Bolshoi dreams: tradition reigns at Russian ballet school
MOSCOW – Agence France-PresseIn a vast, light-filled room, a dozen girls in identical lavender leotards, hair in tight chignons, all strike an arabesque pose and share the same dream: one day joining Russia’s legendary Bolshoi Ballet.
Others chatter, legs impossibly splayed in full splits, in the building’s endless corridors. Welcome to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, churning out talent for one of the world’s leading dance companies.
“Our school is the keeper of great traditions,” said instructor Valery Anisimov, watching a class of eight particularly gifted students.
Located in south Moscow far from the gilded splendor of the historic Bolshoi Theater, the academy has produced some of the world’s most celebrated ballerinas including Maya Plisetskaya and Maris Liepa.
“We train our dancers for the world of classical theater,” said Anisimov. “We teach them the little secrets of Russian ballet, the most rigorous technique there is.”
Founded in the 1770s like the Bolshoi Theater, the academy, also called the Moscow State School of Choreography, today has 721 students from 10 to 19 years old. They attend rigorous classes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., then end the day with solo practice.
While the younger students follow both dance and regular school curriculums, the focus narrows almost exclusively to ballet after the age of 15.
“We don’t have the right to make mistakes, we can never slack off,” said 15-year-old Liza, who has been dancing for 10 years. “Sometimes in the evening I just want to plop down on the couch and snack in front of the telly, but instead I have to do homework for the next day,” she said.
“It’s not easy,” chimed in 17-year-old Mikhail. “Since it’s our profession, it’s all right, but there is a lot of work.”
At the final exam, the academy invites recruiters from the world’s top ballet companies to watch the graduating talent. And scouts from Russia’s legendary Bolshoi Theater are in the front row.
“Everyone would love to go on to the Bolshoi, to become a star,” gasped 15-year-old Harper Ortlieb, an American attending the school. She left her small Oregon hometown to study in Moscow after the Bolshoi academy discovered her via Youtube videos.
“This is the best school in the world. The teachers and their level of involvement in the courses is incredible,” she said.
Ortlieb, whose mother moved with her to Moscow, is one of 84 foreign students from all corners of the world, here to pursue the Russian classical technique -- characterized by a bold, dramatic, almost athletic approach. “I am the only foreigner in my class, but other students are helping me a lot,” she said.
Suffered a blow to its image
The Bolshoi suffered a blow to its image when the ballet troupe’s artistic director Sergei Filin was maimed by a horrific acid attack in 2013, orchestrated by one of its own soloists. The ensuing criminal case and courtroom drama exposed the ferocious competition, and allegations of corruption and favoritism behind the scenes still weigh on the company.
As of last month, Filin was replaced by Makhar Vaziev, a veteran of both the rival Saint Petersburg school, where the ballet greats Vaslav Nijinksi and Rudolf Nureyev studied, today called the Vaganova Academy, and the rival Mariinsky Theater.
Vaziev, who quit the post of ballet chief at La Scala to come to the Bolshoi at a difficult time, however promised to uphold the theatre’s tradition to recruit dancers “mostly from the Moscow school.”
“There should be a close link between the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow school,” he said in his first interview on the job, aired on state television this month.
For the young dancers, transitioning from the academy into the professional world is a change of pace.
The school was “like a family,” said one former student. “We all lived together in the dorm, three people to a room. We all shared the same fears and the same dreams,” said the dancer, now 22. But such a closed environment has its downfalls, she added, asking not to be named because she feared her comments could lead to reprisals.
She once hoped for a dancing career abroad but said that was difficult after a “purely Russian” dance education.
“We didn’t even learn English,” she said. “When you are a student, the whole world stops at the doors of the academy, of Russia, of dance,” the young dancer said. “It’s only now I am discovering that there may be other things to live for.”