The graceful ballerina twirling across the stage in an ethereal whirlwind of tulle and silk. It’s an image to which many young girls aspire—even today. But, for Anastasia Babayeva, it’s always been about more than a figurine inside a music box or tutus donned for a playdate.
At age 10, Babayeva was training at Russia’s esteemed Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Now 38, she instructs a new generation of young dancers on the Main Line, in Philadelphia and around the country. The Drexel Hill resident’s schedule is hectic, to say the least. She teaches at Media’s Academy of International Ballet and Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, commuting on weekends to Connecticut, where she’s an instructor at Greenwich Ballet Academy. This summer, she’s guest teaching for various companies. She also performs with her husband, Denis Gronostayskiy, who’s also Bolshoi trained.
Babayeva grew accustomed to the rigors of a dancer’s life long ago, beginning with her first day of training in her native Russia, where the performing arts tradition is a lengthy and celebrated one. Watching her grandparents perform with the Moscow Circus inspired a young Babayeva to pursue her passion.
“The circus was a really big deal in Russia,” says Babayeva. “Seeing them, I knew I wanted to be in show business.”
Babayeva was 5 when she began dancing with a company near Moscow, taking on small character roles in folk dances. One of her instructors saw something special, and recommended that she try out for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of its kind in the world. After several grueling auditions, Babayeva was accepted to the academy’s eight-year program in 1983.
“The first couple of years were really hard for me,” Babayeva recalls. “I didn’t have my parents around; I lived in a dormitory. You had to be on a diet; you couldn’t have cake; and you couldn’t have a normal Sunday just spending time with your friends.”
For eight years, every day at the academy began and ended in roughly the same way. First, 90 minutes of ballet technique classes, followed by a 15-minute break, when dancers changed out of their tights and into their school uniforms for classes in language, literature, art and more.
After lunch, it was more ballet classes until 6 p.m. If a dancer was in a Bolshoi production, rehearsals followed. And there was homework. “I definitely cried a couple of times,” says Babayeva. “A lot of students quit the first year.”
Back then, Babayeva’s father worked for the Russian embassy, taking him all over the world. While she perfected her pliés, her parents were thousands of miles away in Cuba. There was also the pressure of annual ballet exams. “Because of them, some people didn’t make it to graduation,” she says. “We had a regular physical exam every year.”
Babayeva made it to graduation, and exams were substituted with auditions for professional ballet companies. The Bolshoi Ballet snapped up the academy’s best students, and Babayeva was confident she was one of them. “I’d already had some rehearsals with different companies, and we all knew how important it was to have a job,” she says. “I had a few offers. But when the offer came from the Bolshoi, that was my greatest moment.”
In the professional world, Babayeva enjoyed a slightly more relaxed schedule. The season ran September to June, with classes ending at 2 p.m. and performances in the evening. Over the course of her five-year career with the Bolshoi, Babayeva traveled to the United States, Japan, Egypt and Australia, preforming in more than 20 different full-length classical ballets.
In 1995, political and economic issues in Russia compelled Babayeva to settle in the United States. “It wasn’t like I had to escape with my life,” she says. “But I saw more opportunity here.”
Babayeva landed an audition with the Minnesota Ballet, where she spent one year, followed by another 12 months as the principal dancer for the Chicago Ballet. Then came seven years as the principal dancer for the Richmond Ballet.
“I came to this country not knowing how to speak English or drive, and my job wasn’t really paying my bills,” she says. “My friends always ask me, ‘Who are you right now? Do you feel Russian or American?’ It’s a hard question. I feel like I grew up as a child in Russia—but, as an adult, I became an American.”
Babayeva and Gronostayskiy married in 2000, though they’d known each other previously through their training at the Bolshoi Academy. They were reintroduced in the 1990s, when Babayeva made several guest appearances in the Philadelphia area with the Richmond Ballet.
At the time, Gronostayskiy was dancing with the daughter of Josie Singer, former board member and past president of Philadelphia Ballet Theatre. Babayeva and Gronostayskiy reconnected, and Singer approached them with the idea of opening a ballet school. In 2001, they founded International Ballet Classique—Delaware County’s first and only professional company—and its accompanying Academy of International Ballet.
Singer is executive director of the academy, which follows the Vaganova method as taught at the Bolshoi, fusing elements of French, Italian and Russian disciplines while stressing fluidity and strength. Babayeva’s mornings and afternoons are spent at the school, teaching beginner, intermediate and advanced classes. In the evening, she’s at the University of the Arts, where she’s a master instructor.
In summer, Babayeva guest teaches in New York, South Carolina, Connecticut and elsewhere. Her teaching has garnered awards from the Youth America Grand Prix and the American Ballet Competition. Meanwhile, her students have gone on to compete and perform on a national level.
“In Russia, we had more time to study and were entirely dedicated to dance,” says Babayeva. “Most of my students love to dance, but it’s not necessarily because they want to be a professional.”
Especially when it comes to her male students. “It’s not really acceptable for boys to practice ballet here,” she says.
Babayeva’s 17-year-old son, Alex, won a full scholarship to the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. “He’s pretty serious now, but we had a couple of times where it was questionable whether he would continue or not,” she admits.
It’s a familiar conundrum for a dancer, deciding where their steps will ultimately lead them.
For more, visit academyballetru.com.