In September 2018, I was honored with the opportunity to spend one month at Moscow's highly prestigious and acclaimed Bolshoi Ballet Academy or Moscow State Academy of Choreography, a magical place that has fostered countless beautiful dancers and served as a temple for the world of dance.
It was the greatest joy in the world for me to be able to study with these wonderful teachers and mentors in September, an experience that I will hold close in my heart and never forget.
Every day at the Academy was a day of inspiration and discovery, full of moments that redefined the way I perceive the word "art".
I arrived in Moscow on September 1st, and was shocked by the beauty of the city, by its lively atmosphere, its infinite streets and amazing city center, the Red Square, and of course, the Bolshoi Theatre. Seeing the Theatre for the first time and even being near it is an emotion that simply cannot be described. Its sheer size, its grandeur and its air of significance makes it a symbol of excellence and perfection. The memory of seeing it live for the first time, going inside it and feeling its tangible regal energy, is a memory that has been stamped in my mind, something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. It's almost like life is divided into two parts: the part before having been in the Bolshoi Theatre and the part afterwards. Art at such a high level, with such discipline and genuine passion, is no longer just art - its a nourishment for the soul, something that we all need.
Seeing the Academy and entering it had a very similar effect. A part of me could still not believe that I, a girl who had started ballet just two years ago, who knew nothing about dance at the beginning and struggled with every part of it, was going to spend a month of her life here, in this amazing place. It was really a dream come true! When I entered the Academy (after taking a few minutes to accept the fact that I am actually here!), everyone at the Academy, the teachers, the security guards, the dormitory staff, were eager to help and very welcoming. This really helped me settle in, and gave me a sense of relaxation and ease. I realised that being surrounded by such passion and talent everyday must, in a way, make people happier, as I could see by the compassion of those working at the Academy.
I was soon brought to my room, occupied by myself and three other girls. They were caring, supportive, and I really couldn't have handled the hard work and pressure there without them. The friendships I built with my three roommates became priceless ones! The evenings that we spent together, our conversations and our trips to Moscow were experiences that made my stay in Moscow what it was: unforgettable. Their friendship is something that I will always hold close, and I hope to stay in touch with them forever as a source of joy and love!
My first day in Moscow was such a special welcome, and a great prelude to the experience that lay before me. The official first academic day at the Academy was September 3rd, two days later - story continued below the photos.
September 3rd: the first real day at the Academy!
September 3rd was one of the most amazing days of my life, a day that truly changed the way I look at and understand the world. First, at 9 AM, was the introductory ceremony of the Academy, held in its theatre (the Academy has its own stage where concerts and other important events are held). This was an experience of exploration, like delving into another culture and learning about it. The degree of discipline and love for ballet that the students in the ceremony executed was something I have never seen before. A true testament to the Russian tradition, students on the stage would receive awards, recite poetry, and welcome the audience into a new year of hard work.
A tradition during the welcoming ceremony is that the students of the graduating year at the Academy (the 3rd course) and the students that are about to experience their first year after being accepted last summer, or the "freshmen" (1st class, 10/11 years old) stand on the same stage and exchange gifts. The graduating students give them a pair of pointe shoes as a token of inspiration for the journey that lies ahead of them. It was beautiful to see two groups of dancers merging together.
The rector of the Academy, Marina Leonova, gave a long introductory address which perfectly showed her signature grace, while the teachers of the Academy were also brought to the stage.
September 3rd was a perfect opportunity to meet many students of the Academy that I myself had been idolising for years, following their progress. My mother left that same day, and from then on it was the start of my independent ballet journey.
Classes started the next day.
The classes that I had in my schedule - I was in 3rd class, or 8th grade for my age group, 13/14 years old:
*** The girls in Moscow who study there full-time from the first year also have other academic classes during the day in Russian - chemistry, mathematics, piano, French, English, etc... just like in a normal school. Since I was an international student who came for a traineeship, I didn't participate in these classes. During my free time, I would work on things from my academic school in Switzerland - assignments to catch up on, homework, taking notes on what I missed while I was away.
The Life of a Dancer
Living in Moscow was difficult - I missed my parents, it was a whole new environment, and the conditions were different from what I was used to. Though the people were extremely welcoming and I met a lot of amazing girls from many different classes - from younger groups, from older classes, and other international students, all of whom I am still in touch with and appreciate - the living conditions were hard. There were certain aspects of dorm life that many of us struggled with. It was our goal as girls living in the dormitory to support each other.
There is a weight chart that you must sign upon entrance to the Academy, and weight is measured regularly. Students must prepare for exams and earn high marks in order to advance to the next class.
Of course, all of this pressure is necessary - the life of a ballet dancer requires total investment into the difficult profession. You must be willing to sacrifice everything, and these sacrifices start early.
However, seeing all of this pressure, the excruciating pain, the hard work, was really a lot, and at times you can see the unhealthy effect.
There is a bright side and a darker side to everything.
While I loved Moscow, it taught me countless amazing lessons and gave me beautiful experiences, in order to achieve that level of perfection, there is always something lurking in the shadows. You must sacrifice everything and give everything away in order to shine in a profession which requires everything. It's easy to fall into a fantasy - becoming a ballerina is amazing. Shining on stage is a feeling like no other. But you must think twice before you realise what is really necessary to achieve this fantasy - this is no secret, every student and teacher at the Academy knows it and says it upfront. Being a ballet dancer means giving your 150% everyday no matter what.
Highlights of my stay
Lessons I learned
The classes in Moscow, the people that surrounded me, the city itself - rides to the center, walks in the parks, discovering the many sides of the ballet world in its very core - all contributed to the most important lessons that I learned.
Thank you to...
I would like to thank first and foremost, my Classical Ballet teacher, who was the greatest teacher I have ever had - both in the sense of dance and in all definitions of the word "teacher". Meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to me, and the lessons that she taught me, the opportunities that I had while training with her, were simply priceless. THANK YOU!
I would like to thank all my other teachers in Moscow - my gymnastics, historical dance, and Russian teacher - for all of their care and kindness. I truly felt welcomed by them and their careful attention and corrections!
I would also like to thank my classmates in Moscow for their inspiration and for their kindness. I am still in touch with many of them today. Their beautiful personalities, their kindness from the very first day that I arrived made me feel like a real part of the class, and made me feel at home in Moscow rather than like an outsider. Furthermore, their talent, their hard work and their passion inspired me every single day that I was around them.
Thank you to my wonderful roommates! The friendships I have built with you, your support, your kindness and the fun times that we had together made my time in Moscow simply unforgettable. I would never have been able to survive at the Academy and handle the pressure without your help and your words of experience - you were like sisters to me!!!
Thank you so so so much to Masha and Alexei, my friends in Moscow, who were kind enough to show me the beautiful city, bring me on excursions and take me to my first performance at the Bolshoi Theatre - a life-changing experience! Your kindness and generosity made my time in Moscow something that I will treasure forever!
And of course, thank you to my amazing parents who made all of this possible, and especially to my mother, who came all the way to Moscow with all her heart and soul to make me happy. I am forever grateful!
Thank you, Moscow!
Alexia Dochnal, 15 years old.