The Chance of a Lifetime: 4 Americans Share Their Experiences as Vaganova Ballet Academy Students

Vaganova Academy rehearsal with rector Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Vaganova Academy.

As told to Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone and Madeline Schrock


What was life like at the Vaganova Ballet Academy?

Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

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?

Temur Suluashvili, Courtesy OKC Ballet.

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?

Peter Brenkus, Courtesy Shoptaugh.

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?

NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Mitchell.

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.

Ballet Careers
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

Today's ballet dancer needs a lot from a pointe shoe. "What I did 20 years ago is not what these dancers are doing now," says New York City Ballet shoe manager Linnette Roe. "They are expected to go harder, longer days. They are expected to go from sneakers, to pointe shoes, to character shoes, to barefoot and back to pointe shoes all in a day."

The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

We dug into the details of Stretch Pointe's most game-changing features:

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Ballet Stars
Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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Ballet Training
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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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