Greenwich Ballet Academy Director Offers “My heart and my soul”

Photo: Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

Photo: Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

Yuri Vodolaga, the artistic director at the Greenwich Ballet Academy, born in Kiev and trained there and in Russia, is not one to coddle the rising dancers who are in his charge.

“First of all, it is discipline,” he said when asked about what makes ballet such an irresistible lifelong challenge.

At 56 years old, Vodolaga brims with energy during a conversation, checking frequent texts from his students updating him on their acceptances to colleges. He is reluctant to talk about himself, but when asked, he discusses his contribution to the academy and his recently won honor, the “Outstanding Teacher” award from the Boston regional competition of the Youth American Grand Prix.

“They know my professionalism,” he said. “It’s honest work — my heart and my soul — that I am giving to them.”

Leaders of the academy, which is actually based in Port Chester, but also holds classes at the Greenwich Arts Center, say the students appreciate Vodolaga’s strict ethic, delivered with a sense of humor.

“Children have a radar for honesty and they respond very well to it,” said Marisol Rivera Thurman, board chairman of the academy, and the mother of one of its recent graduates. “We’re in a society where they’re used to being ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’ at everything and getting a trophy just for standing on a stage. That doesn’t happen at G.B.A. They know they have earned it through their own hard work whatever praise comes their way.”

Photo: Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

Photo: Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

In his earlier years, Vodolaga graduated from the Kiev State Ballet Academy and joined the Kiev State Ballet Theater. He later received his master’s degree in teaching from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in Russia. In 1993, after touring the United States, he chose to stay.
He had, he said, “no money, no food. We came, and I decided I have nothing to lose.”

In the United States, he amassed an extensive string of teaching experience, and has been a guest teacher at the San Francisco Ballet, Baton Rouge Ballet, Connecticut Ballet among others, according to the school.

He took over as artistic director of the Greenwich Ballet Academy in 2006, but still is in demand elsewhere, Rivera Thurman said. In 2014, when renowned ballerina Natalia Osipova was rehearsing to dance in “Don Quixote” at the Royal Ballet in London, she had Vodolaga flown to London to help her train.

“I think there are only a handful of people in the world who are like Yuri who have his training and his experience,” said Christina Volkwein, a board member of the school. The combination of the world-class training, the dance and teaching experience made him an ideal fit for the academy that seeks to offer students top training without making almost daily trips to New York City.

The training is aimed at launching the dancers on to professional careers — or at least achieving that level of accomplishment, even if they choose other vocations. Rivera Thurman’s daughter Olivia recently graduated as a co-salutatorian at the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Greenwich and will go to Harvard University in the fall, Rivera Thurman said.

The board president said her daughter wrote the essays for her college applications about Vodolaga, and that training at the dance school six days a week taught her how much she could accomplish.
“That’s where she learned the most important lessons about perseverance and about excellence,” she said.

When Vodolaga received the “Outstanding Teacher” award in Boston, it was one of several accomplishments that the school boasted. Three students from the academy emerged to go on to the Youth American Grand Prix finals in New York City, where they competed against students from schools from Japan to Brazil.

Explaining the success, Vodolaga said, “They like our clean academic style.”
He was happy to receive the award, he said, but when asked about it, he again turned the talk to his students.

“My pleasure is to teach and see how they rise,” he said.

GBA board members boast that Vodolaga not only teaches, he choreographs. In order to obtain his degree at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had to learn to stage the classic ballets — Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Bayadare and others, they said.

“One of his strengths is putting the performances together and getting them to be (danced) exquisitely,” Rivera Thurman said. “It’s just remarkable how clean and precise the performances are.”

Read the entire article at GreenwichTime.com.

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