Alla Osipenko: The life of a Kirov ballerina


Who is Alla Osipenko?

For many dance students and balletomanes, her name and the name of the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) calls to mind Soviet dancer defections, the KGB and the Cold War. Osipenko was one of the great Russian ballerinas, a student of the famous Agrippina Vaganova, a partner to Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov – and a Kirov star who refused to join the Communist Party, an action which severely limited her travel and exposure to the world. After reading this biography by Joel Lobenthal, a dance historian who conducted over 40 interviews with Osipenko when she was living and working in Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1990s, the reader is left wondering how far her star might have risen had she either defected like her counterparts or acquiesced to the wishes of the Party.

“Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet” meanders at times, often jumping from one event in Osipenko’s life to another with little prelude or seeming connection, yet the ballerina’s life is so mesmerizing that the reader forgives the jumbled mess, which is a testament to Osipenko herself. She sounds like she was a fascinating subject to interview.

Born in Leningrad in 1932, Osipenko lived with her mother, Nina, a woman who pushed her only child into the dance world and insisted that her career come before everything else, including marriage and children, and her grandmother Maria and great-aunt Anna, two women whose lives were devoted to her. Osipenko’s father was imprisoned in Soviet work camps for much of her life, although he was later released and eventually remarried.

Life in the Soviet Union was harsh and often challenging, with resources like food and shelter severely rationed. The dance world, like all of the arts there, was supported – more accurately, controlled – by the government. While dancers were employed like any other workers, they were also expected to represent the Soviet Union in whatever they did.  Dancers who did not adhere to a code of conduct and whose morality was questioned, were often punished. For Osipenko, a rebel who bristled at being told what to do, her impulsive nature would lead her into several rash marriages, having a child with a man who was not her husband, and consequently admonitions from the Party.

Mount Holyoke College files, photo credit Igor Stupnikov

Alla Osipenko as the Lilac Fairy, Kirov Ballet, Mount Holyoke College files, photo credit Igor Stupnikov

In 1948, Osipenko began her studies with Vaganova, a teacher who studied with Enrico Cecchetti and brought back his Italian style of dance, fusing it with elements of the French school to come up with her own method of teaching which is called the Vaganova Method and is taught all over the world today. Vaganova was the first “real” teacher in Osipenko’s life, a ballet mistress who was exacting in her technique, expecting only the best from her students. At competitions and auditions, she could be a very strong source of support but privately, she was known to be quite demanding and not given to compliments.

At one such competition in 1949, Osipenko had an experience which would be repeated several times in her career and affect it greatly. After winning a medal (dance awards in Russia and elsewhere are to this day of greater consequence than they are in the United States), the Soviet Ministry of Culture made a pass at her, promising her a career in the Bolshoi Ballet, which was considered a superior company to the Kirov. Her reaction was to slap him. According to Osipenko, he vowed that she would never leave Leningrad “as long as I’m alive.” True to his word, she wasn’t allowed to leave the city for six years. Such was the power of the Party.


One tough dancer: after a devastating performance injury, Osipenko quipped to a friend, “You see I have no Achilles tendon. Sit down with us and let’s…drink champagne.”


In 1950, she joined the Kirov Ballet where she would dance for the next twenty years, have numerous roles created for her, fall in and out of love, and make great friendships, among them Alla Shelest, the second-ranked star in the Kirov at the time. Osipenko and Shelest were unfortunate enough to be dancing at the same time as Natalia Dudinskaya who directed the Kirov and its school with her husband and partner, Konstantin Sergeyev. Dudinskaya was an exceptional dancer but Osipenko and her biographer note that she commanded attention and important roles long past an age when it would have been gracious to allow herself to be replaced, thus keeping both Shelest and Osipenko on a lower rung than they might have had she retired.


After refusing to join the Communist Party, Osipenko told a friend, “When I left that meeting, I realized that my career was just down the drain.”

