As soon as Daniel Dolan graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, the British media swooped in. “What next?” everyone wanted to know.
Dan is one of the select few British dancers that have been accepted to train at the Bolshoi’s academy since it’s inception, and only the second British man to graduate from the academy. It’s only natural that his admission in to the academy in 2009 and his recent graduation would attract the UK media’s attention – they were more than happy to dub him the ‘real life Billy Elliot’.
It is hard enough for Russian nationals to survive the grueling training regime of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, where the only acceptable standard is perfection. It is even harder when you are a young Briton from a rugby-crazed town with little knowledge of the Russian language or culture. That Dan has successfully completed his final exams at the Bolshoi is not just testament to his abilities as a dancer, but his tenacity, adaptability and willingness to learn.
What comes through during our conversation with Dan is a maturity characteristic of young dancers who train away from their home country. More so than that, he displays a remarkable clarity regarding the direction he would like to take with his professional career, and the type of dancer he would like to be.
Dan is aware that time is of the essence in the brief career of a professional ballet dancer. But at the same time he seems to recognize that as a young dancer he still has time to grow, and that being patient and considering your options can be the sensible move – rather than grabbing at the first opportunity that comes his way, which can be tempting in an industry where jobs are scarce. He ‘s also good humoured enough to take some ribbing from us about his favourite football team.
The life of a dancer is fraught with uncertainties. They have to take it day by day, performance by performance, contract by contract. But Dan seems to possess both the capabilities as a dancer and a wisdom that will stand him in good stead. Like the British media, we can’t wait to find out what’s next.
C&V SESSIONS WITH DAN DOLAN.
What did you have for breakfast?
Caramel macchiato and half a chocolate muffin. Like most dancers, I don’t like eating too much before class. But I eat a lot after!
At the Bolshoi Academy we get weighed once every 3 months, but with the amount of training we do, I can’t eat enough.
What did you wish you had for breakfast instead?
A full English breakfast cooked by my mum. It’s such a treat, and mum’s cooking is always the best.
You started ballet at 4, after following your sister to class. What made you continue on with ballet after that?
At the beginning it was just to compete with my sister and beat her! But by the time I was 10, it really because a part of me. It was all I knew what to do.
I began to appreciate and love doing it. I was dancing all the time.
When did you decide that you wanted to become a professional dancer?
When I auditioned for my high school. Unlike girls, boys don’t grow up dreaming of becoming a ballerina. It was more of a hobby. But when I auditioned for my performing arts high school, I realised that I wanted to do this.
What else did you enjoy in your high school, besides ballet?
I liked doing everything – jazz, tap, everything! Being in a performing arts school gave me a good grounding in all aspects of dance, which is important because ballet dancers nowadays have to be very versatile.
Tap is so different from ballet! You have to be much looser in tap than in ballet. How did you fare at it?
I was terrible at tap, even though it was one of the things I enjoyed the most. I was not made for tap! Everything else came very naturally. I did get better, after many years or practice.
Did you receive any flak for being a male ballet dancer?
Everyone at my school danced, so I was shielded from this sort of negative criticism.
I was the only male ballet dancer in my town though. It was a very rugby-oriented town. But I kind of had the opposite effect on my friends.
After I started dancing, my primary school friends started going to lessons as well! Instead of getting flak from my friends, they became very interested and supportive of my dancing.
So ballet is harder than rugby?
Describe your audition process for the Bolshoi Academy. After you submitted your initial audition tape, did you have to go for any callbacks or auditions?
The Academy made the decision to accept me based on my video. But after I was accepted, I was on probation for a few weeks. If the Academy decides they don’t like you, they will get rid of you after this probation period.
There was also an exam during Christmas time that I had to pass in order to continue training with the Academy.
Those first few weeks must have been a very intense period!
It was. 3 of us boys started with the Academy, and by the second week one of them had dropped out. At the Bolshoi, they put you under so much pressure that if you can’t handle it you will crack. They don’t have to tell you to leave – you’ll leave on your own accord.
I didn’t speak a word of Russian then, which made it much harder. It was probably a good thing though – not understanding what my teachers were saying relieved a bit of the stress!
The pressure must sounds insane. Did they manage to make you cry?
Oh, of course I cried. It was insane. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was very emotionally and physically strenuous.
Considering how hard you were pushed during your every moment at the Bolshoi Academy, how did you manage not to burn out?
I think I’m lucky to be quite well grounded. I know there are always a million things I can improve on. It’s the people who come in thinking they’re going to be the next Svetlana Zakharova who can’t take it.
At the Academy, you have to stay focused on what you want, and be willing to go back to the basics. You always need to know there’s someone better than you, even when you’re a professional. If you already think you’re the best, you’ll never make it.
The Russians are very nationalistic about their ballet. They treasure their local ballet culture and their Russian dancers.
