Marusya Madubuko’s headshot (in black and white)

Meet the Artist | Marusya Madubuko

Get to know the dancers! Family, empathy, and internal dialogue all came up in our conversation with Marusya Madubuko who joined LINES Ballet in 2021. Since then, she has performed works with acclaimed collaborators like vocalist Ms. Lisa Fischer and renowned tabla master Zakir Hussian. Read on to learn how Marusya motivates herself in the mornings, what Alonzo said to her after a difficult performance, and why she improvises as a practice. 

Want to see Marusya perform? Experience her artistry in the final three shows of our Spring Season (April 21–23) at YBCA, featuring live vocals by Grammy Award-winning singer Ms. Lisa Fischer and work from influential photographer Richard Misrach. Season tickets for Alonzo’s newest creation, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, are available at

Interview by Erin McKay | Videos by Jamie Lyons
This conversation was edited for length, clarity, and readability.

What is your earliest memory?  

The earliest memory I have is from modeling as a child. I remember posing with my sister in striped leotards and holding hoops together in front of gray background paper. When we were younger, my sister and I didn’t really get along—her being my older sibling. But, during those photoshoots, it felt like we were finally connecting and enjoying something together. 

How did you get into modeling as a child?

My parents moved here when my mother was pregnant with my older sister. At the time, she worked at an ad agency as a graphic designer. Someone in the industry noticed my sister and me when she brought us to work with her. They recommended she put us into modeling. “It’s a great way to make extra money,” they said. So, my mom got to know a few photographers, and they put us in magazines. Initially, it was just an extra way to make income, little gigs here and there, but it was going so well that we continued it.

What impact did your siblings have on you while you were growing up? Has that impact changed? 

I have a sister. She’s almost two years older than me, and initially we weren’t getting along. I very much wanted to be close with her, but it was hard. I don’t know if it was some kind of older sibling syndrome or maybe jealousy that she wasn’t the only one getting attention… I don’t know. There’s a notorious story that I tell to illustrate our dynamic. One time, we were left alone together while my mom reparked a car or something. And my sister filled up a spoon with dish soap without me seeing and told me it was honey. At first, I questioned it: “Are you sure mom is letting us have a spoonful of honey?” I was very, very young at the time. But she assured me, “Yeah, yeah, for sure.” So I had some of it, and realized of course, what it really was. I was hiccuping and crying when my mom came home and exclaimed “What happened?!” 

So, as you can see, my sister wasn’t the nicest, but we started to get closer. Right now, our relationship is great! She is still living in New York, along with the rest of my family, but we talk. I just called her recently for her birthday. I really appreciate her. We’re different kinds of people, very much so, but we have the same sense of humor and hold a connection through our shared experiences as children. 

Photos of Marusya Madubuko with her siblings

I also have a younger brother. He’s five years younger, and we’ve always been very close. As he grew up, I played superheroes and all those kinds of games with him. I was into Marvel DC, so we connected over that. I introduced him to rap and hip-hop as well. I miss him a lot. Every time I visit him, he’s grown so much! But, I still see him as my tiny little brother, even though he’s almost 18. It’s crazy!

Where did you grow up, and what are your memories of that place?

I was born and grew up in Manhattan, New York, but my early childhood memories are mostly from Flushing Queens. It was a quieter neighborhood. Everyone knew each other. I went to a great school that had so much diversity in it. It seemed like everyone there was first generation, coming from all over, so it was very interesting. Then, when I was around 10 or 11 years old, we moved to Harlem, New York. In 2016, we moved again, this time into an amazing building on East 99th Street, the border between the upper east side and Harlem. The halls there were filled with artists.

Marusya Madubuko’s family photos

What is the biggest lesson that you learned from your early education, and how did it shape you?

I mean I would definitely say the elementary school I went to was quite special. I didn’t know how unique it was at the time. It was a public school, but it had dance, art, and music, and they were considered very important disciplines. I got into all three. I thought all schools were like that. 

I also grew up in a household of artists, with creatives all around me. My mom’s an interior and graphic designer. So, there was an embedded appreciation for all types of mediums. My high school, LaGuardia in New York, shared that same reverence for the arts. I dedicated a lot of time to drawing while I was there.

