Backstory: A marine's corps de ballet
Andrei Petrovitch Bossov, the former Soviet ballet star, looks into the wall-length mirror and barks French ballet terms in a thick, indecipherable Russian accent. "Entrechat!" "Fouetté!" "Plié!"
His students stare back. They try to move as he moves, to literally become his mirror image. Their common language is ballet.
For Mr. Bossov, words do not communicate as well as dance itself. "Because of this limitation, the spirit and the soul and the human mind can be visualized on the stage by the dancer's body."
Bossov danced with the famed Kirov Ballet on world tours and shared the stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but today choreographs and teaches ballet in obscure Pittsfield, a rural town of 4,214 near Bangor, Maine.
Though named for its virtuoso, the Bossov Ballet Theatre is here – housed at Maine Central Institute, a private high school – because of the sheer will of this man: Col. Michael Duncan Wyly. The retired commanding officer and balletomane started the children's ballet school in 1996 in an effort to make his young daughter's dream of becoming a ballerina come true.
The choreographer and the combat veteran perform a unique pas de deux as artistic director and executive director. Under their unlikely partnership, the Bossov Ballet carries on the art's much-revered Imperial Russian tradition yet aspires to become America's preeminent school for training dancers for the professional ballet.
"I treat him like a three-star general because he needs to be treated that way," Colonel Wyly says of Bossov. "And I respect him, you know, that much – as long as he remembers I'm the four-star."
It's Tuesday night, and the students gather in front of the ballet master – and the mirror – in Founders Hall studio to hone their technique and rehearse "The Four Seasons," to be performed in May at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine. The next production is "Don Quixote" at the Waterville Opera House, in Waterville, Maine, in August.
Fourteen-year-old Johanna Reuter executes pirouettes and pas de bourrées encircled by two boys – Ben Malone, 17, and Jacob Gambone, 16, – as they practice, over and over, a number called "The Mist."
"I know I have the body for it, so I think this is what I was meant to do," says Johanna, a lithe and long-limbed blonde.
Bossov is a tough drill sergeant. Students' holey pointe shoes and bruises showing through their opaque tights attest to their determination. "Again" is Bossov's stock phrase; "close" is high praise.
"Of course I love them, and I care about them," the taciturn danseur says of his young charges. "They belong to me."
It's Bossov's intensity that attracts students, though Jacob admits: "I'm a little bit scared of him sometimes."
The 16 hard-core ballet students under the tutelage of Bossov and Russian ballerina-instructor Natalya Getman – most of them boarding students at Maine Central Institute – practice as much as five hours a day, six days a week. (Tuition for full-time ballet students is $2,650 a year.)
A dozen families from eight states have relocated to Pittsfield over the years so their teenagers could study under Bossov. Another 90 local youths and adults – ages 4 to 22 – take afternoon, evening, and Saturday morning community classes, and a handful of them are also pre-professional dancers. In addition, the Bossov Ballet offers a rigorous, five-week Summer Intensive Ballet Camp that enrolls up to 80.
The hope is that eventually, the ballet school will develop enough talent for Bossov to have his own professional, touring ballet company.
Watching the rehearsal, Wyly sighs. "Every girl who dares dream," he says, "dreams of being picked up by handsome, young cavaliers and swept through the air."
The colonel, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 and served two tours in Vietnam, retired in 1991 and moved his family to Maine from Virginia with the intent of writing a book on the art of war and becoming a vintner. But in 1995, the youngest of Wyly's two daughters, Summer, then 13, was a Bossov protégée at the Waterville Performing Arts Center when it abruptly closed. The ballet master retreated to Mother Russia.
"I had no notion of ever founding a ballet school," says Wyly, an expert in maneuver warfare who has a stack of medals, including a Purple Heart. "I just wanted to get Andrei back!"
Four ex-marines – semper fidelis – served on the original board of directors. (Though, Wyly points out, "There's no such thing as an ex-marine.") Today, the all-male board consists of six former marines, a retired Navy rear admiral, a retired Army major, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel, and the high school's academic dean.
"We'd be sitting in Go Noi Island in Vietnam – where there was not even a tree and it was 100 degrees every day – and Mike, in the resupply, would get his copy of Gourmet magazine," recalls US Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia, a Bossov director who, in 1969, served with Wyly in Vietnam's infamous An Hoa Basin, site of some of the heaviest fighting of the war. "It wasn't terribly surprising he'd get his teeth into this."
Hollywood's New Line Cinema and its partner, Mandeville Films, are developing the true story of a children's ballet school run by battle-scarred marines into a feature film with the working title "Brigg's Ballet." No actors have been cast, but producers hope to begin shooting this fall.
"I just loved the idea of a hard-as-nails guy going into the world of ballet, then realizing it's just as strenuous as the world he comes from," says Mandeville president Todd Lieberman.
The effusive colonel, a born raconteur, often draws parallels between the Marine Corps and the corps de ballet. On his battered, black steel desk sits a small bronze statue of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Bossov Ballet Theatre, he notes, was incorporated on Feb. 23, 1996 – 51 years to the day after Mt. Suribachi was captured.
The most important thing in ballet and war, Wyly says, is training the troops. He explains performing this way: "D-day is opening night. And the curtains open at H-hour."
"Once that curtain opens, you don't have any control over the situation anymore. Just like when your troops cross the line of departure. Now the battle is joined," Wyly says. "What's going to happen is what's going to happen. God help us! We hope we taught them right."
The Bossov Ballet typically mounts five productions a year and, lacking a performing arts center, exports its $15-a-ticket shows to average audiences of 300 devotees in far-flung Maine venues. Wyly's wife, Linda, hand-sews all the elaborate costumes of velvet, satin, and tulle with the help of two of the dancers' mothers.
"This ballet was like a big bomb in the middle of my whole family," Colonel Wyly says.
Next month, the Russian danseur is taking a student troupe to perform a version of "The Four Seasons" in his hometown of St. Petersburg – the third such trip since 2003.
Rehearsing for the performances in Russia, the tousled-haired Ben, in black tights and a white T-shirt, observes: "Ballet class is all a preparation for the stage. I see myself come out in my dancing. There's me behind Andrei's choreography."
In its 10 years, the non-profit Bossov Ballet, with a $316,345 annual budget, has trained more than 2,000 students from nine countries and 26 states. But Wyly counts only 48 elite dancers as graduates. Of those, 28 have gone on to dance with professional ballet companies (such as the Joffrey Ballet and Bejart Ballet), been accepted into competitive collegiate dance programs, or both.
Summer Wyly, now 24, gave up her dream of becoming a ballerina and is a hotel banquet manager.
Her father, however, is still spellbound by the arabesques and grand jetés that he first witnessed as a bachelor captain who, alone on his 27th birthday, spent combat-tour pay to see "Coppélia."
"I was already cold and wet and lonely and mad," Wyly says. "But the music started – and the color of the costumes, and the story, and the dancing, and the beautiful girls, and all those things at once – and I felt better.
"The ballet just sort of caught me."