Professional ballerina Masha Cherezova perseveres in her battle against leukemia

March 22, 2023
Belicia Tang

Masha Cherezova is a 23 year-old dancer and choreographer born in Columbus, Ohio and raised in Southern California. In 2019, she left the United States at the age of 19 to pursue her professional career as ballet dancer in Russia. From 2019 to 2022, Masha performed the extent of the corps de ballet repertoire of the Novosibirsk Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet as well as the Astrakhan Theatre of Opera and Ballet. While in Russia, she received the opportunity to dance alongside artists such as Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Denis Rodkin, among others. She also performed in works by notable choreographers including Roland Petit, Nacho Duato, George Balanchine, and Goyo Montero. In August of 2022, Masha was unexpectedly diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) which forced her to leave her dancing position in Russia and return home to California to endure chemotherapy treatments. The escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine in 2022 further solidified Masha’s decision to stay in the United States and redirect her life and career. This paved the way for her passion for choreography as she began to explore her voice through movement and visual compositions. Currently, Masha is a student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration and independently choreographing on the side. In the past year, she created a series of pieces for V&T Classical Ballet Academy’s Summer Intensive show, an intimate piece about her AML diagnosis (when the fog doesn’t leave), a durational piece using visual and performing art (Timelapse), and others.

Masha Cherezova had been dancing from the day she could walk. “My mom always remembered me just dancing around the house. I couldn’t really sit still. And so because of my need to move, my mom decided to put me into ballet classes when I was 5.” 

Disciplined and ambitious from an early age, Masha knew by age 11 that she wanted to pursue a professional ballet career. 

Masha trained at V&T Ballet Academy with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky, and during her last year of high school worked under the tutelage of Alla Khaniashvili, a former ballerina at Russia’s Bolshoi Theater. By the end of high school, Masha applied to work at professional ballet companies in both America and Europe, but many companies wouldn’t hire her because she was either too tall or didn’t have enough experience. As a backup plan, Masha had applied to colleges and was accepted to the University of Southern California, where she began her freshman fall semester. In the meantime, she continued her ballet training and soon received an opportunity to sign a contract with a Russian ballet company. 

“My teacher [Alla] knew a lot of directors in Russia. So one of her friends was the director of a theater in a small city in Southern Russia called Astrakhan. He was looking for taller dancers and my teacher sent in a video of me, and he offered me a contract.”

Masha left for Russia in March of 2019 and began working as a professional ballerina. “I worked in Astrakhan until May of 2020, because then I actually got another contract to a theater in Novosibirsk, which is a bit more established and has a bigger history. So I took the offer. At Novosibirsk, I was performing five times a week and danced every single ballet. So it was a big change, and it was what I was looking for. I was really happy to be there.” 



Theater life at Novosibirsk was a non-stop, well-rehearsed routine. Masha describes her training regimen: “We would start at 10:30am and have an hour of class. Then we would do morning rehearsals, which would go to around 3pm. We would get a lunch break, and come back for evening rehearsals or performances. Performances were around either 6 or 7pm, and you’d need to come an hour early to prep. Shows lasted for two or two-and-a-half hours, so we’d stay [in the theater] until 10pm.” 

Asked how ballet training in Russian differed from American ballet training, Masha says, “In Russia, they have a more codified system of doing things. They have gruesome selections where they look at your body, health, parents, jump [ability], and muscle structure. I don’t know if they still do this now, but they would even have girls be almost naked and sit in front of a panel of judges, and their bodies would be examined. It is really strict, because ballet is very demanding, and they wanted to select dancers with the most potential.” 

Another distinct feature of Russian ballet training is ranked barre spots. “In a ballet class, there is a hierarchy of where you stand. Center of the middle bar is the very best. And then it goes out. There’s a whole system, and so right from the beginning, everyone knows who is the best and who is not. Children are put into their like ranks and they know that. Whereas in America, there’s never any of that, like, putting a child in a box. There’s more hope and flexibility here.” 

After she finished her first year at Novosibirsk, Masha came back to the States for summer vacation, then returned to Russia in the beginning of June. The company was scheduled to perform Swan Lake, one of the most demanding classical ballets, two weeks into the new season, so everyone in the company worked hard to get back into shape quickly. During this time, Masha began exhibiting uncharacteristic symptoms of fatigue. “Rehearsals and class were just really difficult stamina-wise. I thought it was because I was really out of shape. I didn’t really think much of it, I just forced myself to get through it.” 

 The next production was a post-modern ballet that featured movements that detracted from classical ballet style, and was even more physically strenuous. “It was just getting harder to do classes and rehearsals. I would feel like the lactic acid burn all the time and get dizzy.” 

 Things took a turn for the worst during a performance of Coppélia. “During performances, my fight or flight mode turns on and I can get through a dance no matter what. But this time, I knew something was wrong, because I couldn’t even stand on pointe. And the rehearsal directors noticed. First they didn’t know what was going on, and they said, ‘That’s not acceptable for this theater to dance like that.’ And of course, I got upset. I had a history of being anemic, so I thought maybe it was anemia again. I went to the doctors in the morning to get tested for my blood. In the evening, I got a call from that clinic, and they told me to come immediately. They didn’t say anything else.” 

 Masha walked to the hospital that evening, and doctors told her that her blood didn’t look good. She was admitted into the hospital the next day and went through another set of blood tests to confirm what she had. The doctors called her mother first, and it was finally through her mom that Masha found out her diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia. 

