Nineteen-year-old ballet dancer wows audiences in St. Petersburg

Shale Wagman performing the role of James in La Sylphide at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia (Photo Credit: Ramanbek Beishenaliev)

Canada first met Shale Wagman as a 12-year-old finalist on Canada’s Got Talent. Today the entire world has fallen in love with Wagman, now a 19-year-old ballet dancer.

Wagman realized his childhood dream of performing La Sylphide at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 19, making him the youngest person to guest dance on this stage.

“I have dreamed of performing in the Mariinsky Theatre with these dancers—under the tutelage of incredible coaches who passed down knowledge from centuries of ballet,” Wagman gushed. “I remember when I first started ballet, I downloaded every Mariinsky video that you could find—I was watching these dancers since I was so young. It’s just crazy to think that I danced with some of my idols, people I was watching 24/7.”

The Mariinsky opened in 1860 and became the preeminent theatre of its time.

“You can feel the history within this magical jewel box of a theatre,” Wagman said. “The first moment I walked in, I started to tear up. I felt this magic and realized legends such as (Mikhail) Baryshnikov, (Rudolf) Nureyev, Yuri Soloviev, Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova have performed on that stage. You just want to touch the gold within the theatre and get the energy from it. It is such a beautiful building filled with culture and identity.”

The Toronto-born dancer won the Annual Prix de Lausanne International Ballet Competition in February 2018. He has spent the last year with the English National Ballet Company in London, where he danced solo roles in Manon, Nutcracker, Cinderella, the Pas de Trois and the “Neapolitan Dance” in Swan Lake.

“It just happened,” he said, reflecting on his debut at the Mariinsky. “I didn’t think that I was the youngest, I didn’t pay attention to that. I was in shock to be invited to dance a principal role with the position I had in my other company and at the age that I am. It was really life changing and filled me with a sense of pride.”

La Sylphide is a romantic supernatural ballet story. Wagman played the role of James partnering with the ethereal Olesya Novikova; a first soloist with the Mariinsky Theatre, she played the beguiling Sylph.

“James is a Scotsman. It’s his wedding day and he falls asleep and dreams of a gorgeous sylph creature, like an unattainable love, something he can never touch with his hands because the sylph isn’t real. As the sylph weaves her magic, James becomes obsessed with finding her. He throws his marriage away. I find the story relatable to the 21st century, along with keeping tradition. It’s special.”

Ballerina Olesya Novikova and ballet dancer Shale Wagman during the curtain calls after the performance of La Sylphide at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia (Photo Credit: Catherine Pollak)

Ballets require actors to express feelings or narrate stories though body movements.

“One of the biggest difficulties was to try and find the balance between making the pantomime (expressing yourself through your upper body) look natural and balletic at the same time,” Wagman says. “This ballet is by Danish choreographer August Bournonville, (and) there is a very specific style to his work. The arms are mostly in bras bas (both arms are down and rounded with both hands just in front of the hips fingers almost touching) while completing fast intricate foot work. There are not many grand arms, just subtle movements. There is a lot of batterie; that is when you cross the legs together while jumping. You have to rely on your upper body, chest, face, neck and the position of your head. Bournonville’s signature is to make the dance appear effortless and extremely human.”

Wagman found out he was going to be playing James while performing Cinderella at the English National in mid-June.

“I had to prepare for James, so I started learning on my own by video. I went to Russia on July 6 and the next day I began rehearsals. Before the actual performance, I had only one stage rehearsal with no orchestra, no costumes and no set.”


Despite little preparation time and a health setback leading up to performance day, Wagman was determined to fulfill his dream.

“I was experiencing headaches and I had a problem with my toe. The day before the performance, I could hardly walk and I was in pain. Yet there was no way, not a chance I would not do that performance,” Wagman said. “This was the most important thing I have ever done.”