If you had asked Joy Womack this time last year where she thought her ballet career would take her in 365 (and a quarter) days from then, it’s highly unlikely the answer would be, ‘principal dancer at the Kremlin Ballet’. And yet that’s exactly where she is now. It was where she spent the past few months dancing a season of Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes and Giselles, instead of on the stage of the Roman-columned theatre down the road – the Petrovsky theatre, home to the Bolshoi Ballet she once desperately loved.
Much as Joy’s torrid relationship with the Bolshoi is one she wishes to move on from, it’s hard to distance her from it. It was, for a while, her theatre of dreams. It was the place where she bounced back from rejection by the Kirov Academy in Washington to become one of the first Americans to be accepted into the Bolshoi Academy’s rigorous training programme in Moscow. She graduated as the top student of her year, and achieved another first – the first American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet’s main company. It was a pretty spectacular way to recover from feeling like she was at the bottom of the heap after being told she lacked the requisite facilities to succeed as a dancer.
In that moment when she signed her professional contract with the Bolshoi, you wouldn’t fault Joy if she believed that she finally could stop struggling to prove herself. That all she just had to put on her pointe shoes and work hard, and she would be able to do what she’d always wanted to – dance.
The story quite infamously, quite sadly, did not work out that way. From languishing in the wings for a year with no explanation why, to finally being told she would have to find a rich sponsor to fund her if she wanted to appear on stage – and a host of darker things Joy has alluded to – Joy found herself at the bottom of the heap again, her dreams limp and broken. When the story broke that she was leaving the Bolshoi, along with her reasons why, a torrent of Russian and international media attention and criticism came spilling onto her, like water on a rock. That the Russians hold ballet dear to their hearts was a quality that attracted Joy to Moscow, but now she felt the wrath of it. A young foreigner’s allegations of unsavoury goings-on in one of their most cherished institutions of dance was not well-received by the Russians.
Training and living in a foreign country forces young people to grow up quickly, but at barely 20-years-old, nothing could have prepared her for being in the eye of the storm. So Joy retreated behind the clouds, back to ballet, the solace that had brought her here all the way from Texas. She joined a short Russian ‘tour of stars’, going around to small cities in Europe to dance in galas and concerts. Classes with the Kremlin Ballet led to her being appointed a guest artist. Her principal debut in the role of ‘Masha’ in their production of the Nutcracker followed, and a few months later, so did a contract offer to become a full-time principal.
Not a bad way to bounce back from being left at the bottom of the heap.
The Bolshoi’s Petrovsky theatre is heralded as a triumph of Russian architecture, a neoclassical monolith that celebrates the ancient Greco-Roman Gods. A 30 minute stroll away is the Kremlin Palace Theatre, constructed as a symbol of modernity, a cube of pillars and glass panels. The Bolshoi will probably remain an indelible part of Joy’s career, for better or worse. But – at least for now – her future is with Kremlin Ballet, it’s halls bedecked with Klein blue chairs and illuminated with the bright glow of neon lights.
C&V SESSIONS WITH JOY WOMACK
What did you have for breakfast?
My normal, which is a coconut cream latte. It’s so good! I have the same thing every day when I’m in Moscow. I go to the same coffeeshop, and the barista makes this drink especially. It’s half-milk, half-cream with coconut syrup, and it’s a latte.
What do you wish you had for breakfast?
Rice porridge with homemade raspberry jam. That’s a win for me.
How old were you when you started ballet?
I did Mommy & me when I was young, but I started doing ballet classes 3 times a week when I was 6 or 7.
Do you remember what led you to becoming more serious about ballet?
I have a distinct memory of taking Mommy & Me classes, and doing the exercise where we have to jump over puddles. The feeling of going up into the air and thinking I won’t come down. That feeling of flying in the air. That’s what got me into ballet – the idea of feeling that way at every class.
When did you know you wanted to do it professionally?
After I saw a performance of the Bolshoi in LA. I was 8 or 9, and my mum explained to me that this wasn’t an after-school thing for these people, this was an actual job for them. I thought, ‘that’s the job that I want to have. That what I was going to do.”
I also told my mum I wanted to be a ballerina spy. That half my job would be dancing and half would be spying. I was going to be a girl James Bond but more kickass. An international famous super spy, but also a famous dancer. I didn’t understand that if you were a super spy, you couldn’t be famous.
You were accepted to the Kirov Academy, but you experienced some struggles there. Apparently people said that you weren’t flexible enough?
I was in the same class as Patti [Staatsballett Berlin corps member Patricia Zhou], and I would look at her and go, “Oh my gosh she’s so perfect!”
