Ballet Stars
The Royal Ballet's Marianela Nuñez in "Swan Lake." Image via YouTube.

Need an excuse for a YouTube ballet break? Probably not, but just in case, here are videos to celebrate some of this month's off-the-beaten-path holidays.

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News
Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson's Trio. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

San Francisco Ballet announced this morning that principal dancer Maria Kochetkova will leave the company at the the end of the 2017–18 season. Her final performance date has not yet been announced, but it will be sometime during the company's Unbound Festival, April 20–May 6.

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Viral Videos
Anna Isaeva as Karina in "Bolshoi." Photo Courtesy TriCoast.

If you are in need of a feel-good ballet movie night, check this out: Bolshoi, a 2017 Russian coming-of-age drama starring real dancers and filmed on location at the Bolshoi Theater, is now available on multiple VOD platforms. The film follows Yulia Olshanskaya, a scrappy working class kid, as she navigates life at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and eventually, the company. Like most dance movies á la Center Stage, it's full of the usual ballet clichés. But, like Center Stage, it's also fun, beautifully shot and full of gorgeous dancing (including a mean fouétte turn contest). Polish National Ballet coryphée Margarita Simonova stars as as Yulia, while Anna Isaeva, a former Kremlin Ballet dancer, plays Karina, Yulia's wealthy best friend and biggest competition. Ekaterinberg Ballet principal Andrei Sorokin and former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Nicholas Le Riche also star.

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Audition Advice
In class at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy summer intensive. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Russian American Foundation.

When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."

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Ballet Training
Tyler Donatelli, shown here in Etudes, initially turned down an offer to train at Houston Ballet Academy. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Harper Ortlieb knew something needed to change. Her three-hour commute to daily classes at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre was unsustainable, and her obsession with ballet was intensifying. The family considered “away-from-home" training, but when Ortlieb, then 14, was accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's year-round program in Moscow (after attending their summer intensive in Connecticut), they were caught off guard. “Harper had an unshakable dream of training in Russia, but until that point it was just that—a dream," says Layne Baumann, Harper's mother. “We knew time was moving swiftly, and this was one of those rare opportunities that can truly shape your future."

The idea of moving to Russia to study is huge, but even in less-extreme situations the factors to consider are the same. Often, summer intensives lead to offers to stay for a school's year-round program. It's an exciting honor to be asked, but leaving home to train is a big deal, no matter how near or far. With so much at stake, it's a time for honest conversations between students, their families and their teachers to assess whether they're ready to leave home.

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Ballet Training

A Prima’s New Role

 

Coming full circle, Chan Hon Goh recently became director of Goh Ballet Academy, the Vancouver school run by her parents where she trained. The former National Ballet of Canada principal will keep the ballet syllabus intact, but has added Pilates, musical theater and choreographic labs. She plans to increase performance opportunities, bringing in international guest choreographers to work with the new Goh Ballet Youth Company and Academy.

 

In addition, Goh has launched the Chan Hon Goh Scholarship Fund, which will award around $100,000 annually. Scholarships are awarded based on talent, need and dancers’ passion for the art form. See www.gohballet.com —Elizabeth Keniston

 

MFA For Ballet Choreography

 

Most MFA dance programs are modern-based, but Butler University wants to create a place to explore contemporary ballet choreography. The school will offer a new master’s of fine arts in dance next fall. “There was a time when Balanchine was brand-new and everything he did was completely different and exciting,” says department chair Michelle Jarvis. “We need to develop people who are going to do that again, and take ballet into the 21st century.”

 

The emphasis will be on ballet choreography, with secondary study in pedagogy. The two-year program is designed for professional dancers with at least five years of experience. Find out more about Butler on DanceU101.com. —Jennifer Stahl

 

 

Fouetté In Florida  


Tampa, Florida, is about to become a ballet-training powerhouse. The five-year-old Patel Conservatory recently announced that Peter Stark, former director of Orlando Ballet School, will be taking over as chair of its dance department.

