An uplifting debut in Russia
By Katherine Barkman
Looking back to my teenage years, I can remember – like most adolescents – constantly being asked what I was planning to do with my life. In every instance, I always gave this unwavering answer: “I am going to be a principal ballerina who dances all over the world and positively affects others through my art.”
Now you have to understand that I grew up in a small-town-in-the middle-of-nowhere-Pennsylvania where kids don’t just say things like that.
Usually after giving that answer, I would receive a look of disgusted confusion followed by questions like “What do your parents think about this?”, “So… you mean like in college for dancing?”, “Ha! Good luck with THAT!”, or my favorite, “Well, you are a little short to be a ballerina”.
While I was offended by others’ lack of enthusiasm at the time, I can now see how crazy and ridiculous I must have sounded. There was no proof that this dream would even be remotely possible given the fact that I was not from a world-famous ballet school, let alone had ballet training or experience to begin with! But I guess that’s how most dreams begin… from nothing but a spark of faith in a greater invisible force that is working behind the scenes, helping us every step of the way.
My first door opened when I started working with Russian coach Nadia Pavlenko who so patiently taught me using the Vaganova technique. During the years I trained with her, I naturally became fascinated by Russian ballet. I researched dancers, read books, watched films. Russia had trained some of the greatest dancers in the world, from whom I drew a lot of inspiration.
So at 14, I told my parents that one day I too would dance in Russia, the ballet epicenter. How that would ever happen, I had no idea. However, through the support of family and friends, the courage of my teacher and listening to my heart, I would be led on a journey far greater than I could ever imagine.
I am now 20 years old and at the end of my second year as a professional dancer with Ballet Manila. A few months ago, my dream of dancing in Russia suddenly began realizing itself. One day, my artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde told me that Kremlin Ballet’s Mikhail Martynuk – or Misha, as I have come to know him – was inviting me to be his partner at a festival in Chelyabinsk, Russia!
Upon learning of the invitation, I immediately texted my parents and Nadia, telling them the good news (in all caps)!
I spent the next two months preparing intensively for my debut as Kitri in Don Quixote with Ballet Manila. I performed three full-length performances in one week, one of which I had the pleasure of dancing with Misha as Basilio. After my last performance, I only had a few days before flying to Russia to meet up with Misha once again, one day before the gala.
Luckily, since we had already danced the full-length together, we were ready to perform the Act 3 Pas de Deux as the concert finale. I was also preparing and rehearsing my contemporary solo created by Ernest Mandap. He had choreographed the piece on me in October and I was feeling so grateful to be able to perform this solo in the gala as well.
Before leaving, my director and mentor Lisa gave me a loving hug and told me to just enjoy the experience and dance my best. Her confidence in me and her unending support made me feel that I was ready for the journey I was about to embark on. I was so grateful to her for opening these doors for me as a dancer and artist, but mostly I was grateful that she has always believed in me.
The trip was long, the route taking me through China, then Moscow, then finally Chelyabinsk. After more than 24 hours of traveling and having had no sleep, I arrived at the apartment where I would be staying. It was cold, I was alone in an unfamiliar city and not to mention it was 3 in the morning!
I had just four hours to sleep until I was expected to meet Misha to go to class and then have an orchestra rehearsal. But the lack of sleep and jet lag didn’t even faze me. I dove into the day with excitement and enthusiasm! I took class with the company and then Misha and I rehearsed with the orchestra on stage. We went through our pas de deux as well as our solos, making sure everything was ready for the gala the next day.
After rehearsals, I admired the beauty of the old theater we were in. I watched from the wings, mesmerized, as the prima ballerina Tatiana Predeina – who had organized this invitational gala – also rehearsed. I spoke with Misha and listened to his advice and stories. I just took in the whole experience and the knowledge from everyone around me. Even the ballet master was giving me tips on how to improve my fouetté turns.
The beauty of traveling the world dancing is being able to open yourself to learning, growing, and discovering. Everyone in the theater was very kind and welcoming. I was grateful to have learned how to speak Russian from Nadia, as I was able to communicate with everyone. After walking around with Misha in his hometown and seeing all of the history, I settled in for a hot bath and a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day’s performance.
The following day, I was nervous to say the least. I was given my own dressing room right next to the stage. After taking class and checking some last minute details on stage, it was time to get ready for the show. There were many people there to help me. One lady came and ironed my costume, helped me dress and then sewed up my tutu.
Two other women came to do my hair. The oldest of the women was named Larissa. She has been the hairdresser of ballerinas in Russia for over 50 years! She was the sweetest and most energetic lady I had ever met! She really made my hair beautiful. Prior to the show, there were lots of cameras and TV interviews and photographers. It was all surreal and before I knew it, it was show time. I prayed, took a deep breath, tried to calm my nerves, and then stepped on stage.
I danced Ernest’s choreography first. I was so into character and feeling the movement I hardly remember it! I couldn’t even hear the audience in the end because I was in a world of my own. It was an incredible and liberating experience!
After I finished my solo, fear started to creep in. I am always more nervous before performing classical ballet. I was about to dance the concert finale. With an Honored Artist of the Russian Federation. In front of a sold out theater. I felt the pressure weigh down on my shoulders. What if they don’t like me? What if I am not good enough? What if I fall? What if I disappoint? These thoughts were running through my head as I shakily tied the laces of my pointe shoes.
Then I remembered my 14-year-old self. The girl who rode on faith alone. That girl was probably doing a happy dance. I was debuting in Russia, after all! The dream was happening and there was no time to be afraid. So I decided to have faith. I decided to be free to love what I do. I decided to go out there and dance.
So with that, I grabbed my red fan and my courage and went to the stage.
The pas de deux was sheer bliss. The audience clapped like I had never heard before. They even clapped halfway through my variation! Of course there were a hundred things to improve upon, technique to fix and growth to be had; that never ends. But this performance was special for me and I can honestly say I enjoyed every second.
My soul lit up onstage.
During the final curtain call, the audience was on their feet and I felt nothing but happiness and gratitude to everyone who helped make one of my greatest dreams come true. I was grateful to my parents for their sacrifices and support, to Nadia for her courage and incredible training, to Lisa and Ballet Manila for believing in me from the start and giving me a platform on which to share my art, to prima ballerina Tatiana Predeina for inviting me to perform in her gala and inspiring me with her grace and beauty, and of course to Misha, my partner, who took a risk in bringing a young ballerina to dance with him in his hometown, for having faith in me.
Back in Manila, I can’t stop reliving in my head that moment when I was standing in the dressing room of Tatiana after the show. Her swan headpiece was draped over her mirror and her pointe shoes drying on the heater. I thanked her for the opportunity to perform in her gala, sharing with her how being there brought me such happiness. She hugged me a few times before I left, telling me she was very happy with the performance, to continue working and improving, and that there will be more opportunities in the future.
And so I guess that’s how dreams work. That you don’t always see the next step on the staircase or the next piece of the puzzle. But somehow all of the cards unfold and all of the pieces fit together just by being grateful for each precious experience, working diligently, making the most of every challenge and having faith in all that you cannot see.
It’s faith that brought me to Russia. And I know it’s faith that will bring me back again.