When Joy Womac k dances onstage at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, she feels entirely at home. Never mind that she was born and raised in California and Texas — this is where she wants to be. “Ya xochu bit Russkoi,” she says fluently. “I want to be Russian.”
This month her long-held dream to become a Russian prima ballerina took a giant jeté forward when she became the first American to graduate from the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy, formally called the Moscow State Academy of Choreography.
Womack, at eighteen, is one of the talented few non-Russians to be selected by the school,which has in recent years opened its doors to international talent. “It represents an experience that is filled with hundreds of little failures and triumphs,” she says.
It’s a long way from Texas, where most of the large Womack clan resides — Joy has six brothers and two sisters. According to her father Clay, the managing director of a Texas-based energy company, Joy was born to perform. “She’s always been a dancer. I have a picture of her when she was four, in pre-ballet, on my desk to remind me,” he says. Perhaps it was destiny: Shortly after she was born, says Clay, Joy’s uncle held her miniature feet and predicted she would become a dancer.
But Womack’s story has less to do with fate and much more to do with talent and determination; as she puts it, “My goal in life was to have blisters!” Growing up, she would beg her parents to take her to dance class. She began obsessing over Russian ballet history at the age of twelve, and was particularly enamored with YouTube videos of great Russian ballerinas — from legends like Ekaterina Maximova to more recent stars like Diana Vishneva and Natalia Osipova. “They seem to be lit inside, and their attack and the quality of their movement is so different,” says Womack. “The Bolshoi ballerinas seem to be free on stage.”
Womack found a Russian-trained ballet teacher in Austin, then moved to Washington, D.C. at age fourteen to study at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, a pre-professional boarding school for serious ballet students. It only fed her hunger for that Russian-trained grace and beauty. “Americans tend to be athletic, and at the beginning I felt like this awkward American jumper,” she says. After hours and hours of frustration, of repeating things over and over again, she saw her technique begin to change for the better.
Then she attended one of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s Summer Intensives. The series of classes, held in key American cities, allows master teachers from the Bolshoi Academy to evaluate young American dancers. Womack made an impression. Invited to attend the Bolshoi Academy full-time, she began the three-year program in 2009, moving to Moscow on her own at fifteen. “American friends looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “People were like, ‘You live in Russia?’ But I never had any questions.”
The Bolshoi Academy’s effort to seek out American talent is a recent initiative, started in 2007 by the Russian-American Foundation and supported by the U.S. Department of State to “build Russian-American dialogue.” It’s a far cry from the days of the Cold War, when most of the traffic in ballet dancers flowed east to west and famous names like Nataliya Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov — not to mention George Balanchine, who defected in 1924 — brought Russian rigor to the West.
These days, Russian ballet is becoming more international than ever. Last year one of the stars of American Ballet Theatre, David Hallberg, became the first American to enlist permanently with the Bolshoi Ballet. He made headlines in November when he starred in a classic production of The Sleeping Beauty first staged in 1973 by the Bolshoi’s then artistic director, the famed Yuri Grigorovich. Reviewing an HD broadcast of Hallberg’s performance for The New York Times, dance critic Alistair Macaulay mused: “Has the Bolshoi already made him faster, higher, more expansive? On camera it appears so.”
That difference — phenomenal technique, but also expressiveness and dramatic intensity — is what the Bolshoi’s training and influence can elicit, says Womack, though the road to achieving that difference can be daunting. (It’s also expensive for foreigners, who pay $18,000 in tuition per year. Native Russians study for free.) “When I came to Moscow I realized how much I had to work, to listen and to absorb,” says Womack. “What goes into one variation to make it perfect is an incredible amount of work.”
In the first few months Womack contended not only with physical challenges — eight hours a day of dance practice, pas de deux, acting and rehearsals — but with the language barrier. All the instruction was, of course, in Russian. “I felt like there was a glass wall between me and the teachers because I couldn’t speak the language,” she says. Her first ballet instructor, the severe but brilliant Natalia Arkhipova, told her: “You have a lot of potential, but if you cannot speak Russian in two months, you can forget about being in my class.” Womack didn’t allow herself to speak in English, repeating Russian phrases until they sunk in, and managed to become fairly fluent in her first year. “Now I sleep and dream in Russian,” she says, her voice lightly inflected with a Russian accent.