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By Margaret Willis
The Sleeping Beauty’s fairies must have been around when Yevgenia Obraztsova was born, for she, like Aurora, has been endowed with remarkable qualities—beauty, grace, generosity, musicality, and sweet temperament. Today, she is one of the shining stars in the crown of the Kirov (Maryinsky) Ballet. She constantly proves herself with fleet, nimble footwork, flowing lyricism, and spontaneity in her dramatic expression. While beloved by her numerous fans in St. Petersburg, she is also a welcome guest with many international ballet companies.
Obraztsova, 27, was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Both her parents were dancers, and she was brought up watching class and rehearsals from the earliest age. Apparently she had to be tied to a chair to stop her from participating. “My parents had no baby-sitters,” she says, “so I had to go with them each day and I loved it.” (They were with the Mussorgsky Ballet, the Russian city’s number two ballet company—also known as the Maly and today known by its original name, the Mikhailovsky Ballet.) Everyone assumed that Yevgenia would automatically become a ballerina. But there was a time when the young girl had other dreams.
“I loved the theater and thought I would study to become an actress instead,” she says. But she changed her mind and was admitted to the Vaganova Ballet Academy, where she studied for eight years. “Nothing came easily. Everything should be difficult if you are to do it correctly. Only when you work hard is it possible to dance technically well.” Her favorite ballerina has always been Ekaterina Maximova (“she remains it forever!”), but she also admires Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, and Paris Opéra étoile Aurélie Dupont. She graduated in 2002 and joined the corps of the Kirov.
Her coach during her first season there was Ninel Kurgapkina, one of the Kirov’s most spirited ballerinas of the 1950s and ’60s. She had partnered both Nureyev and Baryshnikov before their defections, and had helped Nureyev to stage La Bayadère in Paris just before he died. She took the young Genia, as she is called, under her experienced wing and started preparing her for future roles—Shyrin (The Legend of Love), Aurora, the Sylph, Giselle, Kitri. That same year, Obraztsova made her debut in Romeo and Juliet—after spending six months preparing it. “It was the first time in Maryinsky history that someone of 18 had been entrusted with this dramatic role,” she reports. This was the role that made everyone sit up and take notice.
When she performed Romeo and Juliet with the Kirov in London in 2005, many compared her to the great ballerina Galina Ulanova, whose name will always be synonymous with the role (see sidebar of “Swept Away,” page 35). Obraztsova’s Juliet vividly evidenced changes from doll-loving child to the passionate and tragic teenager. In her meeting with Romeo in the garden, she flew across the stage with such joyous lyricism—her movements so light and velvety—that it seemed as though her feet never touched the ground. Her Juliet, which can be seen on a YouTube clip of a documentary directed by Bertrand Norman called Ballerina (see “DM Recommends,” Dec.), earned her a place in Dance Magazine’s 2006 “25 to Watch.”
“Juliet is my favorite role,” she admits today. “I live it, I suffer and cry, I love and struggle, just like her. My dream is to dance MacMillan’s production. I performed the balcony scene with Mathieu Ganio in Tokyo this past summer in the Étoiles Gala, and it was an unforgettable experience.”
In 2005, Obraztsova won the gold medal at the renowned Moscow International Ballet Competition. It was one of those risks she felt she had to take, though she had no encouragement from the then Kirov director Makhar Vaziev. He did not want her to compete and gave her an ultimatum that it had to be gold or nothing! The pressure was on. “I just knew I had to win gold—nothing lower—or life in the theater would be very difficult for me,” she says.
Yet even after she brought this high honor to the company, her success was not instantly recognized. She immediately had to fly off to join the other dancers on tour in Washington, DC—back to her old spot in the ranks. But the international crowd at the competition had spotted her, and she was invited to guest with many companies, one of the first being the Rome Opera Ballet, where she has danced the leading roles in Carla Fracci’s productions of Cinderella and Giselle.