Marusya Madubuko’s original artwork

Why do you think that you gravitated towards dance? 

Marusya Madubuko speaking in a studio at LINES Dance Center

Are you comfortable sharing why you stepped away from dance for a period?

I was around 11 at the time I stepped away. I was already pretty tall for my age, and I was the only person of color in my level at the dance program. I’m not sure that I even realized that I could have left dance for that reason. But there was this feeling of awkwardness because of my height and because I didn’t look like anybody else. I also felt like I wasn’t doing well, even though I was progressing. All these factors worked together and made me consider that maybe dance wasn’t for me. That’s why I left I think. But also, I was 11 years old, you know? I was realizing that dance was really hard, and it was only going to keep getting harder. Later on, after I stepped away from it, I missed that challenge though. 

I realized dance was my dream in high school. I really feel like I came back through my own choice. I had options: I could continue with the visual arts, I could dedicate myself to a dance program full-time and start homeschooling, or do something else entirely, pursuing neither discipline and instead going into a whole different realm. It was a pivotal moment, and I had a decision to make. When I chose dance, my mother asked me, “Are you sure this time?” And I was.

I think my time away from dance gave me motivation. When I came back, I knew that the people in class with me were training non-stop since they were four to seven years old, and it fueled me. I was feeling “behind”, and that gave me an extra push to excel faster.

When you were deciding whether to dedicate more time to the visual arts or to dance, how did you make your decision? 

I knew at that point that I missed dance, and I felt like I had to commit to something. I was trying to do both, but dance required more hours than I was able to give, and I wanted to do more. The deciding factor was that drawing is easier to do on the side, and I can do it later on in life. I was always an active person, so I wanted to dance first while I was still young. 

I also wanted something more challenging. I looked forward to committing more time to one discipline and starting homeschooling. Overall, I felt more stimulated in dance.

What drew you to LINES Ballet? 

Marusya Madubuko speaking in a studio at LINES Dance Center

What is it like rehearsing with Alonzo? What is the most challenging part of the process and the most invigorating or interesting part? 

It’s almost like all three of those questions have the same answer. Alonzo values mental, physical, and spiritual components in his work; he believes those three things can, and should, be used in one’s dancing. He encourages us to think about how we balance those different elements in ourselves and our movement. He doesn’t want our sole focus to be on the physical aspect.

As a choreographer, Alonzo also absorbs the type of energy that we put in. The process is very challenging in that sense. My physical and mental states vary from day to day, and I need to work with whatever my mind and body are telling me. But either way, Alonzo expects a certain effort and commitment from us. That is what I love about the work though. The expectation feels very freeing; it encourages me to explore the endless possibilities that I can add to my dancing. As Alonzo says, “There is always more.”

I also appreciate that I’m encouraged to make the movements my own—not create a whole new dance with them but dance the choreography in my own way. I love that! At the same time, it’s a challenge, because it’s very difficult to zone into yourself. I’m inspired by all of these dancers around me, but I have to tune into how I would do things on my own if no one was watching.

Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancer: Marusya Madubuko | Title: Marusya, on cliffs, Spitting Cave 2022 [detail] | © Richard Misrach 2022

You mentioned earlier that your mother is Russian, and that you went back to visit Russia. How was that experience?

My last visit to Russia was in 2007 when I was seven years old. I spent a full summer there. I stayed with my grandma and visited my uncle. My mom was there with me initially, and then it was just my grandma and me.

My mom took me to Russia a few other times as a baby. I don’t remember those visits, but I have some memories from that 2007 trip. I hold those close to my heart, because I haven’t been there since. I would go again if it wasn’t for our relations with Russia and the circumstances politically. Eventually, I’d like to go back and visit my grandmother.

I didn’t grow up in Russia, but Russian was my first language. There was actually a pretty big Russian community where I grew up in Queens. There was even a whole street there where everything was written in Russian. So I had a little mini Russia in Queens.

Do you have a favorite food? Does it differ from what you loved eating as a kid? 

