From Moscow to Louisiana

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on September 24, 2000

One of the most intriguing ingredients in America’s melting pot is that of culture in unlikely places. Example: Constantin Apetrei, who trained with the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, now runs his own ballet school in southeastern Louisiana. Immigrant-turned-entrepreneur stories have the power to restore appreciation of our country; Apetrei’s story is no exception.

Apetrei’s future in America began in Romania when he showed promise as a dancer. One of four in that country chosen to train with the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow, at age 16 he left behind his only other option—life as a factory worker.

After graduating with honors, Apetrei toured America in 1982 with Fantasio Ballet, the first Romanian ballet company allowed that privilege. Encounters with the freedom of Western Europe and the United States altered his course, and at tour’s end in Seattle, the 23-year-old slipped into a cab—leaving country, family, and fans behind.

“Romania was too depressing, too much to bear after that,” he recalls.

Apetrei lacked two survival tools in his adopted country: cash and command of the language. Determination and humility enabled him to accept his Bolshoi-to-busboy transition, and he learned English from television and immersion.

“You learn fast when you’re put into situations where nobody understands you,” he recalls.

Adapting to American culture came easily to the Eastern European. He was treated kindly, especially in the South where he met his future wife, Kelly, in the fall of 1982 while both were dancing with a New Orleans ballet company. Apetrei had auditioned for that role at a large Los Angeles dance studio, paying his way to New Orleans from what he’d earned as a busboy.

Constantin and Kelly spent four years dancing with Ballet Dallas, but health problems at age 30 prompted the artist to pursue choreography and full-time teaching. In 1988, with a newborn in their arms, the Apetreis returned to Louisiana and embarked on a dream.

If creating a serious ballet school and ballet company is difficult in a metropolitan area, then accomplishing this feat in a small Southern town like Mandeville, La., is remarkable. Apetrei, however, skilled in leaps of faith, opened Ballet Apetrei’s doors with $80 in bake sale proceeds.

“Some classes had only one or two students … but you stick with it and put your heart in it,” he says.

Determination and love paid off. Apetrei Dance Center’s current enrollment is more than 300, with students aged 3 to 18—and a waiting list. Ballet Apetrei, a company comprised of 30 dancers, gives students a performance avenue.

Four years ago, the company was accepted into Regional Dance America Southwest, an organization of nonprofit dance companies.

“Their annual festival gives nonprofit companies a chance to shine and exposes them to the world of dance,” Apetrei says, adding, “Students experience performances in greater venues than those available in their hometowns. And they get an opportunity to audition for scholarships.”

“We chose Ballet Apetrei because they were progressing toward refinement,” says Lynette Mason Gregg, the organization’s founding artistic director. “We were seeing just the tip of the iceberg of what they could accomplish and produce.”

Mandeville, situated on Lake Ponchartrain’s north shore, has long lived in New Orlean’s cultural shadow. But Ballet Apetrei changed that.

Kelly Apetrei, company business manager, explains their success: “We believe in what we do, and we’re good at it. Audiences see that on stage and they’re sold.”

The company produces three shows a year and dances at outdoor festivals. Principal dancers from professional companies such as Ballet Austin regularly share the stage with Ballet Apetrei students.

The Apetreis teach the Vaganova method. Based on the teachings of Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951), its blend of influences from French and Italian ballet masters produces the strength and flair characteristic of Russian dancers. “It’s not a coincidence Russians are the finest dancers. Theirs is a time-honored method,” Constantin says.

Many Apetrei students earn college dance scholarships, and by the time they graduate from high school and the center, three out of every 10 pursue dance careers.

To be sure, teaching kids a centuries-old tradition rooted in discipline and practice isn’t easy in an instant gratification society, but Apetrei’s love of teaching comes from watching students grow.

“It’s very satisfying to see someone dancing well, when five years ago they wanted to quit,” he says. “Some of our students have been with us 12 years. We have videos of their earliest performances—they were mere babies. If they stick with dance that long, you know you gave them something they couldn’t live without.”