Last weekend, the Mariinsky Ballet announced on its website that one of its most revered prima ballerinas, Uliana Lopatkina, has retired from the stage. A principal dancer since 1995, Lopatkina's interpretation of Odette/Odile and "The Dying Swan", among other roles, was legendary. To honor her dance career, we're re-visiting this interview from the February/March 2013 issue.
What's the toughest part of being a dancer?
More than most professions, ballet erodes the private sphere. You don't fulfill yourself in this career: You serve it; you're a slave to it.
What ballet makes you most nervous?
Swan Lake. Even if it's not the most difficult ballet to perform, it's difficult in another way, a mystical way.
(Photo by Erik Tomasson)
You trained partly at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. What's the most important thing you got out of that experience?
The opportunity to go to Russia at age 16. Oleg Vinogradov, the director at the time, chose me to be an apprentice with the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet. I worked with Andris Liepa and Ninel Kurgapkina, and took class next to ballerinas like Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina. It was an honor.
Since then, you spent your entire career at San Francisco Ballet. How have you grown as a dancer?
When I first came I was very focused on technique. I was 18, in the corps, and all of a sudden I was Sugar Plum. At this point 20 years later, I'm focused on the emotional aspects of my performance. I'm not concerned about how many turns I'm going to do, or how long I'm going to balance.
How do you prepare for full-length ballets?
You're celebrating 25 years with the National Ballet of Canada. What makes it home?
I wanted to join the National Ballet because it had one of the best repertoires in the world. We do all the staples of the classical canon and yet get to work with amazing creators like Jirˇí Kylián, William Forsythe, Glen Tetley and all the iconic choreographers of the 21st century. I still feel that way.
What have you learned that could be helpful for young professionals?
Look around and really watch the people around you. I can't tell you how important that was for me, to have so many great dancers to learn from. You can absorb a lot by watching, you don't always have to do.
Your tenure has spanned three directors. Do you have tips for surviving directorial changeover?
Staatsballett Berlin's Iana Salenko on guestings, salsa music and her knack for design.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I'm a tiny dancer, so to dance roles for tall ballerinas I would never have dreamed about, like Swan Lake—I'm very proud that I managed to get them.
What's the hardest thing about guesting with other companies, like The Royal Ballet?
Murphy with Johnathan Jordan. Photo by Theo Kossenas, courtesy The Washington Ballet.
The Washington Ballet's Ashley Murphy isn't afraid to step outside her comfort zone.
Why did you make the move from Dance Theatre of Harlem to The Washington Ballet?
I had been at DTH for 13 years, and I wanted to see what else was out there. I felt like it was time for me to experience other choreography and a bigger company setting.
Has the change helped you grow as a dancer?
Definitely. At DTH, they knew me and trusted me with a lot of principal roles. Here, I had to work my way back up. I'm more of a performer onstage than in the studio, so it was hard for me to show them what I could do. But the people around me were so encouraging, which helped my confidence. As my first year went on, things got better.
Do you prefer the consistency of doing the same show eight times a week or the variety of mixed rep?
I like both. I’m a creature of habit, so I completely took to the Broadway lifestyle. What’s nice about it is that you know your show: you know the little moments you’ve got to tackle, and other than that you just have fun. And coming back now, I’m definitely loving City Ballet’s schedule. A lot of these ballets I’ve been doing for a decade. Now I’m excited to do them again; everything feels fresh.
Do you have any advice for students wanting to be professional dancers?
If it doesn’t happen the way you thought it was going to happen, there’s always going to be another audition or another year. Try not to let discouragement hold you back from continuing to work hard, because that’s what gets you to where you need to go.
New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild brings lessons from Broadway to her performances.
You took a year off to perform on Broadway as Ivy Smith in On the Town. What did you learn from that experience?
If I’m not being classical I can be kind of a goofy dancer, so it was a good push for me. And dancing for a different audience, where it’s purely based on how much fun everybody’s having, takes the emphasis off being technically perfect. That was something I held on to a little too tightly before. I learned that just being me is enough.
What role do you find particularly challenging?
The Cuckoo Bird in Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing! He’s very specific about the steps and the timing he wants—it’s a whole new vocabulary for me. The costume has heavy wings that “whoosh” as you turn. During my first show I fell. Then the next show, I fell again. To get out there and try a third time after falling twice was a fun challenge, but a difficult one.
What do you still hope to dance?
My biggest dream is to someday be in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. I’m trying to grow my hair out for it. More than anything, I absolutely love to hear the audience laugh.
You’re a math and economics major at Fordham University. What do you like about math?
I like the discipline of it, and that you can use its tools every time you approach a problem: If you do this step, this step, and this step, you’ll get to an answer. It’s like ballet: If you do this, this, and this, you’ll do a good triple pirouette. It’s just the way my brain works.
What inspired you to start your weekly “Ask Megan!” podcast?
When I was finishing my Broadway run, I thought about starting a blog. I had done some interviews for the “Balancing Pointe” podcast with Kimberly Falker, and we collaborated to create “Ask Megan!” I didn’t want to just talk about myself—I wanted to advise. It’s been a way to give back.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
I enjoy the Kardashians from time to time. It makes me feel better about my life!
You’ve been a muse to Liam Scarlett. What’s your relationship like?
I owe him a rebirth. He completely gets me as a dancer. In a place where I’ve sometimes felt I was too different, he made me fit. His work took me back to all the training at The Royal Ballet School’s White Lodge: quick footwork, the use of the pointe shoe, the bending.
What’s the toughest part of being a dancer?
When you find something about yourself that you can’t change. Until you accept it and start using it for the best and not against yourself, you can be miserable.
Is there anything about your body you would change?
There are things that others wanted to change about my body, and for years there were things that I hated about it. I learned to understand that I shouldn’t hate it, because there really is nothing wrong. If I had a different this or that, I’d be a different person.
Even as a principal, you dance a number of soloist roles. How do you handle that?
I love those roles. I don’t have an issue with it. With the lead Harlot in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, it’s my way of interacting with the company. Because you’re with the corps, you get to know people, you see what the young dancers have to offer. If those roles stop you from doing work of your own rank, however, it can be a problem.
What’s your biggest indulgence?
Going to healing retreats in Thailand, on Ko Samui island. I’ve gone on four or five. There’s an energy about the place, a bit like “Lost”—without the scary bit! They helped take off the layers that I’d built around me.
What’s your most prized possession?
My dad’s wedding ring, which I now wear around my neck, with a little heart that we designed after his death.
What advice would you have for young dancers on handling their relationship with their director?
Really believe in what you have, go and ask, but don’t play games. At the end of the day, what you want is to be onstage. Try to be nice to the director, but also be heard.