 AML is a form of leukemia that affects primarily adults. It is uncommon, making up 1% of all cancers. It is also the deadliest form of leukemia, with an estimated five-year survival rate of less than 30%. AML develops rapidly, and thus must be treated immediately after diagnosis is confirmed. 

 Masha’s mom flew out to Russia the next day. Meanwhile, a family friend helped Masha get transferred to another hospital in Moscow, where she would receive more resources and blood supplies for treatment. 

 “Once my blood counts were good, we flew to Moscow, and from the airport, I immediately went into the hospital and started my first round of chemotherapy. They kept me in the hospital for the whole month, because during the chemotherapy, my blood counts go all the way down. So I don’t have any white blood counts or platelets. And they pretty much feed me platelets and red blood cells, but they can’t feed me white blood cells, so I don’t have immunity. So that whole month, I couldn’t see my parents or anyone in person. That was really tough.”

 After finishing her first round of chemotherapy in Moscow, Masha flew back home to Los Angeles, where she received the remaining four chemotherapy rounds at City of Hope, one of the world’s top clinics for cancer treatment. Masha describes her experience undergoing chemotherapy: “The first round is an initial thing that they do for every cancer. It’s called seven plus three. It’s seven days nonstop of one type of chemotherapy and then three days of a second one on top. They want to kill off as much [cancer] as they can the first time. All my other chemotherapy rounds were definitely lighter. They still weren’t fun, but I spent five days at the hospital, and then they let me go back home. But I would have to stay at home and not be allowed any visitors. That whole half a year, I don’t really remember much of it.” 

In terms of side effects, Masha’s body reacted differently to each round of chemo. She experienced nausea, hair loss, and bruising. Following one round of chemo, she had nerve pain in her legs that impaired her ability to stretch or touch her toes. “When I was standing, I would feel this burning sensation at the back of my legs and knees. It hurt so much, I could never stand up for long periods of time. I couldn’t stretch or touch my toes. I was so afraid that I had lost everything. It was only for a few weeks, but to me it felt like forever. That was my greatest fear, losing everything that I had worked for in a single moment.” 

Asked what she told herself as she fought for her life, Masha says, “I was always a perseverer, probably because of ballet. The thought of having it all be over and being able to live my life again, got me through it. But there were definitely so many low moments. My mom helped a lot though, because she was with me all the time. She would stay home with me and cook stuff for me, because I would get tired of the hospital food.”

One of the hardest things about battling cancer was how it affected her ability to dance. “I couldn’t do any ballet, and I struggled a lot with that,” Masha says. “Before getting leukemia, I think the most I would ever take off from ballet would be at most maybe a week. I was always moving. So having to sit still was the hardest. But I started doing art stuff, sketching, and painting, and that helped because it kept me occupied.” 

Death looms close with a prognosis as grim as that of AML. Asked whether the worst case scenario ever crossed her mind, Masha says, “Rarely. I think I always had an outlook on life that was just like, everything happens for a reason. [In the past], I always wanted to control everything. But just letting go and being like, everything that’s gonna happen is meant to happen at the time that it needs to. So, I just didn’t really think about what the future would be. And if it was the worst case scenario, well, I didn’t want to think about it, because I didn’t want to ruin my day or my thoughts at the moment. There were definitely days where I kind of wished that it would be the worst case scenario so we could just end everything. But my mom always helped me get through. That was only like, when I just felt really low and it would only be for a matter of minutes or hours, and then I’d be like, ‘No, I want to push through.’”

The leukemia came as a massive curveball that derailed Masha’s plans for her dance career. When she signed her contract at Novosibirsk, she had hoped to stay at the company for a few more years and see how far she could go in classical ballet. She’d also hoped to explore contemporary and modern ballets and dreamt of dancing at a company in St. Petersburg. Cancer, and subsequently the war between Russia and Ukraine, made it unfeasible for her to return to Novosibirsk. “When the leukemia hit, I didn’t really know how long [recovery] would take. I thought it would take like a month. Then I started saying, ‘Okay, I’ll be back next year.’ And then the war happened. So I realized I would not be going back to Russia.” 

After finishing five rounds of chemotherapy over half a year, Masha was slowly able to return to dancing and regain her former skills. “It was definitely hard getting back because I had lost a lot. I can’t work as hard as I had worked before. But in a way, I feel like having this curveball cleared my head a little bit and allowed me to work more clearly, in ballet. Before, I think my ambition overpowered a lot of things, so I wasn’t able to actually work smartly.”

Fundamentally, Masha began to change her mindset and approach to goal-achievement, which has altered her relationship towards dance. “Before I was like, ‘Oh, I have to get into a company at this age, I have to do this at this age, or else it’ll be too late.’ But now, without that stress of time, I feel like I’m being more in tune with my body without rushing things. I thought I would be less fulfilled with just taking classes, but I am, and I don’t feel like I’ve lost too much.”

Masha is currently re-enrolled at USC and is in her second semester of sophomore year. She is majoring in Business Administration and minoring in design and communications. She has also turned her sights towards choreography. “Choreographers do have a bigger say in the dance world. They’re the ones putting on the shows and telling the dancers what they want to do. I used to think being a dancer was one of the highest professions. Now I’m starting to look at things differently. I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I do have like a voice and I want to also be heard in my way.’” 

Masha shares her greatest takeaways from her battle against cancer. “I’m grateful for the journey. I’m grateful. It really helped me grow, like, miles and ages. I feel like I’ve never grown as much as a person before, because I was overpowered by physical ambition. In a way it is kind of shallow-minded. I never really saw things nuanced. I used to be very stubborn and closed-minded in one direction. I think [cancer] has opened my view of the world.” 



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.