As told to Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone and Madeline Schrock
What was life like at the Vaganova Ballet Academy?
Gabrielle Perkins, ABT Studio Company member: I lived with about 30 other international students in the dorm, but all of our classes—except two hours of Russian language Monday through Thursday mornings—were with the Russian students. At first, it was stressful because I didn’t really know what any of the other girls were saying—or even the teacher. But it was cool just to associate ourselves with them, and it helped us get more into the culture and language.
My daily technique class would last maybe two or three hours. Yeah, it was really long. Then I’d have pointe or pas de deux; and character, modern or acting. Afterwards we’d would go into rehearsal, and usually finish around 9 or 10. The schedule was like that Monday through Saturday, with Sundays off.
There’s a stereotype that Russian ballet students are completely single-minded. Is it true?
Daniel Hardman, Oklahoma City Ballet corps member: In Russia, you have to commit to the profession at a much younger age than in the U.S. Students as young as 9 or 10 years old will live in the dorms, away from their families. I think it can be harder for students to develop a passion for their art when they’re exposed to such a strict regime. I started my training at the Maryland Youth Ballet, and I still remember performing. It gave me an opportunity to fall in love with the stage, and I don’t know that I would still be dancing today if I had jumped into learning classical fundamentals at the barre and being pushed into my splits.
Is Russian coaching harsh? Or is that a misconception?
Tatum Sierra Shoptaugh, Slovak National Theatre Ballet soloist: For me, the coaching and pedagogy is what makes the Russian schooling and professional work-life stand out. Your teacher becomes your second mother—the one who looks over you in all aspects of your life at the school. There is a lot of “tough love” and expectation, but they want what’s best for you. I still seek my coaches’ approval, opinions and advice. Strict doesn’t always equal unfeeling.
Why did you stay in Russia to dance professionally after finishing your training?
Adrian Mitchell, Mikhailovsky Ballet corps de ballet: A major reason was the ballet culture and love for the art form that Russia has. I also was given the chance to dance soloist roles in my first season, which is not common in prominent American companies. I have a network of friends and colleagues here, so it just seemed natural. The Mikhailovsky has some of the greatest dancers in the world coming to dance as guests or working here full-time. Being in class with Ivan Vasiliev and Leonid Sarafanov is inspiring in itself. I hope that I’ll have the chance to spend more time on stages in America, but I am really enjoying my time here.
A rehearsal for Balanchine’s “Diamonds” is getting underway in St. Petersburg, and Kristina Shapran is smiling and teasing her partner, Xander Parish, as she adjusts a belt to protect her sore back. As soon as the pianist plays the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s score, however, the Mariinsky Ballet first soloist transforms. Suddenly, she seems to be stepping onstage, her classically beautiful face projecting as if to the back of an auditorium; with luminous simplicity, she embodies the elusive Russian soul, that spiritual quality that the St. Petersburg ballet tradition values so highly.
Surprisingly, Shapran’s road to the Mariinsky was a difficult one, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back, with much self-doubt along the way. Her delicate, singing lines are a pure product of her Vaganova training, but instead of entering the Mariinsky straight after graduation, she opted to join smaller Russian companies—first the Stanislavsky Ballet, then the Mikhailovsky Ballet. There, she struggled with loneliness and technical frailty, and it seemed like she might not deliver on her early promise.
In 2014, however, Shapran finally found her way to the Mariinsky, and she has been making up for lost time. At 24, she is on the express track to stardom under acting director Yuri Fateyev, who is nurturing her unique gifts. Rather than a powerhouse technician, Shapran is that rare creature in the fairly stereotyped Russian ballet world: a true dance actress. In her debut as Juliet last July, she moved as if free from any constraints, letting natural reactions take their course and infusing the steps with expressive life.
Raised in St. Petersburg, Shapran danced everywhere as a child, to the point that a friend mentioned the Vaganova Ballet Academy to her. Her mother, an accountant, and father, a geologist, took her to the Mariinsky for performances, and Shapran vividly remembers her shock when she discovered La Bayadère. “When I saw Nikiya’s scene with the snake, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t even speak during the intermission. I just knew that someday I would be playing that role.”
That determination served Shapran well when she entered the very competitive Vaganova Ballet Academy at age 9. “My childhood was over then,” she says seriously. “It was a completely different level of emotions, very hard work.” The 90-minute commute from her home involved taking the bus, the metro and walking to the Academy on her own. In class, with her naturally arched feet, Shapran had to work especially hard to gain stability.
