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The Joy of Dance

If one wants a glimpse of Joy Womack’s rock-star like schedule, take a look at her Instagram account. One day she might be dancing in Paris—her current home base—another day it’s Florence, then it’s Lagos, Guayaquil, and Melbourne. But Angelenos will get a chance to see the trailblazing ballerina who was born in Beverly Hills and danced with, among other prestigious troupes, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin Ballet, when she performs with Westside Ballet of Santa Monica on May 18 at BroadStage.

Joy Womack. Photograph by Robert Palka

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The gala performance will also feature American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Isabella Boylston and fellow ABT principal James Whiteside, as well other notables, including the Joffrey Ballet’s Lucia Connolly. The occasion is Westside’s 50th anniversary, with its Spring Showcase concerts featuring the school’s advanced students and pre-professionals on May 17 (7pm) and May 18 (1 pm). Dubbed, “Masters of Movement Series: Ballet through the Centuries” the performances are coming together to honor the past, present and future of the organization’s cultural achievements.

Indeed, the celebrated Balanchine dancer, Patricia Neary, a terpsichorean legend with a 60+ year career in the arts, will receive a lifetime achievement at the Saturday evening performance. And while Womack, who recently turned 30, began her training at Westside Ballet as a child before moving with her family to Austin, Texas, at age 12, where she began training in a school that specialized in the Vaganova technique, at the tender age of 15, Womack applied—and was accepted—into the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow.

She then went on to become the first American to graduate from the Russian program, before crashing through the velvet ceiling—pointe shoes and all— where she was only the second American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet.

“I fell in love with the history, the style, the lore of Russia,” recalled Womack over a WhatsApp conversation from Paris. “I thought the dancers were the best I’d ever seen, and I’d seen ABT, New York City Ballet. I was blown away. When I was in the school, there were quite a number of foreigners, but when I joined the company, there were only two Brazilians and one Japanese who’d been there for a while.”

Joy Womack. Photograph by Robert Palka

Womack, who has eight siblings—but none of them dancers—lived in Russia for 12 years, and gained Russian citizenship in 2021. Prior to Putin invading Ukraine, however, she said that she’d felt part of a culture that had embraced her. When the war broke out, Womack had been in Poland working on the film The American, a biopic of her life that features Talia Ryder as a 15-year old Womack and Diane Kruger as the ballerina’s mentor. “I left everything I had in Russia,” she recalled.

Womack briefly returned to Southern California in 2022, when she appeared in “Reunited in Dance” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Organized by Xander Parish, who had been principal dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet, the concert featured himself and others who had fled Russia after the invasion.

As committed as Womack is to appearing in performances for a worthy cause, she also cites Westside School of Ballet, Los Angeles’ oldest and most successful public ballet school founded in 1967 by City Ballet’s Yvonne Mounsey and Royal Ballet soloist, Rosemary Valaire, as her “home away from home.

“It was the place I started my journey with ballet. I trained there from age three to 12, [and] when my parents left California, I would come back by myself over the years.

“I would dance ‘Nutcracker,’ or guest teach. Every time I came back, I would ask myself, ‘Why would I ever leave?’ I feel like I could spend the rest of my life there.” Womack, whose many honors include snagging Gold at the Korea International Ballet Competition in 2017, added wistfully. “There’s a sense of community, the way they were preserving traditions and values that Yvonne and Rosemary wanted. I love coming to Westside, it means everything to me.”

Joy Womack as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Westside Ballet's production of “The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Anne Slattery

Allegra Clegg, who works as a producer at Paramount Pictures, became the director and owner of Westside Ballet after Mounsey, her mother, died in 2012. Known for its connections to both Balanchine and the Royal Ballet, the school has a formidable teaching roster keeping those traditions alive. And while many alumni keep in touch, a number of them, such as Broadway actress/dancer Lyrica Woodruff, and Adrian Blake Mitchell, who danced with St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, also return to dance in the school’s spring concerts—including this year’s Gala performance—or annual “Nutcracker” productions.

Explained Clegg: “Joy is not necessarily a Balanchine dancer,” but the artistry she got from her training, she absorbed it like a sponge. My mother and Joy had a great relationship, even after she moved to Texas. That connection never ended, until my mother passed away. Everything my mother [taught], Joy just manifested it.”             

Martine Harley, also a Westside alum, who, at 18, joined Houston Ballet, has been artistic director of the Westside school since 2013. For this year’s Gala, she’s staging stage “Grand Défilé,” as well as Ben Stevenson’s “Prelude” for Womack and Maté Szentes.

“Joy has been her namesake all these years—joy,” gushed Harley. “She has had a very storied career and now she’s coming back to dance in the Gala. It’s a special piece and you need an exquisite dancer. When Pat [Neary] showed me pictures of herself in “Prelude,” I said, ‘I have to have Joy.’”

With Womack living in Europe, Harley pointed out that they rehearsed over Zoom. “It’s been a challenge, but a worthy challenge.”

Womack agreed. But then again, the ballerina never met a challenge she didn’t like. After having danced with both the Bolshoi and the Kremlin Ballet, the latter as a principal dancer in 2018, she then joined Korea’s Universal Ballet, also as a principal. Her numerous gigs around the globe have included guesting with Sofia National Opera and Ballet, and Krakow Opera and Ballet, and, in 2020, she joined the Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre as a prima ballerina.

