The New York Times
Bolshoi to Brooklyn, in a BoundBy KATHERINE ZOEPF
AT precisely 4:30 p.m., Irina Roizin called her class to order. "Dyevochki! Slushayetye!" She clapped. "Children, are you listening?"
At the sound of her voice, about a dozen 4- and 5-year-olds who had been swarming about the small ballet studio arranged themselves into orderly rows at the barres on two sides of the room. Ponytails bobbing, their chubby arms and legs encased in purple leotards, they looked at Ms. Roizin expectantly.
"All right, girls!" she called. "Show me, how do ballerinas say hello?"
Ms. Roizin, a slim blonde in her early 40's who emigrated from the former Soviet Union when she herself was a teenaged ballet student, founded the Brighton Ballet Theater School of Russian Ballet in 1987. Since then, she and her colleagues have given hundreds of children in this predominantly Russian community in Brooklyn their first glimpses into the ordered world of ballet.
The school, which is housed in the Shorefront Y on Coney Island Avenue, serves more than 500 children from toddlers to high schoolers, a great majority of them from Russian or Ukrainian families. But what is most remarkable is that the school has become something of a way station for great dancers from the former Soviet countries who were forced by the lean perestroika years to seek better performing opportunities abroad.
These dancers may teach at the school for several years while waiting for a green card and, perhaps, a place in a professional American ballet company. The school now counts among its current and former faculty members ex-dancers from such illustrious companies as the Moscow Classical Ballet and on occasion even from such internationally celebrated troupes as the Bolshoi and the Kirov.
"Before the perestroika time, ballet companies were sponsored by the Soviet government," Ms. Roizin explained. "But after Communism, things changed, and now there are very few productions. The dancers cannot survive, and they must go to other countries. When they come to America, many of them dance with us. We give them full-time teaching jobs. We are the place that helps them become legal."
Along with teaching at the school, these virtuoso dancers get to perform, thanks to a small professional company, the Brighton Ballet Theater, which was formed in association with the school. The troupe is made up of about a dozen teachers and other dancers, who perform alongside the children at student performances, and who frequently perform at restaurants, schools, private parties and small festivals around the city.
The idea that onetime soloists for the great Russian ballet troupes are teaching children in Brooklyn may conjure up visions of fragile, embittered former divas. But the teachers here tend to be energetic young dancers who say that they simply couldn't live on dance company salaries in their home countries.
"I never thought to become a teacher," said Natia Rtveliashvili, a 22-year-old former dancer with Georgia's national ballet who teaches the school's youngest students. "But I can dance in Brighton Ballet company, and sometimes I can dance with American companies also, if Irina permits. In my country, salaries are really low, and you can't live on dancing alone."
Andrij Cybuk, who was raised in the United States but studied dance in Ukraine and now performs with the Brighton Ballet Theater, knows of several dancers who were idolized in former Soviet bloc countries but were forced to take jobs as laborers when they immigrated to the United States and Canada. In such situations, Mr. Cybuk said, dancers are happy to take any opportunities they can find.
"There's a sense of frustration," he said, "because you go from dancing in these national theaters, theaters that are just amazing, and here you're dancing anywhere you can."
Parents of the school's students are generally delighted that their children can dance with such esteemed professionals. "It is a tradition in Russia, something of prestige, for children to go to dance school," Ms. Roizin said. "The children here have performance opportunities at a very young age. The parents like that."
Anna Fateeva, a 28-year-old ballerina who herself trained and danced with the Bolshoi from the age of 9 and later danced with the Moscow Classical Ballet, teaches advanced students at the school. She admitted that, unlike in Russia, every child at the school is not necessarily a budding superstar, but said that she had come to enjoy the less competitive approach to dance.
"In my country, not every girl can go to Bolshoi school," Ms. Fateeva said, recalling her own strict training. "In this country, if some girl likes dance, she can dance. For me, it's like a good dream."
IN recent weeks, the school's young dancers have been preparing for their biggest performance of the year, the school's annual World of Dance festival, to be held Thursday and Friday at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach. Lidiya Dubovikova, the school's full-time seamstress, has made hundreds of brightly-colored and sometimes elaborate new costumes, at least one per dancer, and rehearsals have been running late into the evening.
The other day, in one studio, a group of 4-year-olds practiced a quadrille, holding hands and whirling around the room in their soft slippers, under the supervision of their teacher, Ms. Rtveliashvili, and a pianist.
"We teach only to live music, which is very important to intellectual development," Ms. Roizin said. "We teach them to listen carefully to music. For example, in Little Red Riding Hood's song, the music is sweet, and you have the children pretend to be in a forest picking flowers. All of a sudden, the music is changing. The wolf is coming! At age 4, the girl needs to be able to change her face to show that she's scared. In this way she learns to act."
In a larger studio, that doubles as the Shorefront Y's cafeteria, several classes were directed by Mr. Kouchnarev, formerly with the Ukrainian State Theater of Classical Ballet. An eight-year-old, Daniel Popov, one of the few boys at the school, looked like a tiny Nureyev, leaping delicately along a line of seated girls.
On one side of the room, a group of 9-year-olds were doing their spelling homework while waiting for their turn to dance. As they worked, several of them crammed Funyuns into their mouths from a shared bag.
"Girls!" Ms. Roizin scolded. "It is fine for you to eat these things now, but what will happen in a few years when you start to develop?"
The young ballerinas giggled. Ms. Roizin sighed.