Learning to Dance Like a Man: Male Vaganova Student Shares His Story

Being a male in the ballet world takes a lot of hard work and focus. It is a very different experience for males. Lawrence Lambert, a 20-year-old dancer studying at Vaganova Ballet Academy, shares his experiences. Lawrence tells of his journey from his small mining hometown of Cessnock, New South Whales, Australia to Vaganova where he is currently in level 7.

National College of Dance. ©Branco Gaica 22.6.2012 (1094)
Photo by: Branco Gaica, National College of Dance

How did you get into ballet?

I started ballet at the age of 15 for two reasons the first being out of necessity, I was always a perfectionist and wanted to improve my tap and jazz lines through solid classical technique. The second was Sascha Radetsky's (Charlie) performance in the movie Center Stage. The first time I watched it, I remember being mesmerized at the turns, the jumps and the lines of Sascha Radetsky and Ethan Stieifel. I immediately told my mom that I wanted to start ballet.

Tell us about your schools.

The next week I was enrolled in a small school in Belmont, New South Wales, Australia. I trained for about six months, for four hours a day, five days a week and practicing at home every night. I decided to follow a gut instinct and audition for the National College of Dance in Lambton New South Wales (a full-time day school). The audition required you to be of Advance 1 Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) standard, I was only studying the RAD Intermediate level. I went ahead with the three day audition and failed miserably.

National College of Dance. ©Branco Gaica 22.6.2012 (1075)
Photo by: Branco Gaica, National College of Dance

What was it like feeling like you failed?

I was upset for two weeks after I received my letter of rejection, which I still keep today in a frame. With the letter was sent a list of reasons why I wasn't accepted, mostly it was due to a lack of strength in my thighs, calves, core and ankles as well as all the technical problems they discussed with me over the three day audition period. The sadness turned into burning fire to prove them wrong. I did a little research on the internet and found that the NCD Artistic Director, Miss Marie Walton-Mahon, who was also a RAD examiner was teaching an Intermediate workshop in Sydney two months away. I enrolled in the workshop and was set to prove her wrong.

What was your plan to prove her wrong?

I worked every chance I could on my strength and technique, even staying up until 2 in the morning, before getting up for school at 5:30 (I lived 1 and a half hours from my school). I showed up at the workshop and she was surprised to see me. Throughout the workshop I worked harder than I had ever worked in class before and on the third day of the workshop Miss Walton-Mahon called me in before class to and informed me she had a 30 minute opening on a Wednesday afternoon for the next 5 weeks. This private lesson was for us to work on my technique and use her ball exercises (now on the Progressing Ballet Technique DVD) to strengthen my legs.

National College of Dance. ©Branco Gaica 22.6.2012 (1091)
Photo by: Branco Gaica, National College of Dance

During the fifth lesson Miss Walton-Mahon brought two people into the studio to observe. I was very nervous but I didn't know that they were the Head of Administration and the Assistant Artistic Director. All I knew was that they had clip boards and that was enough to freak me out. At the end of the lesson Miss Walton-Mahon and the two observers - without saying anything - just left the room. They returned 15 minutes later and Miss Walton-Mahon informed me that they had decided to reconsider my application to the NCD and were now accepting me! I trained at the school for three years. I also competed at big competitions throughout Australia, and I received my first contract, Music for TuTus, a three week show at the Sydney Opera House, at the same time as finishing school by correspondence and gaining my Certificates III and IV in Dance as well as my Diploma of Dance Elite Performance.

Wonderful! What was the next step for you?

It was September towards the end of the school year in Australia. I had been offered a position at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, but my heart wasn't set on this school. Brett Morgan (NCD Artistic Director) encouraged me to send some dance photography shots of me to schools as I hadn't yet gotten around to filming an audition DVD. I sent the portfolio to the Vaganova Academy and the Stuttgart Ballet School which were the two European schools I was really keen on.

Vaganova came back to me pretty quickly and requested I send a DVD of me performing. I worked on that for two weeks solid and just as I was preparing to send them a YouTube link, I received an email saying they had decided to go ahead and offer me a position based off of the photos.

How amazing! Growing up, did you ever receive any harassment for wanting to pursue ballet?

No, not really. I guess there may have been a few moments but none come to mind. I guess I was always to busy to care what other people thought of me.

National College of Dance. ©Branco Gaica 22.6.2012 (1887)(1)
Photo by: Branco Gaica, National College of Dance

What was it like auditioning for Vaganova?

I was so scared to apply at first, but realized that the worst that could happen was for them to say no. The emails I received were very kind, warm and helpful, so my first impressions of the staff were very positive.

Can you run us through a "day in your life?"

Six days a week I wake up at 5:30 AM, get ready for class and then cook breakfast. I always eat 2-3 eggs, a fresh orange and a glass of water for taking vitamins. I go over to the academy from the dorms, and warm up from 7 to 8:30 AM. Ballet class is from 8:30 to 10:45.

Then I go to Russian language classes from 11:15 to 1:45 PM. Then I have lunch until 2:30 after which we have a second dance class, something like Character or Duet until 4:00. Then we go directly to our last lesson of the day which is either Acting or Modern, finishing around 5:45.

