a good company if you’re flat-footed or if you have a naturally arched back,” Zavarov said. “Even before you audition, your body and flexibility potential are intricately examined.

“In the U.S., you can pursue ballet with any body type. As long as you can pay the fees, you can join a class, and as long as you keep at it and do well, you can keep moving on to higher levels. After that, when company selections are done, people are not disqualified on the basis of body type.”

Zavarov says he knew he would do better professionally and have a better chance of getting lead roles in the U.S. than in Moscow because of the less intense competition. He came to Boston 10 years ago, when he was 16, lived with a foster family while he completed high school and then joined Boston Ballet II.

Myles Lavallee, an American company dancer at Ballet Arizona, says that the lack of popularity of ballet among men in the U.S. helped propel his career. “I enjoyed being the only boy in the class,” he said. “I was given extra attention and mentoring. I was often called upon to demonstrate in front of the class. All of that boosted my morale.”

In high school, Lavallee, a Phoenix native, was teased by the kids about being a ballet dancer. “I didn’t have much of a social life in school,” said Lavallee, 20. “After classes, I would do a bit of homework, and then rush to the studio where I would stay until night. My friends gave me a hard time about the amount of time I spent in the studio.”

“But being with women was a plus for me,” Lavallee said. “I like girls, and I got to be with girls all day. There’s nothing better than that.”

The public’s attitude is different in countries like Russia and Cuba where state funding has led to a thriving ballet industry. “Russians are very proud of their theater. Ballet dancers — male and female — are highly respected,” Zavarov said.

Unlike the many companies that don’t hesitate in hiring international dancers to make up for the shortage in the male staff, there are some schools that flow against the tide. The Princeton Ballet School in New Jersey, for instance, is committed to promoting American choreographers and dancers, and it doesn’t hire people from other countries. Ballet Austin in Texas refrains from hiring international dancers because of the legal and financial resources it involves.

Lavallee says that the international male dancers in the company make classes more competitive. “When you know that there are people from Russia and other countries competing with you, it makes you want to work harder,” Lavallee said. “But though they are very good dancers, I don’t feel threatened. I know I’m as good, and enjoy the competition.”

Liberatoscioli of Ballet Nebraska says that the lack of interest in the dance form among men works in favor for the men in the field. “Since the very beginning, boys get more scholarships, better roles, more attention, less competition in finding a job, and more money for the same contract,” he said. “They also get more freelance opportunities. Plus, the most famous choreographers and teachers are male.”

Copyright © 2012

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