She was so perfect, she has perfect turnout and the teachers there loved her. She was getting all the main roles, and I was there in the corner, trying to stretch. The teachers would tell me I was so turned in. I didn’t have the best coordination or the best turnout, and they didn’t think I could make it as a dancer.
I was wishing I could be like Patti, she was so perfect.
Joy Womack for Cloud & Victory
It must have been discouraging for you. How did you manage to keep yourself motivated during that time?
It was so hard. There was Patti, and Ainsley Sorenson and Deana Pearsson, these girls who were winning YAGP and getting all the laurels and I wished I could be as perfect as them.
And I think I was really motivated because I wanted it so bad, and when you aren’t given something and you see a picture of what it could be, you know, that’s the dream.
Did you ever think about giving up?
Definitely. I just wanted someone to believe in me. I just wanted the opportunity to work as hard as they did. For someone to say I was good enough.
Did you manage to find that person?
It wasn’t until I got to Russia. I think my teacher at the Kirov, she really pushed me but she wasn’t allowed to work just with me. There were other girls. And to be brutally honest, I wasn’t good enough.
It wasn’t until I met my teacher at the Bolshoi Academy, Natalya Arkhipova. She really took a risk on me.
And you ended up graduating from the Bolshoi Academy with the prestigious Red Diploma. Could you explain what that is?
It’s like straight As for everything. Which is crazy. I don’t know how that’s possible.
They’re not given out very often, are they?
Yes, there was only one other girl in class who got it. We had to work our asses off to get that Red Diploma. Because to get it you had to get As in ballet and in academics.
I thought I wasn’t going to get it at one point. I had a history exam in Russian, and the examiner was really anti-foreigner. She told me she wasn’t going to give me an easy time just because I was a foreigner. I had to do the same exam as the Russians, and Russian history of WWII is a bit different. Some of the dates are different, and it’s kind of a touchy subject there. So she was testing me, and I ended up taking the exam twice. The first time, she told me I was giving the American position on WWII, and I had to give the Russian position.
I think it was thanks to God that she let me take it again.
Joy at the Perm Arabesque Competition
Given how infamously gruelling the Russian system is, how did you manage to juggle the academics with your dancing to earn yourself those high marks?
I woke up really early in the morning, and I would do a lot homework and stretching at the early hours. I would get a bit discouraged because it took me so much longer to do things. I thought my Russian classmates had such an easy life, because they could have their evenings and mornings free. Whereas with school work, I would have to work out the answers in English and translate into Russian.
Did you and the rest of the international students help each other out?
See, I didn’t hang out that much with the international students. I kind of kept myself apart because I wanted to learn Russian, and so I guess I ostracised myself in a sense. Daniel [Dolan] and I would hang out, but if you were to ask him, he would say I was in my own little world. I was just pushing myself, and it’s bittersweet because I didn’t have a life in a sense beyond ballet and school. But I’m grateful because I wouldn’t be where I am now otherwise.
We still had fun times though. The English guys were crazy!
A lot of English and American dancers go to Russia to train, and they become very attached to Russian ballet. People like you and Mario Labrador and Dan all want to dance professionally in Russia, instead of going back to your home countries and dance. What do you think inspired this reverence for Russian ballet?
That’s a great question. I think your eyes become open to what ballet is. We have a very watered-down perception of what theatre and ballet is in the USA. And part of me wants to open up the eyes, for people to see what dance is in Russia.
In the US, dance companies work 4 productions a season if they’re lucky, if they have a good budget. Performances go in blocks, and dancers spend most of their time in the rehearsal process.
In Russia, we’re performing most of the time. We have performances every week from September to July. It’s a live repertoire. The theatre is a living organism, and there’s so much opportunity to dance because there are so many performances. The ranking and the competition isn’t stagnant like it is in the US.
And I feel like so many great and talented artists in the US spend so much time sitting in the ranks of the corps, and they have less opportunities to dance.
And I think what Mario and Daniel and I have loved about Russia is that the teachers and people are so alive and so passionate about their art form. The traditions are so real, it’s literally oral history. My teacher’s teacher was the famous Ekaterina Maximova, and she would tell me how Maximova taught her to do it. And then I tried it out and it works, and I’ve done 4 pirouettes all of a sudden.
And the aesthetic and …the stakes are higher. There’s no room for no-turnout-legs. Such attention to detail is so hardcore.
Photo: Sergei Gavrilov
So for you it’s worth it to be where this pure form of ballet is. Even though it means being away from home, potentially earning less money than you would in your home country.
Giving up more benefits, a more comfortable life in a sense. Yeah. I was watching – the other day – about how the Royal Ballet has a great injury prevention program.
