Joy Womack is a principal dancer with the Astrakhan State Theater of Opera and Ballet in Russia. Her journey is anything but typical. Her story is laced with many twists and turns, many unknowns and miracles, many hardships and victories. She is known for being the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and then also receive a place in the Bolshoi Theater. Her story relays the tensions of a bittersweet love for Russia, its culture, its artistic excellence, and the realities of the corruption in the theater. Though living through experiences that broke her heart and almost her love for ballet, she came out the other side still strong, still in love with ballet, and still passionate about all the beauty that Russia has to offer.
Joy was born in Santa Monica California. This was her home for twelve years and also where she began her training to be a professional dancer. Originally, Joy trained in the Balanchine style, but then when she moved to Texas switched to the Russian style. Later she was accepted into the Kirov Academy where she continued to study for two years. But it was when she took a Bolshoi master class in New York that her future in Russia became more evident.
“I went to their summer intensive and there was a woman who was taking over the first through the third-year level, which was their graduates’ course. She gave me Paquita to dance and the director of the Bolshoi Academy ‘just so happened to be there’, which was a crazy miracle. By the end, I got accepted to the school in Moscow. From day one in the academy, they gave me a lot of things to dance! I was so lucky because that doesn’t happen. But still, it was very difficult. I had an injury, a change of teacher, and it became very difficult to stay relevant. But by the grace of God and through different miracles, I graduated school at the top of my class and I had several contract offers. I also had soloist contract offers. I didn’t realize how rare those were! In the end, I was trying to decide between Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and Bolshoi in Moscow. I eventually went to Bolshoi. It turned out to be very bittersweet, because it was my dream job and I really wanted to dance there, but the director at the time was very corrupted. I lived in Russia for three years, but I didn’t understand the bribe cultures there which was very prevalent. Somebody took advantage of it, and long story short, there was a scandal, and I ended up deciding to leave.”
But Joy was far from jobless. The theater next door, the Kremlin Ballet, quickly offered her a principal contract! There she developed a tight bond with her coach who encouraged her to forget about all the corruption and disappointment that Joy had faced and solely focus on ballet.
“My new coach kind of refocused me and gave me a beautiful space to work on myself and my career. So I spent four years at the Kremlin and did a whole bunch of international competitions during that time as well. I had a beautiful partner there. But after four years, I was burnt out. I was overworking for very little money. And I was tired of the system. I didn’t know what I wanted. Looking back, I think I just needed some perspective. I got offered a principle contract in Korea, so I to move there.”
Joy recalls her experience in Korea being fun but lonely. In terms of dancing, everything was going well, but outside of ballet, she struggled to develop a life there. This however proved to be a valuable lesson in discovering the importance of life outside of ballet, and that there was more to who she was than just ballet. The loneliness however fostered isolation and an eating disorder that she had developed in school. With that, she decided she needed to leave, and return to Russia. She began freelancing but was also in discussion with Bolshoi about returning. But in the end, she was faced with the same corruption and manipulation she had experienced before.
“I went back to Moscow and freelanced, which was really exciting! I dance a lot of guests performances with my partner. And at that time, I was like talking with Bolshoi and a lot of my old coaches. They told me, ‘Oh, you’re going to get back in, don’t worry…’ So my hope was to return to the Bolshoi. Then the director, calls me into his office and told me, if you print a retraction (about the previous scandal), and say everything that you said was a lie, then well let you come back.’ And then it was, ‘well, if you sleep with me…’ things like this kept going on for two months.”
Being resolute in her values and morals, she decided to let go of her dream of rejoining the Bolshoi, and took time to simply wait and see what would come her way. In the meantime, Joy used her time to get her personal training and pilates certification.
But then, not long into her waiting, Boston Ballet contacted her with an offer.
“I got offered, randomly, a contract in Boston. But it was a corps de ballet. And that was a moment of humility. I took the contract, I went to Boston. It was a very hard season. I was so used to dancing principal roles and working as a principal dancer; I didn’t have a skill set for dancing in the corps or in the western setting.”
Joy, in a way, experienced the exact opposite to that of her time in Korea. While her professional life was struggling, her personal life was thriving.
“I had a beautiful time connecting with this person that I had been talking to for several years, and we started dating. My personal life was very healthy. I was getting better with eating. There were a lot of things in my life that were getting better, but the ballet side was kind of dying.”
Joy worked hard to keep up her level and her passion by working by herself before and after hours at work. She was also in regular dialogue with her boss about her position in the company. But to her disappointment, it didn’t look like things were going to change anytime soon. With all the unknowns on the table, she and her boyfriend took some time off to figure things out.
