Dance Dreams

Young First State Ballet Theatre has sent more than a few dancers into the demanding world of professional ballet. Now one teen stands poised on the verge of world renown.

Photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli

Pasha and Kristina Kambalov watch as
Brittany Ross dances across the studio.

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Snow is falling on

Market Street

, dancing about the high mansard roof of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House, catching the glow of street lamps and collectinrog on the cornices of the cast-iron facade.

Christmas is near, as is the season for “The Nutcracker.” So snowflakes are dancing inside The Grand as well. Dressed in white leotards and black tights, they are among the 85 students—young, old, beginner and pre-professional—of First State Ballet Theatre.

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“Ba-baa. Ba-baa,” co-founder and artistic co-director Pasha Kambalov chants, emphasizing the beat and brass of Tchaikovsky’s score. “Good, good,” he encourages.

The little feet synchronize perfectly as he begins to clap. Then, a moment later, he leaps into the middle of the floor.

“Snowflakes,” he calls in an accent that sounds like vodka mixed with honey. “You are like dis,” he says, stiffening his arms like Frankenstein. “You are like icicles, not snowflakes.”

The snowflakes laugh.

“What do you think?” he asks gently. “Can we do it again?”

The small faces nod eagerly.

“OK,” says Kambalov. “Dis time let’s have snowflakes, hey? No snow bricks.”

The music starts, and the snowflakes begin whirling about again, this time more gracefully.

The young First State Ballet Theatre has placed five students in professional ballet companies. Over the past six years, students have danced into the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, the most important competition for pre-professional dancers. The year 2004 brought not only outstanding finishes at the Grand Prix, but gold and bronze medals at the USA National Youth Ballet Competition. And last year an ensemble of First State Ballet dancers ranked in the top 12 of the competition, earning them an invitation to the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.

Then came the honor of a lifetime for one young dancer: an invitation to the highly charged Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition in Lausanne, Switzerland, last January.

But as First State Ballet Theatre has proven amply in its short history, it is well capable of training world-class dancers.

Kristina Kambalov studied at the world renowned
Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.

Wearing an Old Navy sweatshirt, Kambalov doesn’t seem at first much like the ballet type—until he starts to explain the precision and artistry of classical Vaganova ballet.

Vaganova, strictly speaking, is a method of teaching named after Agrippina Vaganova, who quite literally wrote the book on Russian ballet. The pedagogy of her “Fundamentals of Classical Dance” provides the framework of formal training in Russia, and it guides instruction of students at First State Ballet Theatre.

For Kambalov, the method is essential. “You do not just come and first you jump,” he says in rolling Slavic consonants. His spine straightens and his shoulders square as he speaks, evidence that physical and intellectual understanding of choreography are intimately linked. “There is a system. First you must bend and bend. You do not just do this or this. It must be just so every time.”

His explanation ends with his arms curved elegantly in a grande pose, his fingers spread like the wing-tip feathers of a bird in flight.

Kambalov trained at the Kirov School in St. Petersburg, the epicenter of Russian ballet. Think Nijinsky, Nureyev, Baryshnikov. After a life of dancing (Kambalov started at the age of 6) and a long career on the stage, he possesses a mastery so complete it seems mystical. And though Kambalov has turned his passion to teaching, he remains, in the words of First State Ballet Theatre founder and president Robert Grenfell, “a dancing maniac.”

“Come on Pash. Let’s see some grande pirouettes,” students urge as they warm up for rehearsal.

Kambalov takes to the floor, poses, then kicks into rapid rotation. At each turn, his head snaps smartly around, his arms fly outward and his leg extends straight from his hip. The soles of his New Balance running shoes squeak as he spins and spins and spins, accelerating all the while.

When he comes to rest, he is smiling, his arms thrust grandly outward. His audience applauds. The master has just shown them a trick, and he has enjoyed it immensely.

Kambalov has fun with dance. At one point in the rehearsal, he kicks off his shoes to join in the party scene, taking on the role of Drosselmeyer. During an especially dramatic lift, his partner, 15-year-old Brittany Ross, as Marie, appears to take wing. Kambalov shouts, “Woohoo!” Ross tempers her laughter just enough to keep leaping.

Kambalov, like any great teacher, knows inspiration comes from sheer fun. To watch him coach his dancers is to see a
man singularly focused, in tune to every nuance. His countenance changes with every line of music, every move.

