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Balancing Act

By Michael Crabb

The Bolshoi’s Svetlana Lunkina carves a path for career and family at National Ballet of Canada.



Lunkina rehearsing in the National Ballet of Canada studios with principal Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy NBC



Even in a crowded company class at the National Ballet of Canada’s harborside studios, Svetlana Lunkina stands out. Her Russian training shows in the way she unfurls an arm or extends a leg, articulating every stage of the motion with meticulous control. Her extraordinary coordination transforms her slender body into an expressive instrument; her breathtaking jump seems, gazelle-like, to spring from nowhere. As National Ballet principal artistic coach Magdalena Popa succinctly puts it: “Svetlana has a really nice everything.”

That Lunkina, a Bolshoi ballerina, finds herself at 34 a principal guest artist at NBC has as much to do with her personal priorities as today’s complex Russian and Bolshoi politics. Despite the persistent popular image of the ballerina as a woman who single-mindedly dedicates herself to the unrelenting rigors of an art form that demands total devotion, Lunkina has consistently defied that image. “Ballet isn’t everything,” she says. The mother of two children, Maxim, 9, and Eva, 4, Lunkina and her husband, a Russian film producer, have had a suburban home a short drive from Toronto’s downtown for nearly a decade. For the Moscow-born dancer, her family has as big of a place in her life as her career.

LunkinaLunkina’s ability to split her priorities may stem from her having no longstanding childhood dream of being a ballerina. She’s the second of three daughters. Her father had a career in the printing business, and her mother had studied professionally in circus school. Their first daughter, eight years older than Svetlana, became a professional athlete—competing in pentathlons, no less. When Lunkina was about 5, her mother sent her to begin dance classes at the local “House of Pioneers,” one of many Soviet-era youth centers offering out-of-school training in arts and sports. Lunkina did well enough that at age 10, she was urged to audition for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and was accepted as a day student.


Above: Lunkina has joined National Ballet of Canada as principal guest artist for the 2013–14 season. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic, Courtesy NBC

She loved dancing but did not relish the rigorous classes where, she felt, teachers tended to treat students with disregard for their feelings or individuality. “There were times I told my mother I wanted to leave,” remembers Lunkina. Her mother, a constant support, urged her to keep going. It was only when Lunkina reached her mid-teens and came under the tutelage of former Bolshoi star Marina Leonova—now dean of the Academy—that she began to embrace the idea of becoming a professional dancer.

When she was 18, she joined the Bolshoi Ballet corps. During her initial season in 1997, she was picked by Vladimir Vasiliev to dance the lead role in his production of Giselle. Her coach was renowned former ballerina Ekaterina Maximova. With her debut performance, Lunkina became the youngest Bolshoi dancer ever to perform the role. 

Two years later, when Vasiliev took his company to Britain, she won the hearts of audiences and critics alike when she made her debut as Kitri in Don Quixote at the London Coliseum. She delighted London audiences again in 2001 when she returned as part of a mixed repertory Bolshoi Ballet program. Though well on her way to international stardom, she soon chose to take off more than a year to have her first child. Her son, Maxim, was born in Canada in 2004. Five years later, in 2009, Lunkina’s daughter, Eva, was born in Canada as well.

Despite her commitment to her family, Lunkina managed to combine motherhood with a successful career at the Bolshoi. While Moscow was her base, her husband, Vladislav Moskalyev, 50, is a Canadian citizen, and she has permanent residence status. Though they did not publicize their second home, it became public knowledge last January when, two weeks after the acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin, headlines blazoned the fact that Lunkina had “fled” Moscow because of personal threats—all connected with a business dispute in which her husband was then embroiled.

Lunkina now has an official leave-of-absence from the Bolshoi—extended until this summer—but for a while, her career was in limbo. She rejected the possibility of becoming an itinerant guest artist. “I want to be more inside the process,” she says.

LunkinaShe took company class with the National Ballet while Toronto ballet fans kept wondering if Lunkina might find a new professional home at NBC. With a busy 2013–14 season fast approaching, Karen Kain announced that Lunkina would become a principal guest artist. At around a third of the size of the Bolshoi, the company might seem a step down, but Lunkina admires Kain as a director, noting the way Kain collaborates with her artistic team, a contrast, she says, to the way things nowadays operate at the Bolshoi.


Above: With Dmitry Gudanov; Lunkina  debuted at 18 in Giselle, the youngest Bolshoi dancer ever to perform the role. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi

“When I joined the Bolshoi in 1997, I caught the end of an era when its constellation of former great ballerinas had become excellent pedagogues. They were the curators of its heritage ballets and the final judges of who was ready for a particular role. Now it’s the theater administration that decides.”

Although the terms of her guest contract included dancing the leads in last December’s Nutcracker and in Swan Lake this coming March, Lunkina feels particularly excited to be part of the development of new work. She was cast in two premieres in the National Ballet’s November 2013 Innovation program: James Kudelka’s black night’s bright day and Unearth, by the company’s 22-year-old choreographic associate, Robert Binet. “It was such a great way to start,” she says.

Binet admits he wondered how a top Bolshoi ballerina would respond to working with an emerging choreographer, but was delighted by the way Lunkina plunged into the process. “Svetlana is one of the most friendly, open, energetic people I’ve ever met,” says Binet. “She’ll try anything.”

Understandably, Toronto audiences are hoping Lunkina will find that NBC, where she’s among several ballerinas with children to raise, offers the kind of balanced life she’s always wanted. Kain would certainly like to cement the relationship if the company budget allows. “Svetlana is a very positive presence in our midst. She is so committed, and she’s at the top of her game. There isn’t anything she couldn’t do.”


Michael Crabb is the dance critic for The Toronto Star and is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.

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