Photo Gallery: The Merciless World of Moscow Ballet

Foto: © Denis Sinyakov / Reuters/ REUTERS

East-West Story The Parallel Lives of Two World-Class Dancers

Joy Womack is from California, Sergei Polunin from a poor city in Ukraine. One went East to pursue a career in ballet, the other West. For both, talent has proven to be a double-edged sword.

When she appears, the other dancers strike a quiet pose. She takes off, jumps and does a split mid-air in a swirl of white tulle. Her movements seem effortless, as if she requires no momentum at all -- not even a chance to catch her breath. She imperiously raises an arm, liberating the others from their paralysis. They fall into line behind her and follow her steps, for she is Myrtha, their leader, the Queen of the Ghost Girls in the ballet "Giselle."

En pointe, with her head held high, the queen receives a round of applause. Then she glides away.

Backstage, she lets herself fall on a yoga mat, panting and sweating. After a short pause, she's back to being Joy Womack, a 21-year-old from Santa Monica, California. In her company, the Kremlin Ballet Theater, she is one of the select few who dances solo. She is the first American to perform here, behind the walls of the Kremlin.

The stage is located in the former Kremlin Palace of Congresses, an imposing monument to Soviet architecture with more than 800 rooms, located just 150 meters (492 feet) away from Vladimir Putin's office. In Soviet times, the enormous theater hall was also used to entertain Communist Party elites with ballet. Even today, the hammer and sickle can be found adorning the walls. The performances have been public since 1990.

Womack crouches on her mat. She's a petite, wiry woman with brown curls pinned up high and dramatic makeup. She presses her lips together and stares at the floor. Her leg is hurting -- and the timing couldn't be worse.

No one can know. She would keep dancing even if she had a broken foot. It wouldn't be the first time. She was practicing all morning, right up until the show. And she hardly ate anything all day. What keeps her going is a mixture of adrenaline, caffeine and willpower.

Other dancers are scurrying around backstage, whispering and giggling. It's not as bad as it was at the beginning, back when Womack didn't understand any Russian. But she's still a stranger, even now.

She gets up and hurries back to the stage. She doesn't look at anyone and no one says anything to her. She straightens her shoulders and runs into the spotlight.

Dreams of Ballet Stardom

She lives for these moments. Womack is in Moscow because she wants to be one of the world's best dancers. She moved a lot closer to achieving her dream when, six years ago, she left the United States for the first time and traveled to Russia on her own. Today she is a prima ballerina in the ballet capital of the world. But she's still a bit shy of reaching her goal. Being here is a fight for survival. She is, as CNN reported in April, "the American dancing in the Kremlin for $8 a day."

"Well," says Sergei Polunin, "I assume she agreed to these conditions herself." He has never met Womack. They come from different worlds. He hails from the East, while she is from the West. Yet theirs are similar stories of talent, the quest for perfection and childhoods that never were. Their lives are filled with agony and intoxication, triumph and defeat.

Polunin, 25, is probably the most talented dancer of his generation. Critics compare him to Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer of the century. He was 19 when London's Royal Ballet conscripted him as the youngest First Soloist in its history. Today, Polunin gets to pick which world stage he wants to dance on. In the same week, he'll also be performing in Moscow at another staging of "Giselle" -- at the Bolshoi Theater, whose dance troupe is considered the most famous in the world.

Polunin has achieved everything that Womack dreams of. And for him, that is cause for despair.

A year ago, he was on the verge of giving it all up, Polunin explains, his voice soft and shy. He hated it, the drudgery and the pain -- and what for? Dancers torture their bodies and ruin their health, but even the best of them don't come close to earning as much as an opera singer or football player. The majority are exploited, Polunin says. "A ticket for a performance at the Bolshoi often costs more than a dancer earns in a month."

He wanted out, but like so many times before, he couldn't find a way. Ballet has been his life for as long as he can remember. "All I did was dance and sleep," he says. "I felt like I was dead."

Polunin is rehearsing on this particular afternoon in a ballet studio in the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater in Moscow. He looks haggard and pale, with a chiseled face and melancholy blue eyes. He wears a t-shirt, sweat pants and wool socks.