Functioning as a satellite of Orlando Ballet School since 2006, Patel’s classical ballet program offers intensive training to young dancers, some of whom have gone on to dance with such companies as ABT, Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now, the conserva­tory’s ballet program will function as its own entity, with Stark at its head.

 

Stark will be a boon to the rapidly emerging school. During his time at OBS, he increased the budget fivefold and produced several top dancers. He’s hoping to see the Patel Conservatory become “a stepping stone for serious talent,” with plans to add more class options, performance opportunities and a new summer intensive program. According to Stark, the school will teach an American style of ballet, infused with Balanchine flavor and the strength and classicism of Cuban technique. See www.patelconservatory.org. —EK

 

 

Training In Russian

 

Studying at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy is usually no more than a far-off dream for most American ballet students. But for 12-year-old Julian MacKay, it’s a practical step toward realizing his goal of one day dancing with the Russian company.  Although the prestigious academy trains 750 students each year, MacKay is one of only five Americans.

 

What has been the most challenging part so far?
Learning to understand my Russian teacher. Luckily, she uses a lot of pantomime. Russian training is also very hands-on: She physically moves my muscles so I understand how to use them.

 

How is the training different than in the U.S.?

My class is just nine boys, so I get specific training for male dancers. We take technique, character and gymnastics together.

 

Have you gotten to perform yet?


I was one of 50 students chosen to be in our end-of-the-year performance. I got to do the mazurka in Paquita. I was also one of the children of court nobility in La Esmeralda with the Bolshoi company, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. It was so amazing to stand backstage next to such awesome dancers!  —JS

TIP: What are college auditioners looking for?
We look for people who seem focused and motivated and—who really like to move! We’re looking to train people. You don’t have to be proficient; you just have to have a motivating spirit, a passion for dancing. That’s hard to resist.
—Lawrence Rhodes, director of Juilliard’s dance division






Last April when Staatsballett Berlin principal Polina Semionova made her NYC debut performing in the Youth America Grand Prix gala, her mere appearance on the stage elicited screams of delight from the aspiring dancers in the audience. They knew the young star from a video, “Demo (Letzter Tag),” in which she dances a sweet and expressive solo to music by popular German musician and actor Herbert Grönemeyer. The video has been viewed by close to 1.5 million people on YouTube, making Semionova more popular on the internet site than Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri or Natalia Makarova.

In September I had a chance to observe the young ballerina in company class and rehearsal in Berlin and to talk with her about her dancing. In person, she is both appreciative and animated, the first to acknowledge that luck has played a role in the chain of events that propelled her to fame. At 24, Semionova says she now carefully calculates pluses and minuses before making big decisions, but the opportunity to do the Grönemeyer video came before she gained such maturity.

“I was so young!” she laughs when asked if the project came from a desire to reach new audiences for ballet. “I was 18 and had just joined the company. It was supposed to be a different dancer, Nadja Saidakova, but she was injured and I was the third or fourth choice.” And though she had no idea how much the video would be watched, Semionova is happy that “people who are not interested in ballet watch it and think of coming to the theater,” she says.

Serendipity is a recurring theme in Semionova’s story. As a child growing up in Moscow, she and her older brother Dmitry loved sports, especially ice-skating, while her younger sister studied music. When Dmitry’s coach recommended that his tall stature was better suited to ballet stages than ice rinks, Semionova was forced to switch pursuits as well. “Three children in three schools? This would have been too difficult for my parents, so I ended up in ballet. I cried because I loved ice-skating.” Again she laughed at the synchronicity: her proportions, like her brother’s, are perfect for ballet.

Accepted at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Semionova worked hard but was not at the top of her class. She credits the three international competitions she participated in (Moscow, Vaganova-Prix in St. Petersburg and Nagoya) with giving her the opportunity to find herself and realize her abilities.