Grenfell insists that the reason students at First State Ballet Theatre excel is the inspiration of Kambalov and his colleagues, school director Kristina Kambalov (his wife) and assistant artistic director Lev Assouliak. Assouliak, at age 71, is an honored artist of the Russian Republic.

Right now, the brightest star among First State’s young luminaries is Ross. Last summer she was selected from an elite group of dancers from 29 countries to compete in the 36th annual Prix de Lausanne.

The honor brings both pressure and opportunity. Sitting on the floor, her hair in a ponytail, the young ballerina looks like any 15-year-old, except that she is unconsciously stretching and twisting herself into impossible configurations. Her body tries to dance even while she thinks of other things. She practices six days a week.

At First State, she has found a home, as well as something of a family. Kambalov and Brittany enjoy a relationship not unlike that of Drosselmeyer and Marie. He is the godfather with charming powers. She is his gifted and adoring protégé.

Thus the child from Wilmington, feeling no small amount of wonder and trepidation, met the grand master from St. Petersburg. And as Marie blossomed under Drosselmeyer, Ross has matured under Kambalov’s tutelage.

Pasha Kambalov trained at the prestigious
Kirov School in St. Petersburg, the epicenter
of Russian ballet.

“When I first met Pasha, I was totally intimidated,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so scared of you.’ He’s really laid back, but he sees things. He knows just what to say to get you to dance well.”

Ross seems to understand her world with maturity uncommon in teens, yet, talent notwithstanding, she is very much a normal kid.

“Sometimes there are a lot of distractions and temptations, but this is what I want to do.” She balances her talent with genuine humility. As well as she speaks, the immediately remarkable thing about her is how attentively she listens.

In addition to the focus and creativity her study demands, ballet requires the determination to persevere through the occasional episode of bad luck—such as the time her audition video for the Prix de Lausanne went missing. “I’m pretty sure it was me who lost it,” Ross laughs. “We had to redo the whole thing.”

The second tape was dutifully sent to the judges, then returned with an invitation to the competition. The judges also sent their own video, which contained two original pieces of choreography. Ross’ task: choose one and dance it in Lausanne. Her performance would be judged on technical precision and artistry. Her competition: the finest pre-professional dancers in the world. Ross was one of the few Americans in the event, which courts mainly European dancers. At 15, she was among the youngest.

Dancing has earned Ross a few scholarships, and a good showing at the Prix could bring even more. For now, however, she’ll remain in Delaware with the Kambalovs, perfecting the skills needed in the world of professional ballet. “There is huge competition,” says Kristina Kambalov.

Having enjoyed a long career in professional ballet, Kristina Kambalov knows how proficient dancers must be to perform in professional companies. “It’s very important to have strong technique,” she emphasizes. She polished hers at Joffrey Ballet School. Ross credits her with the other half of her education. Kristina, she says, “is great with technique. She’s very precise. She and Pasha are a perfect pair.”

To give dancers the edge they need, First State Ballet recently began the Professional Training Program. It is designed to provide additional training and confidence to dancers who have finished formal study and are trying to land a career with a company. Jake Allison learned of the PTP at a summer dance camp, then moved to Delaware to study with the Kambalovs.

When Allison stands, his training is evident in his well defined turnout. His thighs flair to the sides, and his feet land naturally near the second position. Wearing a white T-shirt and black tights, his high cheekbones give him the look of a young Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov, however, never worked at Olive Garden. Allison’s job is one of the everyday, ordinary American aspects of his life, one that points to the often less-than-glamorous sacrifice involved in following this dream.

Back in his home state of Iowa, Allison’s first passion was football. But when he found the stage at age 16, he threw himself into ballet. “I feel like I’ve learned how to do anything from my training,” he says, “because I know how to work.”

He and Ross both put in three to four hours of practice a day. They build not only their own skills. They also promote the art form throughout the state.

As part of the First State Ballet’s outreach, Ross and Allison dance in pro-bono performances and participate in both the Dance Works, an introduction of ballet training to local elementary school students, and The Making of the Ballet, a lecture-demo series at the Baby Grand for young audiences.

Ross and Allison look and act like brother and sister, and they get along better than most. Before the holidays, Ross took a day from school to dance with Allison for his Dance Works students. It was their Christmas gift to the kids.

First State does a lot of outreach, trying to spread the excitement of professional dance. Serving the state is a large part of its vision. Where many arts organizations would have picked a sexier name, one that evoked images of a chic urbanity or Old World refinement, First State’s founders chose a name that emphasizes home.