His appearance changes about as radically as his moods. His hair, once brown and curly, then platinum blonde, is now cut short. Earlier, during a break, he got the Ukrainian coat of arms tattooed on the back of his left hand. It was a statement against the war in his home country -- and a contrast to the double-headed eagle, the coat of arms of the Russian Federation, that adorns the back of his right hand. On the Ukrainian hand, he also has the name of his girlfriend, the Russian prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, inked into his skin; on the Russian hand, there are the initials of the American photographer David LaChapelle.

At the high point of his existential crisis, Polunin met David LaChapelle. A British-American film team that had been following Polunin around arranged the meeting. The documentary film would be called "Dancer," but the protagonist already had bigger dreams of a Hollywood career now.

LaChapelle is a photographer and video artist who has worked with the likes of Keith Richards, Britney Spears and Eminem. He embodies pop culture, rock 'n' roll and Hollywood -- and he loves ballet. Polunin was impressed with LaChapelle and thrilled when the celebrity profiler said he wanted to make a dance video with him.

The video has received more than 13 million clicks on YouTube since it appeared in February. It begins with Polunin kneeling in a pavilion in the jungle, wearing only flesh-colored shorts and ballet shoes. His sculpted body is covered in tattoos. Sun beams shine through open windows as Hozier's hit, "Take Me to Church," begins to play. As it does, the dancer nearly jumps out of the picture, throwing himself to the floor in a rage of furious perfection. His fearless dancing seems to defy gravity and the very limits of human anatomy.

A Dancer Has to Be a Masochist

What does a person have to do to be able to move his or her body like that?

Joy Womack says every outstanding dancer has to be a masochist, otherwise they stand no chance. It's the day after her performance. She woke up at 6 a.m. and rehearsed until the afternoon. "I like pain," she says. "I'm very good at overexerting myself."

The self-torture began when she was eight. As a girl, she had already devoted half her life to ballet classes. For Christmas one year, she got a book about the school of London's Royal Ballet. Anyone interested in becoming a professional dancer must begin training daily at the latest by age 10, the book said. Joy marked the sentence with a highlighter.

At the same time, she discovered something else -- the Bolshoi. It was performing in Los Angeles, so Joy's mother took her to a performance of "Swan Lake." She had never before witnessed so much perfection, so much feeling. Afterward, she would go on to express her aspiration of becoming a soloist at the Bolshoi. Her mother laughed: Joy, that won't do, the Bolshoi is in Russia!

The Womacks lived in a Christian community in Santa Monica, insulated from the rest of the world. Joy's parents have secular occupations -- her mother is an oncologist, her father an entrepreneur -- but she and her eight siblings were raised pious and sheltered. She was homeschooled for several years and forbidden from watching movies or television. They often read the Bible together. And Joy danced every day.

When she was 13, her parents let her move to Washington, DC to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet, a Russian dance school. But she wasn't prepared for her Russian teachers. "Joy, I'm going to shoot you! You look like Jesus on the cross!" The first Russian word she learned was "bestolkovy." Stupid.

"They broke me physically and psychologically," Womack says. "It was the perfect preparation for The Bolshoi."

The Bolshoi has its own ballet academy that held a master class in New York during the summer of 2009. Joy, 15 at the time, was allowed to take part. Afterward, the director asked to see her. "You should continue your education with us in Moscow," she said. Joy, struck by dizziness, thought: If I make it, I'll be a star.

He Goes West, She Goes East

"I always wanted to be a criminal," Sergei Polunin says, grinning. "Or an acrobat in a circus." He was living with his mother back then in Kherson, a drug-infested city in southern Ukraine where electricity and warm water were not always readily available. His father had gone to Russia to find work. "All the big kids I saw on the streets belonged to gangs," he recalls. They smoked and carried weapons. He admired them.

But Galina Polunina kept a close eye on her son, who was always hopping around, and saw a chance to escape poverty. He would become a gymnast and win the Olympic Games. She sent him to gymnastics classes six times a week, for six hours a day. At the time, he was only six years old.

Two years later, Galina had a better idea, one that involved Sergei leaving Kherson. She had heard of a ballet school in Kiev. The family put all their hopes on Sergei's talent. His father went to Portugal to work in construction. His maternal grandmother went to Greece to work as an geriatric nurse. It was the only way Galina could raise enough money to move to Kiev with Sergei.

