From Russia with Love—and Discipline

Former Bolshoi Dancers Adapt to Teaching in the States.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and travel restrictions eased, many Russian dancers started looking westward to the United States. They wanted more artistic opportunity, and American audiences wanted to see the “pure” Russian dancers onstage. With their artistry and experience, it was easy for them to find work in American companies. Eventually some of them became master teachers. They all, as students, had gone through the eight-year Vaganova curriculum, which sets strict standards of what to do (and what not to do) for each age group.

Dance Teacher spoke to four ex-Bolshoi dancers about their approaches to teaching in the States.

Ballet for Everyone? Oh, No!

It’s well-known that the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow and the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg accept only children with the most ballet-friendly bodies. And with the rigorous annual exams, only the most dedicated and talented dancers stay the full eight years until graduation. Needless to say, dance education in the States is completely different. “When I walked into the school,” says Natalya Zeiger of her first job in New Jersey, “I couldn’t believe it’s possible to teach those kids.” But little by little, with the help of her American husband, she came to accept that even the students who weren’t destined to become professionals deserved her attention. Now, she says, “when you come to school to teach, you work with everybody. You have to be clean, objective and pay much attention.”

Natalya Lushina Zeiger, The Rock School in Philadelphia

Now that Zeiger is on faculty at the esteemed Rock School, her students are more likely to go on to a professional career. What she responds to most is their desire to learn. “Some kids are like a sponge: No matter what you say, they want more, they’ll go for it,” she says. “They never tire. They stay in the studio as long as you stay.”

Does Discipline Transfer?

Part of the reason the famed Russian training gets results is that it lavishes time working on the basics—for days on end, for hours on end. “It’s slow consistency and repetition that make a dancer,” says Mikhail Tchoupakov. “Not variety.” But here in the States that kind of repetition is not looked upon kindly. “If I teach beginners the way Vaganova or Bolshoi do, I will not be hired anywhere,” he says. Not only are parents eager to see their children perform, but the students are stoked by YouTube videos of bravura dancers and television shows where teenagers toss off split leaps between hip-hop swagger.

Mikhail Tchoupakov, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Alexei Kremnev combines discipline in the studio with a softer and more friendly approach outside the studio. “In the Soviet Union time,” he says, “everybody must do exactly the same things. Right now we have a different kind of society. You have to look individually at each student, and you have to understand about their feelings. But in the classroom, here you have to keep discipline to make it work.” His four keys to discipline? Mutual respect, knowledge, motivation and belief.

“When I came to California,” Dmitri Kulev says, “the first thing I thought was, ‘OK, I need to teach them how to be disciplined, how to work hard in classes and to respect the teacher.’ That was very difficult. It took me a few years to get to that point.” One of the deterrents was the culture of competitions. “I’m talking about basic positions, tendu battement and line, and the students already start jumping, doing fouettés, pirouettes. How do you compete with that?”

He tells parents that training is more valuable than winning competitions. “We need to focus on what we’re doing wrong,” he says. “The competition for me is to show my training off. I’m not there to get gold medals.” Although the students Kulev coaches do very well at Youth America Grand Prix, he feels the reward is getting into a professional company or a college with a good dance department. When the parents see that his top students are now dancing with American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet and Tulsa Ballet, he says, “they come along.”

Alexei Kremnev, Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago

While We’re on the Subject of Parents

The problem of parents does not exist at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow or the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. The children live at the school, and they must respect their instructors—or else. So interacting with parents is a big adjustment for the Russians. For Zeiger, it’s simple. “I keep parents far away from me,” she says frankly. “In the beginning I was way too nice. I’m a parent myself, and I understand when people who don’t have a ballet background have a lot of questions. I would allow parents to get too close to me. Unfortunately, every single time, they took advantage of this.”

As director of the Joffrey Academy, however, Kremnev has to take responsibility. The academy has instituted a system of meetings and evaluations that tries to head off any conflicts with the parents. When a student lacks motivation, Kremnev says, “we call parents and we talk with them in private. We explain to them about perseverance.” It’s helpful, he says, that the parents’ association sends out an e-newsletter that includes information on the faculty, injury prevention and future plans.

Nostalgia for Russian Training

Asked what they miss about their training back home, these four masters each have a different answer. “A good amount of time standing at the barre,” says Kulev. “In this country, if you spend so much time at the barre or take a long time to explain battement tendu, they get bored; they don’t wanna come back.”

What Zeiger misses is the respect that’s built into the training. She recently returned to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy for her master’s degree in education and was delighted to be reminded by the children’s etiquette. “If you walk through the school, every single kid will get up from where they’re sitting, look at you and say hello.”

Kremnev, without hesitating, says, “Best thing is the knowledge. Every day you have classes in historical dance, music, dance history, character dance and partnering.” Thinking about adapting that model to American students, he says: “We need to create the smart dancer. Kids need to go to the museum. They need to experience different forms of art. They need to listen to classical music.”

Tchoupakov reminisces about a time when students had just two or three teachers for their whole eight years. “Vladimir Malakhov and Alexei Ratmansky had Pyotr Pestov for eight years every single day,” he says. “Baryshnikov and Nureyev had Pushkin; he was an authority and a friend. In American schools you have one teacher today, tomorrow somebody else. It takes time to learn how to absorb from a teacher, to find a way to understand each other.”

Dmitri Kulev, co-director of the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California

The Allure of the U.S.

Much as they may pine for their childhood training, they’ve all chosen to stay here. “I like the speed in America better,” says Zeiger. “I feel Americans keep up with what’s going on; it’s more 21st-century. I also like how kids are fearless. They are free to travel and try different styles.”

Tchoupakov likes that there is more choice in the U.S. “Here I find a combination of physique and the will to work hard. They are smart enough to do what’s necessary to become a dancer.” He contrasts it with the lack of choice growing up in Russia. “During the Soviet time they scouted for talent and physique. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a dancer—they’ll make you a dancer. They produce a dancer; they give you a mentor. They’re not going to let that talent go to waste.”

Kremnev likes the availability of modern and jazz classes, which are not part of the Vaganova curriculum.

Kulev, speaking about a class of 9-year-old boys at his academy, says, “They wanna jump. They wanna do tours en l’air. They wanna do sauts de basque. We don’t teach them those steps at this age, but I see the future in those dancers. They have the desire. They want more. They’re hungry.” DT

Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine editor at large, is the author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer and an adjunct at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She often sits on the jury of Youth America Grand Prix, sometimes along with the teachers interviewed.

Photos from top: ©Thinkstock; by Michelle Clemente-Sikes, courtesy of Zeiger; by Maria Jose Lavandera, courtesy of Tchoupakov; courtesy of Kremnev; by Michelle Clemente-Sikes, courtesy of Kulev

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Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

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  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
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