By her graduation in 2011, she was considered one of two wildly talented students in her age group who were likely to take the Mariinsky by storm. The other was Olga Smirnova; the two shared the role of Nikiya in La Bayadère’s Shades scene at their graduation performance.
In a shocking move, however, both shunned contracts at the Mariinsky. Like Smirnova, who joined the Bolshoi, Shapran was offered soloist positions by all the top Russian companies, Mariinsky included. She also opted for Moscow, but joined the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky. “I believed in Zelensky, as a person, as a professional, and I wanted to work with him,” she says, adding after a pause: “The Mariinsky was the absolute best to me, but I was also afraid. I thought I wasn’t ready or worthy of it yet, that I would get worse.”
While the Stanislavsky offered Shapran the chance to dance principal roles immediately, including Giselle, Nikiya and Roland Petit’s Coppélia with Sergei Polunin, the transition was far from easy. She looks back on her three years there as her “school of life,” she says. “When I was younger, I was always protected—by my mother, my teachers. In Moscow, I realized I was really alone.”
Challenges included adjusting to the more extroverted Moscow style and learning to work with a hands-on coach, who liked to oversee not just rehearsals but also her charge’s life outside the theater. “Sometimes it’s better if an artist can breathe,” Shapran says. After three seasons, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was neither the right city nor the right company for her.
When her former Vaganova director and teacher, Altynai Asylmuratova, took up a coaching position at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, Shapran saw an opportunity and joined her there as a principal in January 2014. The arrangement lasted less than six months, however. “There were intrigues that made the atmosphere uncomfortable, so we both decided to leave,” Shapran explains.
The young ballerina got in touch with Fateyev, whom she had refused three years earlier. “I didn’t feel angry about it anymore,” Fateyev says. “I think she was too young at the time.” He hadn’t seen her dance since, yet he welcomed her as a first soloist. “You don’t lose talent. Even at school, I knew she would be an artist—she was so charismatic, so individual.”
Her return to the Mariinsky fold in the summer of 2014 was an unexpected twist: The company’s attractiveness had been on the wane, and Smirnova and Shapran’s departures were considered proof of that. With her lyrical sensibility, however, Shapran proved a natural fit there. She hit the ground running, performing Apollo on tour in London within weeks of joining. Last season, her first with the Mariinsky, she accrued over a dozen principal roles, from Giselle to Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc.
Above all, Shapran relishes the Mariinsky’s intense schedule—the company often works seven days a week, with no cap on rehearsal hours. “At the Stanislavsky, after a performance, there could be a two-week break. It’s the worst thing for a dancer. Here, I rehearse every day; I’m completely overloaded with work.” Fateyev and Shapran’s coach, Elvira Tarasova, have provided guidance and challenged her to gain strength. “She feels the music, the steps, the character, but she needed to be helped technically, so I made very ambitious plans for her,” Fateyev says. This season, she’s scheduled to make her debut in the ultimate Mariinsky role, Odette/Odile; in December, she will guest with the Paris Opéra Ballet in La Bayadère.
And Shapran now feels deserving of calling the Mariinsky her home. “We were raised with such deep respect for this stage that I was in awe of it,” she says. “Now I feel more mature. It’s like a puzzle that has come together.” Exploring the Russian company’s large repertoire will take time, but she also hopes to work again with Jirí Kylián, whose Petite Mort she danced in Moscow, as well as with young, up-and-coming choreographers.
Shapran lives close to the Mariinsky, and says she has few hobbies: “I have a very narrow focus at the moment. Every role is like a baby, and ballet is my life, my boyfriend, my husband.” Her only indulgence is regular theater outings with her sister. Unsurprisingly, Shapran also dreamed of becoming an actress as a child, and a couple of offers to star in movies have already landed at her door. For now, however, she is finally ready to tackle the role of leading lady on the ballet stage.
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.
Russia is often perceived as a closed book from abroad, and ballet is no exception. Though David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, the country's top companies have been slow to open their ranks to non-Russians. Under acting director Yuri Fateyev, however, the venerable Mariinsky Ballet has welcomed a handful of dancers trained abroad. South Korea's Kimin Kim and Great Britain's Xander Parish initially struggled to fit in with the culture, but both have found their niche in St. Petersburg, and are thriving today among Russian colleagues.