“In school I never danced solo roles,” she says. “We had a very talented class. Often I went into a studio to work alone. Other students could afford extra classes with the teacher but I could not. One day Yuri Vasuchenko, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, saw how I was working and said ‘I will help you.’

“He was preparing his son for the first Moscow International Ballet Competition, and asked me to be his son’s partner. I had never done solos or pas de deux before. Yuri had me run the variations three times in a row to make sure I had enough strength.” At the same time, she recalls going through a growth spurt that left her weak. “I was shaking after each pas de deux,” she says.

When her teacher and director of the school, Sofia Golovkina, heard that Semionova was planning to attend the competition, she disapproved and forbade her to go, saying she would throw her out of class. But Semionova went, albeit crying, and was awarded the 2001 junior division gold medal. When she returned to class, Semionova recalls that Golovkina said, “You won,” meaning not only the competition, but the right to make her own decisions.

Semionova reflects on the experience and adds: “Competitions are not only about medals, but about the process. In fact, they are mostly for the chance they offer dancers to reach for more.”

The ballerina makes a habit of pushing to exceed her grasp, as I saw in the rehearsal I watched later that day. Ballet mistress Valentina Savina was coaching her in Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” for the gala that opens the company’s season in Berlin. The pas de deux is a study in classical refinement: spare and technically challenging. Several times, the man places the woman in a position, lets go of her hand, and she balances. During the rehearsal, each time Semionova established a beautiful balance, she lifted her passé a little higher before transitioning to the next step. Even in rehearsal she was living her motto: “To be happy for what I have, and to try for a little more.” 

Semionova was rehearsing with her brother Dmitry (he has been a principal with the company since 2007) but she will dance with the artistic director of the Staatsballett, Vladimir Malakhov,  in the gala. Since becoming director in 2002, Malakhov has changed the look of ballet in Berlin: He guided the city’s transition from three troupes into one, and has attracted a younger, more stylish audience through smart programming and marketing.     

In many ways, Semionova’s rise to acclaim has paralleled Malakhov’s success, and offstage, Malakhov smoothed her transition from Russia to Europe. When she arrived, not speaking a word of English or German, he was not only her director, but also a friend.

Now, as she begins her seventh season with the company, she is comfortable with both languages: “Living alone changes you,” she says. “You have to be more independent, more open. When I was in school, I was very shy.”   

Both Semionova and Malakhov were trained at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy and also share unique similarities in their physiques and movement. When Malakhov visited his alma mater in 2001, he was attracted to the way Semionova approached her work.

“When I was in Moscow to film part of the PBS documentary, Born to be Wild, I visited the ballet school and saw this beautiful girl in class,” says Malakhov. “Her teachers wanted to show me other students but my head was always turning to watch her.”

Malakhov liked the way she worked so much that he offered her a contract to join the Staatsballett as a principal. She also received offers from The Kirov Ballet and The Bolshoi Ballet, the company that Golovkina expected her to join.

“I chose Berlin because a principal contract is not offered to many people,” says Semionova. “I took Vladimir coming to the school and seeing me as a sign—I thought if I didn’t take the offer, I would feel I hadn’t tried.” She admits that it was difficult to break the news to Golovkina, but that her teacher was understanding because of Malakhov. “‘He is my kid. You are also my kid,’” Semionova recalls Golovkina saying. “‘I know he will take care of you, so my heart will stay calm.’ Then she told me, ‘When I was tough with you, it was only to make you stronger.’”

Whether it was her teacher’s toughness or her own determination, Semionova pours herself into her work. “Class is not only how you warm up for the rest of your day, but it’s also for your muscles, your strength,” she says. “I would say to young dancers, ‘Don’t save yourself, but don’t work stupidly either. Work with the body and the head.’ Sometimes it’s better to do an exercise once and thinking, rather than 100 times and getting cramps everywhere.”

