Things are not going perfectly in a rehearsal of the Grand Pas de Deux from Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker, and San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova is not happy. A running leap onto the shoulder of partner Gennadi Nedvigin lands acceptably, but merely okay doesn’t satisfy Kochetkova.

 

“I just have to find a way…one, two, three, four,” she counts almost to herself, calculating how many steps she needs to take. They try again, and with unerring aim, she sails into place.

 

You might think that would be that, but as Nedvigin rehearses his solo, Kochetkova slips on a sweater, pauses to gaze out a window at the view of the War Memorial Opera House and then proceeds to repeat those same four steps over and over again, fine-tuning them even more.

 

Young and energetic, with porcelain features that belie the steely security of her technique, 25-year-old Kochetkova is part of a new generation of principals at SFB. She seems even slighter in person than she does on film: She dances this same pas de deux on SFB’s Nutcracker DVD. In the hallway, with no makeup and strands of hair escaping a loosely tacked high bun, Kochetkova could easily be mistaken for one of the school’s students. But once she begins to dance, her face—indeed her whole body—lights up with the unmistakable glamour and refinement of a ballerina. Even in the most complex variation, she breathes purity into every step, moving with both assurance and poetry. Each arabesque looks delicately spontaneous yet solidly secure. Her jumps ricochet off the floor with barely a sound. The only hint that any of this is difficult is her heavy breathing—and you must be very close to hear it.

 

Born in Russia, Masha, as she is known to friends and colleagues, had initially hoped to be a gymnast. When she was 10, her parents (both of whom are engineers) convinced her to change to ballet. At the time, dance seemed to her like a girlish diversion, while gymnastics was serious work. That opinion quickly changed once she began at the Bolshoi Ballet’s Moscow State Academy of Choreography.

 

“It was really, really tough,” Kochetkova recalls. She was chosen to be in the class of Sofia Golovkina, the famously ruthless academy director. “We were scared of her. Every class was like a performance.”

 

Still, Kochetkova says training with Golovkina gave her discipline. “I’m grateful that she was so demanding. She saw something I didn’t know about myself as a dancer. She’d make me jump higher, she’d make me turn better, she’d make me stay on balance. She made me the dancer that I am,” Kochetkova says. “It is a very different mentality from schools in America—more competitive. The
first thing you understood was that you were there to work, not for fun or pleasure.”

 

During the final year of her training, shortly after she’d won the bronze medal at the Moscow International Competition, Kochetkova decided to compete at the 2002 Prix de Lausanne. It was a
risky move: Her teachers hadn’t sanctioned her competing, so she had no coach and was forced to rehearse alone.

 

“But this was my chance to get out there—to be seen,” she says. Her plan worked: She won the silver, and was offered an apprenticeship with The Royal Ballet. “I knew I couldn’t just wait and hope for a job to come to me. I had to do it myself.”

 

Which brings us back to Kochetkova’s workaholic reputation. Fellow SFB principal Joan Boada—who created a stunning pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour with Kochetkova—notes that she’s the only person who can get him into the studio on his day off. Asked what she’s like to work with, he says with mock agony, “Oh it’s horrible!”

 

“She’s a ballet freak,” he confides. “In fact, she even has a shirt that was made for her at the English National Ballet that says ‘Ballet Freak.’ We joke that if she had the keys to the studio, she would stay there overnight.”

 

“It’s really good for me though,” he goes on seriously, noting that Kochet­kova is always pushing to find new ways to do things. “She thinks ballet is really hard for her; that’s why she does it for so many hours a day. But she can accomplish things that are brilliant. That’s the kind of training she has—and it takes you places, when you’re that committed. She’ll get what she wants.”

