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The New Girl
Since joining the Bolshoi as an outsider, Olga Smirnova has quickly risen to the top, leaving audiences awestruck
Participating in new work is a rare luxury at the Bolshoi, yet this past April, just two days after starring in the live HD broadcast of Marco Spada, Olga Smirnova found herself experimenting for the first time in the Bolshoi's Studio 1. Oblivious to the chatter around her, she looked intently at choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot as she parsed the first steps of his new Taming of the Shrew with quiet focus, lending them amplitude and a swanlike articulation. Slowly, she ventured new accents for her character, Bianca—and broke into a rapt smile when Maillot screamed his approval. “There is a softness to her, and she has no preconceptions," he says of Smirnova. “She uses every detail, every piece of information I give her."
Since joining the Bolshoi as an outsider from the Vaganova Academy three short seasons ago, Smirnova has had critics and audiences alternately abuzz and awestruck. At just 22, she is fast making her mark at the crossroads of the St. Petersburg and Moscow traditions, her pristine clarity of movement melding seamlessly with the dramatic emphasis Moscow has long cultivated. Her “Diamonds" revealed an expansive, spellbinding young queen; her gift for tragedy, meanwhile, has found telling vehicles in Onegin and Lady of the Camellias.
Smirnova's career has skyrocketed, making her, at just 22, one of the Bolshoi's biggest draws. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
To get to this point, an unlikely number of stars had to align. Deemed the "physically perfect instrument of her art form" by English critic Luke Jennings, the revelatory harmony of Smirnova's lines speaks to the ruthless Vaganova training. Ballet in Russia is also a mental game, however. Self-possessed beyond her years, Smirnova has reaped the rewards of what she deems the most difficult decision of her life: refusing the Mariinsky and entrusting her career to Bolshoi director Sergei Filin.
Her choice reflects a seismic shift in Russian ballet, where ballerinas used to grow up and old in the company they were trained to join. The Mariinsky was always the logical step for Smirnova, a native of St. Petersburg. Her music-loving family had no connection to ballet: Her mother was an engineer, but when she noticed that Smirnova showed potential in dance, she decided to take her to the Vaganova Academy.
Smirnova in Onegin. Photo by Damir Yusupov.
Smirnova was accepted immediately, at age 10, and her talent didn't go unnoticed. Singled out as a leader for her age group early on, she found herself front and center in class, as is the Vaganova tradition, and faced with the burden of expectations. “It's huge psychological pressure for a kid," she explains matter-of-factly. “Others were allowed to make mistakes, but if I did the teacher would ask me: How could you? As they say, it's not easy to get to the top, but it's much harder to stay there." Less flexible than her classmates, she took extra weekend gymnastics classes to achieve the sky-high extensions now standard in Russia.
By the time she completed her training in 2011, Smirnova's reputation as a prodigy preceded her. Bolshoi director Sergei Filin made the trip to St. Petersburg to see her graduation performance, and soon the young dancer found herself with competing offers of a soloist position from the rival St. Petersburg and Moscow companies.
Joining the Bolshoi wasn't her initial choice, Smirnova says. Instead, she tentatively started to work at the Mariinsky without signing her contract, but found the atmosphere uninviting. “I felt the artistic director and the teachers weren't interested in nurturing new, young ballerinas. But Filin came up with a very logical plan. He wanted to involve me in the Bolshoi repertoire step by step, starting with variations, Queen of the Dryads, Myrtha—very important roles to prepare you."
With Semyon Chudin in "Diamonds." Photo by E. Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Filin kept his word, and Smirnova's move reasserted the changing balance of power in Russian ballet: While the Mariinsky's aura and attractiveness have faded over the past decade, the Bolshoi, for all its intrigue and scandals, remains at the top of its artistic game. Loneliness was inevitably a challenge for the young dancer, but the repertoire kept her fulfilled. Variations soon gave way to carefully chosen principal parts; in addition to debuts in La Bayadère and The Pharaoh's Daughter, she was cast by The Balanchine Trust in the Bolshoi premiere of "Diamonds" in her first season.
Absorbing the Bolshoi style proved Smirnova's most pressing task. While a growing number of Vaganova-trained dancers work in the company (including another Filin protégée, Evgenia Obraztsova), clear differences remain. Smirnova praises the purity of the Vaganova technique, but says Moscow has helped her develop endurance and strength under the tutelage of her coach, Marina Kondratieva.
The bold acting tradition was another challenge. Her hunger for new experiences and love of theater have helped her fit in, but Smirnova is still fine-tuning her approach. She reviews videos of her performances with her coach, critiquing and revising her choices. “When I first came here, everybody said: Here is another ballerina from St. Petersburg who will be cold and unemotional," she remembers. “I didn't understand what they meant—should you be crazy onstage? What's the limit? It's still an open question for me."
A passionate Nikiya in La Bayadère. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Despite her doubts, she has quickly become the face of the repertoire brought in by Filin. A feature of his directorship has been narrative ballets no Russian company had previously taken on, including Cranko's Onegin and Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias, and his young protégée has run with the opportunity. When we meet, a few days after her second Lady, she is visibly spent. “These ballets take a piece of your soul," she explains. “It's similar to the feelings you have after finishing a huge book. You live with the characters, and you feel an emptiness after them."
Smirnova's onstage maturity is mirrored by her levelheaded response to the pressure cooker she has found herself in. At the trial following Filin's acid attack, in an attempt to smear him, the defendants accused him of having an affair with Smirnova, an episode she has learned to laugh off.
The attack aside, Smirnova deems the atmosphere of intense competition at the Bolshoi the continuation of what she experienced at the Vaganova Academy. "You just have to prove that you're dancing a role because you're the best at that point. It's good, because it keeps you on your toes." Cliché or not, she is her own biggest critic, believing that she danced Odette/Odile too early, describing her interpretation as "too raw. I still don't truly, fully understand the role."
Photo by E. Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Lately, she has found new roots in Moscow: Last summer, she married the son of Filin's former advisor, Dilyara Timergazina, in an Orthodox ceremony. Her husband, who works in finance, is her support system. “He completely understands that my life is in the theater now, and he gives me the strength to perform."
There is an uncanny purpose about Smirnova, but it would be a mistake to take her for a diva. “You can see that she doesn't position herself according to a title, a status," says Maillot. “She just asks: Can I do that, how can I do it, what can I learn?" She is on track to be one of the defining dancers of her generation, but her path may prove slightly different from other Russian superstars who have forged their own international brand away from company ties. “Everything I have done was given to me by the theater," she muses. “The Bolshoi is my home now, and for an artist, it's very important to have a home."
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in Paris.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.