Alla Osipenko, 1968, Wikimedia Commons

Alla Osipenko, 1968, Wikimedia Commons


Two of Osipenko’s partners were Nureyev and Baryshnikov, both of whom defected from the Soviet Union. Nureyev’s defection occurred on the night of her 29th birthday, celebrated in Paris, the night before the company was to travel to London. Instead, Nureyev was nabbed by the KGB who told him he wasn’t going on to London with the company. On the way back, he managed to escape in the Paris airport. Not knowing that he was going to defect, Osipenko offered to go back to Moscow with Nureyev but was told there was nothing that could be done for him. Again, such was the power of the Party.

Other dancers would defect, most notably Natalia Makarova in the 60s and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, but Osipenko remained in Russia. She tried to resign from the company on her own terms but they refused to accept her resignation until it suited them and until they could be sure she wouldn’t defect. Eventually, she was allowed to leave; her final performance for the Kirov was filmed for television, but in front of an empty audience, save for her fellow ballerinas. It was an anti-climactic finale for a fruitful and astonishing decades-long career.

In 1971, she and her husband/partner John Markovsky left Russia to work for Leonid Jacobson’s Choreographic Miniatures Company as well as Boris Eifman’s Theatre of Contemporary Ballet, with Osipenko eventually, in the late 1990s, landing in Hartford, Connecticut to teach for the now-defunct Hartford Ballet. Following the death of her son, Ivan, however, she found herself yearning to return to Russia, which she did in 2000.

Lobenthal’s biography is an enthralling account of a unique personality in dance, a ballerina who was ahead of her time.



Dance Bloggers Share Their Best Of 2015


Kicking off a new year at Dance Advantage isn’t always easy.

“Where to begin?”   “What’s that first post of the new year going to be about?”

In the past I’ve hosted a Top Dance Blog contest between one year’s end a new year’s beginning and enjoyed its success. The contest itself got a little too big for my time budget but my favorite part was simply being able to share and support the work of other dance writers and bloggers.

So, in that spirit, our January Dance Circle roundup (we’ll do these monthly with different topics) features the posts or articles that these writers consider their best of 2015. Go ahead and click away. I hope you find something new. We’ll be here when you get back.


10 Essentials For The Adult Beginner’s Dance Bag — The Classical Girl

Dancers love “what’s in your dance bag?” posts – we can’t help but take a peek. The Classical Girl, Terez (who is an author and a favorite guest at Dance Advantage), shares the essentials. They work for any ballet dancer, really, but adult beginners will love this and the other posts at The Classical Girl website.


What Not To Do In Ballet! End Game. — The Accidental Artist

Inspired by a video from Wayne Byar, The Accidental Artist‘s post is a pitch to dancers to be more mindful of their approach to how they work. She encourages you to put intention into the process, rather than work to the “end game” of getting the highest leg, the highest jump, the most turns, the best turnout. Getting noticed by cheating your technique is not the end game… so what is the end game?


The Dancer with Cancer — CABARRET

Nicole is a dancer, a creator, an inspiration and in this post she reveals her diagnosis and some of the things she’s learned so far in her journey and fight against cancer. She writes, “Being diagnosed with cancer has not made me suddenly wise. If anything, it has shown me how much I don’t know. Not just about the world, but about myself and my body, subjects with which I thought myself to be intimately acquainted.”


An Interview With Monica Wellington (Creator of My Ballet Journal) — Picture Books & Pirouettes

As a teacher and parent, when I’m looking for insight and recommendations for children’s literature about dance and movement, I visit Kerry’s site, Picture Books & Pirouettes. Read her interview with author/illustrator Monica Wellington to find out more about MY BALLET JOURNAL, a journal and coloring book for young dancers she created with her daughter, Lydia (a professional ballerina with NYCB). The book is a perfect keepsake for school-age dancers who want to record their dance memories throughout the year!


Bowling Dance — Maria’s Movers

As usual, the year’s best at Maria’s Movers is a great idea for your dance classes for little danccers. Turn the dance studio into a bowling alley and do a bowling dance!


