Zoe Mack Invited to Train at Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow

By Flavia Potenza
Flavia PotenzaBy Flavia Potenza

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Zoe Mack Invited to Train at Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow
Photo by Sam Zauscher Zoe Mack in a performance with the Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) competition in May of 2021.
When COVID-19 closed down the Westside School of Ballet where 16-year-old Zoe Mack had been training since she was seven, she switched to the Russian style of training. Little did she expect to be invited to study in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. On Thursday, January 13, Zoe Mack and her mother, Mariam, boarded a plane to Moscow, where Zoe will be training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (BBA) for six months. Last summer she completed two programs at BBA in New York City: a six-week summer intensive of rigorous ballet training for serious ballet students (ages 15-22 years), that is run by the Russian American Foundation (RAF), a New York-based non-profit organization, and the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a State Department-funded scholarship program run by RAF. It was here that she was invited to Moscow. (nsliforyouth.org/languages-and-program-experience/russian) “When COVID hit,” said Zoe, “I began training with my current private teachers, Katya Viola and Alla Khaniashvili and spent a year with Crystal Peterson at Classical Ballet Academy. I am now at Marat Daukayev School of Ballet where I’ve been training with Marat for six months.” In New York, students still had to follow CDC and NYC guidelines, wear masks at all times except in their dorms with their roommates. “At first we tested weekly but then it changed and vaccinated kids didn’t need to. I was lucky to be vaccinated. In the studio we always had to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and wipes. “Dancing with masks is really awful,” Zoe said. Because of COVID, classes in partnering and pas de deux, essential to a dancer’s training, were excluded from the curriculum. COVID also delayed her visit to Moscow. “If it weren’t for COVID I would have gone to Moscow after three weeks in New York to study there for six weeks but it was online [for overseas students] and more of a language learning thing.” So she stayed with the New York intensive and NSLI-Y program where she “learned quite a lot of Russian. I’m sure, in Moscow, when we go out to a restaurant and order food, or go shopping, or need to ask for directions, we’ll be able to practice. Our teachers only speak Russian, so I should come back pretty fluent.” Zoe also liked learning to write in Cyrillic script. “It was fun. It’s cursive and it’s really pretty.” She doesn’t know if her training schedule will allow her to do much touring. “They posted a sample but it was all in Russian. It looks like my days will be about four to six hours depending on the day. I’ll only have Sunday off and maybe go around Moscow a little bit. Maybe, after Saturday classes, we can take the bullet train to St. Petersburg and that would be really cool.” While in Moscow, she has to take three classes—history science, and math—in order to graduate, but due to California’s home schooling laws, she has to take three additional classes to make up for the fact that she’s not in school. As a student at Pali High, she’s enrolled in the school’s virtual academy. “I’ve been doing this for two years now. For graduation I would have to take just three classes and then the rest of the time I could focus on what I’m trying to accomplish in Moscow,” Zoe said. “Pali has been helpful and lightens the extra classes through an online program with lectures and films called College and Career Excellus. I think Pali should have its own virtual teachers who create the course for the student to put on Schoology, the platform we use for grades and assignments.” It sounds like a lot of pressure to put on a 16 year old. “We want to give Zoe an escape hatch while she’s there,” says her mother, Mariam, who will stay in Moscow for the first three weeks. “The most important thing is for her to take advantage of the time that she’s there. Pali High’s curriculum isn’t designed for people like her who are doing the intense effort she is. The last thing we want is to have her thousands of miles from home and have this added pressure that we want to avoid. We try to stay flexible.” Mariam introduces their cat, Mocha, who decided to make an appearance on the Zoom screen and we all laugh about our cats. Asked about her goals as a dancer, Zoe is realistic. “I think my goal as far as the end of this program, would be to be invited back for their three-year diploma program. At the end of it, I’ll get a certificate that says I graduated the Bolshoi Ballet Program. “As far as a career, I would like to dance in Russia but American dancers are not that common in Russian ballet companies. I would love to dance in the English Ballet company, but more realistically, with American companies, such as San Francisco, American Ballet Theatre, Colorado Ballet, Houston, any major company. “I don’t think you can be specific in your vision because anything could happen, things change. Maybe in five years I might realize I like contemporary dance, might go into modern and not want to be a classical ballet dancer. There are a lot of options that are not professional ballet companies. I need a variety of skills and have my eyes on other things.” When you think of Zoe’s determination to pursue her passion and overcome the obstacles in her way, you might say the world is her oyster and you might be right. But if one day you are fortunate to see her perform, underneath the beauty and grace of ballet is the soul of an athlete who navigated a bumpy road in her journey to get there. One thing Zoe never forgets is to express her appreciation to those who have supported her along the way. “I am eternally grateful to all of my teachers, my parents, and those who gave their support throughout my ballet career. I am so excited to begin this new journey!” “It’s a life-changing experience,” Her dad, Rainer observes. With Russia’s president threatening war with Ukraine, Zoe is one of many providing a counterpoint to war through culture. As Michael A. McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow (2012), observes, “The Russian American Foundation’s continued contributions to cultural, educational, and sports programs in the United States and Russia help foster greater understanding between the people of the United States and the Russian Federation. Such programs highlight the things that the American and Russian people have in common.” Zoe will celebrate her 17th birthday next month in Moscow. Want to participate in Zoe’s journey? Donate: gofund.me/17334309; @zoesimonemack.
Photo by Rainer Mack Zoe Mack as Polichinelle and children from the 2021 Nutcracker performance at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet.
Flavia Potenza

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January 21, 2022