From the world's great stages to a home in Kennett Square
By J. Chambless
Anastasia Babayeva and Denis Gronostayskiy live in Kennett Square and run the Academy of International Ballet, based in Media.
By John Chambless
When Anastasia Babayeva was very young,
her mother took her to see a graduation performance by dancers from
the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. “I had been dancing since I was 6,”
she said. “But I had never seen ballet live. There were some little
kids dancing on stage as well. After the show, my mother asked me,
'Would you like to be one of them?' I said, 'No, I want to be like
her,' and I pointed to the prima ballerina,” she said, laughing.
In the years since, Anastasia has danced on stages around the world, and with her husband, fellow dancer Denis Gronostayskiy, she runs the Academy of International Ballet, based in Media.
After seeing the world, they have settled in Kennett Square, where they are raising their children – ages 23, 7 and 4 – and spend each day sharing what they've learned about the timeless art of ballet with students at the Academy.
During an interview at the office of the school, located in an industrial park on Route 1, Denis and Anastasia looked back at the long road that brought them to Chester County, and ahead to the lessons they are imparting to a new generation of dancers who are dreaming of greatness.
Denis and Anastasia were born in Moscow. Denis said his parents were both well-known dancers, and he grew up going to performances and copying the movements he saw in the studio and on stage. Both Denis and Anastasia were admitted to the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Conservatory in Moscow at the age of 8. They knew each other during school, and they both graduated at 18.
At the time, the Bolshoi was supported – and under the strict control – of the Russian government. While Anastasia rose to be a principal soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet Company, and she and Denis toured the world, the lure of America was always there.
“I had seen the United States six times while I was on tour here,” Anastasia said. At that time, just over 20 years ago, Russia was gripped by economic paralysis, stores were empty and the future looked bleak. Young and in love, she and Denis saw a door opening to the United States, and they took the chance.
“We were young and fearless,” Anastasia said, smiling. “We didn't overthink. Sometimes overthinking drives you back. We just did it. My friend told me that this is the best country to raise a child. We already had Alex, and he was a baby then. That was a major point for me, as a mother.”
The couple found a home in Philadelphia, then followed dance companies to jobs and homes in Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit and Richmond, Va., “which was home for a little bit,” Anastasia said. “But I had a couple of injuries and started to think about what was next after we stopped dancing.”
They moved back to the Philadelphia area, opening a school in a space they could afford in Upper Darby. But the problems of city life prompted three more moves for the school to three different locations in Media, until they found the brick office building on Route 1 three years ago.
“I remember they couldn't understand why we had to take out the ceilings,” Anastasia said, laughing. “The dad said, 'You mean you can't dance under this?'” she said, pointing to the dropped ceiling that remains in the office area. “It took a long time,” Denis said. “This building was all offices inside. The owners of the building are a father and son team of builders. Fortunately, the son convinced his dad to take out the walls and open it up.”
After three years at the current location, classes are consistently full, and the couple is opening a second location in Horsham, Pa., in June.
At both locations, the emphasis is on ballet instruction – with all its disciplines, rules and joys. The Academy of International Ballet takes students from age 3 through adults. Students come to the school because of its reputation, and because Denis and Anastasia understand ballet so thoroughly. “I teach everyone the same,” Anastasia said. “Everything starts from discipline. Without discipline, nothing is possible.”
Denis said that ballet is an excellent workout, strengthening muscles and toning the body in ways that no other exercise can accomplish. The grace and posture of a well-trained dancer is a lifelong benefit as well, whether on stage or in daily life.
Their young dancers get chances to shine in an annual production of “The Nutcracker,” and both Denis and Anastasia manage to fit themselves into small roles each year. “Every year, we make small changes,” Denis said. “Kids grow and change roles, and we use everybody.”
There is also an annual Showcase performance, and opportunities to get out into the community. The young dancers performed last year at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, where they posed with Jamie Wyeth's iconic paintings of Rudolph Nureyev. They have danced at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and they have turned up at the Delaware County Court House, everywhere catching the attention of passers-by and perhaps inspiring a few to find out what ballet is all about.
