Stars Behind the Stars

Three top ballerinas salute the coaches who've helped shape their artistry.
Published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue.

Irina Kolpakova and Paloma Herrera rehearse on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

Coaches help ballerinas refine their approach to a role. Over time, a bond can be forged as dancer and coach strive together toward a better result. Many of the greatest ballerinas credit their coaches with their success. When former American Ballet Theatre prima Susan Jaffe retired, she laid a bouquet of roses at the feet of her coach, Irina Kolpakova. Today, ABT’s Paloma Herrera works almost exclusively with Kolpakova, a former Kirov ballerina and ABT ballet master. Natalia Magnicaballi has done the same with the legendary Suzanne Farrell since she joined The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 1999. Sarah Lamb, a principal with The Royal Ballet since 2006, works with ballet master Alexander Agadzhanov on her roles in the classics. Here is what these ballerinas have to say about the coaches who have provided them with invaluable guidance.
 

Paloma Herrera  

I joined ABT 20 years ago. The first variation I learned with the company was Amor in Don Quixote. Irina has been with me since the very first day—literally. She knows me inside out. I completely trust her. Whatever she says I will do, but I can ask her why to understand better. For me, it’s an amazing feeling because I always have those eyes on me during every performance. I’ve done ballets like Swan Lake and Don Q a lot. It’s great to go into the studio with those roles and know that we can take them somewhere else. She doesn’t say, “You have to do it this way and that’s the only way to do it.”   

Nobody knows you better than the coach who works with you all the time. They are going to tell you the truth. It is that working process that I love. You can go in the studio and rehearse a lot, but it’s not the same as having someone you can trust. Irina was an incredible dancer, but as a coach she always wants you to be as good as you can be. For dancers it is really important to keep pushing in every direction.

Irina has a lot of energy. She is always showing all the steps with such feeling. She sometimes says, “My English is so bad,” but I can understand right away what she is trying to say. It’s her being, the energy she gives the room. Even working on ballets like Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper and The Bright Stream—the choreography is so full—it’s a whole new way of dancing, of how to move. We found it together.

Natalia Magnicaballi
Working with Ms. Farrell inspires and nourishes me as an artist. Sometimes she will raise her hand right in front of me without saying a word and I’ll know exactly what she means, or with a few words she will give me the “feeling” of the role she is passing on, so I can think how to approach it. I feel it’s all about trust; you know she will always tell you what is best for you.

Something that I love about working with her is that she triggers my imagination and instincts as a dancer. She doesn’t want me to dance any ballet the way she or other dancers did. She encourages and guides me to find my way to make the ballets my own. With her, it’s very rare to watch a video to learn a ballet—she passes them directly to me.
               
Mr. Balanchine is regarded as the father of American ballet and Ms. Farrell as his muse. Through her passion, love and commitment, she has opened my eyes and heart to Mr. Balanchine’s fascinating worlds. His ballets, his legacy are handed directly to me from her. For me, as a ballerina, it’s more than special; it’s an honor.
 
Sarah Lamb
Alexander Agadzhanov is Ukrainian and had the same training I did—my teacher and coach was Tatiana Nicolaevna Legat of the Kirov—so I understand him. We have the same approach to classical roles, the same exacting nature and the same feeling of continuity. I don’t know the exact translation into English, but in Russian the word “cantilena” means grace and fluidity and plasticity, which are what make dance—all the steps in between, all the linking and preparations that accumulate and produce the image of liquidity.
          
Alexander demonstrates a lot, and partners me to show my partners how he wants them to do a certain step with me. He is always on his feet showing rather than telling. Sometimes I put too much force or energy into something when he knows if I attack it less I will sail around in a pirouette rather than turning quickly and finishing abruptly. He is really observant and can see not only what has gone wrong, but how it has gone wrong and then he corrects it. He isn’t pedantic, he won’t overanalyze. He simply says what is needed to ameliorate it. 

I feel I’ve grown in every role I have done with Alexander. He doesn’t impose his thoughts on me, but he will discuss certain points where he thinks I should change something and he always has a good reason. Often something that will work in close proximity doesn’t work in a theater and he has a real sense of theatricality and knows what is effective. Having a coach is a privilege—like having a private tutor. It’s a wonderful tradition in ballet.

Joseph Carman, a frequent contributor to Pointe, is author of Round About The Ballet.