Joy Womack. Photograph by Robert Palka

In addition to performing, Womack, whose life has already been the subject of a 2021 documentary, Joy Womack: The White Swan, has been attending screenings of The American. Written and directed by James Napier Robinson, the film has been shown at the Miami Film Festival and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and will soon have been seen in New Zealand. 

The film came about, said Womack, “a long time ago, when I graduated the [Bolshoi] Academy. Somebody approached me, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then, there were so many questions of reselling my life rights, I thought it would die in movie purgatory. When James finally contacted me and went through this long period of writing the script—the different spans of my life—when it finally happened, I was back in Russia.”

Womack, who had been assisting directing at the Astrakhan State Opera and Ballet Theatre at the time, elucidated: “I got to be the choreographer, I got to help with casting, I got to do [dance] doubling, and help with costumes. It was such a fun project. I enjoyed it immensely. It [screened] in Palm Springs and went well. There was a whole bunch of wonderful questions, and it was special for me to get to share my story.”

Another thing Womack is sharing—in a huge way—is her mission to provide high-quality, accessible dance with audiences around the world. To that end, Womack has donned an entrepreneurial hat and formed a trio of organizations: The non-profit Joy Womack Ballet Foundation, which offers scholarships, mentoring and international opportunities, the Joy Womack Ballet Company, and the Joy Womack Ballet Academy.

All three, explained the dancer, “work interchangeably. I got the idea for the Foundation last year, and obviously it takes a lot of time, effort and money to apply for a 501c3, but we got ours on April 10. The mission is to help bridge the gap between talent and opportunity. We do everything, [including] paying for peoples’ visas, plane tickets, studying costs, living expenses.

“When I was a young dancer,” she recalled, “there were many times in my life that I didn’t have enough money, and doors seemed to be closed. It was miraculous when somebody came to my rescue. That’s what I wanted the foundation to be.”

This includes partnering with the Del York Academy in Lagos, Nigeria, one of Africa’s leading institutions in capacity building in the creative sector. “We’ll be helping to provide them with a dance curriculum, as well as working closely with the teachers and students to empower them and help them grow.”

 If anybody knows a thing or two about ballet galas—at least from the performance perspective—it’s Womack, who is producing her very first on July 7 in Bielefeld, Germany. Dubbed, what else, “The Joy of Dance,” it will feature colleagues including Denis Veginiy of the Dresden Semper Opera Ballet, Boris Zhurilov (currently with Hungarian National Ballet, he also performed on the “Reunited in Dance” concert), Womack, and others.

And while she danced with Paris Opera Ballet at the beginning of 2023, but wasn’t offered a permanent contract, Womack chose not to remain with the troupe. “I would have loved to stay with them, but I turned 30, and the beginning level [dancers] were 17 and 18. It was a great experience, I loved it, but I was 10 years too late. This is why,” she added, “I’m freelance.

“I’m so grateful for my path, my journey,” added Womack, who recently danced two full-length performances of “Swan Lake” with Brussels International Ballet.

Joy Womack. Photograph by Robert Palka

Of course, there are still a number of roles Womack would like to tackle: “Nikiya in “La Bayadère,” “Manon,” [Neumeier’s] “The Lady of the Camellias,” then “Spartacus,” she said enthusiastically. “And there are probably 50 more roles, but those are the ones that come to mind.”

Womack is also working on the Amazon Prime series, Étoile, produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, the pair who co-created and executive produced the ballet comedy-drama Bunheads (2012-2013). Set in New York and Paris, the series, which has no release date yet, follows the dancers and artistic staff of two world-famous ballet companies as they try to save their institutions by swapping their most talented stars.

“We started filming season one, and are taking a break for the Olympics,” said Womack. I’m part of the Paris team [and] don’t have a big part, but I have lines. I also talked with the head choreographer and was showing her [several] dances.”

And yes, in between getting married in 2021 to Andrew Clay, a digital marketer, and having their wedding at Clay’s family ranch, Womack is also keen on making dances. “I love choreographing. It’s something I want to pursue more in the future. I have a dream of having a stable space. We have this amazing land in northern New Mexico, and I want to put a ballet studio and performance studio there.

“I have a lot of big dreams,” she adds with a laugh. “I’m going to step into my transition very well, but I’m happy dancing at the moment.”

That moment also extends into the future, as the ballerina pointed out that she would still like to be performing in the next five to ten years, and to have, “created my company, see the school in Nigeria set up, and raise more money for dancers. I would also like to be based in two cities.”

As for giving advice to aspiring ballerinas, Womack maintained that, “it’s important to hold onto gratitude for the ability to be able to dance. You also have to develop a concentration, work hard and sacrifice things for your art form. I think you have to continue to dream,” she added, “and hold onto that dream, even if it changes and morphs into something different. Try to find balance, but also take care of your nutrition, health and mental space.”

Womack, who decidedly checks all those boxes, is also someone who believes, “art should always unite. I feel like culture builds bridges,” she continued, “especially in the time we’re living in now. What is more humanitarian,” stressed Womack, “than art. Good art should always usher in peace.”

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