The studio is a short drive from the couple's home near Longwood Gardens. “We used to come to Longwood Gardens,” Anastasia said. “It's my favorite place. Now I have it almost in my front yard,” she added, smiling.
The couple moved from their home in Drexel Hill when they found a foreclosed home was available for a price they could afford. “The school district is good, and the area is amazing,” Anastasia said.
“It's like every day is a vacation,” Denis added. “We love the beautiful fields with the horses.”
They both love Kennett Square's distinctive shops and restaurants, and they are proud to live in “the mushroom capital of the world,” Denis said. “It's great.”
All three of their children dance – “There was no way out of that,” Denis said with a smile. And his parents have moved from Russia and now live with the family in their new home.
Both Denis and Anastasia are careful to work with young students to avoid the injuries that often plague dancers. Pulling out one of her ballet shoes from her days with the Bolshoi Theatre, Anastasia showed the rock-hard sole and unpadded toe that can wreak havoc on a dancer's feet, particularly if a blister has formed. There is no relief in the traditional ballet shoe. “I used to use just a paper towel” in the shoe, she said.
Today, there are pads that dancers can put over their toes, and the soles of the shoes have some flexibility. “You have to get the correct technique from an experienced teacher. But dancers always have some kind of small injuries” Anastasia said. “You have to know how to protect your feet properly.”
The mental fortitude to press forward with exercises and practice is not only physically beneficial, but mentally beneficial. “There are times when you don't want to go to class, but you go anyway. But a good class is similar to medicine,” Anastasia said. “You get over the discomfort and you feel proud that you did it.”
Many of their former students have become professional dancers, but the couple said that the benefits of learning ballet technique could lead students to take dance in college, or into the medical or rehabilitation fields. “As a dancer, you know your body very, very well, and how every single muscle works,” Denis said.
As a side project, Anastasia helps create costumes for the young dancers, using the skill of a professional seamstress but avoiding the high cost of buying or renting costumes. “This started because we were performing as freelancers,” she said. “Buying costumes was expensive, and they were uncomfortable most of the time. Denis' mom taught me a lot about making costumes. Now that his parents both live with us, she is making most of the costumes for us.”
Showing off a tutu that was made for a professional dancer, she pointed out the layers of hand-sewn material and the craftsmanship that goes into a well-made garment that can cost $1,000. The rigid bones inserted into the waist of the dress keep a dancer's posture erect, but if sewn incorrectly, can be an irritant.
Denis also contributes his photography skills to the business. “I've done photography all my life,” he said. “I decided to start taking pictures for our students. Maybe you could call it a little bit of an obsession,” he added. “It works because I can predict what the next step is going to be, and get that best image.”
The school has recently taken on a resident composer, pianist Jennifer Nicole Campbell, who has performed on stages regionally and nationally. “It's incredible to have someone create music just for you, and you can put steps on that music,” Denis said. “The first time you perform, it's like a flower that nobody has ever seen.” He said one world premiere work has recently been performed.
“Live music is a special treat for dancers to work with,” Anastasia said. “The CD is always the same. But live, the dancer must keep listening intently and learn to adapt.”
The studio is working with Campbell on a second original work, to be performed next year.
There is a summer intensive program now for students who are serious about their ballet careers, Anastasia said, adding that she and Denis are at the studio every day. “As teachers, we understand there are different abilities and interests. Some people come here for fun or physical activity, and some people by 10 years old know they want to be dancers,” she said. “To me, it doesn't matter. If you're here, you work hard, you respect everybody. I teach everybody the same. They are all getting the same amount of information and attention.”
Learning to dance has benefits including good health, discipline, learning to get over obstacles and continue to work, and “basically it teaches you how to fight for what you want in life,” Denis said.
Denis said there's a saying, “If ballet was a little bit easier, it would be football,” he said with a grin.
Having taught for so long, Denis and Anastasia are now getting their second generation of students. “One of the girls that studied with us, she's continued taking classes, and now we have her young daughter dancing with us,” Anastasia said.
“It's kind of like a circle,” Denis said.
For more information, visit www.academyballetru.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email [email protected].