Ballet was not Alexey Kulpin’s first love — but you’d never know it now seeing him shine on stage as a principal dancer with the Charleston Ballet Theatre. Kulpin arrived in Charleston last summer after what he calls “an interesting adventure” around the world dancing professionally in Russia, Israel, San Diego, and Grand Rapids, Mich. After a successful first season with the CBT, including lead roles in the Piccolo productions Firebird and A Midnight Summer’s Dream, Kulpin has caught the eye of dance fans as both a talented dancer and teacher. Now, after a summer of guest teaching in Ohio, Kulpin is gearing up for his second season with CBT.

Too cool for school. Kulpin admits he came to dance stubbornly. His mother was a gymnast and his father was a professional swimmer, so they encouraged him to do some kind of physical activity growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia. After trying swimming and tae kwon do, he signed up for Russian character, or folk, dancing classes because he had a lot of friends doing it. “Everybody thinks that dance is not a guy thing to do,” Kulpin says. “And I was one of those people. After school, we’d have dance rehearsal all day long, and eventually I fell in love with it.” In college, he made the transition to classical ballet and has been hooked ever since.

Lost in translation. When he’s not dancing, one of the first things you notice about Kulpin is his thick Russian accent. He took a few English classes when he arrived in the U.S. and still always carries an English-to-Russian dictionary with him, but most of the language he picked up from friends, books, and movies. “At first, I started watching movies with subtitles and reading and listening at the same time would help me. Now it’s kind of gotten in my head, and I can watch movies with the subtitles off,” he says. “When people understand me, it’s a big relief.”

hildren are the future. Kulpin was hesitant about teaching at first, but now that he’s been at it for nearly 10 years, he says it’s grown on him. “I enjoy teaching kids, especially when you see them improve,” he says. “My approach is not like my teachers would do for me in Russia, because in Russia it is very strict. They would yell at you all the time, so I was afraid of most of my teachers in Russia. I’m not teaching kids like that now. I’m trying to inspire kids instead of making them feel bad.”

Walk on the dark side. Since moving to the U.S., Kulpin has been challenged to break out of the classical mold and try more contemporary pieces, which he says he enjoys. To start the 2012 fall season at the CBT, he’s playing the lead role in Dracula, a challenge he says he’s a little nervous about. “My vision of Dracula is this tall guy, long hair, very powerful and mean looking. I’m a little bit different than this,” he says. “My favorite ballet was Where the Wild Things Are. It was a children’s book. But Dracula? I would never think I would do something like this.”

Curtain call. During the season, Kulpin’s usually in class and rehearsal from 9-5 and often teaches in the evening after that. “It’s kind of a long day and sometimes you get tired,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I’m satisfied with what I’ve done. You always want to try your best. You don’t want to take it easy and then expect that it will be a good product on stage.” Kulpin admits that rehearsal is actually his favorite part of his job. He enjoys the challenge of perfecting the steps and still gets anxious when it comes to performing them on stage. “I still have this fear to go on stage, in a good way,” he says. “I still get nervous before the show. But most of the time, it disappears when you’re on stage.”

Fresh air. In the rare moment when he’s not on stage or in rehearsal, you’ll find Kulpin outside, usually at the beach or riding his bike around town. “It makes me very happy when the weather’s nice,” he says. “In Russia, you can’t do much outside, except shovel your car for half an hour. So I enjoy this kind of weather. I know it’s hot in Charleston, but I’m fine with this.” Though he doesn’t often get to take a break from ballet, he says he tries to keep a balance in his life by making time for friends and visiting family back home once a year. “If you only think about ballet, you have nothing to think about in a normal life,” he says. “You need to think about something else, enjoy some other part of your life. Otherwise you can get into a depression. If you have a good balance in life, you’re always happy and you’re always smiling.”

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