Like many 16-year-olds, Arianna Lawson is spending the last weeks of summer taking driver’s ed.

She is also trying to figure out how to make it to Moscow this fall, where she has been invited to study at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the feeder school for the Bolshoi Ballet. The Scarborough teen learned less than two weeks ago that she had been offered a spot – and now she and her family are scrambling to make it happen before the academy opens in October.

“I just want that push, that demand of excellence from the best teachers in the world,” said Lawson.

The offer came after Lawson danced for more than a month at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy Summer Intensive Program in New York City. The academy – formally known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography – has been the training ground for many of Russia’s greatest dancers.

The New York program has been offered for the past two years through the Russian American Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes cultural relations between Russia and the United States. Lawson missed the original auditions for the program but managed to get accepted on the strength of a video she sent in.

The program serves as a six-week tryout. At the end, academy teachers offered a place to a few students at the Moscow academy, a fact that Arianna was unaware of until she received the letter.

“I was extremely surprised,” she said.

A year at the school costs about $18,000, half the price of comparable American schools, said her mother, Michelle Lawson. Although Russians attend for free, the academy offers no scholarships to foreign students.

The Lawsons don’t know if they can afford to send their daughter to Moscow. Arianna’s father, Paul, a high voltage electrician, has been mostly out of work this year due to the gloomy economy. Michelle Lawson runs a one-woman cleaning business and can’t work any more hours.

They are now wondering whether to take out a second mortgage.

Michelle Lawson said other sources of scholarship funds, such as civic and social service clubs, have already made their commitments for the year.

“And they are primarily for strong academics, not the arts,” said Michelle Lawson.

Arianna faces a grueling experience. Only a handful of Americans attend the 237-year-old institution, which trains students with a hands-on method of instruction in a style of dance called the Vaganova method. The academy enrolls about 700 students, with 10 percent coming from foreign countries.

There are no language interpreters and Lawson speaks only a handful of Russian words – most of them profanities picked up from her summer instructors, according to her mother.

She will dance beside the Russian students, who take a dim view of their American classmates, and will live in a drab dorm with unpalatable food. There are no academics.

“The Russians believe if you want to dance, that is all they want you to do,” said Michelle Lawson.

Arianna, who has traveled outside the country only once to visit Canada with her family, said she is up to the challenge.
“I am tough enough to do this,” she said.

The Lawsons say their daughter’s talent seemed to spring out of nowhere. Neither of the parents has dance background, and their younger daughter, Micayla, 14, could not be less interested. But from the first class she took as a preschooler at Small Steps School of Dance in Scarborough, Arianna was enthralled.

Her friends and teachers at Portland School of Ballet say they are thrilled for her. Her acceptance by the Bolshoi reflects well on the whole school. Lawson has been part of the Portland Ballet’s CORPS program, training three hours daily. CORPS students may also take their academics at Portland High School, although Lawson has been largely home schooled.

“She is strong and flexible, a beautiful dancer who has all the qualities that you need to go to that top level” said Leslie Gibbons, director of development at Portland Ballet.

Nell Shipman, associate artistic director and resident choreographer at Portland Ballet, said Lawson is a dancer who continues to grow and improve.

Lawson danced the main character of Olivia in the Portland Ballet production of the Victorian Nutcracker a couple of years ago.

“Technically, she works really hard but is able to turn on the charm when she gets on stage,” said Shipman.

Her goal, if she goes, is to clinch a contract by the end of the year to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet.

“Then I would stay there for three years with the company,” said Lawson.

If the Bolshoi offer doesn’t work out, she will audition for other schools. She said she is certain what she will be doing five years from now.

“I want to do dance,” she said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]

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