Small Wonder

November 19, 2008

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