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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Love Leads the Way to Career in Choreography

MTEric Conrad is a guest choreographer at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater Academy.
The windfall that Eric Conrad made during the 1990s Internet boom gave the California native freedom to travel. Meeting a girl in St. Petersburg then set him on a course to become a guest choreographer at Moscow's renowned Bolshoi Theater academy of dance.

"You don't come here to do ballet," the tall, soft-spoken Conrad said in a recent interview. "Oil or real estate maybe. But not ballet. There is no money in it."

All the same, Conrad, 32, isn't about to abandon ballet and return to his old business career. "I can't imagine doing anything else," he said.

Lacking the characteristically sinewy look of a dancer, it is only Conrad's measured hand gestures that betray his connection to the dance world. Precise movements like these are normally a byproduct of years of arduous training, but dance did not even enter Conrad's mind until after he turned 18.

"I took my first dance class because of a girl," he said, recalling that the dance course's predominantly female student body seemed like a good reason to enroll.

Conrad said the class made him realize he enjoyed dance, whether girls were present or not. Although he continued studying business administration at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, evening dance classes became part of his regular routine. In 1996, he co-founded Webvibe, which managed high-tech contractors, acting as a third-party vendor for the KPMG consultancy. In 1999, just before the Internet startup bust, KPMG bought out Webvibe.

He traded computers for dance shoes and went to St. Petersburg in 2000 for a summer seminar at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, where the star-studded alumni list reads like a history-of-dance primer: Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Conrad decided to stay beyond the two-week seminar to take additional private lessons from the school's renowned teachers.

"The intensity is a lot higher here," Conrad said, referring to the grueling studio work.

In the United States, male dancers are expected to do three to four jump combinations per class. But they do 10 to 12 such combinations per class in Russia, he said.

Intensive training was not his only reason for sticking around the northern capital, however. There was also a girl, of course.

"I had these romantic ideas about life and about Russia," he said. Falling for a ballerina in her final year at Vaganova fit Conrad's picture of Russia perfectly.

He stayed in St. Petersburg until 2002, taking pedagogy classes at the academy. Conrad went on a brief jaunt to the United States the following year to teach ballet, but returned to Russia less than a year later.

"Most people don't want to really dance. They just want to feel like they are dancing," he said of his teaching experience in Boston and New York.

Conrad decided to move to Moscow, where his favorite Vaganova ballerina had come to work at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater. "I like taking risks," he said.

When the two split up, Conrad decided to stay in Moscow.

His first big break here came nearly two years later, when the dean of the classical male and duet dance department at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy decided to give him a try. Until then, he had been doing freelance choreography for student competitions and one-off projects for dance groups.

Dean Alexander Bondarenko, whom Conrad had met through his contacts at the Stanislavsky theater, gave him several professional dancers and a week to show what he could do as a choreographer, Conrad recalled. What was his inspiration for setting an original combination to Beethoven's score?

"My inspiration was, I wanted to get a break," Conrad said.

Conrad said he was accepted as a guest choreographer by the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, creating a one-act neoclassical ballet called Generation X.

"We don't have enough modern choreography of this kind," Bondarenko said, adding that despite the academy's worldwide renown, it finds established foreign choreographers are often too expensive to hire as guest teachers. Conrad is a young choreographer, but he proved himself fine, Bondarenko said.

In addition to "Generation X," which Conrad hopes to take on tour to the United States in December, he said his work included numerous variations for students to perform at dance competitions the world over.

"They spend eight years on the same movements," he said, adding that he aimed to make students come alive as performers, not merely well-trained clones.

Teaching dance in a country with such a rich classical ballet tradition has been humbling, Conrad said, but it also brought him into contact with a hyper-competitive and sometimes-cutthroat professional environment.

To Conrad, making it means founding his own dance company. He is in the process of establishing Prodigy, a school and youth ballet company, with groups in Moscow, New York and Los Angeles.

"I don't like to compromise in art. In life or in business -- OK, but not in art," Conrad said.