The sports science one? That looked amazing.
I was thinking it would be so great if we had that in Russia. How the dancers could be even better we that sort of support.
I think there’s less knowledge in Russia about health and that sort of thing. Russia is ahead in a lot of things, but that would be one thing I would love to see change in the next 5 to 10 years. More awareness of the health and the well-being of dancers. Because mental health is not necessarily the priority at all compared to America.
So I would say to sum up ballet in Russia, that aesthetic is a top priority in Russia. Aesthetic over health.
This is such a sensitive topic, so if you don’t mind answering – would you say that’s true with diet and weight as well?
Definitely. I would say that’s one of the most intense pressures – that if you don’t look the part, you’re not going to get the part. And they’re very candid about it. My teachers would say, “congratulations, you look skinnier!”
And for someone who has struggled with eating issues, that’s definitely a trigger. And it was discussed very openly – even between people who aren’t friends. “Oh, you’re looking skinnier.”
I had someone say this to me the other day – “Joy, you’re looking good, but sometimes you really fluctuate. Your cheeks look fat sometimes.”
How do you handle that? As you said, aesthetics are important in Russian ballet, but you have to balance that with being healthy.
I mean, I’d be lying to say it isn’t a struggle. Anybody who’s had eating disorders in the past knows it’s a one-day battle. Some days you win and some days you lose.
But the most important thing is to understand that you are worthy – regardless of a number on the scale. You are worthy because there is a God above who love you. You are worthy because you are a person, and you either love to dance or you don’t love to dance.
The barre is the great equaliser – anybody can come to the ballet barre, and you have to do the same exercises, and you have to decide what you’re going to do with that. When you look at yourself at the mirror [in the studio], don’t look at yourself with hate and disgust. Marvel at the fact that you’re up, one day more, having the privilege to put your hand at the barre.
It’s a struggle, but be grateful you’re alive to have that struggle. That gives me strength to go on.
There’s a documentary being made about you, called Searching for Perfection. Are they still filming it?
They’re still working on it, with all my crazy schedule it’s hard to fit. There’s going to be a second part to the first part, Searching for Perfection, that’s already filmed. The second part is going to be a lot more raw, I think, and it will be an interesting story. Because not all fairytales are sparkly.
Yes, because their website frames it as a story about you and your ex-husband Nikita. But you guys are on different paths now.
It’s going to be very raw and very real. It’s a story about life, and life when you take the filter off.
Isn’t that scary for you – to put that out in the public for everyone to see?
I think that it’s always scary when you take the editing out of things. When you stop trying to make yourself look good, and hopefully people will accept you for who you are. The thing that gives me courage to do it is that maybe my courage to be open about my story will give other people courage to be open about their stories. That’s why I want to do that.
I think there’s a part that they’re showing in the film about my first dress rehearsal for my début with the Kremlin. That day was really crazy because my partner broke his knee and there’s a moment where I have a nervous breakdown on stage, like, “I can’t do it, what am I going to do.”
Any my teachers is like [claps hands], “no. Keep going.”
Do you have any idea when it will be coming out?
I think we’re going to be filming next year as well. It’s a bigger project this time.
Let’s talk a bit about to Bolshoi. There are a lot of misconceptions flying around, so is it okay if we talk about it to try to set the record straight?
When you graduated from the Bolshoi Academy, you were offered a soloist contract with the Mikhailovsky. After that the Bolshoi approached you. How did you decide to work for the Bolshoi?
When you graduate from the Academy, you do different auditions, depending on who saw you in your graduations exams. I had an audition with the Bolshoi and the Mikhailovsky. I was advised to take the Mikhailovsky offer by my school. But the Bolshoi for me was what I wanted more .
In hindsight, the wiser decision would have been to take the Mikhailovsky offer. That being said, I’m grateful for the lessons and the decisions being made. I think life is the path you chose.
And the Bolshoi – I loved working there. The calibre of the dancers is amazing. To be able to take class with Olga Smirnova and Svetlana Zakharova and Nina Kaptsova almost every day – I’ll never forget those experiences and hold them dear to my heart.
And my wonderful teacher, [former Soviet ballerina] Marina Viktorovna Kontradieva. Such an amazing teacher. So filled with wisdom. It broke my heart when the whole situation happened. I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life. I’m still using her corrections. I’m sad that we had so little time together, but you have to make these decisions for what’s better for your career. She even told me that I need to go and dance.
Joy Womack & Mario Labrador modelling for Cloud & Victory
The Bolshoi must have seen something in you to offer you a contract. Especially since hiring an American was unprecedented. Do you know what they liked about you?