Growing up in South Korea, Kimin Kim always thought of himself as a Russian dancer. For the prodigy who honed his astounding technique and poise with Vaganova-trained teachers, being a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet was “the ultimate dream," he says. Earlier this year, it came true: At just 22, after three years in St. Petersburg, he was promoted to the top rank, the first foreigner to attain principal.
Kim's journey started at age 10, when his mother, a composer, decided she “didn't want him to be an ordinary person," as he puts it, and suggested he try ballet. Former Mariinsky soloists Margarita Kullik and Vladimir Kim (no relation) nurtured him at the Korea National University of Arts. By the age of 18, his precocious technique had earned him accolades at international competitions from Moscow to Varna, and his teachers told Mariinsky director Yuri Fateyev about their protégé.
Kim was invited to a private audition in 2011, and since he hadn't graduated from his Korean school yet, Fateyev created a six-month trainee contract for him. He spoke no Russian, so his teachers moved back to St. Petersburg to live with him; Vladimir Kim remains his coach there. “It was very hard at first, because I couldn't do anything on my own," the dancer remembers. “I also had to adapt to the culture: Russian people are more critical, more emotional."
His first role with the company was Ali in Le Corsaire, and word of his impeccable turns, soaring jumps and elegant demeanor spread fast. In 2012, he was promoted straight to first soloist, and has worked long hours to add roles, including Solor, Basilio and Albrecht, to his repertoire, as well as ballets by Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor.
Earlier this year, Fateyev decided Kim was ready for principal status, though in a time-honored Mariinsky tradition, no one told him; instead, while in the U.S. for Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, he got a text from Vladimir Kim urging him to look at the Mariinsky's website. “I saw my face at the top of the roster, and I knew," Kim says.
Fateyev also suggested him to American Ballet Theatre for a guest spot in La Bayadère last spring. While Kim's international career is taking off, the young principal says Russia is his home now. “Ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote were born here. Russian people feel these ballets, and I want to improve my characters, to understand the culture." And now that he has reached his childhood goal, Kim jokes that he needs to find new ones: “Maybe I'd like to be director of the Mariinsky!"
Xander Parish could be the poster child for late bloomers. The British-born dancer spent four and a half years at the back of The Royal Ballet's corps before Yuri Fateyev plucked him out of a class he was teaching in London and asked him to join the Mariinsky.
Parish's training wasn't as far from Russian as you'd expect: At The Royal Ballet School, he was taught in part by former Kirov dancer Anatoli Grigoriev. After he joined the British company in 2005, however, no opportunities came his way. “I was always the last one to get strength, even at school," Parish says. “The Royal wanted instant ability. They didn't have the patience to work with slow developers."
Fateyev saw potential in his long lines and tall stature, however, and Parish took a leap of faith, landing in St. Petersburg in 2010. Hired as a coryphée, he juggled corps and soloist duties while his two coaches, Fateyev and later Igor Petrov, set out to mold him into a prince. Parish estimates it took him three years to feel fully at home in the company. “After one year I'd made some friends. I could understand one percent of the language, give or take," he laughs. “And then it took two years to prove myself as a dancer, to improve my technique, to show I could be worthy of more."
His first leading role in an evening-length ballet, Albrecht in Giselle, was “make or break," he says. “I knew I had to do it well, or I probably wouldn't be doing it anymore." Fateyev was pleased, and more principal roles followed. In 2014, his performance of Aminta in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia earned him the rank of second soloist—his first promotion, he notes self-deprecatingly, since he left school. When the 29-year-old returned to the UK with the Russian company in 2014, the transformation was complete: As Apollo, Parish embodied the young god's journey from clumsy innocence to classical purity.
Parish now spends his long days at the Mariinsky honing his technique and repertoire. Fateyev praises his acting, a British strength, and cast him last season in another Ashton classic, Marguerite and Armand, alongside Ulyana Lopatkina. The Mariinsky's two American conductors have become his close friends; all three live across the street from the theater, in apartments supplied by the company.
The first British dancer to join the Mariinsky hasn't forgotten his roots: He hopes to see Manon return to St. Petersburg, and would love to guest with The Royal Ballet. In the meantime, he relishes Russian ballet's intense work ethic. “Not everyone is an instant success, and it takes dancing to make dancing strong," he says. “Here, I was given the chance to grow into my body."
Given Womack's unique story, the controversy surrounding the Bolshoi, and the fact that she has forged her own path as an artist, it seems likely that American ballet audiences will be interested in seeing this film. Let's hope it gets broad distribution soon!
Check out the trailers here: