Andrew Osborn








A fairy tale comes true for Briton at the Bolshoi; Family's sacrifices pay off as boy becomes first Briton to graduate form Moscow academy

The Sunday Telegraph, 27th June 2010 15:57


HENRY PERKINS was just five years old when he decided what he wanted to do with his life. After watching children dance in Cinderella, he knew he wanted to become a dancer too.

Over the past 14 years, his parents have raised about £60,000 to pay for the training to make that dream a reality — and on Friday, it paid off.

The 19 year-old, from Yately in Hampshire, became the first Briton to graduate from Russia's Bolshoi Ballet Academy, which is regarded as the best — and toughest — dance school in the world.

"I achieved what I came here to do, which was to become a Russian dancer," said Henry after his proud parents, Sue, a teacher and Stephen, a supermarket manager, watched him graduate. "People come up to me and ask me whether I'm sure that I do not really have any Russian blood in me."

"It was a really moving moment," said Mrs Perkins, after watching the graduation ceremony. "It has been hard work for all us, but I am really proud of him."

The academy, which has produced some of the finest dancers in the world, is renowned for the technical brilliance and stamina it expects of its elite students. Dozens of Britons have applied over the years, but the only other one to have been accepted, Ralf Pickering, did not complete the course.

Students have to follow Russia's school curriculum and when Henry first arrived he spoke no Russian.

Inevitably, his success has invited comparisons with the film Billy Elliot, which tells the fictional story of a miner's son who battles his father's prejudices to become a ballet dancer. Henry groans at such parallels, but admits that, like Billy, he kept his passion a secret from friends at first, and often found himself the only boy in ballet classes.

"I got called 'gay' a lot at school but as soon as I said I was going to Russia it fell away," he recalled. "People are always scared of what they do not understand. It bothered me, but I grew out of it, and thanks to them I became a stronger person."

Realising the dream has meant sacrifices for his parents, who are far from wealthy. They considered selling their home to help pay for his tuition, which began with dance colleges in Britain, including the Royal Ballet School. He was driven round the country by his mother so that he could perform, including an appearance aged nine in Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House.

He became fascinated with the Bolshoi after watching its dancers in Britain, and set his sights on going there after being mentored by a former Bolshoi dancer, Yevgeny Goremykin, who runs a dance studio in south London. "He was the guy who started it all off for me and he got me an audition," Henry said.

When he was accepted in 2006, the real hardship for his parents began. A year's tuition at the Bolshoi costs about £15,000, on top of living expenses. Not only were his family refused a grant, they had their entitlement to child benefit removed because Henry was no longer resident within the European Union. His mother helped raise the £60,000 for the four-year course by writing to more than 1,200 individuals and charities.

Henry struggled at first with homesickness and the strict discipline at the Bolshoi. "There is a different teaching style here compared to Britain," Henry said. "There is no political correctness. They say it straight and do not wrap it in ribbons."

Students spend up to eight hours a day rehearsing, in addition to academic classes. Henry's tutors told him he had to give up everything else, including his personal life, if he was to succeed. He ate, danced and slept at the academy. However, only once has he considered abandoning his dream. Six months ago, he was dropped from a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre after being told he was too tall for the part. "It was a heartbreaker," Henry said. "I really thought about giving up."

Now, he will miss his friends in Moscow when he joins the Estonian National Ballet in Tallinn later this year. What he does not miss is an apparent ignorance of ballet in England.

"The arts in Russia are a lot more respected," he said. "Here, everyone knows what the Bolshoi is. In England, if you ask a random person on the street what the Royal Ballet is there is a good chance they will ask you what you are talking about."