I pulled up the practice tutu an inch more, and felt it flop back down to my hip bones. My toes were tired in my pointe shoes after five hours of dancing in them, and I could feel my right knee buckle slightly as I tried to maintain my posture.
It was my turn to perform the Black Swan solo variation from Swan Lake. I was thirteen years old, and it was the second day of a three-week Vaganova (a Russian ballet technique) Intensive. Mansur Petrov, the director of the intensive, was a Russian Master ballet master teacher, principal character dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet. To this day I still question why he chose to hold a summer intensive in in our small town, when only seven aspiring ballet dancers had auditioned and registered for it. Most dancers went for the “big name” programs – American Ballet Theater, Boston Ballet, and New York City Ballet – resume-building names that would give them a leg-up when they auditioned for companies after high school. But, even with only a small group of dancers to teach, the intensive still ran and would continue to run for three more summers. At this point in my training, dancing in a small intensive with the opportunity for individual attention would have felt like a blessing – but as I stood, waiting for Mansur to push play, there was nothing I wanted more than the company of six dancers to hide behind as I danced for one of the most legendary teachers in Russian Ballet.
I couldn’t feel my knee or my toes anymore. All of my weight was still in my right leg, causing my right foot to cramp and my left leg to feel limp. I glanced over at the small, skinny man whose stench of cigars wafted over to me from across the room, his finger lingering on the button of the CD player.
“Fix your arms, Mary. They are very wrong.”
I wasn’t used to his heavy Russian accent yet, but he had yelled at me numerous times that day about my arms, so I quickly lowered them and shaped my hands so my index finger was slightly straighter than the rest. Mansur gave a sharp nod, turned to the CD player, and pushed play.
I could feel my legs shake as I walked to the center of the room, stretching my toes and presenting my heels forward as much as my knees would allow. I took a deep breath, bent my knees, and took a long, deep step forward to prepare for the first step – a pirouette, followed by a fouette attitude turn en dehor – a step that involved turning on one foot, extending my leg out, and whipping it behind me as I continued to turn with my arms above my head. I pushed up to my pointe shoe and started the step, trying to focus on the music rather than my rapid heartbeat.
The loud, colossal yell reverberated off of the walls, causing me to fall off of my pointe shoe. The music abruptly stopped. I stumbled for a moment, then placed my feet in a turned out position, clasped my hands in front of me, and tried to catch my breath as Mansur stood and walked briskly toward me, continuing to yell.
“Chert,CHERT!” He shouted, grabbing my shoulders and turning my body so I was facing the mirror, “Oruzhiye, oruzhiye, Proklyat’ye!”
I just nodded, trying to keep my composure as Mansur manipulated my arms down, to the side, and above my head, still speaking harshly in Russian. Arm placement is very specific in the Vaganova Ballet Technique, and I came to realize throughout my training with Mansur that he considered American ballet technique to be wholly incorrect. It took me two years to realize that it was Mansur’s frustration with American ballet, not myself, that made him upset – but in that moment it took all of my willpower to stop from crying.
Mansur stepped away from me as I stood, frozen with my arms and fingers where he had put them.
“Alright?” He finally said.
Mansur turned, stomped loudly – or, as loudly as a small, frail man could stomp – to the CD player, waved his arm at me to leave the floor and said, “next.”
Elizabeth, one of the other thirteen-year-olds in the room, walked onto the floor as I walked away, slumped slightly in my chest, too afraid to drop my arms from where Mansur had placed them. I turned, my upper arms burning from being held, and watched Elizabeth dance the Swan Lake variation flawlessly, without interruption.
Marissa, a sixteen year-old ballet student who was also attending the intensive, drove me home that day. She was tall, beautiful, and extremely talented, and had received only compliments from Mansur over the two days of training. As I tried to maintain my composure during that car ride home, saving my crying for my mom and my pillow, I found out that in addition to being a talented ballerina, Marissa also spoke fluent Russian.
“You okay?” Marissa finally asked as I sat silently in the passenger’s seat.
“Yea, yea. I’m fine,” I was amazed that I was able to keep my voice from breaking, “I mean, he totally hates me. But it’s fine.”
Marissa didn’t respond at first. I turned to her and saw that she was biting her lip.
“Uh – Mary,” She finally said, “I-uh… do you want to know what Mansur was saying to you… today, during variations class?”
I really didn’t want to know. But I wanted to give Marissa the impression that I could care less. That it didn’t matter to me. That I wasn’t reserving the rest of the day to wallow in self-pity, promising to never step foot in front of Mansur again.
“Sure, I mean – I don’t really care,” I said, not-so-convincingly.
Marissa paused, then said, “he was cursing – like, a lot. Like, I’ve never heard that many curse words in Russian before in the same sentence.”
I turned my face and stared out the window, feeling my tears pushing harder and harder to the surface.
“Whatever,” I finally said, with an obvious waver in my voice, “I don’t care.”
Later that day, after an hour of crying and a long nap, my mom convinced me to go back to class the next day. I bought myself a small notebook, and after every class I wrote down the corrections Mansur had given me, trying my very best to understand this foreign technique of ballet that was so drastically different from the American technique I grown up with. Every day I came home from the intensive, I stood in my living room and practiced until my mom told me that I needed to eat something.
I trained with Mansur for three years after that summer, and by the end of that third year he had gone from being a teacher I dreaded to a mentor, then a dear friend. When I was fifteen years old and attending the final summer intensive Mansur would hold in our town, he asked me to be in an instructional video for Vaganova technique – an experience I would never forget, even though the majority of my time behind the camera was spent being yelled at in Russian.
Mansur passed away in April, 2012. To this day, I credit him for teaching me to embrace the beauty of ballet and build the backbone necessary to pursue ballet as a career, despite the harsh realities that go along with it.