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Just before she turned 14, Berta Yampolsky, the daughter of Zionist Russian immigrants, was convinced by a friend to try ballet classes. In the seaside town of Haifa where Yampolsky grew up, there was only one ballet teacher, and her makeshift studio was located in a dank basement cellar that smelled of mold. Nevertheless, Yampolsky became enchanted by dance as soon as she entered the room.
In one corner of the dark space, a pianist was performing as if he were in the Bolshoi Theater and young ballet students jumped across the floor, their agile movements in synch with the music.
"It was absolutely the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," says Yampolsky with a faraway look in her eyes. She explains that she fell in love with dancing because it gave her an outlet for her emotion and a way to communicate her passion.
But Yampolsky's road to success was a lengthy one. Years before she would become the artistic director of her own ballet company, she was a young, penniless girl who only wanted to prove her skill. Her Russian mentor in Haifa never offered a single compliment or word of encouragement. She had to attend auditions without the consent of her instructor, and was one of the only students not sent for an audition at the prestigious Royal Ballet. "Everyone said I was talented," she says, "but from my teacher I never heard one nice thing."
After four long years in Haifa, despite her hard work and talent, she was not given opportunities to perform. At just 18 years old, she knew that it was time to stop sitting in treetops and dreaming about being a professional dancer. She also knew that if she wanted to dance in a ballet company, she would have to go elsewhere.
With her new husband, Hillel Markman, an accomplished dancer in his own right, she left for England, determined to build a successful career.
"I had no idea how little I knew when I arrived in London," she says with a smile, crossing her legs with the grace of a former ballerina. "I really knew nothing. I had been told I would need tights for a cold climate," she explains, "but my tights were hand-made with a huge, silly-looking zipper that stuck out, and as soon as I walked in the door, the laughter began." Between not speaking a word of English, wearing an atrocious pair of tights and fumbling through a repertoire she had no idea how to dance, Yampolsky was the quintessential ballet rookie in an unforgiving, cut-throat industry.
Yet, despite her inauspicious beginning, it only took a few months before she became the star of the company. With Markman, she performed all over the world to great critical acclaim. But after a few years of non-stop touring, the couple was physically exhausted and ready to come home. In 1964, they returned to Israel as the principal dancers at the Israeli Opera, but the grueling hours and constant shows eventually took their toll, and in her late thirties, Yampolsky decided to leave the opera.
"I was so underweight and tired. I worked six days a week and I never had a day off. My knees were bad and I had a thyroid problem. I told Hillel that I would rather clean houses than dance under these conditions."
But leaving the opera did not mean leaving the stage, and in 1967, she and Markman founded the Israel Ballet Company with just four other dancers. "No one understood what we were doing here. It was an absolute desert. There was nothing in the way of dance. People kept telling us that Israel was not our place," she says. "But we made it our place."
Nearly 40 years have passed since Yampolsky and Markman formed their own company, and Yampolsky has created more than 30 ballets for her dancers and won numerous awards and honors for her work. In the summer of 2004, the company was at last able to move into a newly-constructed building of their own in the Basel district of Tel-Aviv. "We would not have survived without this place," she insists.
As we tour the building, the sound of classical music and gently thumping feet emanates from the dance studio on the top level next to Yampolsky's office. "This is the girls' dressing room," says Yampolsky proudly, turning on a light to show off the shiny lockers and a long row of clothes'-covered chairs facing spotless mirrors. "They actually listen to me and always turn out the lights," she smiles.
Next door, the boys' locker room, a few shades messier, is already lit. "The boys are fewer in number but more problematic," she says. "They always, no matter how many times I tell them, leave the lights on."
But as we step into the studio and overlook the 30, hard-working dancers below who are practicing for their next performance, Yampolsky eyes them like a doting mother. And few could deny the beauty and grace of their lithe bodies as they glide across the floor in their mismatched rehearsal apparel, their arms floating through the air, their long legs high, their backs arched, their necks stretched.
"Nobody helped us in the beginning," says Yampolsky as we look down on the spellbinding performance below. "We had to do it all on our own, and although we are still in desperate need of donations from patrons of the arts, at last we are in a permanent home of our own."