Small Wonder

Maria Kochetkova insists she is not a perfectionist, but from today’s rehearsal, you would never know it.


Her assignment this morning is the Don Quixote grand pas de deux. Her partner is San Francisco Ballet fellow principal Joan Boada, and the mood is subdued, but intense. Kochetkova quietly stretches on the floor in an airy studio in the SFB Association Building. Ballet master Ricardo Bustamante flips on the music; Boada steps on Kochetkova’s toe. She squeals like a kitten, but recovers and runs through the first steps with feline assurance. Still, the dancers aren’t connecting the way they should in this duet. And in her variation, Kochetkova has trouble turning and brandishing Kitri’s fan at the same time. She tries it again, and again, and, somehow, it all comes together.


No purrs of satisfaction, though. “I will probably never get it perfect,” says Kochetkova after the rehearsal. She is small, but exquisitely proportioned. Her face suggests an almost childlike youthfulness that belies her 24 years. The fan incident gnaws at her. “I think that I am clumsy in real life. I don’t worry about fouettés. I worry about the little things, taking somebody’s hand or manipulating the fan. You probably need to be Spanish. It will come with experience.”


Despite today’s fan troubles, since Kochetkova arrived at SFB in the summer of 2007 she has learned quickly, and garnered attention nearly as fast. No new ballerina in memory has left such a deep impression on the company’s audiences in such a short time. The first Russian-trained and born dancer hired by artistic director Helgi Tomasson in several years, Kochetkova found herself deep into a contemporary repertory that she had never considered in her young career.


Although she doubled her assignments in her first season, it wasn’t all new to her. Yes, there was a single Giselle last winter that generated buzz for its lyrical vulnerability. There was the grand pas de deux in Tomasson’s Nutcracker, which was recorded for airing on PBS this December. And there was her hummingbird flight across the stage in Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. But it was the SFB New Works Festival and premieres by Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, and Jorma Elo that thrust Kochetkova into the spotlight last season. Wheeldon’s romantic reverie on the duet form heralded a mistress of liquid phrasing. Elo’s slashing deconstruction of classicism revealed the ferocious grit behind the angelic face. In every appearance, Kochetkova moved within an aura, eager and pliant, that distinguished her from her accomplished colleagues. Some might call that aura style. Kochetkova attributes that quality to persistence.


“Since I was 10, I had to work hard to get everything,” she says. “Nothing came easy to me. I knew there would be no help from other people.”

The Moscow-born child would have preferred to spend her time at gymnastics or ice skating when, at the urging of her mother, she was admitted to the Moscow Ballet School, the affiliated academy of the Bolshoi Ballet.


“I had no desire to dance, yet I remember my mother saying that when you are 15 or 16, you will have to stop gymnastics,” Kochetkova says. “But, if you go to ballet school, you can continue much longer.”


Mother was right.


“Ballet became a trap, a special world. There is no way back out of it,” she recalls. “You dance, you rehearse, you live only to do it another day.”


Among her teachers at the school, Kochetkova recalls former Bolshoi star Sofia Golovkina most vividly. “She gave one of the best classes in history,” she says. “They were hard, the discipline was perfect. I would shake with fear during the first five minutes. You would never know what Golovkina’s mood would be. One day, it would be ‘Very good, girls,’ and the next, it would be ‘Disaster.’ The classes are much more relaxed here in America.”


Kochetkova left the Bolshoi’s school at 18 without an offer from the company, and, in the new post-Soviet world, she looked West for opportunity. So she entered the turbulent world of international ballet competitions. She says that she wasn’t so much looking for a job as attempting to complete her education in dance. Between 2001 and 2005, she garnered a shelf full of medals—the gold at Rieti, Seoul, and Luxembourg, the silver at Lausanne and Varna, the bronze at Moscow. She remembers the kindness of the great dancer Vyacheslav Gordeyev, who was then running the Moscow Ballet School.


