By Jennifer Rankin
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian ballet stars once defected to the West in search of artistic freedom. These days, western dancers are lured east by the iron discipline of a Russian ballet education.
Around 100 foreigners from all over the world are enrolled at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, formally known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography. Founded by Empress Catherine the Great, the school produced Soviet legends Olga Lepeshinskaya and Maya Plisetskaya as well as contemporary stars such as Natalia Osipova and Nikolai Tsiskaridze.
Here's a name to add to the list: Joy Womack, a 17-year-old dancer who is to become the first American to graduate from the academy's Russian course this spring.
"The technique and the artistry and the passion is something that is worth moving thousands of miles away," said Womack, who grew up in California and Texas.
"It is the oldest and most famous school for ballet and the traditions are kept so well here."
At age 15, the dancer came to Moscow for a routine of 12- to 14-hour days of dance practice, acting classes and rehearsals - all in Russian, a language she barely knew when she arrived.
"The teaching style here at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy is very different from the United States. Here what is very special is that each teacher has their own style, their own way of teaching and getting results out of the students," she said, clad in black leotard and tights after practice.
"Sometimes, it can be painful, sometimes it can be very emotional, but I think that it brings the best results, especially because their attention to detail is so precise."
The first year brought tough moments.
At a gala performance, she danced through the pain of an injured foot which later needed surgery. On top of the stresses of living abroad and learning a foreign language, she faced rivalry from other students when she was awarded soloist roles.
The payoff came when Womack performed the lead in La Fille Mal Gardee (The Wayward Girl), on the Bolshoi's smaller New Stage last November - a rare honor for a 17-year old foreigner.
Stepping out on the sloping stage with her, in the leading role of Colas, was 21-year old Californian Mario Vitale Labrador, who is also following the Russian course at the academy.
"(It's) very nerve-wracking when you first come to the Bolshoi because it has such a history," he said.
Nerves are only part of it. Moving to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy has been a physical challenge, he said. His training went from "a hobby after school" three days a week to the "hardcore" six-day week of the Bolshoi.
"There is no slack and you are not allowed to be lazy. Even if you have injuries, you have to work through it," he said. "You are finding your body achieving things that you never thought you could achieve."
Academy director Marina Leonova, a graduate and a former Bolshoi soloist, who wears her blonde hair in a neat bun, said the school preserves its classical traditions.
"There is a whole system of education which has been handed down from generation to generation from the best to the best. And we invest this in our children," she said.
The key to the school's success? "No secrets here: it's hard work, daily work."
Picking up a microphone, Leonova instructed and corrected her students during a rehearsal of the commedia dell'arte-inspired ballet Harlequinade -- "a little late," "longer legs!" she said over a sonorous opera score.
Six of the 14 dancers on stage at the rehearsal on Monday were foreigners, from Italy, Japan, the United States, France, Finland and the UK.
Taking a break after some acrobatic leaps and lifts, Labrador said his ballet idols were Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov - two Soviet-era stars who defected to the West - as well as David Hallberg, who in 2011 become the first American to become a permanent member of the Bolshoi troupe.
"I feel that the Bolshoi Ballet Academy is my roots now," Labrador said.
Womack is striving for the ideal of the Russian performer.
"For me to be a Russian ballerina means to be able to dance with your soul and in order to dance with your soul you need to not even think about your legs."
(Reporting By Jennifer Rankin, editing by Paul Casciato)