When Daniil Simkin auditioned for American Ballet Theatre, he had one of ballet’s most unusual resumés. Privately trained by his mother, he had honed his performing skills on the international competition circuit and had a collection of gold medals to prove it. Clips of his performances had made him a YouTube sensation.
“I’d heard about him and seen his videos,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “He did a gala in New York and the buzz was intense. When he came to take class with the company, I remember thinking, ‘It’s not a matter of if he’s talented enough. It’s a matter of if he can survive the expectations of where his career’s going and fit into the way we have to work.’ ”
McKenzie nevertheless offered Simkin a spot as a soloist. While Simkin’s hothouse training had produced a dancer with technical ability, musicality and charisma, there were still some areas he needed to work on. At 21, Simkin had little experience partnering, and he had never danced in a company as fast-paced as ABT. “When you train at home, you have total control of how you prepare,” McKenzie says. “Join a big company like ABT, and you don’t have that luxury. You don’t do one thing, hone it and then move on. You prepare 16 things at once.”
Now, nearly three years later, Simkin seems on the verge of a breakthrough. During ABT’s annual Metropolitan Opera House season, he will make his New York debuts as Franz in Coppélia and Basilio in Don Quixote. He will also perform in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream and Benjamin Millipied’s Troika, dance the lead in Antony Tudor’s virtuoso Shadowplay as well as a host of other repertory roles.
Watching Simkin rehearse, his intelligence and focus quickly become apparent. He was born into a ballet family, and he gets his critical eye from his mother. A former principal with the Novosibirsk State Opera in Russia and then a dancer with the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Olga Aleksandrova now teaches and coaches. Simkin’s father, Dmitrij, was also a principal dancer in Novosibirsk and danced with Wiesbaden. And his brother, Anton Alexandrov, 10 years Simkin’s senior, currently dances with the Hamburg Ballet.
Simkin was 6 when he began performing alongside his father. “The choreography needed a small boy and Dmitrij decided to try Daniil,” Aleksandrova says. “The role was complicated, with precise musical timing and acting. We were stunned by Daniil’s ability to keep all the necessary details for the performance in his head.”
When Simkin was 9, Aleksandrova thought he should start ballet lessons. “You cannot really call what I was doing with my dad ballet,” Simkin says. “My mother was like, ‘Okay, this is not cute anymore. Either we start training properly or you cannot continue performing.’ ” Aleksandrova began working with Simkin in the family home in Wiesbaden. They soon moved to a studio. Eventually, she taught him six days a week for two hours a day.
She was also teaching in Frankfurt at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts. But Aleksandrova’s private classes for her son were different from traditional ballet classes. “I had a totally free hand,” she says. She drew on her Russian foundation, but took ideas from other school systems. She added footwork and balance techniques derived from the French school, for instance, and the turning techniques she admired in Cuban dancers. She tailored each class specifically to Simkin’s needs, taking as long as necessary for him to master each technical challenge. “We grew very close working one-on-one,” Simkin says. “She’s not only my teacher, she’s my mentor, my tutor, my psychotherapist, my personal assistant.”
The private lessons let Aleksandrova and Simkin work around his academic schedule. Simkin was in a demanding, top-tier program for the brightest students. As time passed, the family faced a difficult choice: send Simkin to a vocational ballet boarding program or let him stay in school and continue private lessons. “Both of my parents left home to train at 10 years old,” Simkin says. “They were in the Soviet Union, so it was just, ‘Okay, you’re going to do it.’ They didn’t want me to leave so young.”
In the end, Aleksandrova taught Simkin for 10 years. In fact, Simkin completed his final high school exam the day before he left for the 2006 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, MS, where he took home a senior gold medal.
He had begun competing when he was 12. Since Simkin rarely worked with dancers his own age, competitions gave him perspective as well as performance opportunities. “After a while, it gets hard to just do class every day,” Simkin says. “Because I had no spring performance or exams, competitions provided a goal for me to work toward.”
Since a competition focus can limit a dancer’s growth—drilling one variation over and over may help win a medal, but it doesn’t always translate to handling a range of choreography—Aleksandrova made sure Simkin pushed himself. “Whenever we went to a competition, we always took a new variation with other technical things to work on so that I improved,” he remembers.
A computer geek by his teens, Simkin began posting videos of his winning solos on YouTube, which garnered him international fans. By the time he arrived in Jackson, his reputation had preceded him. He had already won first prize and gold at the 2004 IBC in Varna and the grand prix at the 2005 IBC in Helsinki.
His Jackson win cemented his phenom status and his professional career took off. He landed a job as a demi-soloist with the Vienna State Opera Ballet, while also touring the world on the gala circuit.
After two years in Vienna, he began to think about a move. “My dream was to be in a major ballet company, like The Royal Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet or ABT,” Simkin says. “ABT is very New York. You get so many different schools and personalities. There’s so much inspiration.”
He joined ABT in September 2008, not seasoned but eager. Sarah Lane, one of Simkin’s first partners, remembers his arrival. “When I saw him dance, I thought, ‘This guy can do things that no one else can. He is athletically gifted.’ ” But he still needed to hone his partnering skills. “For me, it’s a challenge because I didn’t have so much experience,” Simkin admits. “But I’m getting there.”
At one point, he went to the gym regularly to build his upper body strength, but now, he says, his workload has reached the point that he no longer needs to prioritize the gym visits. (Yet he still does a daily exercise routine in the studio.) McKenzie has cast him carefully, with an eye toward helping him develop, and making sure he has enough preparation to soak up all he has learned. “Daniil has humility as well as a pragmatic understanding of where he is in his development,” McKenzie says. “Plus he has an amazing ability to absorb.”
During rehearsal weeks, Simkin often spends eight hours a day at ABT. When he leaves, he may hang out with friends or go to see another company perform. Even so, by the time he gets home, he can still have trouble falling asleep. “I thought that when people said ‘New York is the city that never sleeps,’ it was rubbish,” Simkin says. “But it’s actually true.”
Turning on the computer remains one of Simkin’s favorite ways to get his mind off dance. “It’s a passion,” he says. “I am a bit of a geek.” The day of his photo shoot with Pointe, Simkin had gotten up early to be at the Apple Store in time to buy the newest iPad. While he prefers to do much of his recreation online, it’s not all play. Simkin’s curiosity about the internet has put him on the cutting edge of how new media is used by ballet artists. Collectively, the videos Simkin has posted to YouTube have gotten over 2.5 million hits. When The New York Times reported last year on how dancers are opening up the ballet world by Tweeting, they interviewed Simkin.
This summer, however, Simkin may find that he is being Tweeted about more than he is Tweeting. Simkin’s fans have been waiting impatiently for him to perform leads like Basilio with ABT. Their wait is finally over. “The public,” says McKenzie, “is just waiting to eat him up as a star.”
Kate Lydon is the editor in chief of Dance Spirit.