Ballet academy

Greenwich Ballet Academy director offers ‘my heart and soul’

Yuri Vodolaga, the artistic director of the Greenwich Ballet Academy, born in Kyiv and trained there and in Russia, is not one to pamper the budding dancers in his charge.

“First and foremost is discipline,” he said when asked what made ballet such an irresistible challenge to life.

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

“They know my professionalism,” he said. “It’s an honest job – my heart and my soul – that I give to them.”

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

“Kids have a radar for honesty and they respond very well to it,” said Marisol Rivera Thurman, chair of the academy’s board of trustees and mother of one of its recent graduates. “We’re in a society where they’re used to being ‘awesome’ and ‘fantastic’ in everything and getting a trophy just by standing on a stage. That doesn’t happen at GBA. They know which they have earned through their hard work, regardless of the praise that comes their way.

During her early years, Vodolaga graduated from the Kyiv State Ballet Academy and joined the Kyiv State Ballet Theater. He then obtained his master’s degree in teaching from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia. In 1993, after a tour of the United States, he chose to stay.

He had, he said, “no money, no food. We came and I decided I had nothing to lose.

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

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

“I think there are only a handful of people in the world who look like Yuri and have his background and experience,” said school board member Christina Volkwein. The combination of world-class training, dance and teaching experience made him an ideal candidate for the academy looking to provide students with a high-level education without making near-daily trips to New York.

The training aims to launch dancers into professional careers – or at least to achieve that level of achievement, even if they choose other vocations. Rivera Thurman’s daughter, Olivia, recently graduated from Sacred Heart Convent School in Greenwich and will be attending Harvard University in the fall, Rivera Thurman said.

The council president said his daughter wrote the essays for her college applications on Vodolaga, and training at the dance school six days a week taught her everything she could accomplish.

“It was there that she learned the most important lessons about perseverance and excellence,” she said.

When Vodolaga received the “Outstanding Teacher” award in Boston, it was one of many accomplishments the school boasted of. Three students from the academy emerged to compete in the American Youth Grand Prix Final in New York, 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 teaching and seeing how they rise,” he said.

GBA board members boast that Vodolaga doesn’t just teach, he choreographs. To graduate from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had to learn how to stage the classical ballets – Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, La Bayadare and others, they said.

“One of her strengths is putting performances together and making them (dance) exquisitely,” Rivera Thurman said. “It’s just remarkable how crisp and precise the performances are.”