First State Ballet Theatre collaborates with Delaware artists—most notably the flute and harp duo of Sparx—with efforts such as their Pointe Counterpoint series. It also works with the Christina Cultural Arts Center, and it has a standing relationship with Delaware Tech in Georgetown, where it stages all the same major performances it presents at The Grand.

Grenfell and the Kambalovs also court artists with broad reputations, including choreographers such as Matthew Neenan and Viktor Plotnikov. The goal is to build a larger regional audience for Delaware ballet, and a ballet that gets attention in the big shadow of surrounding cities.

Brittany Ross was one of the few
Americans invited to compete in
the Prix de Lausanne international
ballet competition in January.

The annual Arabesque festival has gone a long way toward raising the profile of ballet in Delaware. Kambalov’s brainchild, the festival is an international showcase of classical and contemporary ballet. It has brought to the stage of The Grand Opera House principles and soloists from distinguished companies throughout the Americas, Europe and Russia, including artists from such venues as Royal Ballet of London and the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow.

Looking at achievements like these, one could easily assume the organization had been around for a while. In fact, the school started a few years ago in a small space in Newport. In 2003, with the help of the City of Wilmington, The Grand Opera House, a few corporations and some especially generous individuals, the dancers made their entrée into three newly renovated studios and an office at The Grand.

In the case of this arts organization, there is genuine business acumen in the office. In a world where financial failure douses footlights far too frequently, First State Ballet Theatre has proven itself.

Kristina Kambalov attributes the organization’s success to the economic discipline of the board. Grenfell adds that the tremendous willingness of friends and fans to work pro bono for the group is essential. Their gifts contribute significantly to the outreach and growth of the ballet. One friend of the organization, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, regularly produces the art for all of First State’s advertising and promotion, and she has created a striking and distinct visual motif for the ballet. The financial value of the work is significant on its own. The marketing value is incalculable.

“People are always volunteering, and I couldn’t possibly overestimate the value of these contributions,” Grenfell says. Doctors, lawyers, business have all offered to be a part of the effort. All are motivated by the artistry of First State’s performances.

But it seems that Grenfell’s own contributions are the backbone of the organization. In addition to his duties as president, he hangs lights, hauls equipment, sets stages, dances as a member of the troupe, and handles most of the public relations and marketing. He is the face at the door of The Grand for all performances, where he smiles and chats with friends, welcomes supporters and makes audiences feel a part of the success.

“We never pass up an opportunity to bring more ballet to the state of Delaware,” Grenfell says. Given the passion shared by all, there seems to be no question that they will soon achieve their ultimate goal: a professional ballet company based in The Grand Opera House.

They have a remarkable space in the floors above the stage of the Baby Grand, where many of them perform regularly. In one of the rooms adjacent to the studios, Kristina Kambalov and Grenfell are showing off First State’s new costumes for “The Nutcracker.”

Kristina picks up a classical tutu that will be worn by one of the sugar plums. It’s a lacy, corrugated saucer of hoops, tulle and sequins, with a stiff bodice emerging from the center.

“Look at this workmanship,” says Kristina, fluffing the saucer and pointing out the extraordinary detail. On a nearby rack hang dozens of Romantic tutus. These are a touch more modest. Attached to the bodices are three-quarter gowns of soft pastels. In all, there are 350 exquisite costumes to dress up the production. Kristina holds up a large, but delicate, golden tiara.

“Russian headdresses,” she says, smiling excitedly.

As Kristina leads a tour into one of the studios, Kambalov moves to the middle of the dance floor, where he produces a magician’s wand from among the props. He steps onto the dance floor and into the role of Drosselmeyer. He glides backward as if on skates, holds out the cane, then tosses it away. The cane hovers until, with a wave, Pasha summons it to float magically in graceful circles around his hand. He dances across the floor now, smiling at the sorcery.

The trick has an explanation, of course. It’s not really magic. But then, neither is the success at First State Ballet Theatre really all that mysterious. Behind the magic, after all, there is simply art, a little cleverness and a lot of hard work. Certainly, the young Ross seems to have all three of these going for her, and regardless of what would happen in Lausanne, she will likely shine in a career that she has a deep and natural passion for.

By the holidays’ end, ballet fans would be, as one dance writer rather cynically put it, “one more ‘Nutcracker’ closer to death.”

At First State Ballet, however, the little snowflakes would continue to work the bar, and Ross would be dancing closer to her dreams. Grenfell and the Kambalovs would begin preparing for the Arabesque Festival. And the world of professional dance in Delaware would be that much more alive.

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