Canadian dancer Shale Wagman turned 19 last May. Soon after he was guesting at the Mariinsky Theatre. What's more, it was his first time dancing a principal role. Ever. Last season – his first as a professional dancer – he was dancing with English National Ballet's corps de ballet, part of his prize after winning the Prix de Lausanne when he was 17, last year.
My year with the company was nice. I got opportunities to dance the Pas de trois and Neapolitan Pas de deux in Swan Lake, the Beggar Chief in Manon, and roles in Wheeldon's Cinderella, Nutcracker, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings as well as the Grand Pas Classique.
At the Mariinsky, however, he was dancing James in La Sylphide alongside Olesya Novikova. From the Beggar Chief to James is quite a phenomenal leap and on one of the world's most prestigious ballet stages.
I was in St Petersburg for Dance Open, and while I was there, I had the opportunity to be invited by Mr Fateev [Yuri Fateev, Acting Director of the Mariinsky Ballet] to take company class. Three weeks later, I received an email from him proposing me to dance La Sylphide, and I questioned which role. I thought maybe Gurn or a demi-solo part, but he said, James. I couldn't believe my good fortune. I have dreamed of dancing at Mariinsky since I started ballet, so I was overcome with emotion.
Maybe it's time to rewind to when and how he began dancing.
Shale Wagman was born on 2 May 2000 in Thornhill, a suburb to the north of Toronto in Canada.
My dad was a chartered accountant, and still is, and my mom was a paralegal before she had kids.
He grew up with his two hockey-playing brothers, and although he says that his mother is creative, there is no theatrical vein running through the family.
His mother, Heather, says,
As an infant, he was mesmerised and stimulated by anything visual. It went beyond the usual curiosity or wonder of a toddler.
From his stroller, he was fixated as the roller coaster was rising, falling, twisting and turning. Once he was tall enough actually to ride the coasters with his brothers, he turned into a little thrill seeker.
His attention to detail was impeccable. He would draw the most beautiful and intricate pictures that were well beyond his years.
At six, he began dancing.
I had been in gymnastics and swimming. I was agile and flexible. My swimming teacher's son encouraged me to see his dance teacher, who worked with boys. Right away he said I moved like a cat and he was adamant I start seriously training in competitive dance right away.
That teacher was a Russian, Vlad Novitski, who runs one of the most respected schools in the greater Toronto area.
This was my introduction to tap, hip hop, modern, jazz lyrical, acro, contemporary and the competitive dance world. He instilled a strong work ethic, discipline and encouraged me to improvise, choreograph and bring out my creativity from a young age.
His mother says,
At his first regional dance competition at seven-years-old, I watched him standing in the wings transfixed for hours. The other kids would do their routines, cheer on their friends for a couple of numbers and leave. He didn't leave! Looking back, I believe it was at that moment, he knew that this is all he ever wanted to do.
It was during this time that he participated in Canada's Got Talent.
It was my mother's idea. At first, I was upset with her because I didn't want to be on the show due to the fact that I would miss a few dance classes. As an 11-year-old, I wasn't aware of how much it could benefit me.
A stage mother?
Shale's dad, two older brothers and I have always been supportive and proud of him. We were a good team doing whatever we could to encourage and nurture his talent and gift and at the same time, knowing when to let go and give him the independence he needed to grow and learn.
Shale was definitely special. With his determination, self-motivation, discipline, passion, natural abilities and God-given gift, I knew that one day our family would be sharing him with the world!
Not a pushy mother but a supportive one. Shale says,
My mom told me to try the audition and see afterwards if I didn't want to do it and of course I loved being on a stage of that scale. I really enjoyed sharing what I love with a bigger audience. Naturally, I became excited, and it turned out to be a fantastic experience.
He arrived in the final, just after his 12th birthday.
In a newspaper interview at the time, the journalist stated that Shale was “completely unconcerned with the effeminate stereotypes that come with dance”. His attitude has changed slightly.
I didn't ever let myself get bullied, but of course people tried, and it was a struggle at times. I guess at 12, I blocked it all out because of the pride I had in my dancing.
Even in the ballet world, it is frowned upon to be feminine at times, but everyone has their own way of expressing their art. If it is tasteful, then I am a fan, whether it looks ‘masculine', ‘feminine', or anything in between, depending on the role. There is strength to be found in being both feminine and masculine. A true artist has no limits and, in my opinion, those labels can block people.
The shelves at Vlad's Dance Company are heaving with trophies, but when Shale was 13, he was more drawn to ballet and left the competition circuit so that he could study ballet seriously. He discovered a teacher in Thornhill who had studied at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
I made the move and began training with Tatiana Stepanova.
I asked her what she saw in the young dancer who arrived in her class.