Practicing what she preaches, Semionova was a study in perpetual motion during the class I watched. There is an ease and perfection in her movement, which makes it difficult to watch anyone else in the studio. She plays with qualities of movement: sometimes slicing her leg to the side in a staccato manner, other times letting a grand battement float up to her arm in high fifth, seemingly effortlessly. Her legs appear attached to her body with pliable elastics. Her turns are similarly smooth: four or five pirouettes coast around rather than spin forcefully.

“She has made a wonderful development during the six seasons she has been here,” says Malakhov. “When she came to Berlin, she was called the baby ballerina by the media. She was very young, but with time she has gotten more and more stable and secure. She worked very hard for this. She is so strict with herself.”

Focused on the work, Semionova uses her concentration to get the most out of her dancing. “Onstage you perform the movement you do well, what you enjoy,” she says. “But class is our job, our work, our time to make weaknesses better. Sometimes a teacher gives a combination and I feel I need to do a little more for a certain muscle so I work my body in between exercises. I believe each dancer knows their own body the best.”

The ballerina frequently performs with Malakhov, and he continues to inspire her, particularly in “the way and how he works,” she says. “Onstage he doesn’t act, he lives.” This is what she aspires to. She wants the audience to become enamored of the characters and emotions. “When the public watches a ballet I want it to affect them like a movie.”

Berlin is an apt home for this talented artist: The opera house is situated between the Brandenburg Gate, a historical landmark in the city, and Alexanderplatz, a commercial center. Semionova herself seems to straddle different worlds: from her exquisite Russian training to her presence on YouTube and Facebook. As she explores traditional ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake, she also reaches younger audiences with new forms of technology and communication—she is a link between the past and the future.

Kate Mattingly teaches and writes about dance in the United States and in Europe.

The Bolshoi seems hungry for Americans right now. In addition to the company's high profile hiring of ABT principal David Hallberg, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy keeps finding new ways to open its doors to US students.

The academy recently teamed up with the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. Up to 100 advanced students will be selected to live in the Bolshoi dorms and take three daily classes at the Bolshoi Academy this summer. The program runs the entire month of August, and students can choose to attend from one to four weeks. Students must be at least 15 with a minimum of four years on pointe. To apply, simply register for a Joffrey summer audition, then register for the Bolshoi exchange upon acceptance. More details will come in the new year. See joffreyballetschool.com/summer-programs.

American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School has come a long way in the short decade since it was founded. So far, in fact, that it's part of a select group of schools invited to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow as part of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's celebration of its 240th anniversary.

Last night, ABT hosted a special event to support and celebrate the dancers of the ABT Studio Company, who'll be making the trip to Moscow. (The troupe falls under the JKO umbrella.) Members of the ABT family who studied at the Bolshoi were on hand to comment on the similarities and (mostly) differences between Russian and American training. It was especially fascinating to hear Alexei Ratmansky—not only an alum of the Bolshoi Academy, but also a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet—dig into the complicated history of Russian ballet. (And to hear that Ratmansky didn't see tapes of the works of Balanchine and Ashton, or of defectors Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, until he graduated from the Academy in 1986.) I also never realized that, as ABT director Kevin McKenzie pointed out, Ballet Theatre only became American Ballet Theatre in 1960—at the request of President Eisenhower, who asked the company to add "American" to its name before its tour to the Soviet Union. ABT's Sascha Radetsky and Gabe Stone Shayer, who both spent some time training at the Bolshoi Academy, discussed not only the intensely physical nature of the Bolshoi style but also the warm welcome they received from their fellow students, who "treated them like minor celebrities."

But the best part of the night was watching the gifted members of the Studio Company perform some of the works they'll be dancing in Russia. While lithe, elegant Rachel Richardson and razor-sharp Joo Won Ahn were special standouts in multiple works, the whole group shone especially bright in Antony Tudor's Continuo, set to Pachelbel's Canon. Tudor's lucid choreography displayed the dancers' clean, unaffected lines to their best advantage—and made it clear that these young talents will more than hold their own on the Bolshoi stage.

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