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Backstory: A marine's corps de ballet

By Stacey ChaseContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2007



PITTSFIELD, MAINE

Andrei Petrovitch Bossov, the former Soviet ballet star, looks into the wall-length mirror and barks French ballet terms in a thick, indecipherable Russian accent. "Entrechat!" "Fouetté!" "Plié!"

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His students stare back. They try to move as he moves, to literally become his mirror image. Their common language is ballet.

For Mr. Bossov, words do not communicate as well as dance itself. "Because of this limitation, the spirit and the soul and the human mind can be visualized on the stage by the dancer's body."

Bossov danced with the famed Kirov Ballet on world tours and shared the stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but today choreographs and teaches ballet in obscure Pittsfield, a rural town of 4,214 near Bangor, Maine.

Though named for its virtuoso, the Bossov Ballet Theatre is here – housed at Maine Central Institute, a private high school – because of the sheer will of this man: Col. Michael Duncan Wyly. The retired commanding officer and balletomane started the children's ballet school in 1996 in an effort to make his young daughter's dream of becoming a ballerina come true.

The choreographer and the combat veteran perform a unique pas de deux as artistic director and executive director. Under their unlikely partnership, the Bossov Ballet carries on the art's much-revered Imperial Russian tradition yet aspires to become America's preeminent school for training dancers for the professional ballet.

"I treat him like a three-star general because he needs to be treated that way," Colonel Wyly says of Bossov. "And I respect him, you know, that much – as long as he remembers I'm the four-star."

***

It's Tuesday night, and the students gather in front of the ballet master – and the mirror – in Founders Hall studio to hone their technique and rehearse "The Four Seasons," to be performed in May at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine. The next production is "Don Quixote" at the Waterville Opera House, in Waterville, Maine, in August.

Fourteen-year-old Johanna Reuter executes pirouettes and pas de bourrées encircled by two boys – Ben Malone, 17, and Jacob Gambone, 16, – as they practice, over and over, a number called "The Mist."

"I know I have the body for it, so I think this is what I was meant to do," says Johanna, a lithe and long-limbed blonde.

Bossov is a tough drill sergeant. Students' holey pointe shoes and bruises showing through their opaque tights attest to their determination. "Again" is Bossov's stock phrase; "close" is high praise.

"Of course I love them, and I care about them," the taciturn danseur says of his young charges. "They belong to me."

It's Bossov's intensity that attracts students, though Jacob admits: "I'm a little bit scared of him sometimes."

The 16 hard-core ballet students under the tutelage of Bossov and Russian ballerina-instructor Natalya Getman – most of them boarding students at Maine Central Institute – practice as much as five hours a day, six days a week. (Tuition for full-time ballet students is $2,650 a year.)

A dozen families from eight states have relocated to Pittsfield over the years so their teenagers could study under Bossov. Another 90 local youths and adults – ages 4 to 22 – take afternoon, evening, and Saturday morning community classes, and a handful of them are also pre-professional dancers. In addition, the Bossov Ballet offers a rigorous, five-week Summer Intensive Ballet Camp that enrolls up to 80.

The hope is that eventually, the ballet school will develop enough talent for Bossov to have his own professional, touring ballet company.

Watching the rehearsal, Wyly sighs. "Every girl who dares dream," he says, "dreams of being picked up by handsome, young cavaliers and swept through the air."

The colonel, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 and served two tours in Vietnam, retired in 1991 and moved his family to Maine from Virginia with the intent of writing a book on the art of war and becoming a vintner. But in 1995, the youngest of Wyly's two daughters, Summer, then 13, was a Bossov protégée at the Waterville Performing Arts Center when it abruptly closed. The ballet master retreated to Mother Russia.

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