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.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
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.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.