American Ballet Dancers, Maria Beck and Gabe Shayer Train Russian Style

Selection_231How did you get to be here Maria?

I was born in Detroit, Michigan, and started my training there when I was around 8 years old with my first Russian ballet teacher with whom I studied with until I was about 12. I was very close to this teacher, she became like a second mum. I participated in a lot of competitions in America, in particular the YAGP, the Youth American Grand Prix. When I was 11, I won their bronze medal in New York, and they offered me a scholarship to study with the Stuttgart Ballet. I didn’t take up the offer, because my mom thought I was too young. I won a scholarship to study at the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington DC, for two years, and then Marina Leonova, my teacher in the final year encouraged me to move on and go to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in New York. I loved it there, and I was accepted into the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow for a full-time, three-year preparatory course in dance. Having dual Russian-American citizenship because my mother is Russian, helped a lot. Now, my 4th year in Russia, I am living here as a Russian.

So you are doing your main ballet training in Russia and are going to be a real Russian ballerina?

Maria: Yes, I graduated last summer, and entered the Bolshoi Academy proper on another three years course, which is the equivalent to a degree course in the States in terms of qualifications. That summer I entered the Moscow International Ballet competition, which is the biggest in the world and is only held once every four years, and I won the bronze medal in the junior category.

From that competition and from my exams at the Academy, the Director of the Stanislavsky Theatre Igor Zelensky, took notice of me, and invited me to work at the Theatre as a Russian dancer. Now I both work and continue my studies at the Bolshoi Academy.

Selection_232Gabe, what is your connection with Russian ballet?

I went to an American school which had a Russian teacher. In 2009, I went on a summer intensive organised at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in New York, at the end of which I was offered a place in their school in Washington. I declined it for that year, but I did attend for two months the following spring, to try it out. I loved it, and studied with them for two years on a course run by ILya Kuznetsov. I graduated from there two years ago.

Right now I work with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, which is a great company, in my opinion it’s the American equivalent to the Bolshoi. I’m in their corps de ballet, but I’m getting a lot of invitations to dance figure roles. I would love to be able to have the chance to dance with the Bolshoi, or the Stanislavski. It’s difficult right now for them to let in an American, because of visa issues, let alone somebody who is coloured. This does not get me down, because I feel that if you are such a good actor that people do not notice your skin colour on stage; when you are playing a white person’s role, then that means that you are a great dancer. And that is something that I aspire to be.

What are the main differences between the Russian and American ballet training methods?

Maria: In Russia the main thing is discipline, and from discipline you get to where you want to be, positioning has to be perfect. The main training revolves around poses, the form of the dancer, how he or she looks on stage.

Gabe: It’s more extreme than American training, in a good way. I’ve been to places in America where they talk about standing in the first position in tones like: ‘well you know, you can let your feet go where your hips are naturally placed,’ I laugh at that, because ballet isn’t natural for the body. We have to do it by the book.

Maria: It’s all based on the culture of the country, and clearly American and Russian culture are completely different. So in America it would be: “it’s OK if you can’t do it, don’t worry about it,” whereas in Russia it would be something like: “it doesn’t matter, you have to do it… Or forget ballet and do something else.”

Gabe: You can tell the difference between Russian-trained dancers and American-trained dancers. There are some dancers in my company who are good at this and that; this girl can jump really well, but she can’t do this… in Russia, they would not let that happen, the dancers have to be good at everything. What makes you different is your performance on stage, your acting in a particular role.

Maria: and that is how dancers differentiate themselves, what makes a great dancer.