Oh my goodness, this is very important! I actually found the ingredients for a Russian food recently that I really liked as a kid and started making it. It’s called Syrniki, and it’s very hard to describe. Technically, it would be fried cheesecake I guess, but it’s not made like an American version. It’s made with farmer’s cheese, which is similar to the consistency of cottage cheese, maybe a little less liquidy. To make it, you put flour, eggs, a little bit of sugar, and some dried fruit together, and cook it on a pan. It’s crispy on the outside and very soft and warm on the inside. Every time I go home, I ask my mom to make it. Adji Cissoko was actually in New York with me recently, and she got to try them. They’re just amazing!

Other than that, I would say sushi. I loved it as a kid, and I still really like it right now. But it’s very hard to decide. I mean, I have a huge sweet tooth too, so cookies are always an option.

Fried cheesecake?!

Yeah, it’s not what you think though. It’s not this rich, big thing. It would be considered a breakfast food, though it eats lighter than a pancake. If anything, it’s better for you than pancakes.

Did you notice a shift in your dancing while at LINES Ballet? Have you had an aha moment? 

Marusya Madubuko speaking in a studio at LINES Dance Center

Those performances, where our bodies aren’t cooperating or things surrounding us are particularly difficult, remind us of our capacity for resiliency. We realize then that our reserves are even deeper than we knew. 

Yeah, it reminds me of something I learned that I tell myself when I’m doing a plank or working out: When you feel like you’re ready to give up and can’t physically do anymore, it’s actually only a small percentage of what your body is capable of. At that point, it’s more of a psychological thing. It’s nice to apply that same concept to other activities; I’m able to do and push through more than I think I can in everyday situations.

Which people in your life have really shaped you? 

It’s really hard to answer that, because there are so many people. I also absorb the environments that I’m in because I’m an empath. I’d say the first people who really shaped me were my family members: my mother and father and my siblings. I also have a close friend named Mac in New York who inspired me as a dancer. I admired him when I was a student because he danced so freely, whether it was classical ballet or contemporary.

Marusya Madubuko’s family photos

I’m also motivated and inspired when I come into work here every day—both by the dancing and the conversations with other dancers. I feel so fortunate to have people that genuinely care and show so much love. When I came to LINES Ballet, the dancers said, “Welcome to the family.” And it really is. It’s even more so than I ever imagined. Just like family, there are a little bits and pieces here and there where people get snippy or cranky. But then, in the end, just like a family, they still show love and appreciation for each other. Knowing that an environment like this is real and that I could be a part of it, that shapes me, including how I look at myself and what I believe I deserve. It’s also how I want to treat others in return.

Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Image courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow 2022 | © Danica Paulos

When did you know that you had a heightened level of empathy? And how has that empathy impacted the way that you navigate spaces and relationships? 

Early on, I didn’t know the term “empath” specifically and how it related to me. While living with my mom though, I noticed something—I often fed off of her energy. We are both quite emotional people. But even when I wasn’t stressed, if she came home stressed, I was affected. Same thing happened when she came home happy; her emotions significantly influenced how I felt. 

I’m realizing in hindsight that it was the same when I was a teen in school. The type of people that I was around influenced my emotions. Comparing myself to my older sister also brought this to light. I mentioned earlier that we are very different people. She doesn’t show her emotions as much as my mother and me. We wear it on our sleeves. I’m learning that there are a bunch of different kinds of people out there. I’m just this kind.

What impact do you think that you have on other people as an empath?

I like being there for my friends and family; I try to be their support system. My instinct is to relate to them emotionally, drawing out times when I felt the same or similarly to how they’re feeling. When I listen to that feeling, it helps inform how I can show up for them. Though, I have to remind myself that I’m not always in the same state as the other person. I’m just strongly relating to their emotions. 

My empathy can also be helpful to me in addition to others. Say I am having a rough day, but I come around my friends, and I see their resiliency and their good moods. They have so much to appreciate, and their hope, gratitude, and joy is contagious. So I think it’s mutually-beneficial in that way.

There was a point though where I realized that I needed to make my boundaries with empathy more concrete. I remind myself to care for and speak to myself in the same way that I would care for or speak to someone else. It’s something I still practice each day.

You have a pretty consistent practice of improvisation. Why did you start, and why did you decide to record yourself while doing it?

