Thursday, November 12, 2015

East-West Story: The Parallel Lives of Two World-Class Dancers By Samiha Shafy

Joy Womack is from California, Sergei Polunin from a poor city in Ukraine. One went East to pursue a career in ballet, the other West. For both, talent has proven to be a double-edged sword.
When she appears, the other dancers strike a quiet pose. She takes off, jumps and does a split mid-air in a swirl of white tulle. Her movements seem effortless, as if she requires no momentum at all -- not even a chance to catch her breath. She imperiously raises an arm, liberating the others from their paralysis. They fall into line behind her and follow her steps, for she is Myrtha, their leader, the Queen of the Ghost Girls in the ballet "Giselle." En pointe, with her head held high, the queen receives a round of applause. Then she glides away. Backstage, she lets herself fall on a yoga mat, panting and sweating. After a short pause, she's back to being Joy Womack, a 21-year-old from Santa Monica, California. In her company, the Kremlin Ballet Theater, she is one of the select few who dances solo. She is the first American to perform here, behind the walls of the Kremlin.
Dreams of Ballet Stardom
She lives for these moments. Womack is in Moscow because she wants to be one of the world's best dancers. She moved a lot closer to achieving her dream when, six years ago, she left the United States for the first time and traveled to Russia on her own. Today she is a prima ballerina in the ballet capital of the world. But she's still a bit shy of reaching her goal. Being here is a fight for survival. She is, as CNN reported in April, "the American dancing in the Kremlin for $8 a day." "Well," says Sergei Polunin, "I assume she agreed to these conditions herself." He has never met Womack. They come from different worlds. He hails from the East, while she is from the West. Yet theirs are similar stories of talent, the quest for perfection and childhoods that never were. Their lives are filled with agony and intoxication, triumph and defeat. Polunin, 25, is probably the most talented dancer of his generation. Critics compare him to Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer of the century. He was 19 when London's Royal Ballet conscripted him as the youngest First Soloist in its history. Today, Polunin gets to pick which world stage he wants to dance on. In the same week, he'll also be performing in Moscow at another staging of "Giselle" -- at the Bolshoi Theater, whose dance troupe is considered the most famous in the world. Polunin has achieved everything that Womack dreams of. And for him, that is cause for despair. A year ago, he was on the verge of giving it all up, Polunin explains, his voice soft and shy. He hated it, the drudgery and the pain -- and what for? Dancers torture their bodies and ruin their health, but even the best of them don't come close to earning as much as an opera singer or football player. The majority are exploited, Polunin says. "A ticket for a performance at the Bolshoi often costs more than a dancer earns in a month." At the high point of his existential crisis, Polunin met David LaChapelle. A British-American film team that had been following Polunin around arranged the meeting. The documentary film would be called "Dancer," but the protagonist already had bigger dreams of a Hollywood career now. Spiegel Online International Sergei Polunin