What It's Like to Study Ballet in Russia, as an American

February 23, 2009

In May 2004, at 22, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study classical ballet and the Russian pedagogical approach to choreography in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fulbright grants are given to individuals pursuing research or practical studies on a particular topic. How that work is carried out is the responsibility of each grantee. Over the course of 10 months, I trained at Mussorgsky Ballet (formerly Maly Ballet), the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Choreographic Miniatures Ballet Theater (founded by L. Yakobson) and Kannon Dance. My training ranged from private two-hour classes with ballet mistresses to group classes with soloists and corps de ballet dancers of various troupes. I trained seven days a week, averaging four hours daily; however, when rehearsing my choreography, I would spend eight hours a day in the studio. I spent the most time choreographing and staging Antigone, my first full-length ballet, that I have since set on my own company, The Rebecca Davis Dance Company, in Philadelphia.

Training With Russian Ballerinas

At Mussorgsky Ballet, technique class began at 10:30 am and lasted 45 minutes. I was used to classes being twice that long, and wondered how I’d be able to increase my strength and stamina in just 45 minutes. These fears, however, were quickly dismissed. Though barre finished in only 20 minutes, the physical impact was just as strong, if not stronger, than in any American class I had taken—the ballet masters spend no time between exercises. Combinations are briskly communicated, and the pianist immediately starts playing, sometimes even before the ballet master says, “And!” (or “ee,” in Russian). No personal corrections are given, and group corrections are rare. At the end, I was out of breath along with all the other ballerinas.

Making Friends…Slowly

I spent most of my time thinking about adagio and allegro combinations, but I did manage to make friends with Russian ballet dancers. At first, most of the dancers were too shy or scared to strike up a conversation with the foreigner, but as my grasp of the Russian language improved, we began to converse. I quickly discovered their stereotypes about American dancers. One was particularly pervasive and shocking: “You are an American dancer. Therefore, you dance modern better than all Russian ballerinas, and you dance classical ballet worse than all of us.” Whenever I choreographed a work that slightly departed from the classical lexicon, I was universally called “the modern choreographer from America.” Interestingly, there was a positive aspect to this categorization. Many of the young Russian dancers wanted to work with me and learn my choreography, because they felt it would widen their versatility.

By far, the most valuable training I had came from a ballet mistress—a former soloist of Yakobson’s Choreographic Miniatures troupe. Elena Ivanovna Marchenko coached me privately two hours a day, five days a week. As a 5’11” dancer, I had struggled with difficult jumps and turns. By breaking down basic ballet movements with Marchenko, I came to understand how to properly execute the more advanced ones. As an American choreographer, I was lucky to have the opportunity to study and train in Russia with great dancers, teachers and, now, friends.