Every dancer has that special teacher who inspired them and made an extraordinary impact on their training. What about a special teacher who profoundly impacted an entire metropolitan dance community—and for more than 40 years? That was Lirena Branitski.
On Saturday, January 29, 2022, Lirena Branitski, a ballet teacher, choreographer, dancer and role model to many died in her sleep at her home in Plymouth, Minnesota. She was 81.
Branitksi was a strong, steadfast and deeply cherished ballet teacher in the Twin Cities. Born and trained in the former Soviet Union, she danced as a first soloist of the Ukrainian State Theatre of Opera and Ballet and as a guest performer with the Bolshoi Theatre (see obituary here). When Branitksi and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980, she began an incredible and dynamic teaching career that touched the lives of an entire community.
Like the origin of a family tree, Branitski’s solid ballet training firmly rooted generations of dancers’ technique. Countless successful artists sprouted from Minnesota, with Branitski to thank as a launching pad. Some of her students even went on to have international performing careers in dance, while others became teachers, choreographers, leaders and changemakers.
Helen Hatch, faculty member at St. Paul Ballet and founder of Hatch Dance, says, “Was she a tough teacher? Yes. Did she have high standards for her students? Yes. But no matter how hard she pushed us, the respect she demanded from her students was always matched with equal respect for them.” Hatch was Branitski’s student through her youth and then taught alongside her since 2012. “She never once told me how to teach. She knew I had the knowledge from her, embodied, and ready to pass on.”
When Branitski spoke, her students listened. In fact, everyone listened. She innately knew what a dancer needed to hear to succeed, and with great care and attentiveness she supported them through the whole process. Branitski was featured in Dance Teacher’s Teachers’ Tools column in 2015, a testimony to her classes and rehearsals that were dialed in with high standards of work ethic, technique and perseverance.
Lorin Mathis, faculty member at the University of Arizona School of Dance and the Kaatsbaan Ballet Intensive, reflects on Branitski’s rehearsal approach: “Lirena was rehearsing me for a variation in La Bayadère. I was young and it was a big variation, and I was having trouble with the musicality. We kept running it and running it. Lirena knew when to push me. She knew when to get the fire burning.”
Beginning as a student at Ballet Arts Minnesota, Mathis continued to train at Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and from there propelled into a performing career with San Francisco Ballet, Alberta Ballet, Boston Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. This is not an uncommon origin story for one of Branitski’s students in the dance world.
At Ballet Arts Minnesota, Branitski choreographed notable works, including pieces for the City Children’s Nutcracker, such as “Waltz of the Flowers,” “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and her character “Russian Dance.” Additionally, Branitski taught at several Twin Cities schools and companies from 1980 until her retirement in 2020, including Minnesota Dance Theater, Branitski Ballet (her own company and school), James Sewell Ballet, Metropolitan Ballet and St. Paul Ballet. In 2012, Branitski received a special citation SAGE Dance Award for her contributions to the Twin Cities dance community.
“Lirena is a throwback to the old school, and that is something that I think is lacking somewhat in today’s training,” Mathis says. “She was a pillar of that community, and that absence will be felt.”
It’s an understatement to say that Branitski was paramount to dance transformations among her students—no matter their age, experience or skill level. Her effective teaching of integrity, caring nature and support to her students is evident through the legacy her students now cling to. When her students dance, they hear her. When her students teach, they hear her. They listened, and are still listening.
The extraordinary legacy of Lirena Branitski will resonate for generations to come. —Laura Greenwell