Kristen McNally has long been one of the most versatile dramatic talents at The Royal Ballet. Since joining the company in 2002, the Liverpool-born dancer has carved a niche for herself by excelling at both character and contemporary roles, from Carabosse and the Queen in The Sleeping Beauty to work by Javier de Frutos or Hofesh Shechter.
Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.
Few ballets are as unforgiving for a young dancer as Swan Lake. Both Odette's heartbreak and Odile's deceit of Siegfried demand the kind of dramatic commitment and maturity that often come with experience. At the same time, when a director entrusts an 18-year-old corps de ballet member with the double role, the implicit promise is clear: A special ballerina will emerge from that chrysalis.
So it was with Alena Kovaleva, who turned 19 shortly after her Swan Lake debut, last September, on the historical stage of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Barely a year after her graduation from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Kovaleva isn't a full-fledged Swan Queen yet. At 5' 8", she is so tall that her coltish limbs sometimes falter, and she was visibly tiring by Odette's final pleas.
Kovaleva in "Swan Lake." Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.Yet when she first appeared in the white act with an ample grand jeté, her arms stretching into a gorgeously lyrical wingspan, it was clear that Makhar Vaziev, the Bolshoi's ballet director who had thrown Kovaleva in the deep end, was on to something. Kovaleva's filigree Vaganova training shone through, her doll-like face alive with sadness.
Vaziev is no stranger to pushing young talent beyond their comfort zone. The Russian director came to the Bolshoi in 2016 after long spells at the helm of La Scala Ballet and the Mariinsky Ballet, where he jump-started the careers of ballerinas including Alina Somova and Olesya Novikova in similar fashion. At the Bolshoi, which favored slower rises through the ranks in recent years, his methods are leading to a change of the guard, with Kovaleva one of the fresh faces of his directorship.
"It doesn't matter to me if someone is young or not so young," Vaziev says. "If he or she is the best, they will dance." Last July, he even cast Kovaleva in "Diamonds" at Lincoln Center for the 50th anniversary of Balanchine's Jewels. Her New York City debut didn't go unnoticed, with the Observer's dance critic Robert Gottlieb raving about its "ravishing splendor."
In his Moscow office after Swan Lake, Vaziev declared himself satisfied with his young charge: "Today was just a step. I think she did—not bad." Kovaleva herself, poised despite the exhaustion, admitted in near-impeccable English that leading her first full-length ballet was no walk in the park. "You have to hold yourself, to find this energy inside you. But the energy comes from the character. Every movement needs to be part of the story."
Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.Growing Pains—and Gains
The height that gives her such breadth of movement onstage hasn't always been an advantage. When the St. Petersburg–born Kovaleva entered the Vaganova Academy, at age 7, she struggled to build up strength. "I was really weak for the first five years. My legs were just two sticks without muscles," she says with a laugh. "My teachers were always telling me: Eat pasta, pasta, pasta!"
Kovaleva had almost given up her spot at the Academy. When she auditioned on a teacher's suggestion, she was shocked by the anxious stage mothers waiting for their children and told her family, who was far removed from the dance world: "I don't want to go here. These people are not normal. Everybody was shouting, crying."
At just 20 years old, Cesar Corrales has skyrocketed to principal at English National Ballet.
English National Ballet was midway through a precise but polite performance of William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated last spring when Cesar Corrales burst into view. The 20-year-old principal turned his solo, a minor one in Forsythe's ballet, into a blaze of technical power and audacious phrasing. The tension at London's Sadler's Wells ratcheted up several notches, and his colleagues joined in his contagious energy.
It wasn't the first time Corrales had raised the stakes on stage. In three short seasons with English National Ballet, he has gone from promising virtuoso to one of the British companies' most vital members. Even among the outstanding crop of men hired by artistic director and principal dancer Tamara Rojo, Corrales' feline technique and generous presence have stood out in ballets including Le Corsaire and Akram Khan's Giselle.
One of the first things you notice about Ingrid Lorentzen is her laugh—the Norwegian National Ballet director exudes warmth. It's obvious why, in 2012, she was appointed for the job, despite the fact that she was a leading dancer at NNB with little management experience. But Lorentzen knew it wouldn't all be smooth sailing. "I started my first speech by telling the company: 'I'm going to disappoint you all,' " she remembers with a chuckle.
