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Lirena Grisha Branitski was known to be a fun, elegant and charismatic teacher. Students also found her to be intimidating but had the highest respect for her and the fundamental ballet elements she instilled in them.

On Sunday, the Twin Cities dance community will be celebrating the life of the Ukrainian-American ballet dancer and educator, and the legacy she has left behind.

Branitski died in her sleep Jan. 29 at her home in Plymouth of complications from COVID-19. She was 81.

Known for her dry humor, impeccable technique and distinct accent, Branitski was astute in the structured Vaganova-style of ballet training, which she brought to Minnesota in 1980. But this was after having a career as a ballet dancer in the former Soviet Union. Born in the city of Dnipropetrovsk (now known as Dnipro), southeast of Ukraine's capital Kyiv on the Dnieper River, Branitski studied ballet as a child.

"I danced from the first day I was born," Branitski told the Star Tribune in 1990. But she didn't start formal training in the dance until the end of World War II.

"I know what it was like to starve. We hid inside every day for many hours. I had a hard childhood and became ill. But ballet made me healthy," she said.

She left her parents when she was 10 and then trained for nine years with the Kyiv Choreographic School/Academy (now known as the Kyiv Choreographic College). She later joined the Kiev State Academy of Theater, Opera and Ballet, performing in Europe, Canada and South America for two decades.

She was first soloist of the Ukrainian State Theatre of Opera and Ballet and a frequent guest performer at Moscow's famed Bolshoi Ballet, where she danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov until he defected to Canada in 1974.

Six years later, she too fled the Soviet Union, along with her husband, Vadim Branitski, and their 10-year-old son Bogdan.

"Vadim was in charge of state television," said Julia Sutter, a close friend and former colleague of Branitski. "They decided that they needed to leave because his life was being totally managed by the government."

At the time, she was at the height of her career, but the ballerina was fired when the Kiev State Academy found out about her immigration plans.

Late one night, the family left for the U.S. Embassy, according to Sutter. They were told to sell everything and were put on a plane to Minneapolis, where Vadim's mother and half-brother lived.

"She gave everything up," Sutter said.

On arriving in the Twin Cities, Branitski started her own school — the Branitski Ballet Company — which she ran from 1981-87. She also taught at the Minnesota Dance Theatre & School, Ballet Arts Minnesota (BAM), the Minnesota Ballet Academy, Metropolitan Ballet and St. Paul Ballet. In 2012, she received a special citation at the Minnesota SAGE Awards for her contributions to the dance community.

Lirena Branitski with her students at the St. Paul Ballet studio in December 2019.
Lirena Branitski with her students at the St. Paul Ballet studio in December 2019.

Brianne Bland Photography, Star Tribune

"She was so fun and elegant," remembered dancer and scholar Judith Brin Ingber. "Many people who had never known her or studied with her saw her on stage at the Cowles [Center] when she got the SAGE award. She came out so exquisitely and fancily dressed in something sparkly, and you could just feel her charisma when she entered the stage. She was very special."

Helen Hatch, who runs Hatch Dance, trained with Branitski as a young dancer at BAM.

"Her presence was very all-encompassing and intimidating," she recalled "There was such respect for her. Everybody wanted her to see something in them. She had that authority that young dance students gravitate to."

Branitski's classes weren't about choreography or experimentation. Rather, she got to the most fundamental elements of form, shape and position. Yet they weren't without artistry, Hatch said.

"Her port de bras [movement of the arms] would break your heart," said Hatch. "It was so boiled down to the essence."

Sally Rousse, who co-founded James Sewell Ballet, remembered the white jazz shoes Branitski would wear in the classroom when she taught at BAM. She would make the students focus solely on technique without the trappings of artifice, Rousse said. If the dancer didn't have the right balance, it just could not be done.

"It would make you feel naked and vulnerable," Rousse said.

She would later go on to get private lessons from Branitski. When Rousse was at James Sewell, Branitski staged excerpts from "Raymonda" and "Giselle" and taught classes at the ballet company.

Whether Branitski was having her students work on flat feet as a technique to get better en pointe or helping them develop their movements, she encouraged simplicity. Her influence stuck with the students.

"She was always in my head, always on my shoulder," Rousse said.

During her time at BAM, Branitski was involved with the City Children's "Nutcracker." Derek Phillips, who taught BAM's outreach ballet classes in Minneapolis parks, said Branitski was soft beneath the tough old-school exterior.

He remembered feeling a little apprehensive when he visited her with 40 city kids, many of whom had never been inside a studio.

"But Lirena was very gracious with the kids, and she really gave them the feeling that they belonged there," he recalled. "That it was their studio. It was exactly the kind of thing the kids needed."

Brin Ingber, who organized Sunday's event, hopes it will bring together all those who were impacted by Branitski.

"It's everybody's moment to remember her," Brin Ingber said.

Celebration of Life for Lirena Branitski

Where: 1-4 p.m. Sun., the Pavilion, Bryant Lake Regional Park, 6800 Rowland Road, Eden Prairie.