The first time I met Shale at my studio, I could see there was something special about him. Not only did he have the unique physical attributes for ballet, but I could see a boy with an incredible desire to dance. He was focused, paid careful attention to details, and would listen intently and apply any correction given to him; he was determined to be the best that he can be.
Even at a tender age, I could see Shale had an innate sense of artistry. This God-given talent, coupled with his pursuit of technical excellence, is what makes Shale so special when he is on stage. He is a true artist, always striving for the next level.
After only six months of ballet classes, he participated in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest ballet competition and scholarship programme, and he won the 2014 Youth Grand Prix. He was offered scholarships at the Houston Ballet Academy and the Bolshoi Academy among others, but he chose the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco.
I made the decision to go to Monte Carlo, where I trained under the direction of Luca Masala and many wonderful teachers for four years.
His mother remembers the trip vividly.
On our flight from Toronto to Monaco, he was showing me videos of various ballets and ballet dancers, two of whom were Olesya Novikova and Leonid Sarafanov. He was so captivated. It brought me to tears watching him.
I cried the whole way there and on the way back to Toronto. Having him so far away from home at such a young age was difficult for all of us.
In Monte Carlo, Shale found himself in class with pupils who had been studying ballet for several years – was there was a lot of catching up to do?
Of course, there is always so much to learn, but I didn't feel like I needed to ‘catch up'. My teacher in Canada, Tatiana Stepanova, really helped me to learn the basics, and she helped me sculpt my body for ballet. I had already danced before, so movement wasn't new for me, the problem was the turnout and the understanding of line and aesthetic.
Luca Masala, Artistic Director at the Princess Grace Academy, says,
Shale was a very passionate student who always gave back 100%. Being that he wants to be perfect, he always questions what he does. He wanted to see results very fast, but he had lots of trust and love. When you asked him to practice or to work towards something, he would take on board all our advice and then make it work as best as he could.
He knows exactly what he wants, and he tries to find people who can help him achieve what he wants. He's an ambitious person but not an arrogant person. He's also very humble, which is a very agreeable ingredient for success. He's always ready to help other people… a very kind person.
Shale began devouring ballet videos when he started ballet classes at 13.
I love watching dance, and I have an iPad where I have downloaded thousands of ballet videos for entertainment.
His taste is mature and thoughtful. Asked to name some of his favourite ballets he chooses Laurencia (“Unfortunately it isn't performed much, and mostly just in Russia.”), Béjart's Bolero, Marco Spada and La Dame aux camélias (“It's always been a favourite of mine because of the sensational music and the drama.”). Not a typical selection for a teenager – where's Don Quixote or Swan Lake?
What draws me to a ballet is the combination of intriguing music, intelligent choreography and a captivating story. When the music is perfectly matched with the choreography, it makes for an indescribable feeling as an audience member. I also love to think and read between the movements so that I can leave the theatre feeling like I've learned something and having a full heart. I love to watch all types of different ballets. I love ballets with lots of depth and true human emotion.
For someone who has some impressive technical pyrotechnics up his sleeve, the dancers who inspired him the most growing up are the those best known for their lyricism and beauty of line.
I have many ballet heroes, and the list keeps growing. I've always been so intrigued with Nureyev for his artistic virtuosity. Nicolas Le Riche, Anthony Dowell, Vladimir Shklyarov, Leonid Sarafanov, David Hallberg, Mathias Heymann, Semyon Chudin, and many others inspire me greatly. I would watch these artists 24/7.
When I ask about the choreographers he admires, the names he offers are no longer surprising: John Neumeier, John Cranko, Crystal Pite, Jerome Robbins, Kenneth Macmillan…
Is life only dance?
I think about dance, talk about dance, watch dance, read about dance, choreograph in my head. Just kidding… sort of. I love being with my family and friends and learning about contrasting cultures. I also love museums, art and music. Jazz and classical music can get me through anything. A little bit of Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughan can make my day.
Simone? Vaughan? You're 19!
I am aware that I have different taste in music and ballet from my contemporaries. In my opinion, there is much more profundity in the era of Vaughan, Simone, Fitzgerald etc compared to the music today.
Back in Monte Carlo, it wasn't all plain sailing. When he was 15, he developed a stress fracture in his lower back.
It was in my L5 vertebra, due to lots of physical activity as my body was still growing. My back was extremely flexible, so I had to learn how to control it with my core. I rested for a couple of months and rehabbed with physiotherapy and Pilates. I learnt so much about my body and how to control each muscle.
Marsala, at the Princess Grace Academy, remembers,
He was devastated as ballet is everything for him and he told me that if he were to stop dancing, he wouldn't have a life anymore.
Shale now looks back at this time positively.
