Russian Soul

June 27, 2011

Veronika Part as Manon in Neumeier’s
Lady of the Camellias. Photo by Matthew Karas.

In 1999, when the Kirov Ballet brought its reconstruction of the original Sleeping Beauty to Lincoln Center, a young soloist of special radiance kept stealing the show. Her name was Veronika Part, and although she did not dance the role of Aurora she was clearly a ballet princess born and bred. First there was the instrument: even by ballet’s perfectionist standards Part’s physique was remarkable for its long, sculpted limbs, exquisitely arched feet, and a neck and shoulder line of Renaissance grace. Then there was the technique: correct yet lush, nuanced yet breathtakingly large-scale. And finally her face: Part was a dark-haired, pale-skinned beauty with a smile of sheer enchantment. In that New York engagement, the Kirov unveiled her as the Lilac Fairy, classical dance’s supreme expression of divine right.

“It was an open graciousness,” says Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, when asked what struck him about Part in those Beautys. “It was this warm, embracing presence.”

When the Kirov returned to Lincoln Center three years later, in 2002, Part danced a mesmerizing Swan Lake, her “embracing presence” more luminous than ever. McKenzie invited her to join American Ballet Theatre and she said yes.

Part was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1978. Prophetically, the doctor who delivered her said, “Oh, she has pretty legs.” Thus Part’s mother decided that her new daughter should be a ballerina. For six years, however, starting at age 4, Part studied gymnastics. “I was happy with what I was doing,” she says. “I was a professional athlete already, doing all these competitions.” At 10, Part was taken to the Vaganova Academy for an audition. “My mom wanted me to have a different life from her, because at that time there was the Iron Curtain. Nobody could go outside the country, or see other cultures.” Part passed the rigorous three-part audition and began studying classical dance.

From her first days in the school Part attracted the attention of star ballerinas who had retired and become teachers or coaches. And in a generation that included classmates like Diana Vishneva, Daria Pavlenko, and Svetlana Zakharova, Part was recognized as one of the most exceptional students the Academy had ever seen. “She was unlike any other,” says Irina Kolpakova, the legendary Kirov ballerina who coaches her at ABT.

Part joined the Kirov Ballet at 18. Her first coach in the company was the versatile Gabriella Komleva, and then she worked with Ninel Kurgapkina and Yelena Yevteyeva. “Kurgapkina was more bravura,” Part says. “Yevteyeva had a Romantic style. Every person can give you something different. Later, I worked most of the time with Lubov Kunakova. She’s like my second family.” At 20, and while still a Kirov soloist, Part danced Odette/Odile and Raymonda. When the company mounted Balanchine’s Jewels in 1999, she danced the lead in “Diamonds” and the second lead in “Emeralds.” So the big roles were coming. Yet the offer from ABT meant that Part could experience another country, could test herself in a new environment with new choreographers. She made the leap.

That said, the transition from a state-supported company in her own hometown to an American company in noisy New York City was not easy. And Part was shy. She arrived in Manhattan in August of 2002, with “just two suitcases. I didn’t even have toe shoes, just clothes. I was completely alone. I didn’t have any friends. I had a job, but that was pretty much it.”

“She appeared on our doorstep,” recalls McKenzie, “this fabulous dancer who didn’t have a lot of English, didn’t know how to deal with a bank account or even write a check. Once the living thing was confronted, there was the professional etiquette she needed to assimilate. She went from the careful preparation that comes from the Soviet system to ABT, where you do everything all the time all at once. So it was a big adjustment.”

It became clear that McKenzie was going to bring Part along slowly. Ranked a soloist, she was cast in supporting roles—Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet—and each season she received more leads: Mozartiana, Ballet Imperial, Swan Lake, Raymonda, La Bayadère. To every role Part brought a clarity that read as poetry. The cathedral spaces in her port de bras, the strong extensions elegantly placed, an extremely deep plié, and an arabesque to die for—here was Imperial style in its purest form.

