An interview with Daria Pavlenko, principal dancer of the Mariinsky Ballet

by Marc Haegeman

When, during the Kirov's large-scale engagement at London's Covent Garden in June 2000, the leading ballerina role in the Diamonds section of Balanchine's Jewels was danced by Daria Pavlenko, very few could have suspected that two days earlier the young dancer wasn't even aware she would be confronted so suddenly with this ballet.

Due to public demand, an extra performance of Jewels had been added to the Kirov's already busy performing schedule in London that summer. Yet, by a nasty twist of fate, none of the ballerinas scheduled to dance the lead in Diamonds, the ballet's final part, was available. Director Makhar Vaziev finally turned to Daria Pavlenko, who had remained mostly unnoticed so far, and asked her whether she could step in. She had never danced the ballet before, there was very little rehearsal time, but she said she would try it. She didn't disappoint.

Pavlenko's performance was indeed a remarkable one, shedding a fascinating light on Balanchine's homage to Petipa and the Imperial Ballet tradition immortalized by Suzanne Farrell. By its breath and intensity, Pavlenko's solidly Kirov-based reading readily revealed the latent drama in choreography and music, sublimating it into a sure reflection on Swan Lake.

Almost two years after this remarkable feat and nearly six years after she joined the Kirov Ballet, Daria Pavlenko at 23 is now one of the company's eye-catching ballerinas. During the Kirov tour to Washington D.C. last February, an American critic noticed the "soft and appealing authority" of her dancing style, while another reviewer thought "she signals a promising, poetic future for the company."

Again, this course of events was far from expected. Least of all a career in the Kirov. "I was born in Moscow", Pavlenko explains, "the last child of four. My parents weren't engaged in ballet or anything, but one of my sisters went to study at the Vaganova Academy in what was still Leningrad then. I just wanted to follow her example, I guess. I applied for the Moscow Choreographic Academy but I was rejected", adding with an impish glance, "because they thought I didn't have a proper stage face."

"Therefore my mother took me to Leningrad, to the Vaganova, where I had more luck. I studied the whole eight year course at the Academy, first with Olga Iskanderova, and the last three years with Elena Evteyeva, who is now also my repetiteur in the company. Following graduation I joined the Kirov Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet."

In fact, Daria Pavlenko's career followed a much more traditional path than is now common in the Kirov. Several years of corps de ballet work preceded more important assignments. Something which she considers a priceless advantage in a dancer's development: "All the older ballerinas, like Tatiana Terekhova, Galina Mezentseva, Altynai Asylmuratova, they all danced four or five years in the corps de ballet before becoming a soloist. Working in the corps is an invaluable asset for a budding dancer, because it allows you to learn the ballets and to have experienced artists who dance the solo parts in front of you as examples. That's really important."

While dancing countless swans, wilis, and fairies, Pavlenko started to prepare leading roles, like Maria in Zakharov's dram-ballet The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Gamzatti in La Bayadère, and Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. The first four seasons she worked under the guidance of Gabriella Komleva, one of the most distinguished ballerinas of the previous generation. Somehow the association with Komleva came to an early end. "It was a matter of personality, of character," says Pavlenko. "A relationship between teacher and pupil is a complex one and sometimes it just doesn't work out. Far from me to say that Komleva is not a good teacher, but it just didn't work between us." In the last two years she resumed working with her old Vaganova professor Elena Evteyeva.

Pavlenko admits to feel particularly attracted to story-ballets: "A ballerina should not only be a dancer, she should also be an actress." Giselle, which she first danced last season, falls obviously into that category. "Giselle is a masterpiece. Its characters are so rich and allow many different approaches. Even within this specific stylistical framework which gives Giselle its unique flavour, I think anybody can find himself in them. When I am preparing my roles I like to read about the characters. It's essential to become familiar with your character as much as possible, so that you feel totally comfortable on stage. After all ballet is not just well-executed pirouettes and a clean fifth position. For my first Giselle I watched several older performances on tape (like Ulanova, Markova, Fracci) and bought a lot of books. There is one book I found particularly interesting, with its many photos of a Giselle performance featuring Alicia Alonso and Vladimir Vasiliev. It was stunning to see the difference between Alonso's rehearsal and her actual performance - a real transformation. It also gave me ideas for my costumes and headdress. At my debut I was lucky to have Viktor Baranov as Albrecht. He has a great deal of experience and his Albrecht was really in love with me. This helped me a lot. It goes without saying that in Giselle a rapport between the leading characters is of vital importance. After the performance people came to tell me that what they saw on stage was not acted at all, it looked just real! And that was a beautiful compliment."

