Tiny Dancer, Giant Career

October 31, 2015

Iana Salenko didn’t let her height keep her from becoming a sought-after guest ballerina.

A principal at 18, Salenko later joined Staatsballett Berlin as a demi-soloist to dance with her husband. Photo by Nathan Sayers. Leotard from Maldire Dancewear. 


As she waits for her cover shoot
to get underway, Iana Salenko looks tiny and unassuming in the makeup chair. In front of the lens, however, the ballerina that comes out is all glamorous confidence. In a tutu from Don Quixote, her polished lines snap into place for the click. When the photographer suggests a pose, she studies it quietly; she looks ready to whip out triple fouettés, but is equally happy to play on the floor. This good-natured work ethic—along with a technique that seems to combine flowing Russian lyricism with the eerily precise small steps favored in Europe—has made the Ukraine-born ballerina a force to be reckoned with.

At 32, Salenko is a shining example of the jet-setting careers afforded to ballet stars in the 21st century. Contrary to current wisdom, her petite frame (she is a touch over 5′ 2″) has helped make her a sought-after guest ballerina, dancing alongside partners such as Steven McRae and Daniil Simkin. As a principal with the Staatsballett Berlin and regular guest with The Royal Ballet, as well as a staple at galas and festivals worldwide, her life has become a steady balancing act.

Salenko was introduced to gymnastics and folk dancing at a young age by her parents, who worked in a restaurant but loved both disciplines. When her father took her to a dance school in Kiev when she was 12, the teacher asked if she’d be interested in ballet. Despite her late start, Salenko thrived. “I think it was the best age because I knew I wanted to do it, and I gave everything,” she says.

Salenko is known for her rock-solid turns, precise footwork—and gorgeous legs. Photo by Bettina Stöß, courtesy Staatsballett Berlin.

After just two years, she was invited to the Vaganova Ballet Academy, but her mother deemed it too far from home. Instead, Salenko moved to Vadim Pisarev’s school in Donetsk, 400 miles from Kiev, with her brother. It was a lonely environment for the 14-year-old, who was told by one teacher she was too small to become a ballerina,
and she developed an eating disorder. “I was really fanatical, and I stopped eating,” she says. She became so weak that she sustained a dangerous back injury. The director of the school, Pisarev’s sister, took her under her wing. “She fed me, took care of me, brought me to therapy. She gave me love, and then I started recovering.”

Once she was healthy, Pisarev decided she was better off finishing her schooling in his company. “I was 16, and he said, You will get everything in the theater,” she says. There, he pushed her, giving her roles like Kitri in
Don Quixote
. At 18, however, wanting to be closer to her family, she moved back to Kiev, where the National Ballet of Ukraine offered her a position as principal.

She was on course to take over
the repertoire when she met her future husband, German dancer Marian Walter, at a competition in Vienna in 2004. Both won first prize, and fell in love in the wings, communicating in broken English. Salenko auditioned for Staatsballett Berlin, where Walter was based, but was refused by director Vladimir Malakhov. Instead of giving up, Walter asked Salenko to marry him. Meanwhile, Diana Vishneva, who had guested with Salenko’s home company, intervened in her favor, telling Malakhov her height would be an asset. Salenko received a contract as demi-soloist in 2005, and proved herself in the title role of Malakhov’s Cinderella, reaching principal status in 2007. “When I got demi-soloist, it made me work harder to improve,” Salenko says. “If you get everything too fast at the beginning of your career, it can get boring.”

Her profile rose with star turns in Berlin’s classical premieres, including reconstructions of
La Esmeralda
and Nutcracker. Last winter, new Berlin director Nacho Duato chose her as first-cast Aurora for his Sleeping Beauty.

On the side, invitations to guest abroad started piling up, many from friends made at international competitions. In 2013, she was even featured in a Baileys Irish Cream commercial. While she is signed to David Makhateli’s
D&D agency, Salenko books most of her gigs on her own. She recently traded
her Ukrainian passport for a German one, in part to make travel easier.

Salenko relishes the challenge of getting accustomed to new companies, whether in Croatia, Russia or Italy. “At home, you know everyone, each personality,” she says. “Elsewhere, it’s like the first day of kindergarten: People are curious, excited to see you onstage.” She also thrives on taking corrections from various coaches and dancing with new partners: “It makes my brain work: How can I help him, how can I be more on my leg?” 

Her partnership with Steven McRae also grew out of galas. After McRae talked to The Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare about Salenko, she guested in London for the first time in 2013 in Don Quixote, and their partnership has blossomed into a meeting of minds as well as body types, as their heights complement each other perfectly. “We challenge each other onstage. We always try to add something extra—more turns, longer balances,” Salenko says. McRae adds, “Stepping onstage with Iana is completely different from anyone else. She is extremely calm. Her relaxed energy is contagious and is truly a wonderful gift.”

Salenko with husband Marian Walter. This month, Staatsballett Berlin performs works by Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin and Jiri Kilián, plus Nutcracker and Onegin.

Juggling traveling with her life in Berlin
is no small feat, however, as Salenko and Walter have a 7-year-old son, Marley, born just after Malakhov promoted her to principal. “It was a big step because I was just 24,” she says, “and it was so hard to come back after, but it’s made me want everything even more in my career.”

Salenko declined a full-time contract with The Royal to allow her son to continue his schooling in Germany, but the company has welcomed her nonetheless as an ongoing guest artist, with debuts scheduled in
Romeo and Juliet, Nutcracker
and Ashton’s The Two Pigeons this season. She giggles when she explains that she felt right at home at The Royal, a company known for relatively small dancers. Salenko usually has only one week of rehearsals before performances, but finds it actually helps her. “When you prepare for two months, you get too used to the steps.”

Commuting between her quiet Berlin house, next to a forest and just 10 minutes from the theater, and London’s Royal Opera House is made easier by her love of sewing, she says. She likes to replicate costumes from photos, and works on her latest creations on the plane to relax.

And at 32, Salenko is finally at peace with her height. In December, she will guest on the Shanghai Ballet’s Amsterdam tour in
Swan Lake
; the ballet most identified with tall ballerinas has become one of her calling cards. “Odette/Odile was my biggest dream, and companies now invite me for it,” she says. “I realized I can dance with any guy, tall or small.” In her case, one size fits all. 

Laura Cappelle, based in Paris, is a frequent contributor to
Dance Magazine.

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