Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Ballerina in the Adirondacks: Ainana’s Great Adventure

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the lesser-known cultural jewels of our region is the Lake Placid School of Ballet. They offer their participants the kind of attention not often found elsewhere, but, if one thinks about it, is a hallmark of Lake Placid’s ability to churn out so many Olympic and World Cup champions across so many disciplines.

Lake Placid’s arts community provides an extra level of personal attention to budding artistic talents in equal measure to those in sports, and few better provide that level of coaching in any endeavor than Terpsie Toon and her talented roster of faculty assisted by the Arts Center staff.

My awaking to just how profound their level of care was provided becoming a “ballet mom” this summer for Ainana Grey Wolf Gurueva, an 18 year-old Russian ballerina from Siberia in the United States for two months with the shared goal of opening a door to a career as a professional dancer while also connecting with a step-brother and sister she had never met. Ainana is the daughter of a friend and colleague in Ulan Ude of Russia, who was of great assistance to me when I was a Fulbrighter eight years ago.

Before Ainana’s great adventure could begin, her mother and I had to facilitate her acceptance into the Boston Ballet’s summer intensive, apply for and get visas (requiring them to travel a third of the way across Russia by train the US consulate in Vladivostok), assemble the funding from family, friends and personal savings, and arrange flights and my friends to meet and welcome her in Boston.

Ballet pose_edited-1The Boston Ballet is one of the leading schools of dance in the United States. Their summer intensives attract young people of all ages from across our country and around the world. Ainana arrived with a modest grasp of English, strong determination, and few financial resources. She found herself in classes of 30 students, all good, and nearly all trained in the preferred Balanchine method, while her training had been in the classic Russian method.

The Boston faculty worked her and all their students hard. There she explored the wonders of Boston with her new friends, struggled to learn English, adjusted to a new ballet technique, and was welcomed to the home of my friends Vivien and Phillip Speiser when needing a break, a home cooked meal, and the chance to cool off in a pool.

I attended her last class, met her teachers, and put her on a flight out to Utah where she met her step siblings Uwe and Michelle, who introduced her to their mother living on the Navaho Reservation, showed her Monument Valley, Grand and Bryce Canyons, and Vegas, and taught her how to ride a horse and drive a pickup truck.

Two weeks later I met her in Albany and the Adirondack part of her journey began. Here, with the help of my partner Renée, friend Dan, and others, she experienced such firsts as eating corn on the cob and barbecued ribs, rowing a guideboat, camping, seeing and hearing loons, standing on top of a ski jump, a ride in a power boat, attending a cocktail party, meeting Russian figure skating greats Ludmilla and Oleg Protopopov, learning how to make a homemade tomato sauce as well as applesauce, seeing a Broadway-style musical (42nd St at the Seagle Colony), and being offered a lesson in luging by Dmitry Feld. She also fell in love with maple syrup. Her adventures included a visit to the Six Nations Museum (a favorite), the Wild Center, the Olympic Center and Olympic ski jumps, Keene Valley Farmer’s Market, Donnelly’s ice cream, a trip up Lower Saranac Lake through the locks, and a night on an island on Middle Saranac Lake.

She gave all that a big “Wow” and two thumbs up.

That said, what was most special was her time with Terpsie Toon and Mikail (Misha) Ilyin as well as Fred Walton and Deb Young, the faculty of the Lake Placid School of Ballet’s summer intensive, and others she met who opened doors for her into our culture and what it takes to succeed as a dancer.

Different from Boston is that in many respects the Lake Placid Ballet is a two-room schoolhouse accommodating a wide range of ages and abilities. Boston Ballet took over several floors of a university dorm to house their students and younger students were segregated from the older. Here all students interacted with each other, saw everyone perform, and received way more personalized attention than Boston.

Ainana received explanations of what Terpsie and Misha were seeking, asking of her, and why. She got advice on point shoes, her outfits and make up, the approach to take when rehearsing (as if you are on stage), career planning including practical tips on putting together her materials to approaching auditions, and gained instruction in Jazz dance technique as well as ballet. She came home physically exhausted. They worked her every bit as hard a Boston, plus she received a crash course in the business of dance.

An added benefit of Ainana being in with such a wide variety of young dancers is that she and the other older dancers raised the bar for the younger ones and served as great inspirations of what’s possible. Everybody benefited. Ainana learned the importance of helping other dancers, and had the chance to see how much Misha, Terspie, Fred and Deb all respected and supported each other. She got to see them as family.

“We provide all our students a solid foundation in proper techniques so they can stand comfortably, move correctly in any direction, and have control over their body,” said Misha Ilyin. “We want them to have an understanding of the music and to open their minds to the full world of possibilities in dance. Ainana is a young wonderfully talented dancer. My goal is to fine tune whatever she has and help her move towards the next step in her career.”

“I try to install in all our students the best techniques that have been installed in me and the ABT curriculum,” said Terpsie Toon. “I want to share with them my love and passion for dance, and hope that will continue with them no matter what they do. I have had the privilege of working, being taught and touched by, some of the best teachers and choreographers in dance. I want to pass that on. Dance is not a sport. It’s an art, but it is every bit as hard. The younger kids were so inspired by Ainana. She got their attention.”

“I loved Lake Placid,” said Ainana. “Everyone was so kind and helpful.”

Lake Placid School of Ballet’s class offerings for 2013-2014 are now open (Sept 16 – June 1. 2014). Details can be found online.


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Naj Wikoff

Naj Wikoff is an artist who founded Creative Healing Connections, the Lake Placid Institute, and co-founded the Adirondack Film Society-Lake Placid Film Forum.

A two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar, Wikoff has served as president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, director of arts and healing at the C. Everett Koop Institute, Dartmouth Medical School, and director of Arts and Productions for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

Wikoff also covers Adirondack community culture events for the Lake Placid News.

2 Responses

  1. Naj:

    This is a wonderful article. Obviously you helped to orchestrate a magnificent experience for this young lady, to her benefit and the benefit of those who met her (and with her some Siberian culture, no doubt).

    But in telling this story you also illustrate what a unique and powerful draw the Adirondack park is to people at the highest levels of art and culture. This commends the Adirondacks as surely as it enriches our communities.

    I’m not certain that most people fully appreciate the artistic assets we have in the Adirondacks and how out of scale they are to the cultural resources of most other rural areas. They constitute a powerful testament to the magic of our region. Here in Lake Placid we find a small School of Ballet. One of the instructors in their summer intensive is Mikail Ilyin. This is no less than a world-class dancer, an artist operating at the highest level in one of the most difficult and demanding arts there is. This would be like having a summer session on quarterbacking at a Lake Placid football camp taught by Eli Manning, up from New York City for a few weeks. This is but one example of the kind of quality you can find right here in the park.

    Naj, apparently you have a strong connection to Russia. For this fine article and its illustration of the Adirondacks as a seat of art, not just wild beauty, I therefore say “Bolshoe spasibo.”

  2. adkDreamer says:

    Yeah, OK, I read the article… OK yes, I looked at the picture mostly – I would have no problem oaring that guide boat with those two beautiful women.

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