Joffrey’s ‘Sylvia’ breaks from tradition, just like it used to (Review) — Art Intercepts

What do YOU know about Sylvia? Chicago dance writer, Lauren Warnecke of Art Intercepts writes, “Throughout its history, critics have felt that Sylvia‘s one redeeming value is its magnificent score, and indeed, it’s hard not to love Leo Delibes’ splendid music. John Neumeier’s version, performed last fall by the Joffrey Ballet, has so much more than that going for it. Honestly, Sylvia‘s only problem is that nobody has ever heard of it.”


All Shadows Whisper of the Sun — Setting The Barre

On a chilly February morning, Kirsten of Setting The Barre explores the connection between light and darkness and its prevalence in the ballet world.  From sweat, toil, and callus comes one of the world’s most ethereal art forms.  Featuring photos by Jenay Evans and the custom Setting The Barre leotard, designed especially for the blog by Miss Jones Dance.


{artist} challenge — Tutus&Tea

Throwing back to 2015’s ‘Artist Challenge’ that decorated Facebook, Instagram and various realms of social media, Shelby of Tutus&Tea reflects on ballet’s relevancy beyond the stage, the luxury of savoring our favorite moments performing as live artists, and the joy of shedding light on the fellow dancers that inspire us to keep aspiring for more.


Super Ballet Ads — Clara’s Coffee Break

What makes a memorable video promo for a ballet? Rachel shares her thoughts on ballet trailers at Clara’s Coffee Break



Dancers: Let’s Talk Core Control — 4dancers

4Dancers Dance Wellness Editor, Jann Dunn has written a thorough and thoroughly awesome piece on core control, otherwise known as back stabilization, that breaks it down so that students and teachers might really understand the concepts. Seriously, if you read no other article on core control in 2016, make it this one.


Improving the Dancer’s Arch: Do Foot Stretchers Really Work? — The Healthy Dancer

Dancers spend a lot of time trying to improve the arches of their feet. Using a foot stretcher seems like it would be a great idea – but do they really work and is using one a healthy way to improve a dancer’s foot? Find out at The Healthy Dancer.

At Ballet to the People the post that seemed to rile readers the most this year, to blogger, Carla Escoda’s surprise, was not her assessment of Milwaukee Ballet’s Giselle set in a Nazi concentration camp, nor her intensely personal reaction to Ai Weiwei’s political art installation on Alcatraz. It was her proposal to ditch the 32 fouettés! Read her post to find out why she wants to kiss them goodbye…


Sara Esty – A True American in Paris — A Dancer’s Days

Blogger Rhiannon Pelletier of A Dancer’s Days takes the opportunity to talk to Sara Esty, “Lise” alternate in the new Broadway hit An American in Paris, about her experience with the show, what made her transition from the world of classical ballet to the big world of Broadway, and how her training aided that change (along with a few other juicy details!).


OffDayThe Off Day Ballet Dictionary — Adult Ballerina Project

Messy classes are unavoidable, despite our best efforts. So, perhaps we should make lemonade and think of “off days” as a unique subset of ballet with its own rules and definitions. Rachel Hellwig explains further in her contribution at Adult Ballerina Project.


3 Mindset Changes You Must Adopt to Succeed in Dance — The Dance Training Project

To train the body without taking the mind into consideration will not allow a dancer to succeed. Physically, we encounter the challenges of technical plateaus, becoming over-trained, and injured, but mentally we start to doubt ourselves, our chosen path, and our ability to be great dancers, which can be even more detrimental, as before we can do something, we must first believe we can do it. These three mindsets are crucial to tapping into your true potential as a dancer. Read more at The Dance Training Project.


How to Cope with Loss – Part 1: Mourning the Untimely Death of My Future Self — The Girl With The Tree Tattoo

The Girl with the Tree Tattoo‘s best post of 2015?  The complete upheaval of her ballroom dance journey.


