When Mikhail Tchoupakov began to work with college dancers, he quickly recognized there was at least one big difference in the way college and conservatory students learn. “College dancers need to learn that when they get a correction from you, it’s not because you’re picking on them. It’s because you care,” says the University of North Carolina School of the Arts assistant professor. “If your dancers have only received praise from their local studio, they’ll come to college and be overwhelmed by what they deem as negativity. You need to show them that you’re just trying to help them.”
But that doesn’t mean he will lower his training standards for them. “Students often come to me after shows and ask if I am happy with their work. I say, ‘Yeah, sure, but let’s talk about what needs to be fixed. I gave you a standing ovation, but the job doesn’t stop there. I know you’re an adult, but you still have time to fix things.’ It can be hard to build a relationship that pushes through their stubbornness and makes them trust you, but it’s important.”
As a teacher in the age of YouTube and Instagram, Tchoupakov says it’s essential professors encourage students to attend live ballets. “I teach amazing dancers all over the world who’ve never seen Swan Lake or Giselle live,” he says. “Sure they’ve watched digitally from their computer, but they’ve never experienced the smell of the curtains or the energy of the stage. I tell my dancers to sacrifice—travel and pay the money to go and see live performances, because it’s a completely different experience that they need to have.” More than just seeing ballet live, Tchoupakov recommends seeing a show more than once in order to experience and learn from different casts. “In Russia, people go to see Giselle multiple times, not just because they want to see the production again, but because they want to see how specific dancers approach and perform the roles.”
Tchoupakov’s impressive professional background and training uniquely qualify him to educate the rising generation of high school and college students at UNCSA. Born in Moscow, Tchoupakov was raised through the ranks of the highly competitive Bolshoi Ballet Academy until he joined the professional company in 1983. For eight years he traveled the world with it, while simultaneously earning a teaching degree from the Moscow State Academy of Choreography under the direction of Pyotr Pestov. Today, he’s one of only two living men in his graduating class who’ve received a teaching-specific degree from Pestov.
Tchoupakov says his satisfaction in his work comes from the progress he sees in his students, and the lifelong relationships he develops with them. “I believe in the importance of mentorship. I don’t just teach them steps—I teach them life.”