Q&A: The Bolshoi's Olga Smirnova On Dancing On Balanchine's Stage
New York City is getting an embarrassment of riches this week—riches of the Emerald, Diamonds and Rubies variety. The Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and New York City Ballet will be sharing the stage at Lincoln Center to present George Balanchine's Jewels in celebration of the iconic ballet's 50th anniversary.
One of the many stars we're excited to see is Olga Smirnova, our June 2014 cover girl, who will be performing the lead in "Diamonds" as well as the role of Bianca in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Taming of the Shrew next week.
We caught up with her before the performances started to find out about these roles and how it feels to perform on Balanchine's home stage.
What was it like working with Jean-Christophe Maillot, and having him create the role of Bianca on you?
It was such a blessing. Jean-Christophe Maillot creates something especially for you using all of your features—physical and psychological. The role of Bianca fit me like a suit perfectly tailored to my measurements.
Does dancing Taming of the Shrew feel different to you now, after coming back from time off due to injury?
Injury gave me time to think. It was a period of some reboot, to comprehend the huge amount of information that fell on me after graduating from the Ballet Academy.
Do you feel extra pressure performing "Diamonds" for a New York audience on Balanchine's stage?
Of course, I feel responsibility and excitement, not only because I will dance in the homeland of Jewels, but also because of the scale of the event. To be a part of a grandiose project, with the participation of three leading ballet theaters, to see the embodiment of the choreographer's idea in a combination of three different styles in one evening, it is breathtaking.
People often consider "Diamonds" to be the Russian section of Jewels—do you see it that way?
For me, "Diamonds" is an embodiment, a symbol of the St. Petersburg classical ballet, where the center and the top of everything is the ballerina, in whose cold radiance beauty and perfection must be seen. Her favor is what her partner is trying to achieve, and he tries to solve her puzzle;. I see in this majesty and nobility, inaccessibility on the one hand, and at the same time the mystery of feminine nature, its appeal and spirituality. All this embodies the ideal of a woman that exists only in dreams. Not without reason, Suzanne Farrell—the first performer of "Diamonds"—and then Merrill Ashley were the muses.
How has life at the Bolshoi changed under new director Makhar Vaziev?
The atmosphere in the theater depends heavily on the artistic director because his artistic taste determines the repertoire and direction of the company. I think Makhar Vaziev strives first of all for quality, especially for classical ballets. He very much looks after the purity of performance, impeccable classical form and positions, and he can often be found in the studios, in both solo and corps de ballet rehearsals, and he is always present at the performances. I like that he gives a chance to anyone who wants to prepare a role and periodically arranges showings.
Who do you see as the most inspiring dancers in the Bolshoi right now?
I often go to the theater performances, even if I'm not in them, because I think that you can learn a lot. I also like to watch from the side, because I often see then more clearly how I would like to perform a ballet. But my idol and the example of an intellectual ballerina, a great artist, has always been and remains Diana Vishneva, with whose performances I grew up.
Do you have any plans for your time off while you're in New York?
Tours are expected to be busy, so there will not be much free time. But I have plans to see friends, and to visit the Guggenheim Museum, where I was invited to a modern exhibition that combines dance and light technology.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
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.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
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
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.