By ANAOS LLOBET
IN A VAST, well-lit room, a dozen girls in identical lavender leotards, hair in tight chignons, strike an arabesque pose and share the same dream – of one day joining Russia’s famed Bolshoi Ballet.
Others chatter in the building’s endless corridors, legs impossibly splayed in full splits. 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,” says instructor Valery Anisimov, watching a class of eight particularly gifted students.
Located in south Moscow, far from the gilded splendour of the historic Bolshoi Theatre, 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 theatre,” says Anisimov. “We teach them the little secrets of Russian ballet, the most rigorous techniques there are.”
Founded in the 1770s, like the Bolshoi Theatre, the academy – also called the Moscow State School of Choreography – today has 721 students ages 10 to 19. They attend rigorous classes from 9am to 6pm and then end the day with solo practice.
While the younger students follow both dance and regular school curricula, the focus narrows almost exclusively to ballet after they turn 15.
“We don’t have the right to make mistakes – we can never slack off,” says 15-year-old Liza, who’s 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.”
“It’s not easy,” chimes 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 the Bolshoi Theatre are in the front row.
“Everyone would love to go on to the Bolshoi, to become a star,” says 15-year-old Harper Ortlieb, an American attending the school. She left her 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 says.
Ortlieb, whose mother moved with her to Moscow, is one of 84 foreign students from all corners of the world pursuing the Russian classical technique, which is characterised by bold, dramatic, almost athletic movements.
“I’m the only foreigner in my class, but other students are helping me a lot,” Harper says.
The Bolshoi suffered a blow to its image when the ballet troupe’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, was maimed in a horrific acid attack in 2013, orchestrated by one of its own soloists.
The ensuing criminal case and courtroom drama exposed the ferocious competition. Allegations of corruption and favouritism behind the scenes still weigh on the company.
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 another rival, the Mariinsky theatre.
Vaziev, who quit the post of ballet chief at La Scala to come to the Bolshoi at a difficult time, has vowed to uphold its tradition of recruiting dancers “mostly from the Moscow school”.
“There should be a close link between the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow school,” he declared this month.
For the young dancers, transitioning from the academy into the professional world is a change of pace. The school is “like a family”, says a former student, now 22. “We all lived together in the dorm, three people to a room. We all shared the same fears and the same dreams.”
But such a closed environment has its downfalls, she says, asking not to be named out of fear of reprisals. She’d hoped for a dancing career abroad, but found it difficult after a “purely Russian” dance education.
“We didn’t even learn English,” she says. “When you’re a student, the whole world stops at the doors of the academy, of Russia, of |dance. It’s only now I’m discovering that there may be other things to live for.”