The Exotic Men of Ballet - Pacific Northwest Ballet Goes International

By Windreich, Leland | The World and I, May 2001 | Go to article overview

The Exotic Men of Ballet - Pacific Northwest Ballet Goes International


Windreich, Leland, The World and I


With six male dancers from such faraway places as Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Siberia, Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet is staging especially exotic productions.

Ballet is not one of the cultural amenities of Delvine, Albania, where the small population is likely to enjoy more homespun and spontaneous entertainment. In his ninth year, Astrit Zejnati was a gifted mimic there; his deft impersonations of his grandparents and neighbors had won him a following. When a friend of his father's passed through on a visit from Tirana, Zejnati was called upon to perform for the guest, who found his talents remarkable. He was whisked off to the state ballet academy in Tirana, where he was selected for an eight-year program to prepare him for a career as a dancer.

The 26-year-old Zejnati and five male colleagues currently dancing in Seattle with the Pacific Northwest Ballet have much in common. All were born and spent their formative preteen years in communist countries. All competed against seemingly impossible odds and were chosen by distinguished national academies to pursue full courses of ballet training in conjunction with academic education. Theater history, acting, mime, and musical performance were essentials in their curriculum. Each graduated with remarkable career potential in a profession deemed wholly respectable for men. All have traveled and performed extensively abroad. And every man was restless with the static fare offered to dancers living in the countries once part of the Soviet bloc.

Renowned Pedagogy

Also in common was their ballet training. All nations east of the former Iron Curtain offer a method of pedagogy perfected by the legendary Russian teacher Agrippina Vaganova (1879--1951). Considered one of history's greatest educators of ballet dancers, the St. Petersburg--born former ballerina codified the Russian style of training through a synthesis of the French and Italian styles introduced into Russia in the nineteenth century with the accomplishments and artistic mandates of the later Russian ballet masters. It was through her methods that the brilliant virtuosity of the Soviet ballet was achieved, becoming a model and a generator for training in eastern nations from Czechoslovakia and Hungary in Europe to Mongolia and China in Asia.

As products of a Vaganova-based education, Seattle's six new young dancers were endowed with a solid technique and a fluidity that made it reasonable for them to take on challenges in other schools of performance without major adjustments. But the physical and psychological transitions to a broader horizon in the West were more difficult for some than others.

At eighteen, Zejnati made history in Albania by becoming the first graduate of its ballet school to enter the national company as a principal dancer without climbing the traditional career ladder from corps de ballet as others were required to do. But during the one year of his tenure in the theater he was constantly nagged by the possibility of being conscripted into compulsory military service. Conflicts in nearby Kosovo had resulted in the deaths of many Albanians, and the threat of expanded warfare was imminent. He began negotiations to work abroad and was successful in earning a scholarship at the University of Oklahoma, which provided him with a student visa to travel to the United States and an excellent ballet curriculum.

Oklahoma offered him performance opportunities in the college program and as a guest with the lively Tulsa Ballet, with its varied, largely Ballet Russe--dominated repertoire. It also served as a stepping stone to a more stable and enterprising environment at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where Zejnati has been dancing since 1996.

The 29-year-old Vladislav Bourakov was one of the last dancers from the Soviet Union to seek political asylum in the United States. It happened in Minneapolis in 1989, when he was on tour with the Grigorovich Bolshoi Ballet.

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