But the Bolshoi Academy has also admitted a few more foreigners recently. During your time there, there was yourself, Natalie [Carter] and Hayley [Stobo] from the UK, and Joy [Womack] and Mario [Labrador] from the US. Do you think this signals a shift in the Russian attitude towards foreign dancers?
I think they’re slowly coming around. There’s David Hallberg at the Bolshoi, but of course he’s incredible.
I think us internationals are improving as well. The Bolshoi obviously doesn’t accept many foreign dancers. There are still very few of us, and even if you’re there you have to be one of the best to succeed.
They already have such good dancers in their own country that they have little reason to take in internationals.
I think there has to be a good mix of international and local talent in a company. There shouldn’t be more internationals than locals in countries like Britain.
Were your teachers and Russian peers harder on your because you were a foreigner?
You have to prove that you’re willing to work.
They’re only hard on you if you’re not prepared to work as hard as them. If you don’t have the same work ethic as them, they will want you to leave.
My teacher appreciated that I worked hard and kept pushing. I was incredibly well looked after.
How did you have to cope with the bad days?
Oh there are always bad days! It’s probably 50-50 bad versus good days!
But bad days make the good days worth it. To appreciate the highs, you have to have the lows.
That’s what they do at the Bolshoi Academy: the lower they push you, the higher you can bounce back – provided you bounce back! Sometimes you have to hit the lows are created by your teachers and your peers to challenge yourself to get to the high points.
Dan rocking it out on stage.
Flexibility is highly prized among Russian female dancers. Is it similarly valued with the males?
Flexibility was definitely a big part of my training. I’ve improved thousand fold in my flexibility since I went to the academy. In my first year, I had gymnastics training – tumbling and all.
What other qualities does the Bolshoi emphasize in male dancers?
Well, technique of course. There is emphasis to achieve a technical standard that wasn’t possible several years ago. Every position has to be perfect.
In other places, dancers are sometimes allowed to stay in their comfort zone. But in Russia they strive for perfection. If it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.
The males have to have an improbable amount of strength. Not just in partnering, but they aim for their jumps to be higher than most other companies, for instance.
At every graduation at the Bolshoi Academy, the dancers get better and better. It’s scary to think what new heights they will take ballet to in the future.
Any Russian food you have taken a liking to?
Borsch! It’s clichéd but it’s true. And black bread. I also like kasha, which is a Russian porridge. I ate it every day for breakfast in Russia.
Amy Dolan, your sister, not only introduced you to ballet, she filmed your audition tape as well. Is it safe to say that you owe your entire ballet career to her?
I probably do, yeah! I wouldn’t be dancing if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t tell her that though!
She’s a very supportive sister and I’m very lucky to have her.
Does she still dance?
She had a condition that prevented her from continuing to dance. She was obviously very distraught at the time, but she has continued onto the management side of ballet. She worked for the Royal Ballet, and is now currently working with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.
She has done amazingly well at turning her life around.
So can she get you in on that Matthew Bourne tour?
I would never work with my sister! We agreed on this a long time ago. We’re much too competitive. We support each other, but we’ll never work together!
It’s remarkable to have two siblings achieving professional success in the dance industry. It’s not quite what your parents had envisioned for you, is it?
Not at all! My parents do not have dance-related jobs, and my dad coaches rugby. But ballet is an addiction.
I think it’s good that I had two very normal parents, because they never pushed me into doing it. And it’s much more worthwhile when you do things for yourself, not for someone else. I dance for myself.
Though obviously, I try to impress my parents as well!
What has been the proudest moment of your dance career so far?
The first time I danced on the Bolshoi stage in my first year. It was in La fille mal gardée. I danced a soloist role as a gypsy dancer. There was a live orchestra playing this incredible introduction, and I opened with a big jump onto the stage.
That was the moment I realised it was a dream come true.
What are your future plans and projects?
There have been opportunities from a number of places, including Russia and Berlin, which is very exciting! I’ve also filmed an episode for a BBC series about ballet in Britain. I was narrating the episode, which is quite a different experience for me! If I’m on camera I’m usually the one being interviewed!
I’ve taken classes at the Singapore Dance Theatre, and for a smaller company the dancers here have really impressed me. It would be a nice experience to dance in Singapore for a while.
I also hope to dance at the Royal Ballet.
I’m hoping to try and dance in many theaters as I can. I’m only 20, and I hope to learn as many techniques as possible. I want to be a dancer who can do everything, because that’s what companies want.
I don’t want to end up getting lost in a big company before I’m ready. I want to learn as much as possible.
You look at someone like Baryshnikov – he danced everything and everywhere. He’s always trying to improve, even until today.
Exactly! He’s my idol. His dancing doesn’t look dated because he keeps progressing. That’s what I want to do.
Dan is currently dancing with the Lithuanian National Ballet. He was so enthusiastic about our ‘Boogie like Baryshnikov’ manshirt when it was still in development that we knew had to make it happen. Cheers Dan!
We’ll be posting Dan’s answers to our quickfire questions on Monday.