At the same time Pavlenko is fascinated by the work of contemporary choreographers like Kylian, Neumeier, Forsythe, and Ek, or the young Russian hope Alexei Ratmansky of whom she danced the taxing Middle Duet. She approves of the Mariinsky's current open-doors policy, even if she remains fully aware of the particular problems the introduction of new choreographies may present: "I think new choreography is necessary for the freedom of the body. Nothing wrong with the old classical choreography, but for young dancers it's important to have new things as well. Once you have done some modern works, you will approach the classics in a different way. Personally, I feel quite good about that and also freer. I don't think it's harmful for the traditional ballets."

"What is however something to consider is the programming", Pavlenko continues. "I might be wrong, but I don't know whether it's such a good thing to have all these different choreographies mixed. In our theatre the programme is changed daily. Our bodies don't have the time to adjust. In western theatres they work with blocks of performances, two weeks of Nutcrackers, three weeks of Balanchine, and so on. That's a completely different approach. Also, somebody like William Forsythe likes to prepare his dancers for several weeks, even months in a row. But with our tight schedule in the theatre we aren't able to do that."

"Balanchine is different and a challenge for us. Our theatre needs to have Balanchine, of course, although I don't think it's a good idea to have so much of him, especially when we don't have the proper time to prepare and to become familiar with the works. For our last Balanchine programme with Prodigal Son, Theme and Variations and Serenade we had two weeks of rehearsal. And that's not enough. When you see Baryshnikov and Kirkland in Theme you realize that two weeks cannot possibly be sufficient."

When I mention the enthusiastic Russian review which stated right after the premiere of the last Balanchine programme that the Mariinsky Theatre might soon become famous as "the home of Balanchine", Pavlenko replied laughingly: "When we first heard that we would dance Prodigal Son, we already couldn't believe it! I do think we should try ballets like Concerto Barocco or Agon, but these are far from obvious territory for us. So let's wait until we get there."

On the other hand, she feels more sceptical regarding the Mariinsky's efforts to reconstruct the great classics by going back to the early 20th-century notations of the ballets. In the new/old Sleeping Beauty Pavlenko dances the Lilac Fairy and Princess Florine. "To be honest, I much preferred the previous production we had, the Konstantin Sergeyev version. For one thing the new/old Petipa is not a very musical version to dance, so it makes me doubt whether this is really Petipa. In the variation of Florine in the Blue Bird pas de deux for instance, the movement is no longer on the beat in the reconstructed version. That Petipa and Tchaikovsky, who worked so closely together on Beauty should have intended something like this, is quite inconceivable. And then there is this whole "ancient" atmosphere with the heavy costumes, the wigs, and everything. Pretty soon there is going to be a new "historic" La Bayadère as well. I really don't know why we need it."

After six seasons with the Kirov Pavlenko's repertoire has already become quite extensive and varied. Recently she appeared as the Siren in Prodigal Son, and performed the demanding leading roles in Raymonda and Grigorovich's Legend of Love. Yet, it accounts for a certain artistic maturity that she doesn't think a dancer should try anything. "Sometimes you see a certain ballerina tackle a role which doesn't suit her at all. Yet, I understand that for some dancers this is not an issue. They just don't seem to care about emploi. Personally I would never feel comfortable in La Sylphide for example. It's a great ballet, I have seen fantastic interpreters of the role, like Evdokimova, Evteyeva, Kolpakova, but it's not for me."

Pavlenko admits to have other interests besides her ballet career. She is fond of history, tries to read a lot and hopes one day to study it seriously. The little time there is on the tours with the Kirov she uses to explore the cities, visit museums, "because I rest when I see something beautiful." Music also has a dominant part in her life. Classical music, especially when she gets down - it doesn't matter what, but she has a soft spot for Bruckner's 7th and Tchaikovsky's 6th - but also rock - U2, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Natalie Imbruglia, Sinead O'Connor.

Yet when dance is mentioned, it's very clear what carries her predilection. "It's the air that I breathe, it's my oxygen. I cannot live without it. When I don't dance I feel bad, I feel empty. Now, I find real pleasure in my work, and not only when I am performing on stage. In the beginning I had a difficult time, it wasn't fun. It was stressful and I couldn't cope with the amount of information. Now, however, I long for the theatre and work. It feels good. I really feel comfortable."

One enormous regret, though. Her parents are dead. Her father died when she was three, her mother when she was ten. "They never saw me on stage."

December 2001.

Interview with  Daria Pavlenko © 2001 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance International Summer/Fall 2002, pp. 44-45 and reproduced here with permission.
Copyright © 2000-2016. All rights reserved.