We’re nearing peak “Nutcracker” season, when Clara’s trippy dreamscape unfolds on stages near and far in all its holiday grandeur. But for the past couple of years, an original version choreographed by Jacqueline Akhmedova has been helping local dancers chase their dreams of becoming professionals. On the evening of Dec. 16, her namesake company, Akhmedova Ballet Academy (ABA), will present “Nutcracker Dreams” at Montgomery College’s Culture Arts Center in Silver Spring.
“It’s kind of a mini-Nut,” said Akhmedova, who spoke with CultureSpotMC from her cozy dance studio in the Four Corners region of Silver Spring. “It’s only the best bits of ‘Nutcracker,’”
Her 45-minute staging of the holiday classic, she explained, is less awe-stricken-Clara pantomime and more virtuosic dance — an outlet to showcase what her pre-professional students are able to do. She is molding them into the ballerina lifestyle, she said, a rigorous path that for most professional dancers begins at about age 10.
“One hundred percent of my graduates are in companies. None of them went on to do something else,” Akhmedova said. “They want to do this as a profession, not as a hobby.”
It seems the community has noticed. In October, Akhmedova was among the honorees at the County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts & Humanities, having earned the Education Award.
But the big goal, Akhmedova said, was to form her own professional ballet company based in Montgomery County. “I’ve always wanted it,” she said.
She has the connections to make it happen. Like an enviable dance pedigree, for starters. She trained and performed as principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, and spent most of her dance career at Vienna State Opera before being invited by the former artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre to teach in Washington, D.C.
Our chat with ABA’s ballet madame picks up with how it all began, how she got started in ballet to begin with.
Tell me how you got started.
I was between 5 or 6. My mother took to me to a beautiful theater in Munich. We saw “Romeo and Juliet.” Afterward, I told her I wanted to go backstage. So, my father, who was of Russian descent, he made his way. It was the Bolshoi who came to Munich, so he made his way with language, I guess. I got to see the dancers backstage. It [the show] was very famous — [Ekaterina Sergeevna] Maximova and [Vladimir] Vasiliev. That was, for me, it. I said to my mom, “I want to dance.”
You went on to study at Bolshoi.
Yes, I did, later on. It was really hard at that time because it was, well, the Soviet Union. With my father’s help and with other people being lenient, I was able to study in 1977.
How do you remember your first ballet class?
Yes, I remember it quite clearly. I liked that it was structured and that I had goals to achieve. It was never boring for me. I loved that there was music, always, and that I could move. Sitting still was not the greatest for me. It made me tired, so that was good for me. Probably, when it started to get really serious, was when I was 10. Every day, that’s a rule. You need to do that. You cannot do this once a week if you want to become a dancer.
So you went on and danced professionally—
With the Munich State Opera, the Bolshoi and the Vienna State Opera—that’s where I ended up, 10 years there.
What are some performances that stand out?
“Giselle.” It is my favorite because it was my first role, and I danced it when I was 17.
What made you stop dancing?
I finished dancing at age 40 in Vienna. I could have gone on, and that’s actually not so common. I was at the top of my career. I always said to myself, “This is how I want to stop. This is how I want the audience to remember me.”
Do you remember your last performance?
It was “Midsummers Night’s Dream.” On top of that, I was pregnant with my son as I danced my last performance.
How on earth did you end up here, in Montgomery County?
I went to Canada for a teaching position and started a professional training program. Then I got an invitation from Mr. [Oleg] Vinogradov, who was the director of the Kirov Ballet in Washington, D.C.—but actually before then, for 27 years, was with the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I got an invitation to come and teach and I accepted the offer. I taught there for seven years. Then I taught for different schools here in the D.C. area, CityDance, included, and CityDance Ensemble. That was not what I really wanted.
You wanted your own.
I wanted my own and I wanted my own training program. So, in 2010, I started my own school—with four students.
Ballet can be physically demanding. It costs a lot of your time. I mean, you have to be training from 10 and up, doing this daily —
Four to five hours.
So, there’s the mastery of the form. How do you teach your dancers to develop the artistry?
There has to be a passion from the students to accept my corrections, in that sense. Every role has a certain emotional component. Every student has to be open to this. That is hard, often. But my students are very open to this so they let me go inside of them.
What are some aspects that draw you specifically to ballet as opposed to other forms of dance? What makes ballet special?
I think it was the beauty, the aesthetic and passion I saw. That specific type of passion. This is a very refined emotion. You’re in a cage of form, but you have the freedom to move in it freely, and that’s what you have to learn. There has to be form; otherwise it doesn’t look good. But, in it, you have to express yourself. That’s why it’s hard.
Akhmedova Ballet Academy will present “Nutcracker Dreams” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at Montgomery College’s Culture Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Tickets–$20, $15 for students and seniors, $10 for groups of 10 or more–are available at www.ticketriver.com/event/20529 or at the box office, which opens one hour before the performance. For information, visit http://akhmedovaballet.org.