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Being Masha

Nathan Sayers

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.

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