by Mable Yiu
You could say that Daniil Simkin was born into a ballet family. Born in Russia, to two ballet dancers, you could often find Daniil Simkin performing on stage alongside his father, Dmitrij Simkin, in Wiesbaden, Germany from the age of six. By nine years old, Simkin started training directly under his mother, and soon after, started competing and performing in galas around the world.
Now a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater, Simkin sat down with us to discuss his “normal” childhood, unique Youtube story, and what’s on his holiday wish list.
Mable Yiu: What was your childhood like? What was your experience like privately training under your mother in Germany without any other peers?
Daniil Simkin: I was very lucky because my ballet education was very compact. If you went to a normal ballet school, you would train the whole day basically. My parents wanted to make sure I had a normal education and a normal childhood, with a regular way of life besides ballet. That’s why they wanted me to finish high school in Germany. It gave me a certain grounding experience, because I knew there was a life outside of ballet.
For me, becoming a dancer was an option and not a necessity. Academic school was fun for me, and I also enjoyed other subjects…such as art, psychology, and neuroscience. Only at around the age of sixteen, I decided to be a dancer. We went to all of these competitions not to compete and win, but to be surrounded by all these other dancers my age. So when I was sixteen, I was like ‘Let’s give this a try, I can also go back to University in case it doesn’t work out.’ My parents wanted to give me the opportunity to decide myself, if I wanted to become a dancer, because they didn’t have the possibility.
MY: What was it like dancing with your father?
DS: It was very special. The audience appreciated it a lot, since you had this intergenerational factor as well. It was funny and I still treasure my moments and memories with my father on stage.
MY: I actually first found out about you through Youtube, from that SIMKIN vs. Simkin video with your father. How did you end up on Youtube, and how did that impact your career?
DS: Before Myspace and all of that, I learned html, coded my website myself, and uploaded my own videos. When Youtube came along [in 2005], I found out I was already on Youtube. Someone had downloaded my videos and uploaded them and was selling DVDs of my performances. I tried to comment on Youtube, and they would actually remove my comments because they wanted the monopoly to sell the DVDs. So I wrote a copyright infringement notice to Youtube, and they took down the videos. Then I put my videos up there, because I thought if I didn’t, someone else would.
For whatever reason, I was one of the first people on Youtube, so if you typed in “ballet,” I would pretty much be on the first page. [My videos] sort of became viral, and when I competed [at the USA International Ballet Competition] in Jackson in 2006, a lot of people knew who I was. In a way, I was lucky that someone stole my videos and put them on Youtube.
Looking back, it aided my career in a big way. Someone that saw me on Youtube invited me perform in Paris, and then because they liked my dancing, they invited me to New York, and that’s where I got my contract with ABT. Of course, you still have to prove yourself and back up your reputation. Both New York and the ballet world are really competitive, but nevertheless, it gave me a certain ignition.
MY: Similarly, you have a great following on Instagram, where you post a variety of content from behind-the-scenes shots of fellow dancers to funny videos. What role does social media play in your career?
DS: Instagram and social media…it’s my way of giving. It enriches my life to see the world through other people’s eyes. Each photo I put out there, I am trying to tell a story. In my opinion, it’s not about self-publication and it’s not an egocentric thing to do, but it’s more about sharing your life with someone else…It helps [me develop] my photographic eye, and I use it as a motivation to improve my dancing and to practice my video editing skills. It’s a school in itself.
MY: Please tell us about INTENSIO. What was your source of inspiration for starting this project?
DS: We premiered this summer in Jacobs Pillow [known as the oldest internationally-acclaimed summer dance festival in the United States]. It has been four new creations of contemporary dance and it stemmed from the fact that I grew up in Europe, with a European aesthetic of contemporary dance. Then I came to New York, and I am very thankful for dancing the more American modern dance choreography, but I missed the European aesthetic, and I wanted to explore that. One way was to to spearhead a project like this and take my friends from ABT on this journey because I thought they would benefit from this experience as well.
It’s a win-win situation because we get to dance works that have been created on us. And that is one of the most beautiful things you can have as a dancer…to have something be originally created on you, with your particular skill set. At the same time, it adds a bit of European choreography to the New York landscape.
MY: What have you learned from guest performing with other companies and at different galas around the world?
DS: You build yourself a network of friends. I basically have friends in every major city of the world. It gives me great satisfaction to see other people’s life paths and to be able to reconnect with them every few years. Also, every culture is different and every audience is different, so it’s fascinating and broadens your mind to see how other people think and how other cultures work. I am thankful to be able to be so lucky in having that life experience.
It’s also difficult, because I travel four to six months a year, and sometimes I just miss being home and having a night off playing PlayStation. I love routine. I love having my coffee and my breakfast at home. When you are on the road, you have no choice but be exposed to these other routines, people, and places. But because the upside is so high, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Hopefully in the future, I’ll be able to calm that side of my life down little bit.
MY: What do you do to relax and get away from the ballet world?
DS: I love hanging out with friends, but I do need some time for myself. I’m actually more of a shy person, but life forces me to be more social because of all the traveling. I like to stay home, cook myself dinner, play video games, and watch a movie.
MY: Because this is our holiday issue, what is on your holiday wish list?
DS: I just moved into my apartment last January so I’m still finishing it all. There’s this design chair from Artek, and this digital art frame I would like to hang on my wall. It’s a Kickstarter project, and it’s a frame specifically for digital art. Other than that, I love video games, photography, and traveling (to a certain extent).
Photos courtesy of Daniil Simkin