A Nutcracker homecoming for ballerinas Joy Womack and Lyrica Blankfein

Joy Womack at Westside Ballet Academy in Santa Monica. Photos by Iris Schneider.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell one Sugar Plum Fairy from another. Two young women dancing in Westside Ballet's production of The Nutcracker this month share the iconic role, but in real life they have traveled very different paths. Joy Womack, 20, and Lyrica Blankfein, 19, do have some things in common. Both are Southern California natives who started their ballet training at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. Both have lots of Nutcracker experience, having performed in the ballet yearly from early childhood. And both now live far from where they first fell in love with ballet and are happy to be back for a few weeks. At the age of 14 both dancers made a deeper commitment to their training and ended up in very different places.

Womack had long dreamed of dancing with Russia's most prestigious ballet company, the Bolshoi. In 2009 she became one of the first Americans to attend the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow. Leaving her family, now living in Texas, and moving to a country where she didn't speak the language (Womack had never traveled outside of the U.S. before) was heartbreakingly difficult. But she had long admired the technique and artistry of Russian dancers, and was determined to succeed in the school and earn a place in the company. About 750 full time students attend the school, including a small group of foreigners who pay $18,000 per year tuition (Russians attend for free.) Womack was thrown into classes taught in Russian and had to adapt to a far more rigorous style of teaching. Though the first year brought many difficult challenges (including a serious foot injury), she impressed her teachers and thrived.

joy-womack-v-iris.jpgGraduating with honors in 2012, Womack was given a solo contract with the Bolshoi before things began to go downhill. Opportunities to perform mysteriously eluded her, even though she begged to be given the chance to prove herself. She didn't seem to fit in and as the months went by she became almost invisible. Womack's troubles coincided with an event the Bolshoi is still recovering from — the scandalous acid attack on the company's artistic director, Sergei Filin, in early 2013. She decided to quit the company in November of that year, saying that it was made clear to her that, as an American, she would have to pay a bribe of at least $10,000 to get a solo role.

Now a principal with the Kremlin Ballet Theatre, Womack says that despite suffering disillusionment with the company she long admired, she has great affection for the Bolshoi. "The Bolshoi is so complex and I love it. I still to this day consider it the best company in the world. I have such a feeling of loyalty," she told me the other day during a break in Nutcracker rehearsals. Wanting very much to move on from being "the girl who is known for leaving the Bolshoi," Womack's life has a completely different focus from when she first arrived in Moscow. Now fluent in Russian, her ballet career is on a steady course. She travels frequently inside and outside of Russia for guest appearances to subsidize her Kremlin Ballet salary (18,000 rubles, she says, or around $300 per month.) She says she wouldn't be able to remain in Moscow without the rent-free housing she has found in a friend's apartment. Deeply religious, she hosts a weekly Bible study group for other artists. "We have an opera singer from the Bolshoi, a conductor, a pianist, a composer, and a few girls from my company. They've really become my family."

She sees her parents and siblings rarely (her parents will be in the audience next weekend for her Nutcracker performance in Santa Monica), and Womack will be going home to Austin for Christmas for the first time in six years. She says she would like to find a way to dance more in the U.S., Los Angeles in particular. "One of the things I want more than anything is to have a professional conversation with a dance company here. I would love for the community here to embrace me because I want to give. It's hard for me because I know the audiences in Los Angeles want to love their own."

o - o - o

lyrica-blank-iris.jpgIn addition to her ballet training, Blankfein has acted, primarily in television, since the age of six. Because her parents felt she was still too young to be on her own, the Oak Park-based family made the decision to move to New York City in 2010, when she was invited to join the School of American Ballet. The school feeds the New York City Ballet and Blankfein, along with most of the other students, hoped to join the company after graduation. Highly competitive, the school "was a lot of ups and downs, not knowing where you stand. They don't tell you until the very end. And if they don't offer you a contract, you never find out why," she says. When the moment came last May, she was not invited to join the company. "It's just one of those things — you've gotta let it go," she says philosophically. Blankfein was offered an apprenticeship at the Semperor Opera Ballet in Dresden but decided she wasn't ready for a move to Europe.

A few weeks later, Blankfein's agent phoned about final callbacks for a featured role in the new Susan Stroman musical, "Little Dancer," during it's initial six-week run at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The call was a pleasant surprise and not entirely unexpected. Blankfein had performed in the show's 2011 workshop and 2012 lab. Set in the late 1800's in the world of the Paris Opera Ballet, "Little Dancer" tells the story of the relationship between the artist Edgar Degas and Marie Van Goethem, the young dancer who posed for his celebrated sculpture of the same name. New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck had already been cast as Marie and Blankfein was being considered for a role as one of the Opera Ballet corps, or "rats" as they were called. Apparently she was a good fit for the ballet-centric musical. Blankfein was added to the cast and began rehearsals last September. The show ended Nov. 30 and all involved are hoping it will move on to Broadway.

For Blankfein the experience of working on a musical has been life changing. "I learned so much about team work," she says. "Sometimes in ballet it's every person for themselves, but when you're doing a musical it's about the entire show together. I felt like when we all did well the show did well." She has high praise for the Tony award-winning Stroman, who directed and choreographed the show. "She just lights up the whole room when she walks in. Even when we'd be having a terrible rehearsal she'd say it's going to be fine and she'd always know what to fix." Stroman's collaborative way of working was a refreshing change from the more restrictive world of ballet. "She would really think about what actors said and take it into account. It opened up a whole new approach to me of how to work."

When Nutcracker season ends in a few weeks, Blankfein will return to her original goal and begin training for spring auditions for ballet companies. She has a list of the ones she would most like to dance with, something she is keeping to herself. She is also watching closely for "Little Dancer" news and would love to be included if the show gets a Broadway run. Pondering her future she says, "I don't want to close myself off from any opportunities. I want to be able to do everything — acting, ballet and Broadway. I guess the next step will be where the wind blows me!"

More by Judy Graeme:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed