Hattiesburg’s Alexei Orohovsky became the first Mississippian to win the gold medal at the International Ballet Competition at Thalia Mara Hall. Credit: Richard Finkelstein

Thalia Mara, for whom Jackson’s magnificent municipal auditorium is named, was the daughter of Russian immigrants, grew up in Chicago, studied classical ballet in Paris, toured the world as a dancer, and founded and directed the National Academy of Ballet in New York City in 1963.

But that’s not all…

Rick Cleveland

Mara moved to Jackson in 1976 at the age of 65, and when most folks think of retiring, she began to make ballet matter in, of all places, Mississippi. From all accounts, Mara was a boundless force of nature, who somehow brought the International Ballet Competition (IBC) to Jackson in 1979 — the first time the competition had been held in the Western Hemisphere.

Why Jackson? Mara told writer Bettye Jolly in a 1977 article for Jackson Magazine she saw first-hand that Jackson was a sports town, and that she was “searching for a way to stimulate a similar interest in ballet.”

Competition, she surmised, was what she needed. “Mississippians love athleticism and they love a competition,” she said. The IBC is the Olympics of ballet, awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to top competitors across the globe. The dancers most certainly are amazingly athletic, as we will discuss. So, Mara enlisted community support and parleyed her connections in the international ballet community to bring the IBC to Mississippi.

Thalia Mara

Mara died in 2003, but most assuredly her spirit pervaded the auditorium these past two weeks when the IBC welcomed 99 dancers from 17 different countries. And wouldn’t Mrs. Mara have loved it last Saturday night when Alexei Orohovsky, a 16-year-old from 90 miles down U.S. 49 in Hattiesburg, won the gold medal in the juniors competition?

You know she would have. And you may wonder, as I did, how a soft-spoken, incredibly graceful and athletic 16-year-old named Orohovsky, born and raised in Mississippi’s Pine Belt, could win a worldwide ballet competition. We will get to that as well…

First, let’s tackle the age-old question: Are ballet dancers athletes? You only needed to sit through one performance of the two weeks of IBC competition to know the answer. Hell yes, they are athletes — amazingly graceful athletes, men and women, boys and girls. I don’t know a pas de deaux from pass interference, but I know an athlete when I see one. These dancers are tremendously strong and limber with the ability to leap and seemingly suspend themselves in air. At times, it is as if they are flying. The boys and men can lift the girls and women above their heads, while gracefully dancing. The girls and women can stand on the toes of one foot and spin themselves round and round until you, the spectator, become dizzy. Great athletes have stamina; these dancers do, too. 

In Mississippi, some wise coaches have long known the benefits of ballet training for their football and basketball players. Back in the 1960s, about the time Mara was founding the National Academy of Ballet, a basketball coach named Fred Lewis was winning and winning big at Mississippi Southern College. Lewis, who later created a powerhouse basketball program at Syracuse, was searching for ways to improve his Southern players’ footwork and leaping abilities. And so he put them in ballet classes at the college’s School of Dance. Did it work? You decide. Lewis’s Golden Giants, as they were then called, were 23-2 and 23-3 in back-to-back seasons.

In 1974, Granville Freeman, a fireball of a young football coach at Lake High School in Scott Country, was looking for an edge. And so he brought in a ballet teacher from Jackson that summer to train his Lake Hornets twice a week. Heresy? Some of his players probably thought so, but years later Freeman told a sports writer, “Ballet is all about footwork, about core strength, about flexibility. I thought it was perfect training for football. We called ourselves the Twinkletoe Hornets. People laughed at us before the season; they weren’t laughing after it.”

No, the Twinkletoe Hornets won every game they played, and what’s more, no opponent so much as scored a point. “Undefeated, un-tied, un-scored upon,” Freeman said. “People around here now refer to us as the un-team.”

Young Alexei Orohovsky tried soccer, baseball, swimming and other sports growing up in Hattiesburg. He kept coming back to ballet, which, to be sure, was in his blood. His father and mother, Arkadiy and Katya Orohovsky, were accomplished ballet dancers themselves and now teach the discipline at South Mississippi Ballet Theatre in the Hub City. Father Arkadiy grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine, mother Katya in Hattiesburg.

Their talented son began dancing seriously at age 12. He graduated from high school at age 15. His parents taught and trained him until the age of 14. He now trains at world-renowned John Kranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany. Indeed, Alexei won the gold medal on Friday, danced a solo from The Nutcracker in the IBC Encore Gala Saturday night and flew back to Stuttgart on Sunday.

In Stuttgart, he spends more than six hours a day dancing and training to perfect his art. Besides hours of dancing, he does weight training, stamina workouts, Pilates and pays close attention to nutrition. In his spare time, he studies German. At his level, ballet is a full-time job.

Alexei is nothing if not dedicated. Taseusz Matacz, his instructor in Stuttgart told freelance writer Sherry Lucas, “On stage, Alexei feels like a fish in water. With visible joy, he dances the variations which are peppered with technical difficulties. He has excellent coordination, his explosiveness in the muscles enables Alexei to bring special lightness into the dance. One of Alexei’s specialties are his pirouettes – small or large, great variability in execution, incredible speed – he masters this in a virtuoso manner.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Alexei is just shy of 6-feet tall and still growing. Weight? “I have no idea,” he says, smiling. I don’t know, either, but I can tell you from observation he has roughly the body fat content of a grasshopper and can jump like one, too. He is polite and well-spoken and insanely talented. He told his mother four years ago he would one day dance in the IBC in Jackson. He did not specify he would win the gold medal.

But he won the silver medal last year at Helsinki and then topped that in his home state 90 miles away from his hometown. “Incredible,” he described the feeling. “Huge,” he said about what the gold medal would mean for his career.

This was 44 years after the IBC first came to Jackson, 41 years after Jackson native Kathy Thibodeaux won the silver medal. No Mississippian had won a medal here since — not until this past weekend when Alexei Orohovsky won the gold. Last Friday night, he stood adorned with the gold medal, while The Star-Spangled Banner played and Mississippians stood at attention.

Surely, Thalia Mara would approve.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.