25. Crystallized : Contemporary — Jessica Maria MacFarlane

“Contemporary dance hitches a ride on the fame and fortune of classical ballet, while classical ballet tugs at contemporary dance for an awakening,” writes Jessica Maria MacFarlane (J.M.M.). “I’m swayed between the two, and this image of pointe-wearing improv pieces haunt me. They don’t really work together in the very strict sense. I’ll continue to eat it up nonetheless and welcome contemporary dance choreographers to classical ballet companies, but I know we must try to not just crystallize or blur the lines of both dance forms for the sake of blending. We must keep dance at the forefront with separate education and awareness on all genres of dance that interact and collaborate together…” Read more of Jessica’s musings as she writes about the past, present, and future of dance at her self-titled site.


Rules Of The Game — Enforced Arch

Enforced Arch founder, James Koroni shares the exciting news that he has been invited by Jonah Bokaer, media artist and choreographer to participate in Rules Of The Game, a multidisciplinary work featuring visuals by Daniel Arsham and music by Pharrell Williams. Learn more about the work in this recent post.


SoundsOfATaplifeSounds of a #TapLife

Whether we are willing to accept it or not, the universe works in mysterious ways. Seen or unseen, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes of life. Over time, Anthony Lo Cascio has discovered the universe will try to teach the same lesson over and over again until one is willing to respect it, recognize it, or learn it. Sounds of a #Taplife premiered in early December in NYC and is a reflection of some of the greatest lessons Anthony has learned and a connecting of those dots. See the performance in this recently released video.



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Jazz Dance Legend: Gene Kelly

“You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams. And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I’ll be very glad to be a song and dance man.” – Gene Kelly


Gene Kelly

Gene kelly” by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It’s hard to imagine a man who performed on Broadway and in some of the most iconic movie musicals in history saying he never wanted to be a dancer. But defying normal expectations was just Gene Kelly’s way.

The man who is cherished to this day for his roles in movies such as “Singing in the Rain” and “An American in Paris” not only graced the big screen with his dance talent – he changed the way dance was perceived on film and made his athletic style a staple of American dance.


From Baseball to Ballet

Gene Kelly was born in the Highland Park district of Pittsburgh on August 23, 1912. The third of five children, Kelly was a sports fanatic and dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His mother was determined that her children be educated in the arts, however, so Kelly began taking dance classes at a young age – and proved to be a natural.

Kelly’s mother also prioritized education, so Kelly went on to study economics at Penn State University. Only a year had gone by when the Great Depression hit and Kelly was forced to leave school to earn money. Throughout this time he worked as a bricklayer and soda jerk in addition to dancing in various Pittsburgh clubs and theaters. Kelly ultimately completed his economics degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1933 and headed for law school, but it didn’t take long before he realized law wasn’t for him. Thankfully for the rest of us, he decided to pursue his dance career instead.

Kelly immersed himself in teaching at his family’s dance school, which became known as the Gene Kelly School of Dance. He did this all while performing, directing, and choreographing for shows throughout Pittsburgh. But by 1938, Kelly was on the move again. Feeling that he’d done all he could for his career in the teaching department, Kelly made his way to Broadway. Unsurprisingly, he was met with success soon after.


Broadway and Beyond

Starting with small roles in “Leave it to Me!” And “One for the Money,” Kelly’s Broadway career escalated after Hollywood executive Louis B. Mayer saw him in the lead role of “Pal Joey” and offered him a movie contract with MGM. Kelly made his film debut in 1942 in “Me and My Gal,” which costarred Judy Garland.

Kelly’s movie career truly took off after his groundbreaking “Alter Ego” performance in Columbia Pictures’ “Cover Girl” (1944), in which he performed with himself thanks to the double exposure of the film. It was not only the first time such a feat had ever been done, but it was also the first time a dance number actually moved the movie’s plot along instead of merely being tossed into the picture. It was also the last time MGM lent Kelly to any other studio.

MGM cast Kelly in a variety of musicals after, one of the most memorable being “Anchors Aweigh.” World War II put Kelly’s career on pause as he enlisted in the Navy from 1944 – 1946, but he was back on the dance floor soon enough upon his return.