Marusya Madubuko speaking in a studio at LINES Dance Center

Are you conscious of your internal dialogue and what it sounds like? Does it have a rhythm?

I feel like the line between constructive criticism versus just judging yourself is easily crossed, especially within an arts profession, as I’m sure you know. I’m definitely working on switching up my inner dialogue. I’m recognizing when I judge myself harshly in a way that I would never judge someone else; it’s important that I continue to practice gentleness. When I am kind to myself, despite my initial harsh thoughts, it brings better results.

My mother also shared something with me that she does for herself—she’s a very busy woman who gets stressed. She recommended that I do it in the mornings, because it is supposed to help with productivity and your state of mind for the rest of the day. You go in front of a mirror and look at yourself with the intention of seeing yourself as a person, not your features, just as a human. Then you give yourself a high five. It’s a little motion that says, “You got this!” at the start of your day. I have been doing it more consistently, and it does help. Sometimes, I can’t find the exact words to reassure myself, but the high-fiving helps. It feels silly too, so sometimes just that aspect brings me into a better mood. That high-five says, “ It’s another day, and I’m gonna do it!”

That’s amazing, imagine dancers giving themselves high-fives in the mirror before class! What a great idea to start shifting our relationships with the mirror. What do you think the world needs more of and what do you want to contribute to it?

Wow, oh my! That’s a loaded question, because there’s just so much. I don’t know if this is corny, but I’d just say genuine kindness and generosity. I feel like so many people would be better off with more of that in their lives. We talked about generosity and kindness towards yourself just as much as others earlier. And when people are hungry for progress, a lot of magical things can happen. If we had more desire for growth (or challenges that result in growth), and less fear of failing, then more people would be able to reach their full potential.

How would you describe the culture at LINES, and how does it impact your life and your work?

At LINES, the idea that everyone has something to offer, and a way of doing things that has value, has definitely impacted my life outside of dance. It changed where I see the potential of my career going. Being here every day is a reassurance that, during my pivotal moment of deciding what to pursue, I chose the right path. I listened to my gut feeling; my heart was telling me to go back to dance, and it was the right choice. I’m really here, dancing with my dream company. So now I can dream even bigger. 

When I first joined LINES, I was afraid. I still get my moments, but I’ve come to know that the key is to remember that beautiful things can come by going outside of your comfort zone. The feeling of leaving what’s familiar, and surprising yourself, is exhilarating. This idea can be applied in and outside of the studio. 

The culture at LINES, and the way that people treat each other here, even influenced my previous answer on what would make this world a better place. I know we’re all living our separate lives, but my time here continues to teach me that we are all connected. More people than you’d think go through comparable challenges and similar emotions, whether we share it with each other or not. The rollercoaster that dance can take me on, well, we’re all on that ride; sometimes, it’s comforting to remember that.

Also, at LINES, there is an encouragement to carve your own path instead of following the pack. Whether it’s with your dancing day to day, your career, or with your life, find ways to do things differently but that are still true to you.

BIO: Originally from New York, NY, Marusya Madubuko began her pre-professional training at age 15 with Premiere Division Ballet under the tutelage of Nadege Hottier. In 2019, Madubuko competed at the Royal Grand Prix in Italy, winning second place for her contemporary and classical solo. She has trained with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the Royal Ballet School, and at San Francisco Ballet School where she had the opportunity to dance repertoire including Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker and Cinderella, as well as George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2021, she participated in BalletUnleashed’s first creative project “Switchback”, working with choreographer Cathy Marston to create a solo. Madubuko joined LINES Ballet in 2021.

Banner Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancer : Marusya Madubuko | © RJ Muna


Experience Alonzo King’s heart-stirring choreography, stunning vocals by Grammy Award-winning singer Ms. Lisa Fischer, and large-scale visuals by influential photographer Richard Misrach during our final Spring Season shows, April 21–23 at YBCA. LINES Ballet’s world premiere, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, features Marusya and the other company dancers and explores humankind’s complex relationship to nature.


Photography: Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dancers: Company | Title: Ocean Ballet #1 (Reverse), 2022 | © Richard Misrach 2022