I grew from this injury as a dancer and person, but it definitely was a low point because I always turn to dance as an outlet for my emotions. Since I didn't have dance, I didn't feel like myself.
Masala encouraged Shale to enrol for the Prix de Lausanne in 2018, and he and the school's teachers prepared the pieces he took to the competition, from Don Quixote and Wayne McGregor's Chroma.
The Prix de Lausanne was a life-changing moment. It didn't feel like a competition, it was more about how far I was able to push myself during that week. I wanted to grasp everything I could like a sponge.
There was quite a lot of build-up before the competition. From the first year I joined the Académie Princesse Grace, my director voiced how he'd like me to go. Of course, I dreamed of taking part. When we started preparing for it, the pressure was enormous because essentially I was representing my school that has a very high standard.
The week was quite special. We all came to share our joy to dance and learn. It was great to be in an uplifting atmosphere where everyone was supportive of each other. I made dear friends and met some of my idols and dream company directors. There was this sense of being apart of something much bigger than yourself.
With winning the Best Young Talent prize came the opportunity to join one of the competitions partner companies, an apprenticeship offered by the Oak Foundation and Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Shale chose the English National Ballet.
I chose ENB based on the versatile repertoire, the progressive direction of the company and of course, seeing the talented dancers within the company.
And I have lots of respect for Tamara Rojo; she is a strong female director who is also a Principal dancer at the same time. I don't know how she does it!
There are some extraordinary people in the company. So many of the company members have helped me in my dancing but have also supported me when I was struggling. I've learnt from everyone there and have made some beautiful friendships.
But after his year with the company, he felt it was time to move on. Plus, the Mariinsky came knocking.
The preparation [for La Sylphide] was strenuous, and there were a lot of bumps along the way. I got an allergic reaction, major headaches, and I couldn't walk the day before the performance due to an injury in my foot.
The first time in your life that you dance a principal role in a complete ballet is with the Mariinsky Ballet. It's also the first time you dance James, and the first time you partner a famous ballerina. Pressure?
This was my debut in the role, so I hadn't had any previous experience. I've always enjoyed this ballet, and I'm a ballet freak, so I'm constantly researching. I was coached by legends Vladimir Kim and Gabriela Komleva who gave their incomparable passion and love of the art in the studio.
Did you find it difficult to immerse yourself in the story and understand your character?
People argue that the storyline of this ballet is unrelatable and out-dated, but for me it is a timeless classic because of the meaning behind it. Fundamentally, it's all about an unobtainable love that you can never touch or get a hold of, and people can resonate with that. When you get your hands on true love, it is the best feeling you can experience but also the worst because if it isn't reciprocated, you will experience heartbreak.
The audience can get fully entranced within the story if the artists can make the story and characters relatable to this day and age. I feel that it is the dancer's duty to make that possible through character analysis and adding their own feelings and personality to the role.
Apart from familiarising yourself with the story and characters, you had to learn a very precise style, one that dancers at the Danish National Ballet learn as they move through the school.
I like dancing the Bournonville style because it is extremely human. It challenges me to push beyond my limits, technically and artistically. Batterie is one of the most challenging things for me, and Bournonville incorporates a lot of that into his ballets. The port de bras are very simple, which makes for a more natural appearance, which I love. The sheer musicality is something to really be appreciated in this ballet as well.
And then you found yourself on the Mariinsky stage.
That theatre has an atmosphere beyond belief. The first time I walked into the theatre, I couldn't help but tear up. The moment I stepped on that stage was the first time I felt truly free in months. It was a genuine feeling of euphoria.
You were also dancing with one of your childhood heroines.
Novikova made the experience all the more stunning. She is elegant, poised and professional. To me, she is the epitome of a world-class ballerina. It was a privilege to share the stage with someone of her calibre who has performed this role many times. For her to give me the time and understanding in my debut and have the connection we had while performing together was an absolute honour for me.
His mother, Heather, was in the audience.
People have said, would you have ever believed that your son would be dancing on the Mariinsky stage in Russia? Secretly, yes, but I could never say that out loud. It was such a spectacular performance and a feeling of pure joy watching your child living his dream.
A review on the German site Tanznetz says: “With great enthusiasm and stage presence, Wagman mastered the tricky Bournonville style effortlessly. The lightness of his high jumps, elegant arabesques, perfectly controlled turns and precise and speedy entrechats impressed the audience from his first step on stage.”
Shale's boyhood teacher, Tatiana Stepanova, once gave him a present.
It was a book with details of the best ballet theatres in the world, including the Mariinsky. He told me that one day, he would be dancing on one of these stages – he just did.
His mother adds,
Shale is unstoppable, and we are all so excited to watch and see more of his dreams come true!
I ask him, “So, what happens next for Shale Wagman?” He grins:
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.