Dancing for Joy

Triumphing over a traumatic injury, The Royal’s Alina Cojocaru finds a new passion for performing.
Published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Alina Cojocaru stood ankle deep in flowers as showers of blossoms sailed onto the Royal Opera House stage. Fellow dancers and the conductor tripped over bouquets as they took their turns to bow, and Cojocaru smiled gratefully at them, and at her partner, Johan Kobborg, as he lifted yet another armful and laid them at her feet.

 

It was late April 2009, and the ballerina had just delivered a performance of Giselle that would by any standard have been one of the greatest accounts of this role. Her heart-wrenching portrayal of the simple peasant girl, betrayed by the man she has fallen in love with, had shown a Giselle who was innocent and vulnerable, yet also full of life and joy, expressed in an irresistible desire to dance. The beautiful lines and extensions of Act II, Cojocaru’s ability to give a wraithlike, weightless quality to every movement, transformed that flesh-and-blood reality into a shimmering image of enduring love.

 

But the evening wasn’t just another gracefully acknowledged performance in a ballerina’s glorious career. It was the first time that the Romanian-born Royal Ballet principal had appeared onstage after a year-long absence, caused by a whiplash injury that had threatened to derail her career permanently at the age of 26.

 

“I couldn’t sleep properly, or laugh, let alone dance,” Cojocaru said soberly as she sat in a Covent Garden office last summer and recounted her injury. “I had to flip in the air and land on my back in my partner’s arms. He was very strong, but somehow it went wrong. For 10 years I had danced and danced, always focused on getting everything better, always living for the future. And then suddenly I couldn’t do anything.” 

 

In fact, Cojocaru—like most dancers, used to working through pain—didn’t immediately call a halt to her performances. Since being made a Royal Ballet principal in 2001, she had kept up a punishing schedule, dancing perhaps the broadest range of roles of any ballerina in her own company, and also appearing frequently with international troupes. Dancing for the pure pleasure of it was not high on her list.

 

“I was always pushing, pushing,” Cojocaru said. “I felt I had to dance everything; I never thought about saving anything for the future. It was always about getting better every day at what I do.”

 

Cojocaru, who seems even tinier than her 5 feet 2 inches in person, has pale skin and the kind of small-featured face that can look plain one moment, beautiful the next. At a quick glance, she looks much younger than her 29 years, and she speaks perfectly idiomatic English with a soft, little-girl voice. But although her manner is gentle, her single-minded intensity of focus is clear when she speaks about her dancing, and she has a reputation for demanding the perfectionism from her colleagues that she requires of herself.

 

“Alina is one of the most honest people that I know,” says Kobborg, with whom she has formed a transcendent onstage partnership, and with whom she has been romantically involved for many years. “She doesn’t try to pretend to be someone else, and that’s what really moves people in her dancing. I think her injury has made her realize that she doesn’t want to waste time with people who are not the best for whatever job they have to do.”

 

Cojocaru’s unusual history suggests that she has always possessed extraordinary inner strength. She grew up in Bucharest, the youngest daughter of a grocer and a seamstress. A family friend suggested she try ballet, and she was accepted at the Romanian Ballet School, but was promptly chosen for an exchange with the Kiev Ballet School in Ukraine.

 

“I don’t know how my parents let me go,really,” she said. “It was 1990, a year after the revolution in Romania, and we were some of the first kids to get passports. I couldn’t remember a day without my sister or my parents, and I had no real idea of what ballet was, but apparently I was excited to go. Then suddenly, as the train pulled out, I realized that I was leaving home.”

 

For the first year in Kiev, the Romanian children were accompanied everywhere by a translator and spent three hours a day studying Russian, only speaking to their families during weekly prearranged calls. Then, a few months after arriving, they were taken to see Giselle. It was the first ballet Cojocaru had ever seen.

 

“Until then, I was doing the exercises without understanding why,” she said. “I think that’s when I really fell in love with this profession. I threw myself into working.”

 

Without much exposure to other companies, Cojocaru assumed that she would join the Kiev Ballet. But her teachers began to enter her in international competitions, and after winning prizes in Moscow and Nagoya, Japan, she was awarded a scholarship to a school of her choice at the Prix de Lausanne. “I had no idea what I’d won,” she said. “I didn’t speak English, French, anything. My teacher said I should go to The Royal Ballet School, so that’s what I did.”

