You can tell when Maria Kochetkova is thinking hard about something, because her lips purse and her eyes darken. The look crosses her face frequently during a rehearsal with fellow San Francisco Ballet principal Vitor Luiz for the Kingdom of the Shades pas de deux from La Bayadère. The sequence of entrelacés from pirouette to attitude derrière is especially vexing her.
“Can I try again?" she asks, then attempts it another time. And another. American Ballet Theatre régisseur Susan Jones, in town to set Act II for SFB's spring season, offers suggestions on the transitions, then throws in some unsolicited wisdom. “Don't do it five million times," she warns. Turning to Luiz, Jones adds, “Vitor, tell her not to work quite so hard."
Everyone who knows Kochetkova remarks on her relentless drive. “She will try to get into the building on weekends and holidays," says Helgi Tomasson, SFB's artistic director. “It's all-consuming to her. I sometimes say, 'Go home. Take a day off.' But that's not her." Luiz agrees: “She wants to conquer everything. I think she probably gets tired at some point, but I don't know—what does she drink?"
Kochetkova, 29, seems well on her way to “conquering everything." She has reached a rarefied frequent-flyer status, crisscrossing the globe to perform with high-profile partners and the world's preeminent companies: In 2013 alone she danced in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Paris, had her American Ballet Theatre debut opposite Herman Cornejo and gave the title role in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella its stateside premiere. A winning appearance on NBC's 2009 Superstars of Dance TV series kicked off a social-media presence that's now grown to over 193,000 followers on Twitter and over 128,000 likes on Facebook. She is the subject of a documentary, Masha. And her fearless fashion sense has led to haute couture spreads in international magazines and features online.
In the San Francisco Ballet studios. At left, rehearsing with Davit Karapetyan. Photos by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
She's also something of an evangelist, bringing ballet to cities that don't see much dance. Audiences there often respond to her with overwhelming enthusiasm; after a guest performance in Cordoba, Mexico, last fall, she needed a security escort to help her through the thronging crowd. She grins at the memory, but doesn't spend much time contemplating her fame. “Celebrity," she muses, “what is it, anyway?"
Although she makes it all look ethereal and effortless, surprisingly, she still feels she has to constantly prove why she belongs up on that stage. “Ballet is really hard for me," she says. A slight five feet tall, she finds mastering the classical vocabulary a unique challenge. “My physique is so unusual, sometimes things need to be explained to me differently than other people," she says. “Every day I struggle."
Kochetkova has an exceptionally steely will, which grew out of early disappointments. After graduating from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy—with medals from Moscow International Ballet Competition, Varna and Prix de Lausanne—she was deemed too short for the company. Her soft voice, with its London-inflected Russian accent, drops to a whisper when she explains, “There was nothing for me, not a single door open to stay."
The story that followed is now familiar to her fans. Her Prix de Lausanne win earned her an apprenticeship with The Royal Ballet, and from there Kochetkova went on to the English National Ballet. But after four years, she felt more frustration than growth. “I would do Sugar Plum and go back into the corps the next day," she recalls. “Once you taste it, you do not want to go back."
Right: Kochetkova with Joan Boada in Yuri Possokhov's Francesca da Rimini. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
She'd seen SFB perform in London, and on her first trip to America she took class with them. “The minute I saw her, I knew this was a major talent," Tomasson says. He invited her to join as a principal. Although Kochetkova had danced mostly in the corps and knew only one person in San Francisco (her English husband, Edward King, relocated to join her six months later), the chance for artistic freedom trumped fear: “I did not think for a second. I signed the contract."
Something akin to happily-ever-after began that day. Since joining SFB in 2007, she has become one of the 21st century's most sought-after ballerinas. “You see her in Giselle and she is beautiful. You see her in Romeo & Juliet and Onegin, she has dramatic quality," says Tomasson. “And yet at the same time you have Wayne McGregor adoring her. You wonder, Is this the same person?" Kochetkova was nominated for a 2013 Benois de la Danse Award for her Tatiana (danced opposite Luiz's Onegin) and a 2014 National Dance Award for Best Female Dancer, a prize given by the Critics' Circle in the UK.
She could easily rest on these laurels, but there are roles she hasn't danced yet and places she hasn't performed. “I constantly have so many ideas in my head, things I want to do, that I just keep working. I realize how little time I have, and how much time I wasted already," she says, referring to her years in the ENB corps. So she takes on as many opportunities as she can manage. “When you go onstage you are free," she explains. “No one can tell you what to do. And there are moments when you are so in harmony with the music, with the steps, and you know that people understand. And you feel it. It doesn't always happen, but when it happens…" She thinks a moment, then adds, “It's like explaining what love is."
Kochetkova's recent guesting gigs at the Bolshoi and Mariinsky show just how far she has come. “First time going back, I was not just nervous—I was really scared," she says. “To go back after you leave, you have to deserve to do it. I felt like I accomplished so much with SFB that I was ready to show what I learned and what I am. I knew half the people were going to criticize me for being short, but I was ready for it. The emphasis on the way people look is so strong in Russia. It needs to be broken down." This core belief is the bedrock of her motivation. “So many great dancers suffer in Russia—they don't even have the opportunity to try something because before they even try, they are told no."
Left: With Herman Cornejo in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
Ironically enough, Kochetkova's height has ended up being a selling point. Last year she and her husband took their first vacation in years, going to Venice with friends. On the second day, the phone rang: An injured Alina Cojocaru had suddenly dropped out of ABT's Swan Lake a few weeks before the performances, and artistic director Kevin McKenzie thought immediately of Kochetkova as a partner for the five-foot-six Cornejo. While everyone else enjoyed Venice, Kochetkova stayed in the hotel room doing barre so that she'd be ready.
Kochetkova will return to ABT after the SFB season ends this May, to dance Don Quixote, again with Cornejo. “She moves so big," McKenzie notes. “And there is no baggage—none! She came fully prepared, and fully open to making adjustments. She's able to process information and make it her own, and then give it back to you with such clarity that you think, How much further can she go?"
Claudia Bauer is a dance writer based in the Bay Area.
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.