Russian Ballet Students Dance With Stars in Their Eyes
One after the other, the wiry teenagers shuffle off the chipped wooden dance floor and flop in a corner exhausted, unable to keep up with the grueling pace.
After a brief respite, they all trickle back for more torment. At a prestigious Moscow ballet school, it’s all in a long day’s work for those chasing a Russian dream that has remained untarnished from czarism through communism to cash-poor capitalism.
“We may not love practice, but we all love ballet,” says Nikolai “Kolya” Chevuichalov, a curly-haired 17-year-old whose idol is Mikhail Baryshnikov.
And he softly acknowledges the words that transcend any ism or era: “I want to be a star.”
Russia has been a world leader in ballet for more than a century, ever since its popularity soared when Tchaikovsky composed the scores for three great standards: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” But, as with almost all things Russian, ballet has fallen on hard times.
An economic depression has driven top creative and dance talent abroad, and the once-glorious Bolshoi Ballet has deteriorated badly due to infighting as well as poor financing. Deprived of lavish state support, the many dance troupes and schools have to scramble for funds and are vulnerable to bribes and corruption.
Despite the turmoil, ballet dreams thrive.
While more boys would still rather be a Schwarzenegger--or a business magnate--than Baryshnikov, national pride in ballet remains high, and you can still find ballet on TV most days. Kids and their parents compete intensely for spots in premier schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow, even knowing that only the best will command top salaries or perform abroad.
“Because of the problems with money, people are doing ballet from their souls, purely out of love,” says Gennady Ledyakh, a lithe 69-year-old who still demonstrates pirouettes for Kolya and his classmates.
A prominent Bolshoi dancer in the 1950s and ‘60s, Ledyakh founded the city-backed Moscow School of Classical Dance in 1982.
Kolya, a budding star, was drawn to ballet like a magnet. Attending a performance of “The Nutcracker” at age 7, he vividly recalls gaping from his front-row balcony seat at the magical blend of costumes, music and scenery.
“I decided that day I was going to be a ballet dancer,” he says. So much for his mother’s idea of Kolya becoming a dentist. Seeing his radiant face, she got him a place in Ledyakh’s school and has kept him there even though the tuition of $100 a month is more than half the official average income in Russia.
A decade of political and social change is scarcely evident behind the school’s bland concrete facade in an industrial district. A huge plaster bust of Lenin still greets visitors to the administrative office.
Most notably, the tough regimen of training and discipline that helped set Russian ballet performers apart remains unsoftened.
The 500 students, ages 7-18, have academic lessons in the morning and spend the rest of the day in dance training and related drills. Older kids work out until 6:30 p.m., and sometimes all evening for rehearsals.
When Ledyakh walks down a school corridor, it sets off a ripple of obligatory bows and curtsies like a row of dominoes. The slender students also must adhere to strict weight limits or face expulsion.
Viktoria “Vika” Mishukova, a talented 10-year-old with freckles and a precocious smile, knows she must suffer if she’s to become a famous ballerina. “Yeah, it’s pretty hard,” she says. “But I like the beauty of dance, the grace, the lightness. And I love all the jumping.”
Unfortunately, she also adores candy and chocolate--dangerous temptations for someone who, at 4 feet, 2 inches, can’t weigh more than 50 pounds. The limit is nonnegotiable.
“I don’t mind the training, but dieting is difficult,” Vika admits with a pained look. “Sometimes I really want to eat sweets but I can’t.”
A ballet devotee who can tick off the names of top dancers like other teens list soccer stars, Kolya can’t wait to get through his math and geography classes every day and get on with dancing. But when he gets to the fifth or sixth hour of endless ballet drills and repetition, “sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth it.”
Sensing the need to switch roles from taskmaster to cheerleader, Ledyakh gathers his panting students around him after a rigorous class for a pep talk about “why you torture yourselves.”
“Nowadays our world is about money, money, money,” the ballet master tells them, standing in a studio whose walls are covered with photographs of him dancing in the Bolshoi. “But if a man has a billion rubles and no personal harmony, what is that?
“Ballet is about personal harmony. I would like you to go out into our world and carry on our rich tradition.”