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Ballerina aims to pass on love of dance

Former American Ballet Theatre prima ballerina Marianna Tcherkassky says that one of her greatest gifts in life is her passion for dance.

"My parents were in the performing arts, and I was always going to the ballet," Tcherkassky said during a telephone interview from her office in Pittsburgh. "And my early dance teachers had such love for dance that it was instilled in me at an early age."

Tcherkassky, ballet mistress for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, will serve a mini-residency with the University of Utah's department of ballet from Monday through Friday. In addition to teaching pointe and technique, Tcherkassky will discuss her career in a forum in the Alice Sheets Marriott Center for Dance on the U. campus on Wednesday, March 12. The discussion is free and open to the public and will begin at 1:30 p.m.

"Interestingly enough, there wasn't a time when I told my parents that I was going to be a dancer," Tcherkassky said. "Dance and performance has always been a part of my life. My mother was a dancer and my father was an opera singer. He eventually joined American Ballet Theatre as the company and stage manager. And when I was growing up, they would take me to ballets.

"I believe I began thinking of dancing after I started getting positive feedback for what I was doing. It felt good, and I kept wanting to feel good."

Growing up, Tcherkassky studied at the Washington School of Ballet, and at 17, she found herself in the corps of American Ballet Theatre. She stayed with ABT for 26 years and brought the much-loved characters of Giselle and Juliet to life. "I always had a clear focus on what I wanted to do. When I was a teen, I couldn't do a lot of things my friends were doing because I had to dance. But I was never lured away from dance, although I wanted to be an actress when I was young."

Still, dance has its challenges. "Dance as a career in the United States is not like Europe, where there's quite a bit of security. And there is quite a bit of competition."

Tcherkassky said she was able to enjoy her career because she tried to stay away from intra-company politics. "I tried to let my work speak for itself. I tried not to get caught up in other people's roles and focused on my own goals.

"I did want to dance the role of Giselle and I did want to dance Juliet. I loved dancing to that wonderful Prokofiev score. Those were the two roles that were highlights for me in my performing career."

In addition to those roles, her work as the sylph in Peter Schaufuss' "La Sylphide" was another bright spot in her already illustrious career. "I think, truthfully, the role I miss the most is 'La Sylphide.' The reason is the fact that it's not a ballet that is performed very often. 'Giselle' and 'Romeo & Juliet' are done quite frequently, but 'La Sylphide' isn't."

She also danced in Twyla Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove," with fellow ABT alum Mikhail Baryshnikov.

These days, Tcherkassky's role is teaching and coaching young dancers. "There are times when I almost enjoy being in the studio more than being on stage," she said with a laugh. "The studio is where ideas are formed. There's the interaction between the dancers and the ballet master and ballet mistress that can only be found in dance.

"I think dancers are getting stronger. In the past, there were a few times when ballet focused on technique and acrobatics and it lost some of its soul. But I think there's a resurgence of awareness that is trying to focus on the emotion of dance. The acrobatics might be fun to watch, but without the emotion, it won't stay with you."

And, to Tcherkassky, the soul of ballet is formed and nutured in the studio. "As a ballet mistress, I love being in that little room with the dancers. . . . , helping with their development.I love the idea that I'm helping them learn to express themselves, and I would like to think I'm passing on the love and passion for dance to them, so they can, in turn, pass it on."