Moving Away From Family for Ballet: 4 Pros Share Their Experience and Advice
The life of a ballet dancer is full of sacrifices, and sacrificing time with family is no exception. When Maria Kochetkova graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, she knew she was considered too short for the company. She would soon have to leave her family and dance abroad.
“It was hard to realize that there was no place for me to dance at home in Moscow just because I was 8 centimeters shorter than other dancers,” she recalls. But Kochetkova’s family supported her decision. “Away from home or not, I was always very close with my family. I always say my mum is my biggest fan,” she says. “It was also necessary for me to move away so I could become independent and to learn how to think for myself. You need a thick skin in this career, and you don’t get it just from having an easy path.”
Of course, many dancers leave home much earlier, as students. “If a young dancer wants to move away to train, the family has to be 150 percent on board and the student has to be 200 percent on board,” says New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns. Like Kochetkova’s, Mearns’ family was committed to her dance dreams long before she left home. Her mother was involved in ballet from her earliest days of training. “Dancing was a family decision. I danced, my brother danced, and my mom was at the studio all the time. She made costumes and helped with car pools,” she explains. “I didn’t feel alone; we were all sacrificing. It wasn’t a sad thing.”
Mearns’ goal had always been to dance with NYCB. At age 15, she left home in South Carolina to train at the affiliated School of American Ballet. “My brother was at SAB and so were friends I had made from summer intensives and from my dance school back home. I was very lucky,” she says. Though Mearns felt ready to leave home at 15, she recommends young dancers take baby steps, such as attending in-state summer intensives before trying out-of-state summer intensives and year-round training programs. “If you can go to a summer intensive with a couple of friends, that can also help,” she says.
At 17, Milwaukee Ballet’s Alana Griffith moved from Los Angeles to England to train at English National Ballet School. “It was really scary, to be honest,” says Griffith. But she wanted to continue British-style training after training in RAD at her home studio, Los Angeles Ballet Academy. Living her dream was exciting, but she also had challenging days. Thankfully, she had a support system of family and ballet friends and teachers back home to talk to on the phone. If she could have done anything differently in retrospect, Griffith says she would have sought out the sports psychologists on staff at ENB School more often.
“I would get stressed, and I think it would have helped me to get my thoughts out,” she says. “A lot of times we are afraid to have these conversations because we are afraid of appearing a certain way. With social media, we are always trying to appear perfect. But I’ve found that when we do talk about these things, we discover that many others are having the same experience.”
Sometimes, the desire to inspire family helps motivate a dancer to continue through the sacrifices of leaving home. When Alabama Ballet’s Andrés Castillo first came to the U.S. from Colombia to pursue career opportunities, he initially was excited to be in a new country and didn’t mind being by himself. “I called my mom every day and sent her pictures of me dancing,” he says. “But I haven’t been back to Colombia since I left eight years ago. My mom was able to visit me six years ago, and I got very emotional.” Family birthdays and holidays are also difficult for Castillo, especially Christmas. “It’s hard to know that they are all gathered together but that I can’t be there,” he says.
At the same time, he feels driven to encourage his mother as well as his two younger brothers. “My mom wanted to be a dancer when she was younger, and both of my brothers are ballet dancers. It’s hard being the first one to come the United States, and I’ve felt like giving up before, so I want to show them that anything is possible.”
Though leaving home can be necessary to further one’s training and career, sometimes a dancer’s journey eventually brings them closer to where they started. In 2018, after 11 years as principal at San Francisco Ballet, Kochetkova left the company. “Back at the time my mum had to look after my two grandmothers,” she says. “It was very difficult for me to take time off from SFB to dance more back home in Russia, and it was impossible for her to travel so far to California to see me dance.” She moved back to Europe to freelance and to be nearer to home.
This August, Kochetkova joins English National Ballet, where she also danced in the early years of her career. She’s again far from family, but her globetrotting career has helped shape her as a dancer: “I believe that everything happens for a reason and that all experiences contribute to artists becoming who they are.”