From showing off his jazz skills in “On the Town” (1949) to choreographing a lengthy ballet in “An American in Paris” (1951) to tapping through puddles in “Singing in the Rain” (1952), Kelly displayed versatility and athleticism in all the movies he went on to make. The man of many talents contributed as much behind the camera as he did in front of it, choreographing, writing, producing and directing a number of his films. Not only did an array of awards follow his path, but he also made groundbreaking achievements in that he made dance a more popular skill, particularly for men, and forever changed the Hollywood musical with his perspective and style.


By film trailer screenshot (MGM) (An American in Paris trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By film trailer screenshot (MGM) (An American in Paris trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Show Must Go On

Although his career slowed down in the 1960s as the popularity of movie musicals began to fade, Kelly continued performing in TV programs such as the short lived “Going My Way” (1962 – 1963, based on the 1944 Bing Crosby movie) and the variety show “The Funny Side” (1971). He also directed, produced and starred in the TV movie “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1967), which won him an Emmy Award, and hosted the 1970s documentary “That’s Entertainment!” He made his final movie appearance in 1980 in “Xanadu” with Olivia Netwon-John. Besides occasional guest appearances on shows such as “The Muppet Show” and “The Love Boat,” Kelly mostly retired from performing in the 1980s.

Kelly died at his home in Beverly Hills, California on February 2, 1996 after a series of strokes. He will forever be remembered as one of America’s most beloved dancers whose style and vision made a lasting impacting on movies, musicals and dance lovers everywhere.

Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg, Kay Kendall & Gene Kelly in Les Girls - publicity still (cropped)

Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg, Kay Kendall & Gene Kelly in Les Girls – publicity still (cropped)


Fun Facts:

  • To fix dance’s two-dimensional appearance on film, Kelly’s choreography always had dancers moving toward the camera. The dances also weren’t as long as usually done on stage and were aided by light and color to create the feeling of a third dimension.
  • Kelly always made sure his dancer’s full body was filmed and that the film was cut on a dancer’s turn so the transition would be less obvious.
  • He had a 103 degree fever when he filmed his famous “Singing in the Rain” scene. Kelly dubbed the taps later, as well as the taps of his co-star, Debbie Reynolds.
  • In “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly danced a duet with Jerry the Mouse (from the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”), who required 24 drawings per second of the dance to come to life. It was the first time anyone danced with an animated character. Kelly’s wife said he often referred to Jerry as his favorite dance partner “because he showed up on time and worked his little tail off.”
  • Kelly took his inspiration not from other forms of dance, but from sports – particularly hockey, his favorite.
  • “On the Town” was the first musical to be shot outside a studio.
  • Both the dancing and the camera movements in “Cover Girl” and “Anchors Aweigh” were synchronized with the beat of the music.


For more fun facts about Gene Kelly, check out this article.


Gene Kelly: The Legacy (An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly)

Biographer and film historian, Patricia Ward Kelly takes audiences behind the scenes and shares an intimate story of her late husband Gene Kelly, the man who helped create some of the most memorable scenes in film history. This unique, LIVE performance—praised as “a real treat” by Variety—combines rare and familiar film clips, never released audio recordings, memorabilia, and personal insights culled from hours of interviews with her husband. Mrs. Kelly, whose presentation has been described as “mesmerizing,” reveals a very personal side of this American legend and his perspective on the innovative work for which he wished to be remembered.

Gene Kelly: The Legacy “An Evening With Patricia Ward Kelly” is currently touring. Learn more about upcoming shows on the Facebook page or at


Gene Kelly Videos

Of course, there’s plenty of great footage of Gene Kelly to be discovered via YouTube (fleeting though it may be due to copyright infringement). Here he is talking about Singing in the Rain, directing, and movie-making:


Watch Gene in a duet with himself in Cover Girl:


Can’t get enough of Gene Kelly? Follow his fan pages on social media:


The Bolshoi’s Alexander Volchkov on Dancing Romeo

What is it like to play Romeo?

