When I was 14 years old, I was told that I would never become a classical dancer. I was training on a government-funded scholarship at a ballet school in the UK. Seven years later, at 21, I was working as a classical dancer for the Russian State company, Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet Theatre. This was a direct result of my refusal to give up my passion, choosing to move to Russia to train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2016 at the age of 16.
I don’t for one minute think that means I’ve ‘made it’ as a classical dancer. However, I am currently enjoying working as a classical dancer with a good ballet company. It feels good to have overcome some of the barriers that I faced, but it has been a tough journey.
How Russian ballet training has shaped me as a dancer
I started my formal ballet training when I was 11 with lots of optimism. What I didn’t understand at the time, was that there are certain attributes which can hugely impact your success as a classical dancer – these include foot shape and range of movement, plus whole-body facility.
In today’s social media world, where incredibly flexible dancers regularly post images of their beautifully arched feet and hyper-extended legs, dancers may gain a realistic, or sometimes unrealistic, idea of the requirements that are either part of one’s natural bodily composition or something that you have to work at to gain.
Instagram, however, wasn’t around when I was thinking about a life in ballet, so I couldn’t understand what exactly was hindering my pursuit of improvement – it certainly didn’t come from the responses I was receiving from my teachers when I would ask them about it.
Later on, I came to learn that my feet and facility were something I would only be able to correct through grit and hard work. Such determination to change one’s body is not the route for everyone, I admit, but I have always strived with my entire soul to dance classically. My epiphany on this subject only occurred once I began my training in the Vaganova method.
The Russian system was prepared to work with what I’d got, as opposed to what I hadn’t. My Russian teachers gave me training that worked – relentless training, day in, day out, that was of a standard that helped me become the professional dancer that I am today. Russian training helped me prepare for employment as a classical dancer in a way that my British training didn’t.
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Is Russian ballet training the right choice for you?
If you’re a young dancer contemplating where to train, take into consideration that at the Bolshoi, it wasn’t easy; we trained 10-hour days, six days a week. The physical strain was evident, and yet the teachers continued to push and push us to the extreme. Classes were in Russian, and, living in Moscow, I was unable to see my friends and family, or spend time at home for long stretches of time. People would ask me “Is it worth it?” to which I’d reply, “Yes!”
My body responded well to the Vaganova method from the start, with its focus on turnout and precision in the execution of specific movements. There is much repetition involved which did great things for my muscle memory and stamina. I feel the Russian style of ballet gave me great technique, but also allowed me to dance from the soul. Acting classes are part of the curriculum and helped us, as students, understand how to interpret and present a story; which is so important for any performance.
The Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s prestige sees students from all over the world come to study Russian ballet. Around 12% of students are from countries outside of Russia, such as the USA and Japan. My close friends were from Portugal, Texas and Bilbao, indicating how my time at the Bolshoi not only provided me with a very Russian view of ballet, but also broadened my world-wide perception of classical dance.
Indeed, my Russian training has given me flexibility I could only have dreamed of, superlative technique, discipline, a new language, a friend in pretty much every country in the world, and most importantly, it’s given me a career as a ballet dancer.
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It’s not an easy industry to navigate through; there have already been and continue to be lots of challenges ahead. But every time I leave the wings and enter the stage of our beautiful, purpose-built Astrakhan theatre to perform soloist roles in my first full season as a professional, I feel very proud to have made it this far. Where this turbulent art form will take me next, who knows, but the prospect is both tremendously exciting and, most importantly, utterly fulfilling.