That same year saw Obraztsova doing what she had once longed to do—act in a film. “I was rehearsing in the theater one day when a visiting Frenchman asked me to say something—even just my name—in front of his camera.” The man was film director Cédric Klapisch, and he offered her a part in his new film, Russian Dolls. “I played the role of Natasha, a ballerina who was the fiancée of a French boy, and I had to do some speaking in English as well as Russian. I really enjoyed the experience, but as I was also rehearsing for my debut as Shyrin, there was a lot of flying back and forth, and it was hard work.”
She admits that her relationship with Vaziev was often difficult, but she found him a receptive director. “I am very grateful to him because he showed an interest. He gave me all the roles I now dance in the theater before I was 24. It was possible to carry on a dialogue with him, which doesn’t happen in the company today.” (Vaziev left in 2008 to direct La Scala Ballet.)
During the following year, she continued to increase her repertoire of classical roles, also dancing Ratmansky’s Cinderella. When Pierre Lacotte came to the Maryinsky to stage his revival of Jules Perrot’s Ondine, he chose Obraztsova to be one of the ballerinas in the title role of the water nymph. It’s a role she calls “maddeningly difficult” because of the fast footwork on pointe, but it won her the most prestigious theatrical prize in Russia, the Golden Mask Award. And in 2008, she was promoted to first soloist. Today she is still not a principal despite all her principal roles. “Tradition in the theater says that a ballerina has to dance Swan Lake to be a prima ballerina,” she states wryly.
She made her debut with The Royal Ballet in 2009 when she was invited to Covent Garden to dance Aurora with David Makhateli as her Prince. The critic Clement Crisp gave her rare praise, calling her enchanting, brilliant, and dazzling. “She won the audience by the sweetness and grace of her temperament and the freshness of dancing unclouded by mannerism, natural…as a bird throwing off impossible roulades of notes.”
While she is recognized as the archetypical Romantic ballerina, Obraztsova shows a different facet of her talent in works by Balanchine and Forsythe, where her gentle lyricism gives way to strong strutting and rigorous physicality.
Former Bolshoi star Sergei Filin has named her principal guest artist at the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet (official name: the ballet company of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater), which is Moscow’s second ballet company. Here she gets to dance ballets by Kylián and others, and in March, makes her debut in Swan Lake. She also joins Vladimir Malakhov and Friends for a gala in Berlin this month.
Last spring Larissa Saveliev, director of Youth America Grand Prix, invited Obrazstova to perform in their star-studded gala in New York. “I was hearing buzz, from different parts of the world, about this beautiful new Kirov girl,” says Saveliev. “Everybody said she was not only a technician, but was special for her acting. For years I tried to bring her to YAGP, but it never worked out. Then one of our board members saw her Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center and was blown away. He said, ‘Ohmygod, this girl, you have to see this girl!’ ”
So Obraztsova performed as part of YAGP’s gala, which paid tribute to Soviet great Vladimir Vasiliev (See “Dance Matters,” Aug. 2010). She danced her iridescent Sylph—she is a born sylph—as well as the lovesick dreamer in Vasiliev’s own work, Sentimental Waltz. Saveliev reports that for the 800 YAGP finalists (ages 9 to 19) present, Obraztsova was one of their favorites. “She has such unbelievable artistry,” says Saveliev, “and that’s the message we want to send to the kids. You can be very special onstage even if you don’t do a million fouettés.”
Obraztsova has become a firm favorite with her audiences over the past eight years—delightful offstage as well as on. The big question that they now have is whether, after her debut as Odette/ Odile with the Stanislavsky in Moscow, she will be given the opportunity to perform Swan Lake on her home stage and hopefully rise in rank. All eyes will be on her performance in March.
Margaret Willis has been writing on Russian ballet since the 1970s. Her book, Carlos Acosta: The Reluctant Dancer, has just been published by Arcadia Books.
From top: in costume for Petipa's Carnival in Venice. Photo by Matthew Karas; as Juliet in the Lavrovsky version. Photo by Alexandr Neff, Courtesy Melis Varban; as Juliet. Photo by Matthew Karas; in Vasiliev's Sentimental Waltz at the YAGP gala. Photo by Hideaki Tanioka, Courtesy YAGP.