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Friday, November 28, 2014, 10:09

An American in Kremlin

By Timothy Chui

She was the first-ever dancer from the US to be hired by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow -a company she would leave following a scandal. Timothy Chui met the nimble-footed Joy Womack who has left those difficult days in the backburner and moved on.

An American in Kremlin

In between practising her steps, Joy Womack promotes the development of ballet in HK, inspiring young dancers to pursue their dreams. (Provided to China Daily)

Joy Womack has been having an identity crisis. She’s comfortable enough in her own skin but being an American with a job in Kremlin, Moscow often leads to a few raised eyebrows.

It’s not as if she is a “double agent” or anything. All she did was follow a little girl’s dream of becoming a beautiful ballerina. That dream carried Womack from her California home, all the way to the Bolshoi Academy. She is the first-ever American to graduate from the academy and also the first American signed by the world’s most renowned ballet company, the Bolshoi Theatre, as a soloist, no less.

Womack was in Hong Kong recently, performing in her new role as principal dancer with the Kremlin Ballet in early November. Her “crisis of identity” came in the way of realizing another dream — to complete a personal pilgrimage to the Beijing Dance Academy. Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, acted as the trigger. Quite a few of her friends at the Bolshoi had studied in Beijing. “I used to joke with them, ‘I wish I could go back in time and get shipped to China and go to the school there,’” she told China Daily.

She had been scheduled to perform with the Kremlin Ballet in Beijing next month. But there was a problem. “My visa was denied,” she told China Daily, as she sat lounging at Tosca, atop the ICC. “There was an issue because I work at the Kremlin and I’m an American, They couldn’t understand who I am. If it was just me there would be no problem but it was a group application.”

She was wearing a muted business suit and a pair of earrings virtually blossoming oversized gems — matched by equally oversized gems on the flat shoes she wore. Womack spoke in a measured, business-like tone, as she gazed out across Hong Kong Island, recalling the scandal that rocked the Bolshoi and the world of ballet. And she was right at its center.

Scandal in the Bolshoi

An American in Kremlin

Womack had hurled accusations that leading roles were being doled out for cash and sexual favors. She wasn’t the only one. Artistic director Sergei Filin was doused with acid by thugs, allegedly hired by one disgruntled dancer. The shockwaves rippled for months and in that relatively short time the Golden Coach of Womack’s own Cinderella story turned into a pumpkin. She quit the Bolshoi.

She talked matter-of-factly about the months of personal trauma and the lessons learned. “I don’t like to stay in one place,” she rationalized. “And maybe, anyway, the Bolshoi wouldn’t have been the perfect fit.”

There is an expressiveness to Womack’s voice that doesn’t come across when she performs. It flitters from heights of hopeful yearning when she speaks of her craft into a careful cadence navigating sensitive spots as if en pointe.

"As you grow up you figure out what you like and what works.” She thinks the most important lesson she learned was to be grateful, “A lot of times people become complacent and take for granted the work a teacher puts into a class. I think it’s really about being thankful that you have the opportunity to do this as a career.”

"Don’t do ballet for ego or if you want to be famous or think you’re beautiful. It’s about being on stage and giving and it’s about the process and work. It’s about sacrifice and a lifestyle of sacrifice and dedication,” she said, and then, as a final reflection, “in hindsight it’s sad it happened like that.”

Prior to her departure from the Bolshoi a little over a year ago, now Womack said she was “desperate and needing to find something to work towards because I felt like I was in a rut”.

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