I think they saw in me – just on the paper – I was the top graduate that year in my school. And the top graduate of the year is taken into the company. And Marina, she saw me in the audition and watched me in class for a week and she saw potential in me, and thought I would be a good artist. And what I think was really great is that they weren’t looking at nationality, which is so important.
Most people think it didn’t work out because I was American. No – that’s the thing about ballet and about these great institutions. They’re not looking at nationality, they’re just looking at potential and where they can fit you in the repertoire. Unfortunately that gets involved afterwards. When you get into the complications of “how do we take her on to work”, that’s when it gets complicated.
I don’t think anyone in the artistic field was at fault in the situation.
So they offered you a soloist contract?
For me, I would guess they offered me a soloist contract. Because that was the way they could take me into the company for legal reasons. So we don’t know what they were thinking.
I still don’t know to this day what the plan was, and that’s what was sort of disappointing – it was just all very confusing from a legal standpoint. Just because it hadn’t been done before.
Was the expectation then that you would be dancing soloist roles or corps roles?
Well I just wanted to dance in the corps. I was like, put me holding a spear and I’ll be happy! I just wanted to work my way from the bottom up. And my teacher was rehearsing with me soloist stuff, and she was like, “maybe we can just do 2 girls, 3 girls”.
Never … not anything main. More talented girls who come into the company are given small soloist little things and then they are gradually given more and more, and that’s all my teacher wanted to do.
What happened was that that they just didn’t put me on, and because of some technical or legal thing they wouldn’t put me on stage. So it was a year of just rehearsing and rehearsing and doing nothing.
Were the legal reasons mainly what prevented you from going on?
Nobody would tell me. And I would ask – is it because I wasn’t good enough? The director came and watched me rehearse and he would say, “no, that’s very good. She’s good. We should put her in.” And when it came down to the actual casting they wouldn’t do it.
Even your teacher didn’t know what was going on.
She didn’t understand, yeah. And I would ask her whether it was because I wasn’t a good learner. And she said no, I learnt everything. And I went to every rehearsal and I took 2 classes a day. People would tell me, “Joy you are talented, why aren’t you doing anything?”
The first 6 months I thought it was because I was new. But then when the people who came into the Bolshoi with me started dancing, and I wasn’t doing anything… it was so weird.
Did the self-doubt start creeping in?
Definitely. I was so depressed. So depressed. I would watch every performance and it came to the point where I would be like a stone. And then I would go home and cry. Wondering if I was not good enough. It was a dark time.
Joy’s principal debut with the Kremlin Ballet, playing Masha in the Nutcracker
On one hand you had these struggles, and on the other hand there were all these magazines and people who wanted to interview you. You’ve always tried to be a good role model, and you had to try to be positive. How did you manage to find to that within you?
I tried to be grateful for the fact that I was there and getting to take class with all these amazing people. I kept thinking that I had to make it work somehow because all these girls were looking up to me and I felt the pressure of the place where I had put myself. I thought I had to do it, because I said I was going to do it. And it was this incredible amount of pressure I put on myself, to be the girl that did it when everyone said she couldn’t. And God forbid if I don’t do it – people would say I told you so.
It finally got to a point where I had to be honest – the system was broken. And I was either going to be part of a broken system or go somewhere else. And it came down to the fact that I just had to say no. I’m not going to sacrifice myself to something that is immoral. And I wasn’t proud to say I was proud of the Bolshoi any more. I couldn’t do it with a clean conscience.
It’s in the past. It still goes on there, but that’s that company. That’s the way they’ve done things, and that’s the way they’ll continue to do things. And it doesn’t matter about who says what. It’s better to focus on the positive.
Why did you decide to go public, given that it would put such a big target on you and your career?
I wasn’t going to go public with it until I left the theatre and like, 5 years had passed! But a woman who knew my story, who was in the same dressing room as me, found out I was going on a tour for a week without internet. And she gave my interview to a Russian newspaper and they published it.
She pretended to be you?
No necessarily pretended to be me. She did it out of the kindness of her heart. She really loved me, and she watched me struggle for a year. And she was in support of a person who was being wrongly accused. It was the time when Filin was going to give his testimony for the trial (against the alleged perpetrators of an acid attack on him) and she was like, “well this will be a curve ball to throw at the Filin crew. Joy’s story needs to be told.”
And she was told me I had to go to the press until I made things okay and safe. Because it was really a dangerous time. I was fearing for my life. So this woman went to the press.
So I get back from tour, I get on the metro, and there’s my picture blown up on the tabloids. It was so scary. I was being followed. And that was when I decided I needed to set the record straight with the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Oh gosh. Why didn’t you go home to your family, to America where it was safe?