“He sent me to Lausanne and paid for everything. He said, ‘I know you can do it.’ He gave me confidence. He believed in me from the beginning.”


Kochetkova maintains a candid outlook about competitions. “Some people say they are bad,” she notes. “For me at that time, it was the only chance to dance. I didn’t have a choice. The competitions motivated me. They kept me going.”


She expresses pride in noting that she did it mostly by herself. “I didn’t have a coach for the Prix de Lausanne,” Kochetkova says, who trained for the competition during her final year at the Moscow Academy. “I prepared the variations on my own in the evenings at school. It’s hard for me to judge my own strengths and weaknesses, but, in retrospect, I think I became a lot more confident after taking part in competitions. “


In fact, those performances (many of which have been abundantly preserved on YouTube) secured Kochetkova contracts with both The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. Ross Stretton hired her for the Royal. It was an unhappy, but instructive apprenticeship.


“What did I know about companies outside Russia and how they worked? I was so inexperienced,” Kochetkova says. “But when somebody holds you back, you realize how much you want to do something. Unfortunately, I wasn’t dancing much at the Royal. My dad said that I needed to suffer a bit and then I would be OK.”


Kochetkova’s contract was not renewed when Monica Mason succeeded Stretton. But, then, Matz Skoog invited her to join ENB. “It wasn’t as snobbish or bound to tradition as the Royal. And everybody was given the opportunity to dance,” she notes. At ENB, too, she extended her repertory, tackling ballets by David Dawson and Hans van Manen.


Then, on an impulse, she sent a DVD of her dancing to Tomasson ,and he invited her to fly over for an audition. She was encouraged to do so by Christopher Wheeldon at the Bolshoi, where she was taking class and he was creating a ballet. Wheeldon had been working for several years at SFB, both making and reviving dances, and he sensed that Kochetkova might fit in on the West Coast.


Tomasson was captivated by her. “Masha is a beautiful dancer, she had so much potential. She came out, joined a class, and it was just the right fit,” he says. “She is petite and a good partner for Joan, who made her feel immediately at ease.” He also praises her attitude. “She is curious; she wants to experience different kinds of choreography. It may take another year or two before she finds her niche.”


Last season, Tomasson created a part for her in his On a Theme of Paganini, and she will attempt her first Odette/Odile in his new production of Swan Lake in February. This will be a testing year for Kochetkova, as she embraces several movement styles. She will dance in Possokhov’s new work, as well as revivals of Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated (“not the biggest part, but still…”), Balanchine’s “Emeralds,” and, “maybe,” she says, his Stravinsky Violin Concerto.


Last season, Kochetkova learned her first Balanchine, Divertimento No. 15, and she admits that his choreography still gives her trouble. “I have to count and count,” she says. “In some places, it’s so slow, and then, it’s so fast. “We just don’t train that way in Russia. But, I will do more. I think that dancing new ballets has had a positive influence on my technique.”


In everything, she will have Tomasson’s support. “Helgi pulls a performance out of me,” she says. “He’ll say to do it this way, then try it that way. He gives me confidence. I need that.”


Kochetkova is still feeling her way into her first American company. Her impressions are positive. “Dancers here are much friendlier than in Europe, more open. SFB works so hard. They don’t get as much rehearsal time as European companies, but it’s very concentrated. There is less tradition in America, but I feel there is more freedom here.”


Kochetkova offers a study in contradictory impulses. She is so self-critical that she squirms when she watches herself in the PBS Nutcracker. At the same time, she is a canny careerist, having created a website and a blog. She says that was the idea of her husband, British-born filmmaker Edward King, who has moved from London to San Francisco to be with her. Fans are invited to add comments on the website about her performances. Don’t think that Kochetkova is vain or insecure.


“I like the fact that people can leave feedback on my website,” she says. “Of course, my Mum is the best judge of my dancing. She always tells me just what she thinks.” So much for critics.



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and chief critic for

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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.

Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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