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Courage and beauty in ballet
02:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg learned of Olga Kostritzky through her brother, who studied with Kostritzky at the School of American Ballet and is now a dancer with the Carolina Ballet.

Story highlights

Russian-trained ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky has shaped a generation of American dancers

She trained Natalie Portman for her role in "Black Swan" and appeared in the film

Now, she's helping prepare dancers in North Carolina Ballet for "The Nutcracker"

"The most important profession is to be a teacher," she says

Raleigh, North Carolina CNN  — 

As she sits at the front of the mirrored ballet studio and follows the dancer’s movements, Olga Kostritzky looks very much the part of the classic Russian ballet mistress.

Dressed in a black tunic and leggings, beige sandals and signature designer glasses, she sways in her seat and gestures as music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” fills the cavernous room.

A few feet away, dancer Malea Grubb twirls across the room on pointe, weary from a long day of rehearsals but determined to prove she’s worthy of the lead role in the dance of the ribbons.

The pressure is on: Carolina Ballet’s opening performance of “The Nutcracker” is three days away, and Grubb finally has the undivided attention of a guest coach she’s been wanting to work with for months.

Grubb took classes with Kostritzky this summer and was impressed by her attention to detail. Moreover, in a profession characterized by stress and constant physical exertion, Kostritzky’s calm, focused manner had put Grubb and her fellow dancers at ease.

With Nutcracker season under way across the country, fixer skills like Kostritzky’s are in high demand. Before arriving in Raleigh to work with Carolina Ballet on Nutcracker, she was in Siberia with another company. Ballet is her life, and even after more than 60 years of dancing and teaching, she shows no signs of slowing down. Don’t ask her how old she is because she won’t give you a number – “It doesn’t matter if you’re not 18,” she says – and not even her oldest daughter knows the year of Kostritzky’s birth.

Grubb begins a series of quick turns in place, only to lose her balance and fall back on her left foot. She steadies herself, looking for Kostritzky’s reaction.

The ballet mistress rises, chunky gold bracelets jingling as she approaches Grubb and puts her hands on her shoulders. A former dancer herself, Kostritzky understands the stress dancers face. She’s also aware of the intimidating effect she often has on them.

“Relax. You can do this. Don’t be nervous,” she whispers in her thick accent. “Just breathe through the movements.”

The words have their intended effect, and Grubb presses on.

“When she reassured me that my technical prowess would take care of itself and told me to focus instead on my breathing,” Grubb said, “that really helped me and got me excited about eventually doing it.”

Ballet mistress Olga Kostritzky

Kostritzky’s reputation for bringing out the best in dancers has taken her around the world, shaping young students and coaching professionals with tough love and one-liners like “Why you give me Kmart when I ask for Cartier?”

She has taught throughout Russia, Europe, the United States and Latin America and worked with a diverse array of artists and entertainers, from ballet dancers Jock Soto and Damian Woetzel to British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, film director Darren Aronofsky and actress Natalie Portman.

After meeting her at a lunch hosted by New York socialite Anne Bass, Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley once remarked that Kostritzky “is everything you would expect in a world-class ballet coach.”

She started out as a dancer at the Odessa State Ballet in her hometown but is proudest of her accomplishments as a teacher, coach and mentor.

“The most important profession is to be a teacher. Two sets of people are the most important: your parents and your teachers. College teachers, schoolteachers, ballet teacher.

“Because if you’re lucky and you have a good one,” she said, “they change your life.”

A taskmaster who ‘loved us’

Former students credit her with altering the course of their lives, regarding her as a “second mother.” At least 20 are in top-level professional dance companies nationwide, including New York City Ballet. She also helped Portman train for her role in the Academy Award-winning “Black Swan,” earning a shout-out from the actress in her Oscar speech. She also appeared in the documentary “Dancing Across Borders,” which tells the story of dancer Sokvannara Sar’s journey from Cambodia to the United States to train with Kostritzky.

“She demands only the best; complete commitment. Work, work, work and then savor the rewards but only for a moment because there is more work to be done,” said Peter Boal, director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Boal studied with Kostritzky at a summer dance program when he was 14.

“She believes so completely in the art and impact of dance. You could feel her stage presence in everything she did. She was a taskmaster who scared us at first, but soon we figured out that she actually loved us.”

In an instance of art imitating life and vice versa, another former student tours with the national Broadway production of “Billy Elliot,” the movie-turned-musical about a young boy’s struggle to become a ballet dancer despite a lack of support from his family. The plot resonated with Max Baud, who plays adult Billy. As a teen, he struggled with torment from peers and credits Kostritzky with encouraging him to stick it out.

“She showed us this light at the end of the tunnel. She’d point to dancers like Jock Soto and Damian Woetzel as role models and tell us, ‘If you work your butt off, you’ll be able to dance and make a living doing the thing you love.’”

The foundation of a Kostritzky education, hard work and discipline, also translates to other professions and facets of life, he said.

“She made it clear in the beginning that this wasn’t just about ballet. Maybe you’re not going to be a ballet dancer. Maybe you’re going be a doctor or work for Wall Street. But the discipline you’re learning in this class, you could take this discipline and apply it in any other profession.”

Career advice? Call Olga

Kostritzky says she is grateful to her mother, a skilled seamstress who designed theater costumes, for indulging her wish to audition for the state ballet theater when she was 8. But it was her teacher who equipped her with the skills that students and dancers seem to value most in Kostritzky today.

“She knew how to push our buttons and knew how to make your mind work, your body work,” Kostritz