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By Brynn Mandel
July 22, 2012

Middlebury, Conn. — The ballerinas wear name tags scrawled in Cyrillic. On the dance floor in a studio at the private Westover School in Middlebury, the action is intense, precise and unrelenting. A pianist pounds out chords in a corner, accompanying wave after wave of twirling and leaping dancers. One crop of lanky, graceful girls swiftly replaces the next.

The clop, clop, clop of 26 pointe shoes moving in unison competes with the music. Front and center, a short, stout middle-aged woman mimics a modified version of the dance, prompting the girls under her tutelage to push higher, or tilt heads at different angles.

“Da, da, dap, da, da, dap,” cries the dancer-turned-Bolshoi Ballet Academy instructor Natalya Revich, clapping in staccato as the music and movements pick up pace.

Sometimes, this onomatopoeia works better than words, especially here at the summer intensive program of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

For the past five summers, the renowned, more than-two-century-old Russian ballet company has brought its program for several weeks to Middlebury. The program expanded a year after starting in Middlebury to serve older, more advanced students in New York City. Master dancers and teachers train a rising generation in the exacting methods of the Bolshoi, which has launched many world-class dancers’ careers.

Increasingly, the stateside summer program has produced not only more highly trained dancers, but also a burgeoning cultural exchange. In addition to daily classes in classical technique and character dance — a theatrical take on folk dance — students receive Russian language instruction.

The program is backed by the nonprofit Russian American Foundation. In addition to the mingling of cultures, the academy and foundation offer scholarships for stateside students to travel on scholarship to train in Russia in a program supported by the U.S. Department of State. This year, the cross-cultural efforts yielded the first American graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, a Texas teen who has been among the trickle of American students traipsing across the ocean to study at the company.

About 70 percent of the institute students come from the U.S., while 30 percent hail from as far as Russia, Latin America and Switzerland. Auditions were held last winter in major cities and by video for international students.

Patti Buchanan, who heads Westover’s dance department, quipped that she always got a kick out of the audition announcements. “They put out these big posters for auditions. Los Angeles. Miami. New York,” she said, sweeping her hands for dramatic effect from side to side with each city’s name. She paused, smiled, then fisted and flared her fingers as she added emphatically: “And Middlebury, Connecticut.” It demonstrates how “huge” it is to have such a high-caliber program here, she said, adding it’s a boon to local dancers who win scholarships — one full and one partial — through competition in the annual Connecticut Classic.

Organizers estimated that about five dancers auditioned for every slot in the academy’s summer program. In Middlebury, 120 dancers between ages 9 an 14 spend about five hours daily refining everything from their pointe to partnering skills. The New York program, held at Lincoln Center, enrolls about 150 dancers.

Though the participants speak different languages, they are all fluent in dance. Rina Kirshner, vice president of the Russian American Foundation, said although 90 percent of the teachers do not speak English, 80 percent of the language used in lessons consists of ballet terminology.

“Hopefully by the time they’re done, they’ll know some Russian language, too,” said Kirshner, explaining in addition to dance instruction, the program aims to foster cultural exchange. In fact, between time designated for swimming and stretching, students also receive Russian language lessons. “They are really immersed.”

In rare cases during ballet class when something gets lost, translators perch a few steps from the Bolshoi instructors. Amid thundering heel and toe digs of boys and girls rehearsing character dance, translator Anya Tchoupakov speaks seconds behind instructor Evgenia Myachkova.

Typically, summer intensive participants have been dancing for years, and therefore have had exposure to Russian ballet methods. Such was the case for Jolie Moray, a 14-year-old dancer from Los Angeles who trains at home with renowned former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Yuri Grigoriev. “My teacher at home only speaks Russian to us,” said Moray, who was spending her third summer at Westover. She said the teachers, the training and the friends lure her back. “We dance all day long. It’s fun, because you’re with friends and people who love to dance. It’s tiring, but you think about the end result.”

Damiano Scarfi, of Middletown, won one of this year’s Connecticut Classic scholarships. The 14-year-old trains at Woodbury Ballet, where he explained he’s “used to” Russian instruction as he trains under a teacher from the country known for ballet.

Tuition costs about $3,300 for the three-week session, and more than $6,400 for six weeks, including room and board, though organizers note close to 30 percent of students receive scholarships.

At the end of the program, the ballet company’s academy extends invitations to select students to train at the Moscow school.

“It’s an extremely rigorous and life changing thing,” said Kirshner.

Last year, about 25 American students traveled to Russia. And at the end of the summer, one male and one female dancer will win full scholarships to train for two weeks at the Moscow academy and to perform in its gala.

The Bolshoi program has grown from about 60 dancers the first year to more than quadruple that between New York and Middlebury. One past participant, David Hallberg, advanced from the summer intensive to earn a spot as the first American dancer to become permanent member of the Bolshoi Ballet Company. Hallberg, a native of South Dakota, also is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre.

“We keep growing it,” Kirshner said of the program which concludes later this month. “We’re very committed to it because we see how it transforms dancers.”

Copyright ©2012 The Republic

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