Michael Shannon has made it. After studying in Los Angeles, Toronto, Budapest and Moscow, the 19-year-old American has become a soloist at the Bolshoi Ballet.
A June graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Shannon had hoped to be hired by the parent company. But that was far from certain, for foreign dancers are rare at the Bolshoi, a Russian institution for more than 200 years, and Americans are unprecedented.
“For 10 years, this is what I have worked for,” said Shannon, a former resident of Los Angeles. “At every stage, people would tell me that this couldn’t be done.’
“But now I am here, starting to work. What’s more amazing to me is that they treat me like one of their own, as an artist of the Bolshoi. I am not tagged as ‘that foreigner.’ ”
And Shannon, a member of the Bolshoi company for only a month, already speaks proudly of we when he refers to the company.
“I feel I am sharing in a heritage that goes back two centuries, a heritage that has made the Bolshoi the best, and it is a tremendous honor to be included,” he said. “But there was nowhere else that I wanted to dance. I always wanted the Russian technique, no other, because it really lets you dance like a man. It is the strongest, the most assertive, the most disciplined style, but you really have to be here to use it.”
After his graduation from the Bolshoi Academy in June, Shannon joined its 65-member tour of the United States, the first in two decades, including an engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. American critics noted that he had successfully acquired the Russian style of dancing.
“The Russian system is an eight-year course, starting at the age of 9 or 10, and combining dancing with musical education, with regular school work, with French, with drama,” Shannon said. “Although I squeezed all that into four or five years by working even harder than the ordinary Russian student must, I am marked now by it. . . .
“When I was in the United States over the summer, some people would see me practicing and say that I was doing this wrong or that wrong, but they didn’t understand that, here in Moscow, this is the way we do it and have done it for more than a century.”
Talent, amplified by determination, took Shannon from Los Angeles, where he began studying dance with Stanley Holden at the age of 9, through a succession of teachers and schools, including the Hungarian State Ballet Institute in Budapest, until he arrived here a year and a half ago to enroll at the Bolshoi Academy.
“All the time, I was working to get here,” Shannon said. “I went to Italy, to Sweden and finally to Budapest to get teachers in the Russian style, but it was Moscow and the Bolshoi I was aiming at.
“But it is not just the style that I like; the repertory suits me very well. The Russian ballets, the dramatic ballets, have strong male roles, not just as supplemental to the female parts as in classical ballet. Those are the roles that I want to dance.”
Though contracts have yet to be signed, Shannon says he’s joining the company at the intermediate rank of soloist and not at the bottom of the rung in the corps de ballet. His first role will be determined when Yuri Grigorovich, Bolshoi Ballet artistic director, returns from tour this month.
After spotting him at a ballet competition in Jackson, Miss., three years ago, Grigorovich, Sophia Golovkina, the artistic director at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and the Bolshoi’s other directors have actively encouraged Shannon to pursue his ambition to dance with their company.
“Taking an American in has required courage, even in a time of perestroika and glasnost ,” Shannon said.