Independent Lens


When I'm Her

When I'm Her follows the double life of a dancer who inhabits an alter ego. A luminary figure at American Ballet Theatre in New York, Michael Cusumano had a stellar career ahead of him, but after past trauma prevented him from realizing his artistic and professional potential, he finds refuge and liberation by becoming Russian ballet instructor Madame Olga, the mentor he never had for himself.

AIRED: June 21, 2021 | 0:14:30


-I started doing her backstage and everyone was asking,

"Who is this... who is this Russian woman?

Who's this person?"


20 years ago, the name popped in my head:

Madame Olga.



I wish Olga was my teacher when I was a kid.

I think she could have helped me a lot.


[ Applause ]

-Hi. -Hi!

-Hi, everybody.

Go sharp. Sharp legs.

[ Vocalizing to piano ]

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The legs have to go...

[ Pianist playing ]


Love is the most beautiful thing you can have in the life.

Yeah? If you don't has the love, you really don't has anything.

Love for each other. Love for the world.

Love for yourself.

Most of all yourself.

Okay? So, let's dance for love.


♪ Love



♪ Love


-He's only 14 years old,

but this world-class dancer is taking the world by storm.

-Want the kid to grow up and go into good companies,

that is big.

-I was very proud of myself

and I'm looking forward to the future.

-A future Michael says includes a spot with

the American Ballet Theater.

In St. James, Patricia Shu, News 55.



-I was the youngest male dancer ever

in the American Ballet Theater,

and I have amazing memories and I have a lot of fear.

A lot of fear.


I can see myself just walking past my artistic director

and, like, having a panic attack.


I hated myself since the first day I was told,

"You could really work on that part of your thigh right there."


Finally, I heard a voice that said,

"You just, you have to stop."

And I just quit.


If I was here for 25 years,

I wouldn't have found Olga.





[ Exhales ]

It's a release.

It's a release to become someone else.

-When was the last time you watched this?

-Years and years and years. I have no idea.

-Press play.


-Just, not -- it doesn't even seem like it was my life.

[ Woman vocalizing ]

I would just love that child if I could.

I just had no self-esteem.

-Wait -- at 14, 15, before ABT, you had no self-esteem?

-I didn't have much confidence. No.

If I wasn't perfect, I just --

I just wanted to die.




-All right, I'm looking at you now.


[ Music distorts, stops ]

-That was really good.

[ Michael Jackson's "Bad" playing ]


-Oh, my God.

-♪ Your butt is mine, gonna tell you right ♪

♪ Just show your face in broad daylight ♪

♪ I'm tellin' you on how I feel ♪


I mean, it's just kind of amazing to me

that you weren't a star

at 15 already.

-I was supposed to be.

-Ooh! Ow.

-I'm 14 -- don't -- don't get turned on.

-♪ Tell you once again who's bad ♪

-Ah! The end into the second split was everything!

-Oh, my God. -That was good, Mikey!

-Thank you, my love.

-You were good!

Now see, why wouldn't you have confidence here?

Look at all these curtain calls.

-I mean, I did here, but it was taken from me.

It was just so overwhelming.

-That's the dance world in general.

-It is. It was worse then I think.

Now, they finally have finally have HR.

You have someone to go to if you're getting molested

in the hotel room.

[ Applause ]

[ Cheering and applause ]

When you take advantage of a young person

and their self-esteem drops...

I felt so powerless.

I mean, I still love the art, I love ballet.

It's not ballet,

it's the...

the energy around ballet.


And Olga is a way to still do ballet,

but give ballet to people in a way that is joyful.



She's coming.



[ As Olga ] Hi!

How are you?

Nice to see you.

What is your name?


-Nice to meet you, Donovan.

-Nice to meet you too.

-I am Madame Olga.

[ Sighs ] Where are we going?

To the class?

I'm ready.

Come on.


I want you to do the clap part,

so proud, so Russian.

You look like little Russian girl -- are you Russian?

I want to talk to your mother.

Okay, you're going to do the claps and you're going to be

proud to be little Russian girl.

Look -- I'm Russian girl, and I'm proud to be Russian!

Do it. Yes! Yes!

Yes! Yes Yes! Good. Good.

Good. Good. Baby, thank you.

Everybody is Russian today.

[ Russian-language song playing ]




-Most careers have subsided during quarantine

and hers has really blown up, it's been great.

That first class, I remember,

it was right during the start of the lockdown.

She had like 350 people,

and I think it just, like, gave everyone some spirit,

something to look forward to

during, like, the most horrible time.

-Okay. Give me one second, everybody.

I'm just trying to do the gallery,

so I can see all my students.

[ Gasps ] Wonderful!

Rond de jambe, plie, plie.

Rond de jambe, circle.

Front, side, back.

-When you're in Madame Olga's class,

Mikey's not there,

and everything's just supposed to evolve around her.

She is like the star from Russia.

-This is your tempo. Can you count?

[ Clapping in time ] I hope so.

One, two, three, four.

[ Continues clapping and vocalizing ]

[ Indistinct ]

Pull up! I don't care if it hurts.

Get your leg up!


Beautiful, guys -- listen, I can talk turn out

and feet and extension --

all these things, of course, important.

But what I want to give you most of all is self-love.

If you love yourself, you won't hurt yourself.

And then you you won't hurt other people.

It's that simple, I think.

Maybe it's just been that simple all along.

-Ah, there I am.


I remember taking this picture,

like, holding my breath, trying to get...

trying to get the shot.

When I got here, there was so much pressure on me

to be the next star,

which is what I wanted, but the pressure was a lot.

I can still feel that pressure, like, in the building.

[ As Olga ] Something about this room

is familiar, and I don't know why.

He's here.

[ Sniffles softly ]

He -- he's right here.

[ Soft sob ]

Now I understand why I am who I am.

I'm supposed to be here

to help him.

[ Softly sobbing ]

I didn't understand until today.




[ Mikey ] It's all just making sense...

Why she came to be.

To help me...

To helpme.


It's like...

the spirit of my little boy is still in the room.


That's what I felt.



Okay, let's dance a little bit.







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