Born and raised in the Russian capital, Misha Tchoupakov was a member of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as the Colorado Ballet, the Sarasota Ballet in Florida, the Classical Ballet in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Ballet and the Vienna State Ballet in Austria.
Misha Tchoupakov is an internationally renowned professor. He has an impressive track record, which can seem intimidating. Tchoupakov also holds an M.F.A (Master of Fine Arts) in dance pedagogy and choreography from the Moscow Academy of Choreography. He has taught for Colorado Ballet, Houston Ballet, Oregon Dance Theater, David Taylor Dance Theater, State Street Ballet, Arlington Ballet in the USA, Guangzhou Ballet in China, Galili Dance in the Netherlands, Cluj Opera Ballet and Sibiu Ballet Theater in Romania, Cia Brasileira de Ballet and Teatro Municipal do Rio De Janeiro in Brazil. He has also attended the Royal Ballet School, the Elmhurst School for Dance in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the English National Ballet School in the United Kingdom, and has been an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ballet at the University of Utah.
Misha Tchoupakov gave an exclusive interview for Ballet Magazine Romania, in which he revealed the hard work behind the process of becoming a ballet teacher. We came to know him better as a teacher who is not only very attached to his job and his students, but also a as a very open and humorous man.
Misha Tchoupakov: “Russian teachers are tough because they care!”
I know that you went from dancing to teaching. Was it a difficult transition? What made you want to become a ballet teacher?
I started my formal teacher training at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography in the first year when that Institution offered a teaching degree. My mother, who is an ex-graduate of the school and was a professional ballerina, put me onto ballet first as a dancer and later to study as a teacher.
How is it like to be a Russian teacher in the US? Are the cultural differences and stigma something that you encountered during classes?
Of course, there are cultural differences in teaching ballet in the US, and in the UK too. I’ve worked in both countries extensively for years. And it is very different from how ballet dancers are trained in Russia. The stigma that exists is that Russian teachers are tough and hard on the students. And they demand a lot, and will not take no for answer, and a bit snobbish about the knowledge of the ballet methodology.
But on the other hand, Russian teachers are extremely caring. They’re tough because they care and because they want their students to succeed. Also, in Russia, ballet is considered science, and most of the Russian teachers, who actually trained as a teacher, will tell you exactly why they teach a particular step or movement that way, what is the progression of that movement, and how it will complement the training of a much more advanced version of that step.
Being a dancer doesn’t automatically make you a teacher
What are, in your opinion, the requirements for a good ballet teacher?
The first is knowledge of the methodology of Classical Ballet. Being a dancer does not automatically make you a teacher. Also, perseverance, attention to detail, and a lot of patience.
Your mother is the one who encouraged your transition from a ballet dancer to a ballet teacher, herself being a former dancer who transitioned to teaching. What is your advice for dancers who are thinking about or planning to follow in your footsteps?
Learn, ask questions, read books, don’t think that by being a dancer you automatically know how to teach. It’s one thing to execute the step, another thing to know what elements are included in that specific step, and how to make a student make that step easy, safe, correct, and of course beautiful. As dancers, we learn from the easiest step to the most advanced version of that step, but as a teacher, you need to dissect the most advanced step to the simplest version of that step and start teaching from there. It takes a long time and a lot of work.
From Bolshoi Teatre with love…and a lot of hard work
Who was (or is) your dance idol or biggest inspiration?
All of the male stars of Bolshoi Ballet on the 1970-80s: Vladimir Vasiliev, Mikhail Lavrovsky, Alexander Godunov, Yuri Vladimirov. And later, of course, Mikhail Baryshnikov, since we couldn’t see Baryshnikov perform in Soviet Russia.
What is one of the most memorable moments of your career?
I had a few incidents that happened on stage at the Bolshoi Theater which I still remember with a huge smile. Once, during the performance of the ballet “Macbeth”, another dancer missed his entrance so I had to be “killed” instead of him. Then, in the second act, I was dancing again in the same costume as if nothing happened. I can imagine how confused the audience must have been seeing me happily resurrected in the second act.
What it means to truly learn from the best
You are one of only two living men who received a teaching-specific degree from Pyotr Pestov. Can you tell us more about this experience and how it impacted your career?
Pyotr Pestov was the greatest male ballet teacher. But I never trained under him at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy when I was a student there. But later, when I was already dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet, I was accepted to study at the Moscow State Academy Choreography into a teachers’ course under Pestov, and since I was the youngest student in the class, and there were only four of us (only two are still alive), I was always chosen by the professor to demonstrate all the combinations in front of the other students. That way I had to unintentionally learn everything Mr. Pestov taught us not just as a teacher but as a ballet student all over again. That was very difficult and physically demanding! But it meant I got the best of both worlds from the legendary teacher.
What is something not many people know about you?
That I still don’t know who I’m going to be when I grow up. I also really like mushrooms, both to eat, and to pick them in the forest. Even my car license plate says MISHROOM. (my Instagram name is mish.room)
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
Under a palm tree somewhere on a beach, with a cool cocktail.