What does it take for an American to graduate from the Vaganova Ballet Academy at the top of the class—and join the Mariinsky Ballet at the age of 17? And how would it feel to then be sidelined by injury, and miss an entire season of professional dancing, just as you're getting your start?
Pointe had the chance to speak with Chicago-born dancer Misha Barkidjija about his journey from a small ballet studio in Illinois to one of the most illustrious ballet companies in the world, and about lessons he learned in the process.
Barkidjija credits his mother, who is Russian herself, with encouraging his first steps in ballet, which he took at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois, and later on at the Salt Creek Ballet in Westmont. "We danced in different styles—ballet, jazz, contemporary—and these performances fueled my early love of dance," says Barkidjija. "From a young age, I was performing onstage and feeling the energy of the audience." After attending a summer program at the National Ballet School of Canada, Barkidjija was invited to stay year-round, and spent a year training in Toronto.
But it was a trip to Russia over winter break in 2015 that proved pivotal in Barkidjija's journey as a dancer. While in St. Petersburg, he was able to take a tour of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Barkidjija, then 13 years old, asked if he could take a ballet class at the Academy the following day, just "to experience how it felt to participate in class at this renowned ballet school," he says. To his surprise, the Academy allowed it.
As luck would have it, while Barkidjija was taking class the following morning, Zhanna Ayupova, artistic director of the Vaganova, walked into the studio. "She talked to my mother after the class and offered the chance for me to study at the Academy," he says. "I'm still astonished."
"When I first saw Misha, I immediately noticed his natural charisma and intelligence," says Ayupova. "In class, it was apparent that he was very diligent, listening attentively to the teacher and instantly understanding the corrections. These are important qualities for a future ballet dancer."
Barkidjija performing in La Gioconda with Mariinsky Ballet first soloist Maria Khoreva at the Vaganova Academy graduation in 2018
Andrey Lushpa, courtesy Barkidjija
Studying in Russia
So what was it like to be a student at one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world? Barkidjija sums it up in one word: phenomenal. He studied under the Vaganova's principal, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. "He knows the ballet mechanics and points out which muscles to use and explains how to use it properly," Barkidjija says of Tsiskaridze's demanding yet thorough teaching style. "His approach is really unique and special."
Tsiskaridze praises Barkidjija's innate musicality and magnetic stage presence. "Misha is one of those few ballet artists with whom everyone who sees him onstage unconditionally falls in love," he says.
Barkidjija excelled not only in class but also in competitions, winning the Vaganova Prix and the first prize at the All-Russian Ballet Competition in Moscow in 2018. He danced leading roles in the Academy's ballet productions, inching closer and closer to his dream of becoming a professional dancer.
After graduating in 2019, Barkidjija auditioned for the Mariinsky Theatre and was offered a spot in the company. "It was important for me to stay in St. Petersburg because the city already felt like home," he says. "I'd lived and studied there for three years, and I wanted to remain close to my friends and Vaganova teachers."
Barkidjija performing in Paquita in a performance at the Vaganova Academy
Andrey Lushpa, courtesy Barkidjija
Life at the Mariinsky, Interrupted
Life at the Mariinsky started on a high note. He was dancing in his dream company, even preparing the lead role in Le Corsaire and solo roles in Cinderella, Swan Lake and La Sylphide. But the physical demands of the job proved to be too much. In September 2019, while performing in a pas de trois in Swan Lake, he started feeling discomfort in his back, which quickly intensified so he could barely walk. As it turned out, he had a protrusion in his lower spine, which pressed on the nerve, causing pain in his leg.
Dealing with the injury proved an educational experience for Barkidjija. "In the Academy, you have your teachers who take care of you—in the theater, you have to learn to take care of yourself. Having joined the company at 17, I was eager to do everything. But I realized that I needed to slow down and take one step at a time."
The company gave him as much time as he needed to recover, so he returned to Chicago to continue with his physical therapy. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic last spring and summer, he studied on Zoom with former teacher Tsiskaridze, focusing on his injury recovery.
Staying home and spending time with his family gave Barkidjija another valuable life lesson. "I've come to realize my family is a huge part of my life," he says. "As dancers, we are often so absorbed into the ballet world that we often forget about other important things around us."
He spent nearly a year recovering before he began feeling healthy enough to return to St. Petersburg this past August. Back at the Mariinsky Ballet, he is getting back into a normal routine, taking daily company class, doing rehearsals and studying for his final exams, in the hopes of receiving a bachelor of performing arts from the Vaganova Academy.
As for his professional goals, Barkidjija keeps things in perspective. For now, he is happy to dance in the corps de ballet, letting his body regain strength. "I want to take my time and get stronger, even if I feel confident and healthy. During my recovery, I realized that it's important to know my body's limits," he says. "The time will come and the opportunity will come. At 18, I have my whole career in front of me."