It’s 11am on a sunny Moscow day and I’m standing outside the Press Office of the Kremlin Ballet.
“Singapore…” the lady behind the glass-panelled counter sighs when she sees my passport, and disappears to the back of the office.
“Singapore?” I hear her calling out to her colleagues. I might quite possibly be the first Singaporean they’ve had to issue a press pass to.
She finally returns, fills out a piece of paper and unceremoniously slips it into my passport before returning it to me. With that settled, I call a number given to me by Kremlin Ballet dancer, Joy Womack, the day before. After we worked together in Hong Kong last year, we’ve kept in touch and become good friends – and now I found myself in Moscow paying her a visit.
A few rings later, a man name Konstantin answers. He tells me to wait for him and I hover awkwardly outside the press office until he appears and leads me past security, behind the imposing red brick walls and into the Kremlin.
A small news crew is waiting there already. “Are you here for Joy?” the journalist asks me.
“Yes,” I say. It seems we’re all here for Joy.
Konstantin ushers us down a series of corridors into a rehearsal studio, where company class is underway for the female dancers of the Kremlin Ballet. Joy sees me and we exchange grins before she turns attention back to the class.
The mood in class is one of quiet concentration. Everyone is here to work, and the presence of a cameraman (not me), a journalist (still not me) and a short Asian person frenetically snapping pictures (me) probably enhances the need to be serious.
The dancers are, of course, impossibly graceful. Morning classes are meant as a warm-up to prelude rehearsal proper, but each foot is impeccably turned out, each leg lifted and stretched to glorious extension. It’s somewhat reassuring to see the occasional fall out of a double pirouette or loss of balance during a arabesque en relevé as a reminder that they’re human after all.
When it’s time for center work everyone divides into groups to dance in turns. Joy’s hands never stop moving when she’s waiting to dance. They tap out the beat of the music or mime the footwork of the combination being executed as she watches the other dancers, making sure she gets it right.
During the brief break after class, she moves to her yoga mat and pulls out an iPad, studying a performance of a dance she’s learning. Some of the other dancers cluster in groups to prepare for the next rehearsal, but Joy sits by herself while the cameraman hovers over her.
A few dancers shield their eyes and look away when I turn my camera lens on them, not wanting to have their picture taken. The men who are using the room to stretch are friendlier and smile at me, as does a dancer whom I later learn is Joy’s friend and dressing-room neighbour, Vika.
Some dancers stare at Joy, whispering to each other. I catch one of them laughing as she mimes the action of taking a picture to her friend. I’m not sure if they are amused or bemused. Regardless, it must be an adjustment for the Russians dancers to have all the attention trained on this young American woman.
I sit with Joy and have a chat with her. She’s a bit tired after having been thrown in to dance the Swan Lake pas de trois in the performance last night, with only two days to rehearse.
“And they only told me yesterday that I was going to be dancing one of the brides in the Second Act. That was crazy.”
She said she was happy with her performance last night, all things considered. I remarked on how expressive I thought she was, recalling her stretching out her hand beseechingly to Siegfried when the prince sees Odile and is drawn to her.
“It’s like, oh no, don’t leave me, come back!” she laughs. “I always end up playing these jilted brides!”
She pulls on a long rehearsal skirt and picks out a pair of well-used pointe shoes in preperation for her next rehearsal.
“They’re Gaynor Mindens.” she says, “I’ve had to sew the front of my current ones to keep my feet from popping out, but my custom Gaynors will be arriving in a few months. I’m really excited!”
Later I watch her rehearse a pas de deux for her upcoming debut in Snow Maiden.
She frets that I wasn’t seeing a more polished product as she’s still learning this piece. But it’s just as enjoyable watching the the process before the polish. To see how the technicalities of partnering are worked out, and how a dancer finds her way with the character and starts to make it her own is a rare treat for outsiders.
Several awkward lifts leads to laughter from all around the room, from Joy, her partner and their coach. It’s a nice change from the somber nature of the class prior.
With rehearsal over, I help Joy carry some of her accoutrements (2 bags, her yoga mat and a foam roller) to the dressing room, where I am introduced to Vika, the dancer with the warm smile. Joy changes out of her leotard into street clothes for an interview with the news team. They’re doing a piece on her in preparation for the Kremlin Ballet’s upcoming tour to China.
We share an elevator down from the dressing room with 2 male dancers, one of whom I recognize as Joy’s ex-husband, Nikita. They don’t say a word to each other, although I catch him staring at us. But I’m guessing it’s probably not common for anyone, Joy included, to be seen chatting away happily in English at the Kremlin theater, much less to a Chinese person.
I decline to accompany Joy into the room where the news crew were waiting, not wanting to get in the way of the interview. Instead I sink into a plush couch to wait. There is some sort of delegation from China visiting the Kremlin on official business, so I don’t look entirely out of place. My legs haven’t had to do anything besides walk and squat today, but I decide to test out her foam roller in the meantime and now I want one too.
Joy re-appears 15 minutes later, and we head off to the train station. Today was supposed to be a day off for her, but she’s come in to do a few hours of work.
Still – “that was a pretty easy day,” she says brightly, as she walks across the sunlit bridge connecting the strange behemoth that is the Kremlin to the rest of the world, her bright orange foam roller tucked underneath one arm.
Pictures, words and animation by Min, Cloud & Victory.
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Visit the Kremlin Ballet at: www.kremlinpalace.org