Bolshoi Ballet principal, Alexander Volchkov tells us of the preparation and experience of giving an emotional performance as Romeo.

Photo by Damir Yusupov courtesy Fathom Entertainment

Photo by Damir Yusupov courtesy Fathom Entertainment

Dance Advantage: What is the most challenging aspect of dancing the role of Romeo?

Alexander Volchkov: The most difficult part of Romeo is the period of emotional preparation. To get yourself in that mindset. And of course in rehearsal as obviously, it is physically challenging. But the most challenging is to emotionally become Romeo.


DA: What do you enjoy most about portraying Romeo, and how is it different than other lead roles?

AV: I think what sets this role apart from others is that Romeo and what happens to him is what I could imagine happening to me, and the difficulty I have definitely experienced. It is easy to imagine. My Romeo is someone who truly loves, he is not a Prince or Count, those are roles that you really have to imagine and create for yourself, but with Romeo it is all very straightforward and clear – he is in love and has to love.


DA: As Romeo you share intense and emotional moments on stage with Juliet. What must happen off-stage or in rehearsals with your partner to convincingly create these moments for an audience?

AV: You have to morally and truly fall in love with Juliet and believe that you love her and that she is the only one. And only then, when you believe it, then the audience will believe it. Otherwise they will know that the feeling is false.


DA: The Pokofiev score is much beloved among audiences and musicians. As a dancer, how do you feel about the music of Romeo and Juliet?

AV: Audiences and of course dancers love the music of Prokofiev. It is genius music and it helps you get into the role and the more you dance it, starting with the first act and leading into second act, then you really succumb to it. In terms of emotions, it gives you a minimum of 50% to lead you through, and the audience loves it and of course the artists do as well.


DA: You spend plenty of time on stage with Juliet in your arms but which section of this ballet, that is not a love scene, is your favorite to dance?

AV: I love the emotional scenes, for instance the murder of Tybalt and the final death scene in the crypt. The emotional scenes are the most interesting  to dance and perform. There are of course happy moments which are easier to portray but these more tragic and emotional scenes are very difficult because they get inside of you, start to make your blood run, your body trembles at what you are experiencing on stage and the emotional result which is what I love most.

What is it like to play Juliet?

Visit 4dancers where Bolshoi Ballet’s Anna Nikulina gives her perspective.

Hear more from these dancers:

Bolshoi Ballet Romeo and Juliet Dancer Interview

Watch this video on YouTube.

See Alexander Vochokov at the cinema

Viewers across the US have the opportunity to see Alexander Volchkov perform the role of Romeo when the Bolshoi Ballet hits the big screen for one performance only on MARCH 8th. Search here for a theater near you.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d


Alexander Volchkov - photo by ShirokovAlexander Volchkov was born in Moscow. In 1997, having trained at the Moscow Choreographic College (today the Moscow Choreographic Academy), in Leonid Zhdanov’s class, he joined the BolshoiBallet Company. His constant coach is Vladimir Nikonov.

In 2001, Mr. Volchkov won the 2nd prize at the International Competition of Young Ballet Dancers, in Kazan. The following year, he danced the title role in Yuri Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet for the Kremlin Ballet Company — in a performance to mark the choreographer’s jubilee.

He originated principal roles in Mr. Ratmansky’s The Flames of Paris (Philippe), Mr. Burlaka’s La Esmeralda (Phoebus), Francesco Ventriglia’s Zakharova Super Game (Lambda), and Declan Donnellan – Radu Poklitaru’s Romeo and Juliet (Paris).

Mr. Volchkov’s has appeared as a guest artist with the Paris Opera Ballet (Jeanne de Brienne in Nureyev’s Raymonda), The Kremlin Ballet Theatre (Romeo in Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet), Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker), and Bashkiria’s State Opera and Ballet Theatre (The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet).

In 2008, after a performance in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Flames of Paris, he was promoted to the rank of Principal dancer. He is an Honored Artist of Russia (2010).


Disclosure: Dance Advantage accepts compensation for promoting the Bolshoi Ballet Cinema Season.