“Her great gift is the line of her body,” says Kolpakova. “Her arms and eyes and neck. And she understands music. She always listens.”

Indeed, Part’s listening is visible in phrasing that is sensitive and soulful. In describing the quality of her dancing, critics have reached for words like “creamy,” “cantilena,” “sensuous,” and “singing.” In her years at ABT, Part has proved herself to be the great adagio artist of our time.

Nevertheless, we live in the fast-paced era of allegro. Part, at 5′ 8″, had to strive for the speed and attack that is so valued in America. “I have a very specific body that makes my life onstage more difficult,” Part explains. “Long legs, flexible and hyper-extended. A big arch and a very thin ankle.”

“Because Veronika’s feet are so long and thin,” says Kolpakova, “they’re not strong. Her leg—it’s beautiful but not straight. She works very hard to understand each position.”

To watch Kolpakova coaching Part in Aurora’s wedding variation is to witness the tiny and seemingly endless calibrations of hip and shoulder that are required to keep her pirouettes plumb and her pointe work lively. It’s like watching two scientists in a lab, where even facial expression is discussed. Part remembers that in Russia they were told to wear a serene expression like that of the Mona Lisa. Kolpakova retorts, “You are Veronika Part—as Aurora in this moment! Not a Mona Lisa for all ages.”

Of her early years at ABT, Part says, “You see yourself in the mirror every day, and you see how imperfect you are and it makes you afraid. I always raised the bar too high. I had to learn to change my attitude from ‘Oh, no, I can’t do this’ to ‘Yes, I can.’ I had to learn how to condition my body and mind to go onstage no matter what.”

With the conditioning of her body, the control of her emotions, and a growing ability to relax and roll with the punches, everything came together in 2009 and Part was promoted to principal. She danced brilliantly, fearlessly, ravishing Swan Lakes, high-flying Mozartianas, transcendent Lilac Fairys. Last year saw a New York performance of Aurora that was the most tenderly musical and stylistically expressive that this writer has ever seen. And last December, in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker, Part’s performances were ecstatically received.

“Her Nutcracker, my god, it was out of this world,” says McKenzie. “She’s done Swan Lakes that are just amazing, some Queen of the Wilis that are chilling. Mercedes in Don Q—it’s like, Holy Shomoly, clear the decks!”

Add to this Part’s trusting and ever-deepening onstage partnership with Marcelo Gomes—a pairing one might describe as tall, dark, and glamorous—and you have stage magic.

“When Veronika is really being Veronika,” says Gomes, “and we are out there onstage and everything is going well and she is at her ultimate peak, for me it’s such a joy as a partner to see that and to be able to feel it in my own hands. Partnering is about coordination between you and your partner, and Veronika really helps you. She’s got that jump, that ballon. And she surprises me in a really good way. She’s got a great, great imagination.”

Part has roles she’s eager to try. Giselle is one of them: “I want to find a more dramatic side of myself,” she says. Don Q‘s Kitri is another, “because I want to challenge my technique, I want to be stronger, and there’s only one way to do it: to go through hard stuff that’s not natural for you.” Still, Part feels happiness in everything she dances. “Every role I’m doing, I’m living it. I never think who I am, I just know. I feel.”

“She’s a very different dancer than when she came to ABT,” reflects Gomes. “She has matured as a woman and as an artist. Veronika was a ballerina when she got here, but I think she’s gone on to become much bigger—a very grand lyrical ballerina.”

“I think that what struck me initially,” McKenzie says, “and what has continued to fascinate me, is she’s got an inner strength to want to adapt. She wants to learn, to keep adding not only to her repertoire but to her knowledge. She loves the art form, and she’s got this wonderful gift that works for the art form. But that’s somehow not good enough for Veronika, she wants to go further.”

And where Veronika goes, the ballet follows.

Laura Jacobs is the dance critic at
The New Criterion and a staff writer at Vanity Fair.

Pictured inset: In rehearsal for a piece by Avi Scher. Photo by Matthew Murphy.