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Joy Womack tells a story of bribe request, struggles at the Bolshoi

The ballerina from Santa Monica has quit the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. 'It was like breaking up with your first love.' she says.

November 20, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko
  • Former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Joy Womack in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square.
Former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Joy Womack in front of St. Basil's Cathedral… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

MOSCOW — Sipping tea in a cafe at the GUM department store overlooking the Kremlin, Joy Womack stared at Red Square and remembered arriving in Russia as a teen carrying huge hopes about her ballet career.

She recalled how she would stand in the middle of a circle on the paving stones in front of the State Historical Museum, a spot where Muscovites and visitors traditionally stop and make wishes.

First came her wish to be at the top of her ballet class. Another wish to graduate with honors. Then another to be accepted by the Bolshoi. All came true. 

"I had so many opportunities to shine then," said Womack, 19, a Santa Monica native. "My whole life dream came true." 

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But those dreams were dashed in a difficult and emotional year with the Bolshoi, during which Womack said she struggled to make herself visible. The ballerina said she eventually quit after she was advised that she would have to pay bribes to obtain leading roles with the elite company.

"It was like breaking up with your first love," she said.

Speaking in a mix of English and Russian, Womack claimed that a teacher suggested she get "a sponsor who could make gifts and presents on your behalf."

"One person told me bluntly: 'Joy, the starting fee, even for an appearance in small variations, is $10,000 just to show that you are serious,'" she said.

"I was told that one ballerina gave [someone in the company] a Mercedes-Benz only to get a part," she recalled. 

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Womack, who studied at Santa Monica's Westside Ballet, came to Russia in 2009 and did not speak the language. She was the first U.S. woman to graduate from a Russian choreography school and then land a contract with the famed Bolshoi.

Some members of the company have responded to Womack's bribery allegations with indignation.

"I have worked with the company for 28 years now and I am not aware of such facts," Alexander Petukhov, a soloist and a choreographer, told The Times. "If she knows something, let her name those people. Why smear the theater like that?"

But Natalia Vyskubenko, a longtime Bolshoi dancer, supported Womack's account.

"Some people get parts and positions in one way, some in another," Vyskubenko said in an interview. "What Joy is telling you is not far from reality."

After graduating from Moscow State Academy of Choreography in June 2012, Womack was negotiating a contract with the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg when she was offered a Bolshoi audition hosted by Sergei Filin, the artistic director of its ballet company. (Seven months later Filin was seriously burned with acid, an attack allegedly plotted by a Bolshoi dancer who is now standing trial.) 

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Once in the company, she didn't easily fit in: "I realized I was a kind of invisible person, a virtual dancer," she said. One of her Bolshoi colleagues agreed.

"She was such a hardworking young woman and real fan and patriot of the Bolshoi from the very beginning," said Vyskubenko, who Womack said helped her get her bearings in the theater.

"She was ready to do any work, to dance anything, but she was kind of lost and little noticed from the very start. Soon she practically turned into a kind of ghost on the premises."

Womack had to compete in an experienced company dancing a rich and demanding repertoire.

Vyskubenko said that even though she had a contract to be a solo dancer, Womack couldn't even break into the company's corps, who were not willing to accept an overly energetic newcomer.

Every day, Womack recalled, she would come to the theater, attend class twice a day, rehearse various solo parts and sit. Days, weeks and months dragged by. 

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"I felt I was forgotten and unimportant to them," Womack said. "I begged to be put in corps de ballet just to be able to dance on the stage. 'No', they would say. 'You are sticking out, you are too different, you raise your leg too high, you do it way too emotionally.'"

She had to live on less than $500 a month in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, trying to eat her meals at the theater's canteen to save money. And even then she didn't always get paid. "They even forgot to pay my salary on time and would sporadically pay me something in cash when they realized I was there," she said.

Corps dancers were making up to $2,000 a month, but she said she rarely got half that, with 30% tax deducted because she was a foreigner. Had she not been allowed to live in a friend's apartment for free she wouldn't have survived, she said.

Womack got a break Dec. 31, when for the first time — and as it turned out the last time — she danced a variation on the grand stage of the Bolshoi, winning the role of the Spanish doll in Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."

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