Michael Shannon Is First American Graduate of Bolshoi Academy


AMERICAN classical ballet dancer Michael Shannon calls what is happening to him now ``destiny.'' The 19-year-old Los Angeleno is the first-ever American member of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the prestigious Moscow school that educates future stars of the Soviet dance world. In his June graduation performance, his final bow put him 10 feet from a cheering onlooker named Mikhail Gorbachev.

``If it weren't for glasnost and perestroika, I would not have been allowed into the Soviet Union,'' he says with exuberant hazel eyes that shine beneath flowing mustard hair. ``The Gorbachev revolution has given the freedom for my [Soviet] teachers to accept me.''

Acceptance came in the summer of 1986, when Mme. Sophia Golovkina, who is in charge of the Bolshoi Academy, saw Mr. Shannon at the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. She signed the then 16-year-old to a full scholarship, underwritten by the Soviet Ministries of Culture and Education.

Now Shannon is a part of the 65-member Academy troupe's first US tour in two decades. The two programs they're presenting include Act II of ``Swan Lake,'' Act III of ``Coppelia,'' and excerpts from the popular classics ``La Fille Mal Gard'ee'' and ``Paquita.'' After a stop in Virginia and seven performances here, the tour goes on to stops in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 8-9; Vail, Colo., Aug. 11-13; Binghamton, N.Y., Aug. 15; and Boston, Aug. 17-19.

``Shannon not only has the hallmarks of the Russian school, but he's a fine example,'' wrote the Washington Post after the tour's stop at Wolftrap performing arts center in Virginia. ``His jump is big and confident, his landings are cushioned. His turns are secure and leg beats clear. ... He carries himself like a star.''

Though without outward affectation or ego, Shannon also behaves like a star. He exudes a quiet dignity and answers questions confidently and articulately.

``I've always done whatever it takes,'' he said in an interview here with two of his fellow students, Vladimir Malakhov and Galina Stepanyenko. ``I always wanted to do something special with my life. From a young age I was always in love with the Russian ballet. That was my goal. I was always a go-for-it kind of guy.''

Beginning his studies here in Los Angeles at age nine with Stanley Holden, he received a scholarship to the School of American Ballet by age 12. Two years later, he began an odyssey of study abroad with Soviet teachers in Hungary, Sweden, and Canada.

Already the recipient of an award from the US National Foundation for the Arts, and the first American graduate of the Hungarian State Ballet Institute, Shannon immediately caught the eye of his Soviet mentor. ``I liked him the first time I saw him,'' Golovkina told Tass, the Soviet news agency. ``I saw he had very good talent and invited him to come dance with us.''

Though he had been well-trained in Soviet technique - high leaps, well-executed turns, strong movement - he says he was far behind his classmates upon arrival. So he worked seven days a week during the entire year he spent in the USSR, often from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.

``I got the discipline, authority and control I always wanted,'' says Shannon. ``I truly think I have never really been a true ballet dancer until now.''

Founded in 1773, the Bolshoi Academy has produced some of Russia's most famous dancers: Igor Moiseyev, Asaf Messerer, Maya Plisetskaya, and Nikolai Fadeyechev. Each year, over 2,000 applicants contend for 80 openings in the rigorous, eight-year program that includes studies in history, drama, theater, and music, as well as dance.

``They tell you that to be a ballet dancer you have to dance,'' says Shannon. ``But you have to play the role of a prince; so you have to be an actor. And listening to music you have to be a musician. And you are also trying to fill a picture. So you have to learn how to be a painter.'' Shannon adds there are vast ideological differences between the two countries but small differences in the people. In both countries they are ``big-hearted and wonderful,'' he says. ``They take you into their home and give you everything that they have.''

Asked if Soviet dancers seek escape from the pressure in drugs (Patrick Bissell, a young American dancer, was killed in 1987 through an overdose), Shannon replies, ``No, but we all seem to escape in smoking cigarettes for some reason.''

Now that his schooling is finished, Shannon has no specific plans beyond the current tour, but he hopes to be accepted by the professional Bolshoi Ballet company without a formal tryout. ``They've already seen everything I can do,'' he says. ``They have had many foreigners before in the school, but none have they put up in front of their audiences the way they have done with me,'' he says. He adds that, though teachers try to keep the students modest, fellow students say he is among the top two males in the class. ``The Soviet public has already taken a liking to me,'' he adds, ``and made me feel very appreciated.''

He recalls the first time he performed in the Bolshoi Theater, when the audience did not know he was American. ``Afterwards they came backstage and said, `Who was that boy? He has such a strange name.' Then they found out I was American.... Now they write me long fan letters. I have a small following.''

``He has become one of us,'' says Mr. Malakhov, impressed by Shannon's now-fluent Russian.

``He has that rare combination of great legs and strong feet,'' adds Ms. Stepanyenko. ``He will transform his talent into great success.''

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