Support America’s National Ballet Company® DONATE NOW

ABT's Pointe of View


Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Browse This Section...

Students of the ABT Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis (JKO) School and Summer Intensive programs train in a variety styles beyond pure classical ballet, including modern, jazz, mime, and Character dance. Read our interview with faculty member and former ABT Company dancer Mikhail Ilyin on teaching Character dance.


Interview by Tatianna Noelle

Mikhail Ilyin. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.Mikhail Ilyin. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Could you describe your journey to ABT?

I was studying at the Vaganova Academy in Russia and I came to the United States in 1997 to explore dance in America. I took modern dance and then open classes at ABT. I fell in love with the Company and watched their performances over the summer. Eventually, I came to dance with Boston Ballet for two years, then in Miami for six. I auditioned for American Ballet Theatre and Kevin [McKenzie] offered me a contract. I was with the Company for almost six years, and then I trained in the National Training Curriculum and was offered a position with the [ABT JKO] School.

In the JKO School you have excelled in teaching character dance, how would you describe character dancing?

Character dance is a combination of classical ballet with primarily folk dances from around the world, especially Western Europe. It offers a chance to learn about culture, music, and rhythms. It is an opportunity to learn about the history of dance, the choreographers, what their respective countries are all about, why they move in a certain way, and why they express themselves in a certain way. I am constantly researching new movements from specific regions. It is fun for me, and fun to teach. Since it is not as specific as pure classical dance, it has opportunity for a little leeway. The class’s stance is freer – you can get away with more and you can feel more relaxed, yet it is connected to the classical training so it feeds off what the dancers are learning in their regular classes.

When were you first introduced to character dance & what was your impression?

I was six, dancing a non-professional production in a kid’s ensemble. Character dance is friendly for kids because it is not so specific. Almost anyone can do it to some degree. It was a lot of fun for me. A lot of dances involve snapping, clapping and interesting rhythmical patterns. It was very different from facing the barre and doing slow tendus for eight counts. Character dance has this immediate element of fun, and a lot of the dances follow some kind of narrative: couples, competitions, show-offs, rhythmical games, etc.

Do you bring lessons from your own training to your classes at ABT?

Yes, but not exclusively. I also do a lot of additional research in terms of musicality or stylistic parameters. I would say I teach much more than I have learned. Hopefully, when dancers come to the Company, they will already know the dances or at least they will know the styles. They will have a good idea about what character dance is going to be and what look is required of them.

Why are character dances so important in classical ballets?

It brings a different parameter to pure classical lines; it brings narrative to a story. Let’s say a story takes place in Spain, Hungary, or Poland, and you want to show something about that culture or the people of that region. Whether it is a happy or sad occasion, Character dance brings more flavor and understanding to the audience. It ventures deeper into that culture, and with folk music accompanying the dances, you are immersed into that atmosphere, country, or period.

Do the young dancers in ABT’s programs come in with prior experience in character dance, or is this brand new to them?

Every year is different. In one of my classes this year, only seven out of twenty-five had no prior experience. I told them, “You’re in luck. We are going to start from the beginning. We are going to try to have fun with the material, but you will have to learn the vocabulary.” I think they have fun because there is more opportunity for movement and more room for interpretation. I try to give them freedom and I encourage them to explore the parameters of the dance.