Motion Defector

A Russian dancer who heeded the call to Go West Young Man

Just imagine — you're young and athletic, doing a job you love, traveling the world and letting someone else take care of the expenses. You excel in a highly competitive field, and your accomplishments are recognized and celebrated by the public.The only question is: Where do you go from there?

Nikolai Morschakov, a principal dancer with the Sarasota Ballet, was faced with exactly that question scarcely a year ago. After years of dancing for the Grigorovich Ballet of Krasnodar, Russia, Morschakov found he had accomplished everything he could with the company. He dreamt of more — leaving Russia for the U.S., where more opportunities and a better life awaited.

Well, maybe. As excited as he was to leave, Morschakov had some reservations.

"I was happy a lot in Russia," he tells me. "It's my motherland. At the moment when I decided to defect, I just — I just didn't know what I'd do in the future."

Defect? The term may sound like a blast from the Iron Curtain past, given that Russians are now free to emigrate. But Russian ballet stars, while venerated, don't have the same freedoms as ordinary mortals.

"They're gems of the country," says Jennifer Palais, Sarasota Ballet's public relations manager. "Leaving is definitely not encouraged." In fact, she adds, it's actively obstructed; on tour, managers of Russian ballet companies have been known to confiscate dancers' passports. That's what happened to Morschakov — or would have, if not for some crafty last-minute thinking on his part.

Morschakov grew up in Krasnodar, a fertile agricultural region near the Black Sea, and became a dancer almost by chance — his cousin needed a dance partner. So he obliged, taking classes with her until she grew tired of dancing. He continued partly because he enjoyed dancing, but also because it was an escape from a tense family life. He was only 14.

And he showed great potential. In the following years, Morschakov lived, studied and performed abroad, far from the rules and routines that most teenagers endure. In 1996, he joined the esteemed Grigorovich Company, which in years past was comparable to the Bolshoi. Working his way up over eight years, he became a principal dancer. He worked without a contract, meaning that the company could fire him at any time, or — and this is more often the case — he could go to work for another company.

But there was no reason to consider it, at least for the time being. He was now a professional dancer, touring Spain, Portugal, Germany, Lebanon, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. He was selected to perform such prized roles as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and the title character in Spartacus. In both 1999 and 2002, he won the Phillip Morris International Ballet competition.

"I started university in Krasnodar, but I left because [I] was very bored," he says quietly. "I wanted to go study here in America. I wanted to learn English. And I wanted to go to some college."

Last fall, the Grigorovich was touring across the U.S. It was Morschakov's second trip, and he knew his time was up. On their previous tour, other dancers (some of whom ended up in Sarasota) had defected, and tensions between the director and the company were high.

Morschakov tells the story: "Our director was very afraid that on our second tour someone would defect, too. And they took our passports for whole tour; it was small tour, one-and-a-half weeks. They said they'd give it back at customs, after checking in everybody's luggage.

"I was the last in line," Morschakov continues. "Somebody had checked all the luggage and the director started giving out passports. They didn't know that they hadn't checked my luggage. I got my passport," he laughs, "and I said, 'Hasta la vista.'"

Through a contact in California, Morschakov had arranged for a temporary place to stay. The middleman, who was fluent in English, helped him fill out visa paperwork and arrange a job. When he landed one, though, it was far from ideal. A choreographer (of sorts) was staging a ballet in Miami. Despite the grueling four-day Greyhound bus ride, Morschakov jumped at the opportunity.

Upon his arrival, his optimism was tested. "I don't know what this lady was thinking," he says pointedly. The stage was a conference room littered with chairs. The choreographer had no experience directing a ballet and was conspicuously unaware of her own ineptitude. He'd traveled across the country, and was now sleeping in the same room as the company's other three members.

And then there was the money. He was offered only $25 per performance, payable only after the show. Describing his first encounter with the choreographer, Morschakov notes, "She said to us, 'Guys, please move these chairs out.' I said, 'You will pay for us to move these chairs.'" That defiance earned his expulsion from the company. Not that he minded; in the end, the other dancers (Russian expatriates as well) were given a paltry $10 for their services. Morschakov knew he could make better money, and soon afterward, he was making $90 a day doing construction work. But that, too, was short-lived — it lasted only two days.

"I got a job guesting at a ballet school in Orlando," he says proudly.

While contracted to dance in Orlando, Morschakov decided to visit some of his fellow ex-Grigorovich friends in Sarasota. He also wanted to audition for the local ballet, though what followed surprises Morschakov even now, nearly a year later.

"Mr. [Robert] DeWarren, [artistic director for the ballet], said, 'Okay, you got the job.'" By February, he held a principal role, and his career has been blossoming ever since.

Morschakov's adjusting to life here. He's an avid fisherman. He has a charming American girlfriend, Dale Jordan, a New York native who is now in her third season with the company. They're currently house hunting for themselves and another couple, two Russians who are newer even than Morschakov. It's cyclical: established Russians helping the newcomers.

"There is a running joke about how many dancers from that company are in this company," says Jordan. "It's like the Grigorovich Ballet of Sarasota."

Though he's found relative peace now, Morschakov cannot afford to slow down. Dancers' careers are short; due to the physical strain, few last into their mid-thirties. There's also the issue of finance. The Sarasota Ballet does not perform year-round, so Morschakov must supplement his income by doing guest spots and teaching (most recently, he and Jordan instructed students in Alaska). And there is the obvious, acute matter of simple homesickness.

Eager as he was to leave, Morschakov hopes to visit home soon. In the meantime, however, he will continue to rehearse, perform, and maybe go fishing.

For info on Sarasota Ballet's Fall 2004 offerings, see What to Watch For/Dance, elsewhere in this issue. Info: 941-552-1032, www.sarasotaballet.org.

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