Gabrielle Perkins, 17, of Oakland, has become the only American accepted this year into one of the world’s most prestigious ballet academies: the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Given that the academy accepts fewer than 100 of the more than 3,000 aspiring students who apply each year, it is an enormous accomplishment for the Messalonskee High School senior.
For Perkins, however, a slim girl with long, brown hair, Vaganova is just the next, precious step in a delicate dance she has been performing since she was 4 years old.
Dancing isn’t quite her first memory. That distinction dates back to when she was 3, crying and washing her face during a visit to Arizona, where the Southwestern sun revealed a spate of unfamiliar freckles.
But she remembers performing soon after that in dance recitals, enjoying the rush of learning new ways to move her body in time to music.
By the time Perkins was 7, her dance instructor at the local YMCA invited her to teach adult students how to dance better.
Always, she said, she was asking her parents for more classes, more opportunities to learn an art form she had already fallen in love with.
Her father, Mike Perkins, is the Oakland Town Council chairman and owner of KMD Driving School. Her mother, Kelley Perkins, is a chemist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Kelley Perkins said she and her husband are excited that their daughter is achieving her dreams.
“She really wanted it when she was little, and we told her, as long as she didn’t get hurt too badly and worked hard for it, we would support her.”
Perkin’s journey has not been free of injury. One serious misstep has left her with recurring stiffness in one leg.
It was a momentary, disastrous lapse of concentration in the midst of a complicated interplay of gravity, muscle and thought.
She was in eighth grade, Perkins said, and she was practicing a fouetté — swinging one leg through the air to add speed and motion while twirling on the other.
One moment, she was twirling, she said, and the next she was on the ground with two fractures in her leg, an injury that put her in a cast for a month, and took 18 months to heal.
The Russian ballet
For many ballet students, acceptance into Vaganova, an institution that embodies cultural and artistic credentials, would be seen not as a stepping stone but as a goal in itself.
The academy, which is affiliated with the world-famous Marinsky Ballet, is older than the United States and numbers among its graduates some of ballet’s most acclaimed superstars, including Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
When the academy was founded in 1738 by royal decree of Empress Anna, niece of Peter the Great, its first class of 12 boys and 12 girls trained in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.
Perkins came to audition at Vaganova through her association with Pittsfield’s Bossov Ballet Theatre, a school based at the Maine Central Institute. She has been taking classes at Bossov since she was a fifth-grader at Mt. Merici Academy in Waterville, she said.
Executive Director Mike Wyly founded the school in 1996. Much of its success can be attributed to his steady leadership and the expertise of Artistic Director Andrei Bossov, himself a Vaganova School graduate. In 2005, another Bossov student, Michael Dunsmore, became the first American male to be accepted at Vaganova.
Perkins’ audition came in mid-April, during a Bossov trip to an annual “Dance Open” in St. Petersburg. During the trip, 12 groups from eight countries competed for the honor of performing the finale. A group of 14 Bossov dancers, including Perkins, won.
Wyly said Bossov’s students do so well in Russia because the school has such exacting standards.
“My two principal teachers here demand more discipline, are more exacting, and adhere more closely to the strict Russian standards than American ballet teachers and most Russians who’ve come here,” he said.
Driven to dance
Wyly said Perkins has exhibited an unusual level of dedication.
“She has, from the very beginning, from a very early age, been absolutely determined that this is what she wants to do with her life, to be a professional ballerina,” Wyly said.
Throughout her lifelong quest, Perkins has paid close attention to the size and shape of the girls she’s seen on stage.
“Some are really small,” she said, “but some aren’t.”
Her intense drive to succeed makes her feel the pressure that can, in some people, turn to unhealthy outcomes.
“In a way, there is a lot of pressure; but I don’t think it has to get to the point of anorexia,” she said.
Still, she said, if she had a chance at a really big part in a professional production, and she was told to lose weight from her 116-pound, 5-foot, 5- 1/2-inch frame, she would consider losing a couple of pounds.
Wyly said he’s seen eating disorders in the ballet community, but that he actively polices the students to ensure that they are eating properly.
“My policy is, you better eat so that you’ve got strong bones and strong muscles, or you can forget about dancing,” he said.
Students who want to lose weight, he said, are required to work with a nutritionist to set parameters on what is healthy and what isn’t.
Making a living in ballet is not easy, even for a girl who has dedicated 13 of her 17 years to getting there.
Some of those who dance professionally in well-known venues, she said, have to work a second job to help pay the bills.
While she considers a potential career as a pediatrician as her backup plan, it’s clear that her focus is ballet, and she hopes that, after two years at Vaganova, she can find a job, perhaps on a new stage that Marinsky is building in St. Petersburg.
Perkins said the prospect of a two-year term at a Russian academy is scary, but her drive is such that she is willing to be separated from family and friends, to go to a place where the local customs are strange, to receive strict direction from instructors who speak a language she does not know.
In the end, she hopes that somewhere in the wide world of professional ballet she is continuing to learn more about, there will be a stage waiting for her where she can take the final steps toward her dream career.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287