Ballet Beauty

March 5, 2008

A stream of Russian comes flying at a group of girls at the barre one sunny Monday at L.A.’s Yuri Grigoriev School of Ballet. Only a single word is decipherable to the untrained ear: “Lilit!” A tiny girl with dark hair and huge brown eyes moves her port de bras just a fraction of an inch forward. She does this like it’s the most natural thing in the world, without missing a beat of the combination’s frantic footwork. Yuri Grigoriev barely nods his head, acknowledging that she has done precisely what he asked, and moves on. A few minutes later, Lilit must again adjust her port de bras to avoid kicking her shoulder in a grand battement that sails past her ear.

Lilit Hogtanian, 15, took her first ballet class with Grigoriev on her sixth birthday; she knew then that she wanted to be a dancer. “I really loved it,” she remembers, “right from the first class.” Grigoriev called his wife, school administrator Alexandra Grigorieva, immediately afterwards and said, “You’ll never believe who came to class today.” A People’s Artist of Russia who has won the Youth America Grand Prix Best Teacher Award many times, Grigoriev recognized Lilit’s potential the minute he saw her. “He has not seen her kind of facility from anyone,” translates Grigorieva.


Lilit has already racked up some impressive credentials. Her La Sylphide variation at the 2007 Youth America Grand Prix earned her a place at the Princess Grace Academy of Classical Dance in Monaco last summer, and she has been invited to participate in American Ballet Theatre’s New York summer session this year. YAGP sent her to the Prix de Lausanne this past January as part of its exchange program with the prestigious Swiss competition, so Lilit had an opportunity to perform for artistic directors from across Europe. Larissa Saveliev, the co-founder of YAGP, has had her eye on Lilit for three years. “There are so many great young dancers right now, but she’s out of the box, out of the mold—she’s unique,” says Saveliev.


Beyond her extreme extension and perfect proportions, Lilit’s soul shines through her every movement, from the épaulement of her neck all the way down to her impossibly articulate feet. There’s a generosity to her dancing; it’s obvious that she loves sharing her gift. And while she’s extremely humble—her eyes flicker with embarrassment when she receives any sort of compliment—her balances need no adjustment, and her movements could not be more assured.


Lilit’s commitment to her training is absolute, and she hopes to soon enter a new phase in her dance life, one that will take her far from L.A., home and Grigoriev. Her recent forays into the competition world have been with the hope that a leading ballet school will invite her to join their program. But it will be difficult for her to say goodbye to the coach who has shaped her so profoundly. He, too, admits to feeling sad. After teaching Lilit six days a week, it’s “like a parent when the children go off,” Grigoriev says.


She also will miss mom Lousine and dad Armen, architects who emigrated to the U.S. from Armenia two years before Lilit was born and support her every move (mom not only home-schools her, but also sews her gorgeous competition costumes). Then there’s her brother Artswin, 12, whom she laughingly admits to dressing up in her dance costumes when he was younger, and her adored cats Mochy and Angie.


“I think this year will be her moment,” says Saveliev. Though she has yet to receive the longed-for offer of a slot at a major school, Lilit says she doesn’t get nervous dancing for important people. But there’s no question that the stakes are high—ABT, The Kirov Ballet, The Royal Ballet and The Stuttgart Ballet are among her dream companies, and each opportunity to be seen by these directors could shape her career.


A shy girl in person, she admits she thrives on being “able to express myself and open up onstage.” She wasn’t intimidated to talk with Kirov and ABT star Diana Vishneva when she was just 10 years old, when Vishneva was warming up to perform in a touring Kirov production of La Bayadère. And two Decembers ago, Lilit found herself at the barre with Paloma Herrera during the premiere of Los Angeles Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, where Herrera was guesting. Lilit danced the starring role of Clara again this past year, earning praise from local critics. “When Yuri and I saw her as Clara,” says Grigorieva, “Yuri said, ‘I didn’t even know that she had this in her.’ She really became Clara. We all had goose bumps.”


Wherever Lilit ends up, they’ll be impressed by her work ethic. Amanda Kofsky, who choreographed Lilit’s contemporary piece for YAGP, describes working with her as “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.” Instinctive and focused, Lilit’s abilities don’t end with classical variations. “She does every movement behind you,” says Kofsky, “without waiting for direction to do so.” In one rehearsal, she gave Lilit 20 corrections, without music or demonstrating the movement at length, and watched Lilit run through the piece with every correction just as she’d asked. “I make sure to pick up everything the coach is saying,” Lilit says. “It’s important to not make the same mistakes over and over.”


Grigoriev is wary of commenting on Lilit’s future—Russians are very superstitious—but he will say that he has “great hopes for her, and would love to see her dancing with a very good company,” says Grigorieva. Lilit loves the romantic ballets, and dreams that one day she’ll get to dance Juliet and Giselle like her favorite ballerinas Julie Kent, Svetlana Zakharova and Sylvie Guillem. And she has a few superstitions of her own—she admits that she has a set of lucky hairpins that she wears for auditions and performances. She and her pins seem set for stardom.