For four years, the two lived there, sharing a room. Galina had no friends and no work in Kiev. Her job was taking care of her son. "My mother didn't even have to put any pressure on me," Polunin says. "I did a pretty good job of that on my own."

When he was 12, Galina sent a video and photos of her son to the Royal Ballet School and he was invited to a dance audition in London. "I walked into the room and saw the physique, the presence, the proportions," then-director Gailene Stock told British journalist Julie Kavanagh in a 2012 interview. "Before he'd even done a plié I thought, that's it."

And so it came to be that Sergei, a 13-year-old from the former Soviet Union, arrived in the West. Only a few years later, Joy, at 15, would head off in the opposite direction. For him, it was the only chance for a better life; for her, it was the fulfillment of a girl's childhood dream.

To her surprise, Joy was one of the better dancers in Moscow. The sadists in Washington had hammered the Russian technique into her. She also brought something else with her from America: "Courage and the conviction that getting ahead meant working hard," she says. Joy nevertheless still had two struggles: the language and her weight.

At the time, she weighed about the same a she does now -- around 104 pounds (47 kilos) -- and she's 5 feet 6 inches tall. By normal measures, she would be underweight for her size, but her new teacher demanded that she weigh a maximum of 99 pounds and, ideally, 95. "I never had a relaxed relationship with my figure," she says, "but things just got worse from there."

The beaming young woman sits in an outlet of the restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien not far from the Bolshoi as she tells her story, enjoying a bowl of vegetable soup. She eats and concentrates as she continues talking. "Many people will be angry when I say this, but I was anorexic and bulimic for years. It's a widespread problem among female dancers."

A ballerina is a weightless, ethereal being -- none of it can wobble when it springs into the air. So goes the thinking at the Bolshoi, the Royal Ballet, everywhere. Womack says it's been her experience that no one ever asks what a person has to do to squeeze into these norms. "But when all you ever hear from your childhood on is that you're fat, how are you supposed to develop a healthy self-image?"

Journalists with The New York Times paid her a visit to report about the 15-year-old American who had succeeded in landing a slot at the world-famous Russian ballet academy. They even filmed Joy as she practiced for a performance. The training is brutal and her right foot started hurting, but she pulled herself together. On the day of the performance, her foot had to be anaesthetized. Joy danced and beamed and then, during the intermission, she cried. She would later learn that she had broken her foot, a fatigue fracture.

In London, Sergei was just as determined to succeed. The Royal Ballet School reminded him of Hogwarts, the school of wizardry in "Harry Potter." His mother couldn't afford the move to England and, because he couldn't speak English yet, he didn't even have to go to school. The whole thing gave him a feeling of exhilaration and liberation.

Ballet had freed him and now it would make him famous, he thought. He took advantage of the free time to practice -- twice as much as his fellow pupils, who were two years older, but hopelessly inferior in terms of skill.

Both Sergei and Joy finished their training as the best dancers in their graduating classes. They also got hired on as professionals -- Sergei at the Royal Ballet and Joy by the Bolshoi.

And that's where both of their dreams abruptly ended.

'The Bad Boy of Ballet'

Polunin was the first to crash, with Royal Ballet officials telling the Guardian on Jan. 25, 2012, they had been "shocked" by his resignation. The announcement made the evening news and created headlines around the world.

At 22, he had been at the pinnacle of his career, as famous as a person can get as a star of the Royal Ballet. Everything was as it had always been -- practice, rehearsals, performances and more practice. Compared to the ensemble dancers, who have to share apartments, he earned a fair amount as a soloist at £3,500 (€4,848) a month. But when he watched opera divas like Anna Netrebko perform on the same stage as he did, he felt cheated. How was he ever going to be able to afford to buy homes for his parents, whose marriage had failed? What did he have left to prove?

"Does anybody sell heroin? Need to bring my mood up," he tweeted a few weeks before the scandal broke. He says he took just "about everything" at the time, with the exception of heroin. On LSD, he says he felt like a marveling child; on cocaine, like a better dancer. Offstage, though, he had become erratic, at one point standing with his keys in front of his door and not knowing how to open it. Sometimes his heart would start racing and he feared he might have a heart attack. "But I could still dance," he says, "that was easier than walking."