That lucidity, along with her open-minded philosophy, has contributed to lifting the profile of Norway's national company, founded in 1958. As director, Lorentzen has challenged her 65 dancers with boundary-pushing new productions, from Alexander Ekman's water-filled A Swan Lake to ballets based on Scandinavian plays. Programmers have taken notice: This creative vibe and NNB's close relationship with Jirˇří Kylián have led to a series of international engagements.
Kylián's "Falling Angels." Photo by Erik Berg, Courtesy NNB.
There was total silence by the end of English National Ballet's first go at Pina Bausch's raw Rite of Spring, and much of the performance's success came down to a tiny dancer: Francesca Velicu. Handpicked to be The Chosen One, the Romanian corps member threw herself into the role with an innocence that made the ritual newly terrifying. "It brought me the most intense and emotional moments that I'll ever experience onstage," she says.
At just 19, Velicu is already walking in the footsteps of ballet's reigning Romanian star, her ENB colleague Alina Cojocaru. Born in Bucharest, Velicu earned top finishes at Youth America Grand Prix and completed her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In 2015, she joined the Romanian National Ballet under Johan Kobborg, who fast-tracked her: In one season, she danced Kitri, Theme and Variations and numerous soloist roles, honing her effervescent technique with breezy confidence.
To whom would you attribute your success?
My mom, because I trained privately with her. She pushed me to become what I am now, and she's one of the best teachers out there. She doesn't just go by her Bolshoi schooling: She's really good at finding what's right for you.
Was it a hindrance or a help to have famous parents in the ballet world?
It's 50/50. Sometimes it's great because they can pass on everything they know to me, but there are also moments when people recognize my name, and it's instant pressure. Some will look at me differently and wonder if I'm actually good enough. I had to prove myself through my work.
What's the least glamorous part of being a dancer?
Taking care of all your blisters and sore toenails. A Russian trick is to do a vodka compress overnight: You soak a bandage in vodka and wrap it around the toes that are hurting. You sleep with it, and it looks great in the morning, nice and wrinkly. It smells of vodka, but it really works!
Mukhamedov in Balanchine's Symphony in C (Photo by Angela Sterling).
What do you enjoy more: performing or being in the studio?
Performing, of course. It's like waiting and getting ready for your birthday party. The rehearsals are a hard process: It's a long wait for enjoyment.
What qualities do you admire most in other dancers?
A brain. Some say that a ballerina only needs good footwork, physical abilities, but I realized gradually that it's very important to have a good head on your shoulders. You go further if you think deeply about your roles.
What do you do to remain injury-free?
I always warm up properly, and I also have massages and water treatments to relax and soothe my body. Sometimes I go to the banya, a typical Russian sauna.
You created the lead role in Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew. What place does it have in your repertoire?
A very significant one. It's so precious when a ballet is made on you. So many dancers wait for that, try to find choreographers. If you are the very first person to do a role, it stays with you—and you stay in it, in a way.
When the Bolshoi Ballet visited New York in 2014, Soviet-era productions like Yuri Grigorovich's Swan Lake and Spartacus were on the menu. This summer, the company is taking a different approach under ballet director Makhar Vaziev, bringing fresh collaborations to the Lincoln Center Festival.
Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladimir Lantratov in "Shrew"Photo by Jack Devant, Courtesy of Lincoln Center
First the Bolshoi participated in the 50th anniversary celebration of Balanchine's Jewels last weekend alongside stars from New York City Ballet and the Paris Opéra Ballet. From July 26-30 Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew, created in Moscow in 2014, will have its American premiere. With 10 soloist roles, the witty, fast-paced version of Shakespeare's play is tailor-made for a brilliant new generation of Bolshoi stars, like Ekaterina Krysanova, Vladislav Lantratov and Olga Smirnova.The ballet was Maillot's first creation in two decades for a company other than his Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. "It has become emblematic of a form of renewal for the Bolshoi," says Maillot. "It's a showcase for these dancers."
Get a sneak peak of the premiere with these two beautiful trailers.