Mentors of the Mariinsky

December 31, 2013

Inside the influential relationships between Russian dancers and their coaches


Pedagogue Gennady Selutsky with Diana Vishneva. Photo by V. Baranovsky, Courtesy Mariinsky

Many ballet companies in America
have just one ballet mistress to cultivate an entire troupe. If they’re lucky, they may have a handful. But in Russia, each ballerina works with her own. Called “pedagogues,” these coaches are crosses between ballet masters and mentors, teachers of great experience who engage one-on-one with young dancers to develop their artistry—and sometimes even guide them through life.

This system allows Russian companies to preserve classical traditions that hark back to czarist times. What one pedagogue teaches a ballerina decades later will be passed along from her to the younger generation. Dancers are able to root their performances in decades of history while also being equipped with the tools they need for individual interpretation. This attention to artistry, care and guidance is the envy of many American ballet dancers.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to spend a month watching rehearsals in the Mariinsky studios. The experience provided insight as to what this system entails, and the impact that pedagogues have on Russian dancers. Each relationship I visited was unique—some pairs were as close as mother and daughter, others more strictly professional. But all were steeped in an exceptional level of respect.

Elena Yevseyeva, a fiery soubrette of a soloist at the Mariinsky,
has yet another Don Quixote tomorrow night. Numerous critics have already noted her onstage spark. As she rehearses her Kitri variation, her coach, Lubov Kunakova, corrects her on the nuances. “Relax your neck,” she says. “Start further upstage.”

Afterwards, seated in her dressing room, Yevseyeva asks for advice on which headpiece to wear in Act III. “You need a tea-colored flower to match the accents on the tutu,” Kunakova says. She adjusts a glittering band of rhinestones on Yevseyeva’s head. “Like that, with the flower next to it.” Kunakova has coached Yevseyeva since the start of her career: Even when Yevseyeva was dancing at the Mikhailovsky Theatre prior to joining the Mariinsky in 2008, Kunakova traveled across the city to coach her in the evenings.

Right: Ekaterina Kondaurova rehearsing with Evgeny Ivanchenko. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Mariinsky

“A pedagogue is like a second mother to a dancer,” Kunakova says. “Not all mothers are involved in ballet, and not all adults have great relationships with their mothers. But without a good relationship between the coach and the dancer, there won’t be any success onstage. There must be trust and mutual understanding.” Kunakova, a former Kirov ballerina known for her lyricism in roles like the Lilac Fairy in the 1980s, shifted to coaching after her stage career ended. “I would have continued to dance if I could have. But I love to teach. When I rehearse with ballerinas, it’s a continuation of my own artistic activity with someone else.

“Dancers may use a gesture that they think transmits the appropriate feeling to the audience, but from the audience’s point of view it doesn’t,” continues Kunakova. “So we make sure that form is ideal, that the artist’s inner feeling coincides with what we see externally.”

Kunakova works with a number of ballerinas, but her relationship with Yevseyeva is special. “Lena is physically strong and hard-working. Others may be lazy or need encouragement, but sometimes I have to tell her to stop so as not to overdo it. The pedagogue has to find a unique approach with each dancer, whether that is compliments, encouragement or persuading them to try harder.”

“Lubov Alympievna is very meticulous,” Yevseyeva says, referring to Kunakova by her first and middle names, a sign of respect in Russia. “Not everyone is that scrupulous. You have to have a love for detail because the beauty of ballet is in the nuances.”

Both Kunakova and Yevseyeva say their relationship is very close. “We go to the beach together. She is always nearby when I’m sick,” Yevseyeva says. “She’s like a mentor, in my profession and in my life.”

But pedagogical relationships differ greatly.
Coach Elvira Tarasova, a former ballerina known for her performances as Coppélia and Sylphide, has a less intimate approach with her dancers. “Our relationships are professional, but there’s no ‘friendship between households,’ as we say. Distance should exist. There has to be respect from both sides,” Tarasova believes.

She began coaching principal dancer Ekaterina Kondaurova in 2007 (after Kondaurova’s former coach had left Russia for La Scala). The two say they have planned to meet outside the theater ever since, but it hasn’t happened yet. “We may have lunch while on tour, but she’s not the closest person in my life,” explains Kondaurova, who made her name at the Mariinsky in the contemporary repertoire. “I was never that close with my mother either, not to the point of telling her everything. My husband—Islom Baimuradov, also a dancer and coach—is closest to me. Sometimes he oversees my rehearsals, too.”

In a rehearsal for Le Corsaire, Tarasova corrects Kondaurova’s port de bras. “The first part was good, but the second not so much. Make the entrance grander using your arms,” she says. Strong emphasis is made on body placement in each step. “Don’t let your head go forward during the landing, and be sure the head goes down before the final pose.” The two repeat the section until the desired effect is achieved.

Left: Elvira Tarasova. Photo by N. Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky

During a break, they chat about the work overload at the end of the season, in which nobody has a single day off—Sundays included. “Usually we tour, come home and have fewer performances, but there’s no reprieve right now,” Tarasova says. With nightly ballets and schedule changes, it seems everyone is fighting a minor injury or fatigue. During rehearsal Kondaurova adds a tight wrap around one calf in order to continue. “Don’t overdo it,” Tarasova advises. “If it’s starting to hurt now, better to take a day off before it gets serious.”

The gender divide in the world of pedagogy
means that male dancers typically work exclusively with male coaches.Perhaps the most famous of them is Gennady Selutsky, who is credited with creating renowned dancers such as Farukh Ruzimatov and Igor Zelensky. Teaching and coaching since 1963, now at age 75, he still spends full days in the theater, working with six leading male dancers. Because of his stature, ballerinas such as Diana Vishneva also request coaching sessions with him.

Principal Evgeny Ivanchenko has spent 21 years—his entire career—under Selutsky’s tutelage. Tall, lean and frequently cast in partnering roles alongside the Mariinsky’s leading ladies, it is said he makes any pas de deux easy for his partners. “When I joined the Mariinsky, I was just raw material,” Ivanchenko says. “Selutsky saw that I could jump and turn, so he asked me to rehearse with him.” Starting work with the great teacher at the age of 17 was a bit intimidating. “At first I’d just listen and do as he said. But now we’re friends. I’ll share my opinion and we’ll find a solution together. Sometimes we even argue.” During rehearsal, Selutsky tells him not to focus on jumping during a jump, but on lifting the leg. On the second try, Ivanchenko receives praise from Selutsky, but is still dissatisfied. “You think I’m lying to you?” Selutsky says boyishly. Male camaraderie and a sense of humor are ever present.

Selutsky’s rehearsals follow a different format from the rest of the company. Due to his popularity, often two or three dancers are scheduled in the same hour, in the same studio, each alternating their turn to rehearse. “It’s important for them to see each other working,” Selutsky says. He also pays close attention to the artistry. “The dramatic elements must be like a dialogue, with pauses and reactions, not just set on automatic. The dancer has to understand the goal of what’s being expressed.”

Ivanchenko believes the coach is a dancer’s most important relationship. “No matter how talented you are, you won’t become a great dancer without a good pedagogue. Pedagogues are 95 percent responsible for the outcome of a career, and the dancer is responsible for about 5 percent. Everything that I can do today, all that I have become, I owe to Selutsky.”

Catherine Pawlick is author of
Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition.