The Insta-Ballerina: How Mariinsky Newcomer Maria Khoreva Shot to Stardom
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
Maria Khoreva in Apollo
Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
Yet it has, and fast. Less than a year later, Khoreva is already a first soloist, touted as one of the most important talents to join the venerable Russian company in recent years.
A star turn in Balanchine's Apollo, alongside British principal Xander Parish, was swiftly followed by leading roles in full-length ballets. Her debut in Paquita last fall, captured and shared on social media (naturally), showed astonishing self-possession: She sailed through variations with rare lightness, topping them off with a sharp set of fouettés—Khoreva's first ever as a professional—that barely moved an inch.
Not that the young dancer herself was entirely satisfied. "I was worried a lot about stamina, and I didn't really feel my legs when the third act came. It turned out okay-ish," she says seriously, in impeccable English. (Her mother taught English.)
Still, Mariinsky's acting director Yuri Fateyev was taken by surprise. "I was shocked by how she presented herself, how strong and clean she was," he says. "In the theater we have a saying: 'Now a ballerina is born.' After Paquita, I felt like we had a newborn ballerina." Parish puts it succinctly: "She is the next Diana Vishneva, in my opinion."
Not unlike Vishneva, Khoreva is a lithe brunette with the kind of proportions—not too tall, but long-legged—that lend themselves to a range of roles, from Aurora to "Diamonds," the latter of which she added to her repertoire this winter. She shares something else with the Russian star: her final teacher at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, 78-year-old Lyudmila Kovaleva, a legend who also trained Bolshoi principal Olga Smirnova.
"Every class with her is wonderful. It's the combinations that she gives, the energy she puts into each correction," says Khoreva. "She taught us how to move, how to do the movements energy-wise, how to make them stronger."
A native of St. Petersburg, Khoreva started in rhythmic gymnastics class at age 3. She was already on an intensive track and had come second in a national competition when one day, at 10 years old, she walked past the Vaganova Ballet Academy with her mother. They noticed there were auditions a few days later. Her parents, both ballet aficionados, frequently took Khoreva to see performances, and they decided to give it a try.
Khoreva got in but initially struggled. "I was really lost. It was both hard and too easy, not as intense as gymnastics." Her mind-set only shifted when she saw classmates making strides. "One girl wasn't physically gifted, but she was doing a great job and she got the same mark as me in an exam. It was a turning point for me. I realized that it mattered, that I should have goals."
Fateyev first noticed Khoreva shortly after she returned from a serious Achilles inflammation that sidelined her for over six months when she was 15. "Lyudmila Kovaleva told me about a very talented girl, but she was very worried about her injury," he says. "Maria was weak, but I thought if she developed well, she'd be good in the future."
When he came back two years later, he was impressed not just with Khoreva, but with the entire class Kovaleva had nurtured. Taking a page from Balanchine's book, he decided to cast three "baby ballerinas"—Khoreva and classmates Daria Ionova and Anastasia Nuykina—as the muses in Apollo, and started rehearsals with them before their final school year was even over.
It didn't stop Khoreva from questioning where she wanted to start her career. She had received offers from six other companies, including the Bolshoi. Fateyev told her that she could dance Apollo and still go elsewhere. "But emotionally, from the first rehearsal, I knew that I would be joining this company," Khoreva says.
The young dancers worked with Fateyev and Parish for two months. "When I first came in, Maria was ever so shy," Parish remembers. "But we gelled very quickly. For someone so young, she's extremely mature. She works with her head as much as with her body. And I've never seen such technique before. It's phenomenal. I'm holding her, and thinking, Everything is just perfect. There's nothing wrong at all."
That, along with nerves of steel, prompted Fateyev to promote her to first soloist last fall, during her performances of Apollo at the Balanchine festival at New York City Center. He acknowledges that it's fast but says, "It's necessary to show her and the ballet world how we appreciate talented people. She will be one of the company's main ballerinas in the future."
For Khoreva, however, everything about life as a professional dancer feels new. "I'm still trying to figure out who is who, what is better for me, how I should build my day." She gets nervous before performances, she adds, although a monthlong tour to Asia taught her to go with the flow. "We missed a connecting flight in Beijing, and we had to dance the next day. When you have these stressful situations, you become calmer, in a way."
As is the tradition in Russia, Khoreva was assigned a personal coach, Elvira Tarasova. Together, they prepared the role of Medora in Le Corsaire ahead of the Mariinsky's tour to Washington, DC, in April. "She can be quite strict, but she is very supportive, and she gives me as much as I need," Khoreva says.
And she has found ready support within the company. "The stories that people tell about the Mariinsky, that everyone is evil—it's not true. All the dancers have been kind, generous and supportive. Of course, I feel the pressure, but they make it so much easier."
Khoreva created her Instagram account (@marachok) in 2014, at her father's suggestion. "I studied how it worked, the hashtags, how to get followers, and I tried to develop my personal style in photos and videos, to make them visually beautiful," she says. Her profile raised considerably when she was featured on the main @Instagram account—not just for Russia, but internationally—and she now has more than 288K followers.
Alongside carefully crafted images, she writes personal thoughts and motivational messages in English nearly every day. "Editing the visual content takes less time than writing the captions. After a long day, I have a lot to say, to share, and I try to give it a structure, which can take up to 40 minutes."
Khoreva approaches her account with characteristic seriousness. Posting while on tour has proven especially challenging. "Instagram isn't allowed in China, so we had to use a VPN for redirecting the Wi-Fi to another country. It was very hard. Sometimes I needed to stay up really late at night to still post something." She says she doesn't feel a responsibility to keep up the stream of content for the sake of building followers, however. "I just need to share these moments, because they're amazing for me."
Khoreva still lives with her family. Her father, who works in IT, helps her navigate the attention that comes with her career, and she has a 15-year-old sister who is also training at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. She unwinds by watching beauty vloggers on YouTube. "It's an obsession that started when I got my injury."
With her language skills and international following, the future is bright if Khoreva ever decides to work abroad. Alongside the classical repertoire, she hopes to dance works by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, yet remains strikingly cautious when discussing her meteoric rise, as if it hasn't quite sunk in yet. "She's not arrogant. She genuinely loves her art form," says Parish. Khoreva herself put it best in an Instagram caption: "For me nothing is a better motivation to work harder than the work itself." 18,314 of her followers approved the sentiment.
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
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.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
Photo by Filip VanRoe, courtesy Marquee
Your Saturday nights are about to go from "Netflix and chill" to "Marquee and chill." (Okay, maybe we'll need to coin a new phrase).
But seriously, the new streaming app Marquee Arts TV lets you curl up with Bolshoi Ballet's Swan Lake, Sylvie Guillem dancing Mats Ek's solo Bye, a dance film by Cullberg Ballet called 40 M Under, or a documentary about Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Marquee unlocks a world of digital arts: dance, theater, opera, music, documentaries and film shorts that you can stream directly to your TV or mobile device.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."