An interview with Maria Alexandrova, principal ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet

* This interview dates from January 2003, when Alexandrova was still listed as 1st Soloist with the Bolshoi. She became a principal in 2004.

Maria Alexandrova is undoubtedly one of the most gifted talents to emerge on the Moscow ballet scene in the last five or six years. She is among those rare dancers of today whose commanding stage presence and superb technique - highlighting in Alexandrova's case a soaring jump and extraordinary ballon - readily convey a captivating dramatic intensity. Audiences and critics, in Russia as well as abroad, have been quick to single her out as the Bolshoi's most distinctive young ballerina of the new century.

Already in 1999 the Russian dance critic Konstantin Sergeyev thought the up-and-coming dancer (she was then 20) had "all the instincts of a prima ballerina". Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post after seeing her as Kitri in June 2000: "In her astoundingly strong and exuberant, performance, one saw the makings of a significant artist." Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times dubbed Alexandrova "a golden girl, a streamlined dancer with the extraordinary Bolshoi spring in her leaps. She has beautiful placement, flair and sex appeal." Alexandra Tomalonis wrote in the Washington Post, reviewing the Bolshoi's La Bayadère at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in June 2002: "Maria Alexandrova was technically invincible in the role of the jealous princess, Gamzatti. Her jumps were extraordinarily high even in this company of jumpers, and the audience exploded with applause after her rapid turns in the betrothal scene's final solo." Kisselgoff added in the New York Times: "The bright star among the soloists is certainly Maria Alexandrova, who infuses her perfectly shaped classical style with a contemporary energy."

Now, at 24 and after five seasons with the Bolshoi, Maria Alexandrova has also proven to be a versatile ballerina, resisting by spirit and mentality any typecasting or obvious categorization. Her technical brilliance shouldn't fool anybody: "I know I can do two or three pirouettes well", Alexandrova says, "but I have never attempted four on stage. What for? I solve the technical problems demanded by the role and I do not get carried away by tricks." In any case, Alexandrova's artistic potential seems far from being exhausted.

Maria Alexandrova © Marc Haegeman
Maria Alexandrova was born in Moscow and although her parents had no connections with the ballet world, she started dancing at the age of four in an amateur dance ensemble, not even realizing that dancing could be more than a hobby. "One day", Alexandrova recalls, "I saw a documentary about the Vaganova School on TV and I suddenly understood that dance could be seriously studied as well." It finally made her decide to audition for the famous Moscow Choreographic Academy at nine, not even old enough to join the first grade. She was accepted in a preparatory class.

When asked about how she remembers her teachers at the Academy, Alexandrova readily admits that "they all gave me something, and in the end they altogether formed the dancer I am today. The first three years I studied with Ludmila Kolenchenko. She taught us discipline, respect for our profession, and self-respect. We were her children, but she already imprinted in our minds that our profession is a very serious and difficult one, and that we would have to invest a lot into it. The discipline was rather harsh. Yet, with hindsight, I understand that no matter how painful and even cruel it was towards the children, it had its results." Her second teacher during the following two years was Larissa Dobrzhan, who "paid more attention to our womanly appearance and taught us that we have to attract the attention of the public not only by our technique, but also by our overall appearance on stage". Finally, there was Sofia Golovkina, a famous Bolshoi ballerina in her time, "who continued to polish our stage presence and acting gifts. It's not about showing you are a nice baby-doll who is able to do something with her arms and legs. It's the feeling of aplomb, so you can walk there on stage and forget about everything. You need to feel like being the only one on stage, with all eyes pointed towards you."

Maria Alexandrova graduated in 1996 but was advised to stay at the Academy for another year to prepare for international ballet competitions. At the prestigious Moscow competition in 1997 she won a gold medal, an achievement she is however quick to put into perspective: "The main thing is not to be the first, but to be the best. A dance competition is closer to sports, and many random circumstances can have their impact on the outcome. It's not always good to be the first. I became the first that time, but not everything was that good and there were surely some mistakes. You need to try to become better."

Soon afterwards she joined the Bolshoi Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet. Not before long, though, Alexandrova was seen dancing small solos and at the end of 1997, still in her first season, then Bolshoi director Vladimir Vasiliev selected her for the role of Myrtha in his new production of Giselle. A further important moment came in March 1999 when Alexandrova was cast in the third movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C, followed by the leading roles of the Empress Catherine in Boris Eifman's The Russian Hamlet and Kitri in Don Quixote in early 2000. In Pierre Lacotte's reconstruction of Petipa's La fille du Pharaon she made a strong impression as the Nubian slave Ramze, a role for which she received a nomination for the Golden Mask, Russia's highest award for performing arts. (Eventually the ballet was taken out of competition following a management shuffle at the Bolshoi.)

