by Len Lear
When lifetime Chestnut Hill resident Carinthia Bank, now 18, was a very small child, her parents would take her to see her older sister, Caroline, dance at ballet recitals. “At first I had no interest in it,” Carinthia recalled last week, “but the more I saw it, the more it looked like fun, so finally I told my parents that I’d like to try it also.”
When she was just in first grade at Germantown Friends School, Carinthia began taking ballet classes after school at the Wissahickon Dance Academy in Germantown and continued there from 2001 to 2008. Most children who take private music or dance lessons undoubtedly are rewarded with personal growth, self-discipline and self-confidence if they really do apply themselves, but the likelihood that they will have a professional career in music or dance is very slim.
But Carinthia is an exception, to put it mildly. In fact, when the acclaimed Donetsk Ballet of Ukraine brings its production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet, “The Nutcracker,” to the Philadelphia area this month, among its 18 professionals will be Carinthia Bank. (Formed 66 years ago, Donetsk Ballet is based in the city of Donetsk, Ukraine. They perform works of classical ballet and contemporary dance, and they tour internationally. They have about 60 dancers in all of their touring groups, of whom Carinthia is the only non-Ukrainian. In the past, however, there have been four dancers from the Philadelphia area in Donetsk.)
After attending primary school at GFS, Bank went to the prestigious Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., a private boarding school where she studied ballet as well as academic subjects. Upon graduation this past May, she was invited to join the Donetsk, led by artistic director Vadim Pisarev. Already accepted to Princeton University, she opted to defer admission and traveled to Ukraine.
Bank spent September and most of October rehearsing and dancing in Ukraine. Then she and a group of fellow dancers went to France, where the Donetsk company toured with its production of “Swan Lake.” (The Chestnut Hiller, who “could not believe I was dancing in France,” saw the highly controversial movie “Black Swan,” and her reaction was: “It’s good that ballet is seen by so many people, but I did not enjoy the movie at all.”)
Carinthia wants everyone to know how much respect and love she has for Wissahickon Dance Academy, which nurtured her and helped develop her talent. “It is not a professional school,” she said, “and you can go there just for fun, but if you want to go farther, they are very encouraging. There are about four to 10 students per class, and the teachers are very focused and dedicated, and they will give you all of the individual attention you may need. They are not mean.
“Elena Tiuriakulova, who teaches at Wissahickon Dance Academy, has by far been one of the most important people in my journey. She is an amazing person and has always supported me in ballet and everything else. Together, she and Nancy Malmed — the director, who in my opinion is one of the only ballet school directors with the vision and knowledge to make a small school of truly good quality — make Wissahickon the great little ballet school that it is. I am so lucky to have gone there.
“Also, my sister is very supportive (and good at everything), and her successes have always inspired me. For example, the reason I applied to Princeton was that I saw how amazingly happy she was at Stanford University, and I realized that if I put in effort, I could also find a college that was the right fit. Then I visited Princeton, loved it and was lucky enough to actually get it in. And, of course, none of this would exist without the environment my parents brought us up in. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have all these wonderful people in my life and to have things work out so I can have these great experiences.”
The Donetsk Ballet is known worldwide for the consummate artistry and technique of its dancers. Company stars Maxim Valchik and Irina Komarenko will be featured as principal dancers in a dozen or more performances of “The Nutcracker” in a three-week tour this month of the Philadelphia area and New Jersey. Bank will be dancing some solo roles as well as in ensembles, mostly at area schools.
Is there a language barrier for Carinthia with the Donetsk Ballet Company? “The teachers do not speak much English,” she replied. “Most of the dancers studied English in school, so they speak a little, and the ones who are more comfortable with their English —who went to school in Europe or studied English in their Ukrainian university — are very kind about helping me out. Sometimes I have no clue what’s going on, but they’ve all been very understanding and willing to talk slowly in Russian or find someone whose English is better to explain things for me.”
Late this month Carinthia will return to Ukraine, where she will perform and then again to France. The Donetsk season will end in June, and then Carinthia will decide whether to continue dancing full-time or whether to start college at Princeton. Besides her sister, who is 20, Bank’s family in Chestnut Hill consists of her dad, Brad, a lawyer who spends much of his time these days renovating old houses, and mom, Daryl, an obstetrician/gynecologist who formerly worked at Chestnut Hill Hospital and is now at an Albert Einstein Medical Center. Carinthia, by the way, is named for a friend of her mother’s. “I never met anyone else with my name,” she said.
The Donetsk Ballet will perform locally on Saturday, Dec. 15, 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 16, 2 p.m., at Plymouth/Whitemarsh High School, 201 E. Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting. Joining the professional company onstage are 40 local student dancers selected through open auditions held by the International Ballet Exchange (IBE), a Philadelphia nonprofit. Bank and her new colleagues from Ukraine will also stop at George Washington High School on Thursday, Dec. 13, where they will present a special performance for students of the Philadelphia School District through the auspices of the International Ballet Exchange.
For the Dec. 15 and 16 performances at Plymouth/Whitemarsh High School, tickets are $18 for students and seniors; $28 for adults. To purchase tickets in advance, call 215-849-7950 or 1-800-849-4919. Tickets will be available at the door as well.