Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, Misha Tchoupakov danced with the Bolshoi Ballet as well as with the Colorado Ballet, Sarasota Ballet of Florida, Los Angeles Classical Ballet, Vienna State Opera Ballet, and San Francisco Opera Ballet. Holding an M.F.A. in Dance Pedagogy and Choreography from the Moscow State Institute of Choreography (also known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy), Misha is one of only two living men to have received the teaching-specific degree from Pytor Pestov, one of ballet's greatest men's teachers. Misha has also taught for the Colorado Ballet, Houston Ballet, Ballet West, Ballet Arlington, Guangzhou Ballet of China, and Galili Dance in the Netherlands to list a few. He was also on the faculty of the Royal Ballet School and the Elmhurst School for Dance in Association with Birmingham Royal Ballet in the UK.
We asked Misha to reflect upon his career transition.
As a former dancer that has transitioned into teaching, how long has it taken you to get to where you are today?
Misha Tchoupakov: I started teaching in my first year as a dancer in the US. Back in Russia, we had full-year contracts, so I wasn't prepared for the long breaks that US companies took—and without providing their dancers with any kind of support or compensation. There were no additional resources provided to us and we were just expected to somehow survive without work for 3 months. That is how and why I started to teach—in order to make a living. It became an integral part of my professional career even while I was still dancing. When I stopped and made my career transition, I entered into teaching full-time and was lucky enough to be offered a teaching position at the Royal Ballet School in London, and later, at Elmhurst School of Dance in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet. After that, I moved back to the US where I ended up here at UNCSA teaching full-time. Overall, my teaching career spans 3 decades and I hope it continues for much longer.
You say that teaching was more a means of survival, at least at the beginning of your career in the US. At the time, how natural was it for you to teach, and did it take some time to adjust?
Misha: Teaching wasn't my priority at first, but as I became more experienced with different levels of students—ranging from kids to adult classes, and then to professional dancers—it started to feel natural to me. Now, I no longer hesitate to teach a variety of classes and at all levels, from beginners up to the ballet stars of today!
Your mother played a vital role in your career transition in encouraging you to complete a teaching degree from the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (Bolshoi Ballet Academy) under the direction of Pyotr Pestov. Looking back, how valuable was this and do you recommend a similar path (teaching training) to other dancers who are also contemplating this career?
Misha: I'm very fortunate to have completed my teaching training with some of the best people in the business. My mother, a professional dancer who also transitioned into teaching and became a director, was wise to have pushed me into a teaching degree at the Bolshoi Academy. As dancers, we train a lot, but don't really give much thought to the ways a teacher coaches you during the class or rehearsal process. Once you start to learn about all the intricacies of teaching, you start to truly understand the science and methodology behind the fundamentals of the Danse D’École. Classical ballet needs to be meticulously studied and thoroughly explained in order to have a full view and understanding of its movements, styles, and techniques. I definitely recommend dancers who are thinking about pursuing a teaching career to get some proper education in classical ballet training methodology, and to get some work experience in their performance years in order to make some extra money on the side! This will help fuel their understanding of the teaching methodologies, as well as how to create their own style of teaching. All this, of course, based on a correct understanding of the demands of contemporary choreography together with ballet technique vocabulary.
You are one of only two living men to have received a teaching-specific degree from Pytor Pestov, who was one of ballet's greatest men's teachers. Can you explain how you manage to preserve the tradition that was passed onto you by such an influential teaching icon and balancing it with modern teaching methodologies?
Misha: We were only four dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet who were accepted into P. Pestov's first-ever teacher's course at the Moscow State Choreographic Institute. I was the youngest and didn't fully understand (at least in the beginning) just how valuable those teaching sessions with P. Pestov were. He was a unique teacher with a very specific way of explaining the rules and techniques of classical ballet training, from the beginning to the creation of a full artist. Since I was the youngest, I was the example he used in class for the other students, so I was doing all the steps and combinations as everyone learned from my mistakes. This means I was lucky to get all of P. Pestov's explanations and corrections first-hand and hands-on. It wasn't until much later that I understood just how valuable that experience was and just how fortunate I am to have his teachings engraved in my body's muscle memory. At times when I don't know exactly how to properly explain a certain movement, I often feel it in my body first and use that to translate it into words for my students. A lot of things in classical ballet training are connected from a very simple movement to the most advanced version of that step. In order to teach that, we as teachers need to dissect the most advanced version and break it down to its simplified step—always having that connectivity in mind.
From the Bolshoi to the United States, how is it now working with students at the high school and university levels? Does culture factor much into your teaching?
Misha: Of course, even after 30 years of teaching ballet outside of Russia, I'm still a Russian ballet teacher with all the incentives and misconceptions that this title caries. I hope that besides just seeing the Russian in me, people/dancers/students will see what kind of result and value the private training I provide brings. Teaching in different environments and settings—universities, ballet schools, professional companies, or pre-professional conservatories— differs, of course, but I try never to lower my standards and instead give each and every student/dancer/artist the very best I can give. Everyone deserves the best!
What advice do you have for dancers who are thinking about career transition or about to start on the journey?
Misha: Study the classical ballet methodology. Giving class is not the same as creating a complete dancer. To do the latter, you have to make progress with your students in order to create results in the end. Try to connect with your students, that way you will build respect and trust. Only then will it be possible to create results and turn your students into well-trained ballet dancers/artists. However, many other factors need to be in place for that to happen, such as your knowledge, passion for teaching, patience, a students' determination, talent, consistency, and, of course, hard work—but smart work. It's more important to work smart, not hard!