It was a really difficult time. But I felt like God was still calling me to be here [in Russia]. And that was made clear for me when I went on a tour to these small cities in Russia. And I started to dance these galas. And it was something magical. It transformed me, and I knew my work wasn’t done it Russia.
How did it transform you – would you mind elaborating?
There’s a wonderful city – they call it the gateway to the North Pole. It’s called Arkhangelsk – Archangel in Russian, basically. And it’s amazing place where there’s snow on the beach. And I remember walking through the snow on the beach, and just thinking, “Lord, this country is so big and I’ve gone through all this crap and yet I’m still dancing. And there’s snow on the beach.”
Because that was one of those things – when I was little I would ask my mum why couldn’t I see snow on the beach. When you grow up in Los Angeles you dream of snow for Christmas. And there was snow on the beach that night, which for me symbolised that even when things are really crazy, that the Lord still answers your prayers.
And the thing is that I was not dancing and not dancing, and when all this crap happened, suddenly I started dancing.
I was in limbo at the time. I didn’t know where I was going to be. And there’s this 6”4 amazing dancer saying I was a good dancer, and I was just happy to be on-stage.
How did you then come to work with the Kremlin?
It took me coming to the theatre and wondering whether I was going to work there or not. Because I wasn’t a Russian citizen and they are not able to take any foreigners. And I basically had to come do class everyday, rehearse and hope they could take me. The director offered me a position straight away. He said if I came to the theatre I would dance. I would become a ballerina. And I had to work in good faith that things would come true.
He gave me my first role and watched me dance it and said he would take me. I thought he was going to take me as a second soloist or something, and then I got the contract and it’s like, principal. There’s only 3 or 4 other people who have that position in my company. I think that shows a lot because here you don’t get that right away. You have to work for 5 or 6 years and I would have been fine doing that. And it shows that they wanted to challenge me further.
It brings stability – to know that someone’s not going to take the stage away from me, which is my deepest fear.
Joy as Gamzatti, in La Bayadère with Kim Kimin
Photo: Ramis Nazmiev
Even though the Kremlin is a smaller company, it still manages to be very prolific. You seem be working a lot!
The great thing about my teacher is that she’s a great network-er. So if we have more of a dry spell she sends me to other cities to perform in galas. I take the overnight train, get there in the morning, go right into classes and rehearsals, dance, and then take the overnight train back. It’s little to no sleep. It’s kinda crazy, but I’m having fun.
What’s a typical day like at the moment?
Normally I get up at 6 and go to yoga – although I’m not doing that now because I injured my foot and I have to be careful. Yoga goes 7.30am to 9am, and then I get on the metro with my latte and get to the Kremlin at about 9.30. Then I stretch for an hour before class. After class we usually have rehearsals. And then an hour break and then more rehearsals usually end at around 7pm. If there’s a performance I get done with rehearsals around 4 and I get ready for my performance, which goes from about 7 – 10.
But when I’m touring, which I’ve been doing a lot lately, it’s a different schedule.
What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a dancer?
One of my strengths, I think, is that I like to be expressive and that I can dance different kinds of repertoire, from the technically demanding Kitri to something more lyrical. And I’m really determined to work hard. I’m proud of the fact that I like to work hard.
The things I don’t like about myself are my arms. I think I have really spazzy arms and I’d love to be more calm and hopefully build up a stability. To be more relaxed on stage.
And turnout! Always.
Do you still have bad days?
Oh definitely. Recently in Kazan, I was supposed to dance as Gamzatti at a gala with Kimin Kim, and I had a fever of 39 on the day. They had to give me an injection.
And I danced so badly and I felt so incompetent. I just didn’t do everything the way I wanted to, because it was so difficult with my illness.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I just didn’t want to be doing it, and how could I not want to go on stage? I just wanted to sleep and I wanted to rest, but this was the day I had been waiting for! To dance with Kim Kimin! He’s so beautiful and perfect! Look at him, he’s so serious and his pirouettes are perfect and he’s flying! And I was sick and I had snot coming out of my nose. And I could see his face just … Kimin was not impressed.
Well, the pictures from the performance all looked very beautiful!
The video will never see the light of day!
What helps you get through the hard times?
Well, sometimes tom yum soup helps. Second, the fact that time heals everything. And to trust the fact that you will have up days and bad days.
And humour. And Jimmy Fallon. To be able to laugh at yourself.
And finally, at the end of the day, what sort of dancer would you like to be remembered as?
I would like to be a dancer that’s remember as being different. One that not only moves people but one with a message, and that message that was visible on stage. Not just run of the mill, but someone who was special.
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Text: Min, Cloud & Victory