According to Artur Sultanov, founder of Beaverton's Russian Ballet Academy, stage fright isn't avoidable in ballet. If anything, it's necessary.
"Everybody wants to do a good job," he says. "You have to be a little nervous to make it work."
Sultanov is a retired dancer with deep ties to ballet's roots. Locally, you may have seen him as in several of Oregon Ballet Theatre's past productions of The Nutcraker. He grew up in St. Petersburg, the city where Russia's first company was formed. At age 10, he was accepted to the Vaganova Academy, the same school that trained George Balanchine, who defined American ballet after moving to New York in the 1930s. Sultanov was a company member at the Mariinsky Ballet in the theater that premiered Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Although he calls it the Russian Ballet Academy, Sultanov says his school is less concerned with Russian history than teaching clean technique. What makes it Russian—other than Sultanov—is the seriousness with which the students approach their craft.
Sultanov's school teaches classical and contemporary ballet to pre-professional dancers from ages 5 to 19. Since it first opened in 2010, the school has focused on preparing professional-level dancers. But recently, it's gotten even more serious. Two years ago, the academy started sending dancers to the Youth America Grand Prix semifinals in Seattle—the largest pre-professional ballet competition in the world. Eleven students from Sultanov's school have placed in the top tier of their division, and this January, seven of Sultanov's students will compete. Two of the ballerinas at his studio are returning champions—three, if you include Sultanov, who was awarded Outstanding Teacher last year. In January, Sultanov will hold auditions for a new program that's so intensive it's recommended that the dancers accepted take academic classes online instead of going to school.
Starting young is imperative to develop the extreme strength and flexibility required to become a professional. Most dancers are strong enough to begin performing en pointe about the age of 10. If they start learning after the age of 12, it's basically impossible to develop professional-level skills.
That makes everything they do seem high stakes.
"I didn't want to be in the spotlight myself, so I understand the kids that get nervous," Sultanov says.
The 38-year-old St. Petersburg native is soft-spoken, and when he's not demonstrating proper posture to his students, he often slumps as if he's trying to diminish his 6-foot-4-inch frame. He retired from performing just a few years ago. Starting at 17, he worked for some of the most prominent ballet companies in Russia before becoming a principal dancer for Oregon Ballet Theatre for almost a decade. But it was never his idea to pursue a career in ballet, it was his mother's. "It probably took me a few years before I started liking it," he says.
Nonetheless, Sultanov began training for ballet at the age of 10 when he was accepted into the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg. At Vaganova, Sultanov took academic classes along with a rigorous schedule of classical ballet. But if it was grueling, Sultanov now seems nonplussed. "It was kind of easy for me to follow directions even though the process was kind of slow and not very exciting," he says. "Even though I didn't like it that much, I always worked really hard. I just think that was part of who I was as a kid."
Eventually, it paid off, and Sultanov discovered his own love for ballet in his teens. He also found that having his career decided for him was, in its own way, a relief. "I was kind of lucky that the job was already there for me," he says. "I just had to be good enough to get it."
He was hired right out of school by the Mariinsky Ballet, where he performed in classical Russian ballets like Swan Lake and Giselle. Around the age of 20, a back injury forced him to take a break from dancing. He decided to use the forced hiatus to move to California, where his mother and siblings lived.
When his back healed, he began auditioning for American companies. The transition wasn't easy. American ballet is faster than Russian ballet, and focuses more on leaps and jumps than upper-body movements. But Sultanov says the most difficult change may have been the pay structure.
In Russia, Sultanov was paid a salary year-round. In America, most contracts with companies last only about 32 weeks. "You have to be a lot more self-motivated here to be successful," says Sultanov. "You invest so much time and energy into something that's not that financially great."
Sultanov danced for the Alonzo King Lines Ballet in San Francisco before moving to Portland for a job at Oregon Ballet Theatre. During the breaks in his contract, he would teach classes. After seven years, he decided to make teaching his full-time job instead of dancing. In 2010, he opened the Russian Ballet Academy.
When he's teaching the YAGP class, Sultanov is almost quieter than in conversation. You get the sense that even if he were the kind of instructor who raised his voice, he wouldn't have to. In the solo she's practicing for competition, 10-year-old Leanne Van der Hilst performs a series of consecutive leaps and twirls across the diagonal length of the studio. To help her keep time, Sultanov simply snaps his fingers as her shoes hit the floor.
It seems remarkable to have the drive for something so demanding at such a young age, but Sultanov says that by the time they've turned 9, most students have decided if they're up for the challenge.
"Their life is a lot richer in that way," says Sultanov. "If you can do ballet, and push yourself through all the physical demands required, I think everything else seems much easier."