Balancing Act

December 31, 2013

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 resident guest artist at NBC has as much to do with her personal priorities as today’s complex Russian and Bolshoi politics. The persistent popular image of the ballerina is of a woman who from childhood single-mindedly dedicates herself to the unrelenting rigors of an art form that demands total devotion. It’s an image Lunkina has consistently defied. The mother of two children, Maxim, 10, 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 ballerina, her family has as big of a place in her life as her career. Like many women today, Lunkina is determined to maintain a healthy balance. As she bluntly puts it: “Ballet isn’t everything.”

Lunkina’s ability to split her priorities may stem from her having no longstanding childhood dream of being a ballerina. The second of three daughters, her father had a career in the printing business. Her mother had studied professionally in circus school. Their first daughter, eight years older than Svetlana, became a professional athlete—pentathlon, 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. Though she was not particularly driven, 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.

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 and renowned pedagogue Marina Leonova—now dean of the Academy—that she began to embrace the idea of becoming a professional dancer.

Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, Courtesy NBC.

When she was 18, she joined the Bolshoi Ballet corps. During her initial season in 1997, she was picked by Vladimir Vasiliev (the first of five Bolshoi Ballet artistic directors Lunkina has worked under) to dance the lead role in his production of Giselle. Her coach was renowned former ballerina Ekaterina Maximova, who was to have a continuing influence on Lunkina’s artistic development. 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 “Stars of the 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. She told reporters afterwards that having her son had deepened her understanding of roles like Giselle. 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 that comprised a growing repertoire of leading roles in all the major Russian classics as well as 20th-century works by Massine, Ashton, Grigorovitch, Robbins, Petit and others.

Though Moscow was her base, her husband, Vladislav Moskalyev, 50, is a Canadian citizen, and she has permanent residence status. But 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 and the circulation of slanderous letters to international ballet companies—all connected with a business dispute in which her husband was then embroiled.

In fact, Lunkina had been in Canada already when the story hit the news. She now has an official leave-of-absence from the Bolshoi—extended until this summer—but for a while, her dancing career was in limbo. “I want to dance,” said Lunkina at the time, “but not at any cost.” She rejected the possibility of becoming an itinerant guest artist. “I want to be more inside the process,” she said.

She 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 resident guest artist. At a third the size of the Bolshoi, the company might seem a step down for Lunkina, but she says she sees it differently. She admires Kain as a director, noting the former star ballerina’s policy of commissioning new work while still nurturing the classics. She also appreciates the way Kain collaborates with her artistic team, listening to what they have to say and trusting in their advice, a contrast, she says, to the way things nowadays operate at the 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.”

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

As a mother, Lunkina appreciates the Toronto company’s efficiency in scheduling rehearsals. It makes the challenge of being a ballerina and juggling her children’s school schedules much more manageable.

Although the terms of her guest contract included dancing the leads in last December’s Nutcracker and in Swan Lake this coming March—both James Kudelka productions—Lunkina feels particularly excited to be part of the development of new work. She embraces the challenge of contemporary, often unfamiliar movement styles. She was cast in two new Canadian works in the National Ballet’s November 2013 Innovation program: 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 a young, 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. She really wants to be part of the family we’ve got here in this company.”

Understandably, Toronto audiences are hoping Lunkina will find that NBC, where she’s among several ballerinas with children to raise, offers the 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 top of her game. There isn’t anything she couldn’t do.”

 Michael Crabb is a
Dance Magazine senior advising editor.