Fifteen-year-old Katya is devastated. This week is the big international conference, in which dance professionals from around the world visit the renowned Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. They will be allowed to get a glimpse of the young students during several of their daily ballet lessons. The demonstration for her class was about to start, when Katya was ordered by the teacher to leave the room. Why did she have to get injured the day before the conference? This was her chance to be seen by an international crowd, and she has worked so hard to reach this point. Her shoulder hurts, but she doesn't care. She is used to this pain. If it didn't hurt how would she get better?

In these times of reality TV and instant stardom, in a country that is constantly evolving towards western culture, there exists an institution in which the old ways are still practiced. From the age of ten until eighteen; twelve hours a day; six days a week; on the barre or in a classroom — for the students of this school there are no shortcuts.

This project is a look into the lives of a group of adolescents who, in their hope for a better, wider life, spend the majority of their youth in fierce competition. Based on my own memories of being a ballet student for nine years of my childhood, never being the best in class, these images emphasize the emotional side of these children’s uncompromising reality. They stretch their bodies further every day, desperate to stand out, while constantly being encouraged by their instructors to be uniform — identical to one another. Engaged in endless repetition of physical phrases, these students obsessively strive for a level of perfection that is always out of reach.

— Rachel Papo

See another photo-essay by Rachel Papo about young women in the Israeli army, here at Lens Culture.