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The Almanac: From Russia with dance

From Russia with dance: Ballerina teaches here

By Nick Lewandowski for The Almanac

Pittsburgh area dancers had the opportunity to take classes with Tatyana Makarova, founder of the Cincinnati Dance Academy and a former Moscow Ballet soloist. Makarova taught three days of master classes at the Academy of Dance by Lori in Mt. Lebanon, in cooperation with the Moscow Ballet and the ACOYA Project.

ACOYA provides opportunities for kids to come and study with professionals to create original performances," said Michelle Dawson, ACOYA founder and co-director of Dance by Lori.

Makarova specializes in the Vaganova method: a fusion of French, Italian, other dance styles generally regarded as the gold standard of ballet.

This is where the superstars come from," Dawson observed. "To have her here is historical in a way. She's bringing a rich level of history to these kids, a richness they may not get during the year--or maybe they do and they don't realize it. You're crossing boundaries. Educational boundaries, cultural boundaries. It's an incredible opportunity."

It's a theme Makarova herself knows well. She was born and raised in icy northern Siberia. Her grandmother enrolled her in a ballet preparatory academy at the age of five.

"She said some day I would be older, and to attract the attention of a gentleman I would need to be graceful and beautiful," Makarova remembered. "She believed ballet would help with all of those things."

Life in this charm school was anything but easy: at 5 she was dancing three times a week for an hour and a half at a stretch. Three years later she entered the prestigious Kirov Ballet Academy--second only to Moscow's Bolshoi. By then she was dancing every day.

Makarova danced for several years in Siberia and attended university in Moscow, where she studied dance and business. In 1998 she immigrated to the United States with her husband and children. She spent four years learning English and then decided to open her own ballet school.

In the early days of the Cincinnati Dance Academy Makarova was still getting a handle on the finer points of the English language. "I was mixing up fingers and toes, elbows and knees. The students had a lot of fun with it," she said.

Less enjoyable were a few holdovers from their instructor's highly-regimented training: classes were originally held six days a week, with no breaks during the sessions.

"I was still used to the Russian way," Makarova explained. "Also, in Russia once you were accepted to a dance school the training was paid for by the government. So for a time I thought I should be teaching for free. Finally some parents came to me and said 'you know we should be paying you for this.'"

She described people as very open and helpful as she got to grips with life in the United States.

Michelle Dawson said she strives to bring a similar multicultural awareness to her dance curriculum. She danced professionally in both Chicago and Pittsburgh, and headed Pittsburgh Dance Alloy's outreach program for a time. "Part of my position involved developing programs to share dance with the larger community, with both dancers and non-dancers," she said.

In 2005 she got a phone call from Moscow Ballet, which was looking for someone in Pittsburgh to coordinate their outreach program.

It works like this: Moscow Ballet sends dancers to conduct summer intensive classes. Students can then audition to perform in the Great Russian Nutcracker at Heinz Hall in December. "Not only are you providing a fantastic opportunity for kids to perform alongside professionals," Dawson said, "but to tackle what it means to be a performer, how you handle all of that."

Her outreach work is not limited to the Moscow Ballet, however. She has brought dancers from several different countries, the Get Down Gang (a local breakdancing group) and others to perform alongside students. "It's thrilling to watch how much fun they have engaging with the kids and how that takes everyone's performance to the next level."

Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA) senior Erin Sestrich noticed a similar dynamic with Tatyana Makarova's teaching style. "It takes us out of our comfort zones," she said, "our regular classes are more fast-paced--she focuses on the basics rather than 'tricks,' on making us stronger. And it definitely broadens your horizons. It helps you understand the different cultures that make up the art form."

Kristina Jaczesko, a senior at Baldwin High School, has participated in all the Moscow Ballet's summer intensives and danced in the shows at Heinz Hall. "It's amazing," she said of the experience. "It's like seeing what you could be in the future."

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