While at The Royal, Kochetkova found herself enthralled by London and the variety of contemporary choreography the city had to offer. But adjusting to a new language and way of doing things in a com­pany with such long-standing traditions proved difficult. After a year, she moved to the English National Ballet in search of new inspiration. “I saw ENB perform Forsythe disciple David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin,” she says, “and thought, ‘I so much want to do that kind of ballet.’ ”

 

On holiday back in Moscow, Kochetkova had the good fortune to run into Christopher Wheeldon, who was staging a work for the Bolshoi. Earlier, she had sent a DVD of her work to SFB but never got a response. Unbeknownst to her, Wheeldon put in a call to director Helgi Tomasson.

 

“Helgi had asked me to look out for a small ballerina,” Wheeldon recalls. “On watching Masha in class at the Bolshoi and talking to her, SFB seemed like a perfect fit. Masha displayed the qualities of an artist: strength mixed with a delicacy and vulnerability.”

 

Kochetkova took class at SFB and Tomasson quickly offered her a principal contract. “There was something special about her,” says Tomasson. “Maria has excellent training, as well as an inherent musicality and lyricism. I’m amazed at how she can move so easily from a classical role like Giselle to contemporary pieces by Mark Morris or Jorma Elo.”

 

That versatility has made her a natural ambassador to new audiences. “Most people don’t get to see good ballet,” she says. “I want to get them interested in it.” In 2009 she competed on the NBC show Superstars of Dance—and took the top honor for individual performer. “I remember standing backstage, watching these Chinese acrobats standing on each others’ shoulders,” she says, “and thinking, ‘Wow—I just do ballet.’ “

 

“I didn’t realize how much response I would get from being on the show,” she continues. After winning the gold medal, 2,000 people wrote to her and, she notes with pride, she answered them personally.

 

Eschewing the mystique of the “untouchable” prima donna, Kochetkova is an avid social networker, blogging, tweeting and posting about everything from her rehearsal process to her favorite dance movies. Moments before our interview, a quick glance at her Twitter feed reveals this cheerful dispatch from “balletrusse”: “Off to the interview with @pointe_magazine.”

 

Kochetkova credits her husband, Edward King, who works in the film industry, with impressing on her the importance of communicating with a larger audience. Some might view all this as mere self-promotion, but for Kochet­kova it’s less about egotism than reaching out. “Dance is for everyone,” she asserts. 

 

And if her desire to share her love of ballet takes extra effort and time, well, Kochetkova is no stranger to hard work. That ethic has contributed to a meteoric rise in just a few short years, putting her on the same footing as her idols. Last summer Kochetkova danced in the renowned World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, a gathering of some of the greatest names in ballet.

 

“There were so many great dancers there and we all took class together. To be in class and rehearsal with Sylvie Guillem was…” Kochetkova pauses. “When I had just joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice, I was one of the little girls under the carriage in Manon, and watched her perform up close. I so admired her, and there I was sharing the stage with Sylvie.”

 

In Guillem—another renowned perfectionist—Kochetkova recognizes not just inspiration but a kindred spirit. “It was great to realize that the more talented you are, the more you have to work.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

Want to see more of Maria?  Check out exclusive footage from our cover shoot here.

Video still by Nel Shelby Productions, Courtesy Dancio.

"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."

For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.


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New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Today the Pennsylvania Ballet's board of trustees announced the appointment of Shelly Power as its new executive director. Having been involved in the five-month international search, company artistic director Angel Corella said in a statement released by PAB that he's "certain Shelly is the best candidate to lead the administrative team that supports the artistic vision of the company." Power's official transition will begin in February. This news comes at the end of a few years of turmoil and turnover at PAB, including the departure of former executive director David Gray in June.

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Tiler Peck with Andrew Veyette in "Allegro Brillante." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

"I was particularly excited when I saw my name on casting for Allegro Brillante in 2009," remembers principal dancer Tiler Peck. "Balanchine had said Allegro was, 'everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes,' and of course that terrified me." To calm her fear, Peck followed her regular process for debuts: begin by going back to the original performers to get an idea of the quality and feeling of the ballet and ballerina. "It is never to imitate, but rather to surround myself with as much knowledge from the past as I can so that I can find my own way," says Peck.

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT has also offered sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast in the past.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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