Five years ago, when ballet experts identified Michael Shannon as a world-class talent, one of the first publications to take an interest in him was a surfing magazine. The appearance of a budding Baryshnikov wouldn’t normally have caused a stir in such circles, but this was news: Shannon, a Los Angeles native and avid surfer, was probably the only gnarly dude around who could execute a grand jeté as well as an “off-the-lip.”
These days Shannon, 20, doesn’t have time for his favorite sport: He’s too busy riding a wave of attention as the first American male to train at Moscow’s prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Since his graduation in June, he has been touring the U.S. with the academy troupe and now finds himself something of a star in the land of the free and the brave. But onstage he tries not to stand out among his Soviet colleagues. “My life goal is to dance like them,” he says. “The greatest compliment of my life was when an impresario saw the company dance and couldn’t tell who the American was.”
Raised by his divorced mother, Margo, a public relations exec, Shannon got hooked on dance at 8 after seeing a cousin’s recital. Over the protests of his grandfather, an ex-surfer and retired Marine Corps major, he enrolled in afterschool dance classes. “I couldn’t tell my guy friends because they would think I was a sissy,” he says. “It was my secret.” His talent, however, was so apparent that, at 12, he earned a scholarship to study in New York and then spent his teen years being courted, supported and trained by ballet schools in Canada, Sweden, Hungary, Finland and Bulgaria. In 1986 he auditioned for and won a place in the Bolshoi.
Madame Sophia Golovkina, the academy’s director, recognized his ability the first time she saw him dance. “I knew he had the native gift,” she says. Since moving to Moscow, Shannon has gone native in a big way, teaching himself to speak fluent Russian, cooking with friends in the school dorm and sharing cigarettes on the tour bus (“I know I shouldn’t smoke, but you only live once,” he says). His dream is to tour the world as a guest artist; for the present he plans to return to Moscow and continue dancing with the Bolshoi. Says Madame Golovkina: “He has come to be like us and to perform like us.” To Shannon, that is the highest of praise.