“Andrew (her then-boyfriend) and I went to the ranch and we grew deeper in our relationship. We did a lot of praying together, I realized this is definitely the man for me. So, what do I do with this ballet thing? I love ballet so much, but it’s not working out. And so I was like, ‘alright God, You know if I’m supposed to dance, I give it to You’. Then I get a call in the middle of the summer from my partner from Russia, Misha. He told me that one of our close friends had just become the director at Astrakhan Ballet! Then he’s said, ‘Come, be my partner. Let’s dance. Let’s get back to the way it was in the old times.’ I had not danced a principal role in two years at this point, and he wanted me to come and dance Don Quixote in two weeks!”
After arranging a leave of absence with her boss in Boston, and three days after being proposed to by her very surprised, but very supportive boyfriend, she dashed off to Russia!
Immediately from the moment she stepped onto the beautiful stage of Astrakhan she fell in love.
“I walked on the stage and it was just incredible. I remember this moment of breaking down and weeping and thinking, ‘how beautiful is God? We leave things on the altar, but He takes care of us. And He knows the secret things in our hearts.’ It was a beautiful year of falling back in love with ballet.”
Eventually, Joy ended her contract with Boston on good terms and dove fully into her work as a principal at Astrakhan. In August of this year, 2021 she and Andrew got married, and now live together in Russia.
Throughout her whole career, there has been this pull to Russia. Even in the face of so much corruption, and heartache, Joy always had a sincere love for Russia and the beauty that exists within its art and culture.
“When I moved to Russia, I went straight into the school. I gave up my American schooling for the Russian. In some ways that forced me to learn the language. I fell in love with Russia in my second year here. I loved it so much and I wanted to stay here and be a Russian ballerina, the whole thing. I love the system, I love the education, I love performing, and I am passionate about the way that the government supports the culture. There’s such stability for ballet dancers because they know that there’s a system that always has work for them. Contracts are not ending and starting yearly. So if you compare that to the States it’s really attractive. And I enjoy the tradition of working with a coach and creating a deep relationship. People here are very relational, friendships go very deep. And I love the no filter, kind of people. They are who they are.”
In many ways, Joy has adopted their language and their culture as her own, so much so, that she even tried to get a Russian passport. As it turns out, Russia was as eager to adopt her as she was them.
“I kept coming up against the fact that Russia is very patriotic; they’re very pro their people. It’s similar to France, and I will say we have a little bit of it in the US too. In my third year at Kremlin, I was given a residency permit, but it took a long time. It was a big process, but it helped me a lot with everyday stuff in general. I thought about citizenship then, but at that point, you couldn’t have dual citizenship. You had to pick one, and I wasn’t going to get rid of my US one. But my best friend, Masha, had a Russian mom and her dad is American. So she had the Russian passport and the American! She kept saying, ‘Joy, if you can get it, it would change things.’ But that was when I left for Korea. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with Russia. Later, when I needed to renew my Russian residency permit. People asked, ‘Why don’t you just apply for citizenship?’ I looked into it. But it seemed like it was almost impossible to do. I was praying about it a lot with my fiancé, but I thought, you know, it’s fine. It’ll be what it is. Then I was joking with my friend, ‘what if we wrote two letters, one to President Biden and one to President Putin?’ It was a joke but we sent it through official channels. I never heard back from President Biden, but the Putin one, I guess somebody picked it out of his like mail and responded to me, and sent me this long legal letter from the office of the president that was detailing how to apply for the citizenship. It was a couple of months’ process of collecting the right documents and making sure they were okay. But long story short, because I worked here for so many years, and worked here under a diploma, I was qualified for citizenship. And so now, I’m Russian! And it works out for me because my husband can be here, I’m no longer worried about how many days I’m in the country, and paying taxes, etc. it keeps doors open. And in my heart, I always want to have a connection with Russia and do something here. I would love to stay working here in Russia, be based out of here, and do projects in Europe, etc. But we’ll see where God brings us.”
Speaking with Joy, I saw her strength and determination flow from every ounce of her personality. But it was coupled with a humility and understanding that there was more to life than just ballet. It’s a rare and beautiful balance that I think many dancers are working hard to find and/or to keep. Joy’s journey is still far from over, and considering everything that has already happened, I think it will be very exciting to see what yet lies ahead for this ballerina.
Joy recently had a film come out about her life titled, “The White Swan”. Directors, Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov, followed Joy for seven years, documenting her life from school to work. You can watch it on Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, VOD and almost all Russian streaming services. Go check it out now!