The rigors of the Bolshoi are clearly not for everyone, but Womack eagerly embraced the training and the strictness of life in the academy’s dorms. When she discovered her neighbor would rise at six a.m. to start stretching, Womack set her alarm for five. “I had to break my body,” she says, “because these girls were breaking their bodies from the age of ten.” At the Bolshoi, she adds, being physically manhandled by the instructors — twisted and molded into the right shape — is routine, unlike in the U.S., where being tactile is taboo. “They are so tough,” she says.
There’s also the fear factor of not wanting to let your teacher down. At a recent rehearsal onstage at the Bolshoi Theatre, academy students failed to execute a scene perfectly. Their teacher, watching critically with a microphone from the auditorium, boomed over the loudspeakers: “You all disgust me! You can all go to hell. I don’t care if you do a perfect pirouette on your own; if it’s not with the whole group it’s no good!”
Such interactions make Womack all the more eager to please. (She credits her strict, Christian, conservative upbringing for her selfdiscipline — though her father says she never had to be cajoled to dance and was always very driven.) The Bolshoi’s mental and physical molding started to pay off early, and in her first year Womack was suggested for principal roles. That elicited some jealousy from her classmates, who bristled at the idea of “an American” taking a lead role away from them.
That first year Womack also hit a low point in which injury almost ended her Russian dream. Selected to perform alongside major stars at a special gala at the Bolshoi, on the day of the performance she had an intense pain in her foot. Thrilled and honored to have been selected for the gala, she knew she could not withdraw. Backstage, teachers applied ice to numb the pain, and she danced “frost-bitten,” as she puts it — smiling through the pain and anxiety. After the performance, she was in tears. It turned out she had a stress fracture that would require surgery. Her parents insisted she fly back to Texas to have an operation, but she refused point-blank — “the only time she has ever disobeyed me,” says her father. Instead, she sought out a Russian surgeon who specializes in ballet-related injuries, and he managed to remove the painful bone chip arthroscopically. Remarkably, Womack was back to dancing within a month.
Then there are the high points. Last November Womack was chosen to perform the lead role of Lise in Grigorovich’s production of La fille mal gardée. She became the first American ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy to dance a leading role on the Bolshoi stage. Her partner, dancing the role of Colas, was Mario Vitale Labrador, a
Californian also studying at the academy. Last year Womack toured with her classmates in Europe and the U.S. Returning to her native country, she had a touch of culture shock, having spent so much time away since the age of fifteen. At the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., academy students performed Leonid Lavrovsky’s Classical Symphony by Prokofiev (one of Womack’s favorite composers). Womack danced the lead role and garnered an excellent review in The Washington Post. “On the evidence of Friday’s performance, she has blossomed into a dancer of great promise,” wrote Sarah Kaufman. “Particularly lovely was her fluid and harmonious use of her arms, shoulders and waist. It’s not for nothing that this school is justifiably labeled among the best in the ballet world.”
Although Womack was humbled and excited by the acclaim, in her eyes, the highest compliment she got was the terse acknowledgment from her teacher: “You not only represent our school, but you represent the great tradition of Russian ballet.”
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