Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

230 Years of Training Stars for the Bolshoi

APA teacher making her rounds during a lesson at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography. A child's weight, height and general health are key to enrollment.
Sweets are frowned upon, classes are held six days a week and students taller than 138 centimeters are discouraged from applying.

Such is the regime that the Moscow State Academy of Choreography has relied on for 230 years -- outlasting both the tsars and the Communists -- to train dancers for the Bolshoi Theater.

"We take a student and we uncover their talent," said director Marina Leonova, a former dancer who wears her hair in a tight bun like her students.

Teachers acknowledge that weight and height rules are strict, though weight restrictions have been loosened somewhat because a pudgy 10-year-old can still grow into a slim teenager.

The state-funded school, known by the acronym MGAKh, is so confident in its teaching ability that when choosing a prospective student, teachers readily admit that "talent and ability" are not the primary criteria. They are looking for a physical form -- even masked by preadolescent chubbiness -- that can be molded into a ballet master.

That tradition dates back to the school's founding in 1773, when a St. Petersburg dancer volunteered his services to teach Moscow orphans how to dance, boldly linking his salary to the number of top-tier dancers he created. Two dozen new ballet soloists were born -- far above anyone's expectations. Today, MGAKh encompasses almost an entire city block at 5 2nd Frunzenskaya Ulitsa. It has 538 students, including about 50 foreigners, primarily from Asia.

Music floats out onto the street from the second-floor practice halls. Inside, Yelena Barsheva gently adjusts heads and arms as her class of young boys slide gracefully across the wooden floor, sweat staining their white tank-tops.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

MGAKh students performing a pas des trois. Sixteen graduates were accepted by the Bolshoi last year.

In the corridors, slipper-clad students race past photographs of alumni, ballet greats such as Natalia Bessmertnova and Vladimir Vasiliev.

Natalya Osipova, a petite and soft-spoken 17-year-old, hopes to add her name to the list. She has already won an international ballet award and is a favorite among her teachers, but Osipova modestly acknowledges that it would be nice "to simply dance on the Bolshoi stage."

During the Soviet period, the Kremlin's shadow fell heavily over the Bolshoi, whose dancers were the pride of the state. The fall of communism gave the Bolshoi greater artistic freedom, but also new challenges: how to maintain the ballet's proud traditions even as government coffers dried up.

One thing that never dried up, though, were the scores of young girls who dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Boys, however, have increasingly become harder to attract. When evaluating prospective students, Leonova said a child's physical characteristics, particularly weight, height and general health, are key. All students must also tryout or send a tape.

While not all the students graduate, a bright future awaits many. Currently, all the Bolshoi Theater's soloists are alumni and last year 16 MGAKh students were accepted to the Bolshoi.

Asked what the school's secret is, its directors point at Leonid Zhdanov, a lively 76-year-old teacher who danced on the Bolshoi's stage for 20 years. "What star ballerina hasn't he held in his arms," Leonova said. "His knowledge and experience span generations."