The New Girl
Since joining the Bolshoi as an outsider, Olga Smirnova has quickly risen to the top, leaving audiences awestruck
Participating in new work is a rare luxury at the Bolshoi, yet this past April, just two days after starring in the live HD broadcast of Marco Spada, Olga Smirnova found herself experimenting for the first time in the Bolshoi's Studio 1. Oblivious to the chatter around her, she looked intently at choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot as she parsed the first steps of his new Taming of the Shrew with quiet focus, lending them amplitude and a swanlike articulation. Slowly, she ventured new accents for her character, Bianca—and broke into a rapt smile when Maillot screamed his approval. “There is a softness to her, and she has no preconceptions," he says of Smirnova. “She uses every detail, every piece of information I give her."
Since joining the Bolshoi as an outsider from the Vaganova Academy three short seasons ago, Smirnova has had critics and audiences alternately abuzz and awestruck. At just 22, she is fast making her mark at the crossroads of the St. Petersburg and Moscow traditions, her pristine clarity of movement melding seamlessly with the dramatic emphasis Moscow has long cultivated. Her “Diamonds" revealed an expansive, spellbinding young queen; her gift for tragedy, meanwhile, has found telling vehicles in Onegin and Lady of the Camellias.
Smirnova's career has skyrocketed, making her, at just 22, one of the Bolshoi's biggest draws. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
To get to this point, an unlikely number of stars had to align. Deemed the "physically perfect instrument of her art form" by English critic Luke Jennings, the revelatory harmony of Smirnova's lines speaks to the ruthless Vaganova training. Ballet in Russia is also a mental game, however. Self-possessed beyond her years, Smirnova has reaped the rewards of what she deems the most difficult decision of her life: refusing the Mariinsky and entrusting her career to Bolshoi director Sergei Filin.
Her choice reflects a seismic shift in Russian ballet, where ballerinas used to grow up and old in the company they were trained to join. The Mariinsky was always the logical step for Smirnova, a native of St. Petersburg. Her music-loving family had no connection to ballet: Her mother was an engineer, but when she noticed that Smirnova showed potential in dance, she decided to take her to the Vaganova Academy.
Smirnova in Onegin. Photo by Damir Yusupov.
Smirnova was accepted immediately, at age 10, and her talent didn't go unnoticed. Singled out as a leader for her age group early on, she found herself front and center in class, as is the Vaganova tradition, and faced with the burden of expectations. “It's huge psychological pressure for a kid," she explains matter-of-factly. “Others were allowed to make mistakes, but if I did the teacher would ask me: How could you? As they say, it's not easy to get to the top, but it's much harder to stay there." Less flexible than her classmates, she took extra weekend gymnastics classes to achieve the sky-high extensions now standard in Russia.
By the time she completed her training in 2011, Smirnova's reputation as a prodigy preceded her. Bolshoi director Sergei Filin made the trip to St. Petersburg to see her graduation performance, and soon the young dancer found herself with competing offers of a soloist position from the rival St. Petersburg and Moscow companies.
Joining the Bolshoi wasn't her initial choice, Smirnova says. Instead, she tentatively started to work at the Mariinsky without signing her contract, but found the atmosphere uninviting. “I felt the artistic director and the teachers weren't interested in nurturing new, young ballerinas. But Filin came up with a very logical plan. He wanted to involve me in the Bolshoi repertoire step by step, starting with variations, Queen of the Dryads, Myrtha—very important roles to prepare you."
With Semyon Chudin in "Diamonds." Photo by E. Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Filin kept his word, and Smirnova's move reasserted the changing balance of power in Russian ballet: While the Mariinsky's aura and attractiveness have faded over the past decade, the Bolshoi, for all its intrigue and scandals, remains at the top of its artistic game. Loneliness was inevitably a challenge for the young dancer, but the repertoire kept her fulfilled. Variations soon gave way to carefully chosen principal parts; in addition to debuts in La Bayadère and The Pharaoh's Daughter, she was cast by The Balanchine Trust in the Bolshoi premiere of "Diamonds" in her first season.
Absorbing the Bolshoi style proved Smirnova's most pressing task. While a growing number of Vaganova-trained dancers work in the company (including another Filin protégée, Evgenia Obraztsova), clear differences remain. Smirnova praises the purity of the Vaganova technique, but says Moscow has helped her develop endurance and strength under the tutelage of her coach, Marina Kondratieva.
The bold acting tradition was another challenge. Her hunger for new experiences and love of theater have helped her fit in, but Smirnova is still fine-tuning her approach. She reviews videos of her performances with her coach, critiquing and revising her choices. “When I first came here, everybody said: Here is another ballerina from St. Petersburg who will be cold and unemotional," she remembers. “I didn't understand what they meant—should you be crazy onstage? What's the limit? It's still an open question for me."
A passionate Nikiya in La Bayadère. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Despite her doubts, she has quickly become the face of the repertoire brought in by Filin. A feature of his directorship has been narrative ballets no Russian company had previously taken on, including Cranko's Onegin and Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias, and his young protégée has run with the opportunity. When we meet, a few days after her second Lady, she is visibly spent. “These ballets take a piece of your soul," she explains. “It's similar to the feelings you have after finishing a huge book. You live with the characters, and you feel an emptiness after them."
Smirnova's onstage maturity is mirrored by her levelheaded response to the pressure cooker she has found herself in. At the trial following Filin's acid attack, in an attempt to smear him, the defendants accused him of having an affair with Smirnova, an episode she has learned to laugh off.
The attack aside, Smirnova deems the atmosphere of intense competition at the Bolshoi the continuation of what she experienced at the Vaganova Academy. "You just have to prove that you're dancing a role because you're the best at that point. It's good, because it keeps you on your toes." Cliché or not, she is her own biggest critic, believing that she danced Odette/Odile too early, describing her interpretation as "too raw. I still don't truly, fully understand the role."
Photo by E. Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi.
Lately, she has found new roots in Moscow: Last summer, she married the son of Filin's former advisor, Dilyara Timergazina, in an Orthodox ceremony. Her husband, who works in finance, is her support system. “He completely understands that my life is in the theater now, and he gives me the strength to perform."
There is an uncanny purpose about Smirnova, but it would be a mistake to take her for a diva. “You can see that she doesn't position herself according to a title, a status," says Maillot. “She just asks: Can I do that, how can I do it, what can I learn?" She is on track to be one of the defining dancers of her generation, but her path may prove slightly different from other Russian superstars who have forged their own international brand away from company ties. “Everything I have done was given to me by the theater," she muses. “The Bolshoi is my home now, and for an artist, it's very important to have a home."
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in Paris.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
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Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.
"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.