 

Cojocaru spent six months at the school, where she felt at home with the many Russian teachers and picked up a good deal of English. Then the Kiev Ballet called, offering her the position of principal. She was just 16. Although Anthony Dowell, then the director of The Royal Ballet, subsequently offered her a corps de ballet spot, the lure of dancing principal roles was too great.

 

In Kiev, she danced the ballerina roles in Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Nutcracker. But she soon became aware that she needed more. “After a year of performing, I looked ahead at the next season, and I saw everything was the same,” she said. “I knew deep down I shouldn’t just repeat.”

 

It is a testament to her desire to grow as an artist that she accepted the corps de ballet position at The Royal in 1999, where she danced the requisite snowflakes, Wilis, peasants and fairies before getting her big break as a last-minute replacement in the Margot Fonteyn role in Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations.

 

Cojocaru was happily unaware of the implications: “I went to rehearsal, and they said to me, ‘Have you seen Symphonic Variations?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Have you heard the music?’ I said, ‘No.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear.’ ”

 

Her stage experience in Kiev and her intense work ethic—she practiced her part over and over in her tiny apartment with weights on her ankles—helped her to learn and perform the ballet in three days. On opening night, she gave a dazzling performance at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden that won over critics as well as the audience on the spot.

 

Shortly after, she replaced another injured dancer in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, dancing with Kobborg. Two months later, in April 2001, she danced the title role in Giselle to immediate acclaim. “Was there a dry eye in the house?” asked Allan Robertson in Dance Now. “I doubt it.”

 

At 19, Cojocaru, who had been promoted to first soloist at the end of her first season, was made a principal dancer. She quickly showed that she was as much a superb actress as a glorious dancer, triumphing in the unlikely roles of Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin and the death-obsessed Mary Vetsera in MacMillan’s Mayerling—both usually more the province of older dancers. She brought a lovely lyricism and humor to The Royal Ballet’s Ashton repertoire, and an unstinting adventurousness to contemporary pieces by William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor.

 

Then came the injury and the abrupt derailment of a career that had seemed unstoppable. Initially, she said, she took just six weeks off and returned to dancing. But after seven months, the severe pain forced her to stop.

 

“I tried everything,” she said. “Acupuncture, trigger point therapy, physio exercises. I spent nights and days on the internet searching for athletes who might have had this injury and how they had recovered. I went to Germany, to New York, to Japan to see doctors. I was a mess.”

 

Eventually, Cojocaru saw a German doctor who recommended microforaminotomy, a procedure that enlarges the openings through which spinal nerves pass, relieving the compression—and consequent pain—caused by the injury. Cojocaru decided to go ahead. “I woke up being able to move,” she said. “It felt so good.”

 

During the rehabilitation period, the ballerina worked with Patrick Rump, a physical therapist with The Forsythe Company. She credits his regimen with helping her to develop the strength to move again at full range. “The hardest thing for me was to build strength without creating tension in the neck,” she said. “I realized how much more we work on the right, so I worked hard with Patrick on the left, because I was so worried about alignment. Now I really have equal strength on both sides; I think my technique is actually stronger than before.”

 

Kobborg, whom Cojocaru credits with “steel support” throughout her ordeal, added that she is not just better technically, but emotionally, too. “I’ve had a long career, but I’ve yet to meet anybody who works as hard and in as focused a way as Alina,” he says. “But having the injury has made her realize that you never know when it’s your last moment onstage. She is more able to relax and enjoy every moment there.”

 

That was clear at a June performance of Sleeping Beauty with American Ballet Theatre in New York. As Aurora, Cojocaru was luminous and delicate, her Rose Adagio full of unforgettable images: one leg unfolding with glorious ease in momentary balance in a high développé à la seconde, an arm and winning smile quickly and confidently extended to each suitor; flowers gently, humbly, cast at her parents’ feet; a final arabesque that seemed to radiate across the entire stage.

 

“I had never taken the time to think about why I enjoy dancing,” she said reflectively some months later. “I used to think about what didn’t work, what didn’t happen. I’ve finally realized that technically we’ll always be working on things. I’m always excited now to go onstage.”

Roslyn Sulcas writes about dance for The New York Times.