Alexandrova is preparing her roles under the guidance of Tatiana Golikova, another distinguished Bolshoi ballerina of the previous generation. Alexandrova firmly believes in the strength and value of the Bolshoi tradition: "This method refined through the ages, with retired dancers acting as the teachers of the younger dancers, this succession of generations, is so strong that the Bolshoi Ballet can even exist without a strong leader or a skilled director". "At School", Alexandrova continues, "Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova were our idols. We stood paralyzed when we happened to run into them in the theatre. I watched ballerinas like Ekaterina Maximova, Ludmilla Semenyaka, and Natalia Bessmertnova. When we grew up, our idols were Nadezhda Gracheva and Galina Stepanenko. We used to go and see their performances full of admiration for their talent. Ballerinas and dancers were like gods to us and the Bolshoi Theatre was something like Mount Olympus."

Even now, as a soloist at the Bolshoi, she doesn't hide her admiration for the company as an ensemble: "First of all, there is a very strong and well-defined corps de ballet. I consider it to be the best in the world. Next, there is the overall high level of performance, from corps de ballet to soloists. Our performances are thoroughly prepared and done with much sense of taste and respect of style. For example, Kitri in Don Quixote doesn't have to be aggressive and push Gamache around. Kitri is a lively character, but she is not Carmen. I find it somewhat vulgar when Kitri pulls up her skirts as she does in some other companies."

Recently, Alexandrova was cast in roles as different as Bournonville's Sylphide and the wicked Aegina in Grigorovich's Spartacus, and convinced in both. Alexandrova herself has a very flexible attitude towards emploi. "Without denying its necessity, I am against attaching emploi like a tag to a dancer without ever letting him try something different. It happened more than once before that somebody couldn't see a dancer in a certain role which was accordingly refused for a certain time, until finally he was cast in it and the performance proved a revelation. You have to try everything before you can precisely determine if you can do something better than others. Honestly, I don't know if I can do it or not, until I actually tried it. For instance I would even like to try Giselle. They say I am a good Myrtha, but I think that one would not harm the other. I am not saying it's going to be a great success, but I would want to try it. Some artists feel at ease and even open up within certain boundaries, yet others feel constricted by them."

However, the restricted number of ballet performances (opera takes half of the season) at the Bolshoi, the competition between the many leading dancers in the company, prevent that anything will come her way easily. She doesn't exactly lack work, as Alexandrova appears in almost every ballet performance in a minor part like one of the Prince's friends and the Spanish bride in Swan Lake, or the first variation in the final pas de deux of Don Quixote, it's the inconstancy of the casting policy regarding the soloists which proves a daily struggle.

Moreover, Alexandrova rightly points the finger at the rather slapdash way the theatre has been managing the repertory in recent seasons, preventing soloists from growing into their roles. In the years she has been with the Bolshoi, newly acquired ballets like Symphony in C and The Russian Hamlet were shelved after only a few performances. The frequent jostle at the Bolshoi top isn't very helpful either. "The Bolshoi Theatre is a peculiar organisation", she adds. "It seems to me that at this moment the administration plays a key role, and not the artistic management or the choreographer. The choreographer doesn't always have his choice of dancers. Take our work with Boris Eifman, for example. He hardly had any idea who I was when he started staging The Russian Hamlet. This role was simply assigned to me. Some time later another ballerina showed up and I was moved to the second cast."

To Alexandrova it is clear that the company should broaden its repertory: "We should have a reasonable mix of classical and modern ballets in the repertory. No problem about that. Ballet is much like real life: you need to have diversity in food, but you shouldn't overeat. Dancing modern works allows you to have a better control over your body. After that you no longer have to think that often whether you can make a certain movement in the classics or not. Performing the modern ballets of Eifman and Ratmansky was really profitable." The availability of two theatres at this moment during the renovation of the old Bolshoi building creates an unexpected opportunity: "We could show the great classics on the main stage and use the smaller stage for chamber performances and experimental works."

When asked what interests her besides ballet, she replies: "I spend most of my time with ballet - this beautiful, but very difficult, profession. And it is a wonderful profession: today, I may be a slave in ancient Egypt, tomorrow, an 18th century queen, and the day after tomorrow, Balanchine's ballerina in the 20th century, and then again an innkeeper's daughter, or the head of a Roman Legion. What other girl in the 21st century can afford all that, and be so different? This is my game, and I play it with pleasure. I do have to spend some time for something else, though, frequently at the cost of sleep. There are videos, books, museums, movies, young men, and shops - You have to look good, after all."

January 2003.

Interview with  Maria Alexandrova Copyright © 2010 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance International Summer 2003, pp. 42-43 and reproduced here with permission.

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