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A Vermont Ballerina Heads to the Bolshoi

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Julia Spensley - COURTESY OF KIRSTEN NAGIBA
  • Courtesy of Kirsten Nagiba
  • Julia Spensley

Each year across the United States, aspiring ballet dancers don their best tights to audition for a spot at the Bolshoi Ballet's yearlong trainee program in Moscow, Russia. Of the hundreds of dancers auditioning, perhaps eight are accepted. This year, one of those dancers is from Jericho: 16-year-old Julia Spensley. She was invited to Moscow after completing the Bolshoi Ballet Academy's summer intensive in New York City last month.

The Bolshoi Ballet is a behemoth in the dance world. The internationally renowned classical company, founded in 1776, even subsumes the notion of greatness in its name — "bolshoi" translates as "big, grand or great." The company performs each season at the Bolshoi Theatre, which stands like a white, gilded, eight-pillared icon of Russian culture in the heart of Moscow's Theatre Square. Inside, the stage spans a width of 68 feet behind a red velvet curtain. Over the past decade, a massive reconstruction project has restored the hall's historic elegance and brought it up to current technical standards.

The Bolshoi Ballet has had its share of scandals. Joy Womack, one of the first American ballet dancers to train at the academy and join the company postgraduation, left the troupe in 2013; she claimed a director had demanded $10,000 in exchange for a lead performance role. Earlier that year, the Bolshoi's artistic director, Sergei Filin, had acid thrown in his face, allegedly by a rival dancer. (A 2015 film, Bolshoi Babylon, examines this and other bitter relationships within the company, as well as the government's entanglement with them.)

Outshining all that gossip, however, is the Bolshoi's undisputed capacity for turning out ballet dancers such as current luminaries Natalia Osipova and Polina Semionova. The academy's graduates are among the most coveted, talented and well trained in the world.

In the Soviet era, noted Russian dancers tended to ditch their homeland to find artistic success in the West. Beginning in the early 2000s, a slight movement in the opposite direction started when the Bolshoi Ballet Academy loosened its Russian-only policy to accept a small number of international students into its rigorous ballet program.

Enter Spensley. "[My mother and I] drove to Boston for the audition," she says. "I do a lot of auditions for summer intensives every year, so I wasn't too nervous. I remember it felt very natural to be taking class in that style. I remember thinking, Oh, this is how I want to dance."

Spensley started ballet classes at age 3 through a YMCA program at a dance studio in Maryland. When she was 6, her family moved to Vermont. There, initially, she cut the ballet and turned her attention to Scottish Highland dancing, training at the Heather Morris School of Dance in Richmond. At age 12, she began supplementing her Celtic repertoire with classes at the Elan Academy of Classical Ballet in Essex Junction.

"I really fell in love with it," Spensley recalls. "A year later, I began training at Vermont Ballet Theater [School Center for Dance]. My teacher was Alexander Nagiba; he's Ukrainian, but he's trained all over the place in Russia."

And, she adds, "He always wanted me to train with the Bolshoi."

COURTESY OF KIRSTEN NAGIBA
  • Courtesy of Kirsten Nagiba

At her audition in Boston, Spensley recalls, she was struck by evidence of the Vaganova method, named for the training regime created by late Russian dancer and teacher Agrippina Vaganova. "At the Bolshoi, they're very particular about how everything is done," she relates. "At other places, it's a lot about how many turns you can do or how high your leg is. There, it starts at the basics — which are not basic at all, but very hard — like exactly how you tendu and plié. You work your way up from there."

In Moscow, Spensley will begin with one hour of Russian language study in the morning, followed by two hours for academics — international students must find their schooling online. The rest of the day will be for dancing: five hours a day, six days a week. The dance studios share a building with the dormitories, where Russian and international ballet dancers room together between pointe class and trips to the cafeteria.

"I'm excited for her," says Elena Spensley, Julia's mother. "I was born in the Ukraine. Julia already understands the Russian language. She loves the food and the culture. This is a way for her to get a cultural experience along with her ballet training."

The rub, however, is the price. While Russian students attend the Bolshoi Ballet Academy for free — if they can get a spot — it will cost $18,000 for Spensley to attend the yearlong trainee program. The Spensley family has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help reach that goal.

"It's such a short time to pull the money together," says Elena. Her daughter was invited to the Academy in mid-August; the program starts in early October. "It's been stressful for us," she adds, "but the support from family and friends is heartwarming."

For Julia, whose goal is to "dance professionally with a major ballet company somewhere in the world," the prospect of training with the Bolshoi is both daunting and exciting. "Russia's different than Vermont," she says. "In Russia, I'll be a little fish in a huge pond. But they do an amazing job creating amazing dancers."


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