From 6:00 to 8:00 PM we have rehearsals for whatever performance is coming up. Then I eat a quick dinner and go to the gym, returning back to the dorms about 10:00 PM. Then I eat a snack (usually an apple, and my vitamins). Then I study some Russian language before going to bed at 11:00 PM.

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Photo: Vaganova Ballet Academy

What is the most difficult part about being a student with Vaganova?

The pressure of day to day life. I am always exhausted and there always seems to be a visitor or visiting group of people or a news crew or a documentary crew or a photographer or a bunch of reporters. So you always have to look your best, and paying attention in class because you never know if there is some kind of camera on you.

When you first got there, what was it like?

When I got there I was so scared, I was so overwhelmed by the language barrier and the shear size of the Academy. I didn't speak a word of Russian and had no idea where anything was in the school. I couldn't ask for help because no one understood English, other than the international staff and students. I remember my first thought was, "What on earth did I get myself into this time?"

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Photo: Vaganova Ballet Academy

How would you describe the Vaganova approach to training ballet dancers?

I would describe it as very... Russian. It's hard to explain. You really just have to experience it to understand what I mean by that.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

I have been given amazing advice over the years but the best advice I have ever received was: "Don't waste energy on trying to control your environment, spend it on controlling you." And my favorite quote is: "When you want success as much as you want to breathe only then will you be successful." - Floyd Mayweather.

What is your favorite part of ballet?

Being on stage and the day to day achievements, finally getting something that you have worked so long on, whether that be adding another turn or hitting the right line in a new jump for the first time or even finally getting that really hard press you've been working on with your girl in duet class. I love that once you achieve something in ballet, you can always take it a step further, constantly being challenged to reach a new height.

Who inspires you? And why?

My parents inspire me so much! For example my dad, he was involved in a motorcycle accident when I was only little and completely shattered his lower leg. He had the safe option of amputation or a risky reconstruction surgery that if it failed they would have to take more of the leg off and had very little hope of success. He said to the doctor, "I heard the word success, let's go for it."

Amazing! How did it go?

The surgery was successful and my father kept his leg but they told him he would have restricted mobility. My father could easily have given up working and been paid a disability pension. He realized that his wife and 5 children would have a much better life with an actual income in comparison to what a pension could provide, so he took it upon himself to prove the doctors wrong and return to normal mobility.

We see where you got your fighting spirit from!

It took him a long but he got there, and returned to full duties as a welder and boilermaker.

Have you ever felt like you wanted to give up? What pulls you through?

I guess there have been times where the thought crossed my mind but I'm a really stubborn person, just like my entire family. I have an amazing support network and I am so blessed to have such amazing people in my life. When I get to a low point all I have to do is lean on them, dust myself off and get back walking my path.

National College of Dance. ©Branco Gaica 22.6.2012 (1094)
Photo by: Branco Gaica, National College of Dance

What are you most proud of?

The thing I am most proud of is my journey. I have been through quite a lot in my life and had to, for more than one reason, "grow up" at a faster rate than my peers.

As a male dancer, what pressures do males face in ballet different from females?

Finding the right teacher in ballet is especially hard.

As a girl you can go anywhere and take class because most of the time the teacher will be female, the teacher knows how to mold her female pupils because it was how she herself used to dance. For guys, it's much harder to find a proper teacher. There are some things that you can only learn from a male teacher, the most important being, learning to dance like a man.

Teaching boys needs to be approached differently then teaching girls. We have completely different roles in the professional world so it makes sense to prepare for those roles in a different way. Dancing like a man is not some thing that can easily explain because it's more a mentality, that can only be developed in boys class. An example would be, I can jump higher than you or I can do more turns. It's also in the way you stand and hold yourself, the way your back is held, the way your chest is held, it's all so different from that which girls do.

In your opinion, why are males important to ballet dancing?

For me males can make or brake a ballet. Guys are the support of the ballerina, without a good partner not even a prima ballerina can do the seemingly endless amount of turns at the end of a coda and I would like to see someone try to do the the impressive overhead lifts that bring crowds to their feet, without a male. Every time I go to see a ballet, the principal lady has to be technically flawless, artistically amazing and pull off 32 fouettes for the audience to even pay attention.

What do you hope to achieve one day?

One day I really want to be a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre or the San Francisco Ballet.

Fun Facts:

Your dream ballet role:

I love all the classic roles but my favorite is Siegfried from Swan Lake. I also love the role of Onegin, although Onegin is more or a older and mature role. I would also love to be a part of the creation of a new work and have a role created on me. Artistically to put your stamp on an existing traditional character would be amazing but to have such artistic freedom in the creation of a new character from nothing would be a dream!

Your most precious memory:

Finding my dad crying in the middle of the night and when I asked why he said 'I'm just so proud of you'

Your favorite barre exercise:

Plie and Adage! I'm obsessed with getting the perfect demi plie and arabesque.

Your favorite snack food:

It changes all the time but right now I can't get enough of almonds!

What's on your iPod right now:

Right now I listen to a lot of Timomatic, the beat is so motivational, I love playing it before class to wake me up.


 

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