But then, one day, during practice, he snapped and could no longer do it. Polunin stormed out of the hall and into ballet director's office and announced to her that he would never dance again. Then he went underground.

He made his rounds in the London nightlife scene, but soon enough he began asking himself: What next? Scandal stories about the "bad boy of ballet" began appearing in every conceivable media outlet. "I gave the journalists what they wanted," he says, "but I was only hurting myself."

The fact that he landed at Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet was a coincidence. He met Igor Zelensky, the new director of the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich, who is also artistic director of the Stanislavsky. "Igor wasn't worried about the headlines, he was interested in me as a person," Polunin says. Zelensky became his mentor -- giving him a sense of security and liberty. Polunin was allowed to perform here, but also as a guest for other companies like the Bolshoi. He's grateful but also still a little restless in his search for meaning. He says he's no longer taking drugs.

Together with David LaChapelle and British producer Gabrielle Tana, he's now planning to create a film about dance. Mickey Rourke, his childhood idol, plans to take part, as does his girlfriend Natalia Osipova. "We want to bring ballet into the present," he says. If everything goes as planned, there would be future projects incorporating dancers, actors and musicians and it could finally make dancers famous -- transforming them into the dancing stars of advertising and film. Polunin says he now knows that he doesn't hate ballet, before flashing a brief smile. "It's great having this thing that I can do really well."

"I wish I could dance at the same level as Polunin," says Joy Womack, "but without the affectations." She bursts out laughing. Life and ballet aren't fair. Everything that she had to fight so hard to get, seems to just fall into his hands. On this particular week, he will dance in the leading male role in "Giselle" at the Bolshoi, the very stage she always dreamt of and where, she came so close to achieving her dream but instead came crashing down.

A Ballerina Calls It a Day

The New York Times ran a story on Nov. 14, 2013 with the headline, "US Dancer Quits the Bolshoi, Complaining of Bribery."

The news broke at a time when the proud theater had already been shaken by a scandal that saw ballet director Sergei Filin nearly blinded in an acid attack. It was followed by other stories of machinations, corruption and dirty business dealings inside the Bolshoi. The only thing still missing was the American's loud departure. According to her version of events, she had waited in vain for roles for a year. Then she was advised to be "smarter" and to use her feminine charms and to find a rich "sponsor" who would pay the $10,000 that would be necessary for her to perform.

In a country where ballet enjoys roughly the same status as football in Brazil, the Russian press pounced on her -- the general tenor being: Why is this perfect stranger coming here and trying to besmirch a national shrine? "I was absolutely desperate," says Womack. "I didn't know where to turn. But then Petrov rescued me."

Andrei Petrov is the director of the Kremlin Ballet Theater. He had already taken notice of Womack earlier and he now offered her a contract as a prima ballerina, a rare honor. She had found protection inside the walls of the Kremlin. "No one could attack me any longer there," she says, as tears swell up in her eyes.

But even at the Kremlin Ballet Theater, Womack had to struggle -- for major roles, for a salary she could live on and with her eating disorders. She visits a therapist once a week. And, working together with a nutritionist, she has also developed a power bar for dancers that provides them with energy but isn't fattening.

A few months ago, when she had the feeling she was sinking into a dark spot, Womack began filming her everyday life and posting it on YouTube. She says she wants to show everything, even the bad, in order to help protect others.

It's Tuesday evening, time for the other performance of "Giselle" this week. The Bolshoi Theater, which translates as Big Theater, is a splendid building with white columns. Women with Chanel bags and delicate dresses totter in the arms of their male companions across the square in front with its fountains and climb the marble stairs of the country's most famous theater. Inside, €25 will get them a glass of champagne, and caviar nibbles are also available.

And then: Sergei Polunin.

The tattoos are covered with makeup and Prince Albrecht, the seducer, is wearing white tights and a light-brown vest. His Giselle this evening is Svetlana Zakharova, a prima ballerina with the face of a Madonna and long, smooth limbs.

Sergei and Svetlana are an explosive pair -- their bodies speak a language that other dancers can only dream of. Whereas others merely spring, these two literally fly -- with each other, against each other, loving and destroying each other. When you see Polunin dance, it's almost as if his entire crazy life had been nothing more than preparation for this dance and for this big theater -- the one that instills meaning in everything.

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