Alina Somova appears in the distance in the plaza on a hot day during the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival:  tall, wedge heels, wide khaki pants, small head, blond French twist, big sunglasses—like a goddess, or an elongated Grace Kelly. This is the Kirov’s youngest ballerina, she of the phenomenal extensions that float up from ground to ear, of the showmanship that looks  both bravura and smooth. At 26, Somova has danced all the major roles. She has beauty, stamina, elegant line. Yet reviewers still can’t decide if she’s a technical wonder with no soul, or a young artist with a soul that’s just not always visible onstage. “Dancer or circus pony?” went a 2009 headline in the London Telegraph. Writer Ismene Brown concluded she was both, but growing in the right direction.

One would expect, given such controversy, somebody either defensive or remote. Somova is anything but. At her Pointe photo shoot, she sweetly puts on the suggested leotard, tights and chiffon skirt, then stands under lights on a white paper square, blond hair loose. The photographer instructs; the makeup guy darts in and out. She strikes a pose on pointe, then another and another. Each position gets a fresh smile for the click. In between she stands in that somehow endearing pointe-shoe-heels-on-floor stance—ready to hear what’s wanted next. There’s an unspoiled girl inside the goddess wrapping.

She seems so nice, one wonders how she got to where she is. The answer has to do, in part, with the mighty Vaganova Academy recruiting apparatus—and with a mom who had high ambitions for her daughter. “My parents weren’t ballet people or even art people,” Somova says. “Papa is a construction engineer, Mama, a nutrition specialist…or she was. She left work to look after me. If it hadn’t been for Mama, nothing would have happened.” 

When she was small, Somova went to a regular St. Petersburg school, then a special math school at her mother’s insistence. Her mother wanted her to excel at sports too, especially her mother’s favorite, skiing. But skiing wasn’t easy in Russia in the 1990s, with the country in the midst of a political and economic transition. “So Mama took me, with baby sister in her arms—and I wasn’t much bigger—to the ‘dance krushok,’ ” a dance “circle” for children. The teachers recognized her physical gifts. When it came time to choose math or ballet, “there was no choice,” Somova says. The dance teachers insisted. She did a pre-curriculum year at St. Petersburg’s renowned Vaganova Academy, then the regular eight-year course. Those teachers pushed too. The last one, Ludmilla Safronova, cooked Somova food at home before dance exams—“meat, for strength,” Somova says. Makhar Vaziev, then Kirov Ballet head, all but promised her a place in the company if she worked on her feet.

Of course, the child had to love what she was doing—and Somova did. Even the drudgery of first-year pliés didn’t spoil her love of dancing. Nor did the grueling commute. The family lived far from the centrally located Vaganova school, on the Vyborg side of St. Petersburg. The little girl had to get up at 6 am for an hour tram ride (if she could catch it), or else a mix of subways and buses, then repeat it all in the other direction. “There were awful crowds—baboulichikis [grandmother types] who never gave you a place. I had to stand—with a backpack bigger than me!”

Somova also admits to a competitive streak. “I always wanted to be best,” she says almost happily. “I had to stand in the center. I liked corrections! If somebody was better, it was a tragedy for me. It was the Kirov or nothing.” 

Once she was in, the red carpet was rolled out for the long limbs and proud bearing. She was cast as Odette/Odile in her first year. “It was crazy for a girl new to the theater to get Swan Lake, when so many wait for it for years,” she says a little ruefully. The next year, 2004, she became a soloist. She was helped by a caring coach, ex-ballerina Olga Chenchikova, who ran a mini-academy for her young charges, giving them floor barres and extra conditioning. “Chenchikova turned an ugly duckling into a ballerina,” Somova says. When Chenchikova left the Kirov with her husband, Vaziev (he took the dance post at La Scala), Somova got another top-notch coach, ex-ballerina powerhouse Tatiana Terekhova. They chose each other, in fact, after working together in rehearsals of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (Terekhova was in charge). “She has the pure Leningrad style, the style of Kolpakova,” says Somova of Terekhova, comparing her to Irina Kolpakova, now a ballet master with American Ballet Theatre. “And she doesn’t try to break me, like some other coaches try to do; she doesn’t want to see a copy of herself. She leaves me my ‘I.’”

But who is Somova’s “I” on the stage, beyond the technical amplitude? The answer depends on the ballet you’re watching. Take Balanchine’s Symphony in C, whose first movement she danced at the Lincoln Center Festival. She loves dancing Balanchine. “Some ballets take energy out of you,” she says. “Balanchine’s ballets give energy back, even if they’re hard.” But the Lincoln Center audience only saw that love in some moments—in the passage, for instance, where the ballerina stabs the ground with her pointes, so overcome with excitement she seems to be doing her own drumbeat. Suddenly, a mad child shone out in Somova’s performance. But in other moments in this brisk and joyous dance, a monotone took over—nice pas de chats; beautiful poses in arabesque; no surprises, and no glee.
 
On the other hand, when Somova danced the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s 2009 remake of The Little Humpbacked Horse, that missing “I” came through loud and clear. She seemed like the good-natured girl of the photo shoot. Ratmansky choreographed his Horse in mock-naïve cartoon style (perhaps in homage to a beloved Soviet animated film), which suits Somova. In a white and gold princess dress, with long yellow braids, she offered audiences not just technical prowess—she whipped through the leaps and turns; she reveled in the funky dance-hall moves—but a radiantly goofy goodness.

Maybe Somova is that rarity in the ballet world: A well-adjusted, happy young woman who happens to have gorgeous technique—and maybe expressing such good-humored effortlessness onstage is hard to do. That’s what the legendary Kolpakova thinks too, after working with Somova last winter in St. Petersburg. “God gave her phenomenal gifts: beauty of line, and an expressive jump,” Kolpakova says. “You can ask her to raise her leg higher, give you a longer arabesque. She does it. But what’s amazing is that it always looks natural, not false. She’s not mannered.”

So the “I” is about buoyant naturalness, or it will be as she grows some more. Somova herself seems to know that there’s an imbalance between her technical mastery and her artistic projection. “I want to work on my acting. It needs lots of work,” she says. “After eight years in the theater, I should be good at technique. As for the acting, I want the audience to watch the ballet like a movie—not the pirouettes, if they’re correct or not, but the image, the whole picture.”

What this writer hopes is that the young ballerina will see, as she grows, that acting can’t be plastered onto the steps: It’s the steps themselves that have to be inflected with personality. But Somova’s on the way to this discovery. Beyond a sunny good nature, she’s also got a healthy appetite—for life, for experience of all kinds, which will show up on the stage. On vacation she loves car trips with friends. Last summer, the Loire Valley; this summer, Scotland. She likes all the simple pleasures: sports, Italian opera, good food. “No diet!” she says, laughing. “I eat everything. I cook, if I have time—simple food, like soup, meat, vegetables. I dream of making cakes! I love chocolate, and fruits, especially apples. If apples are in the fridge, everything is okay.”

The prognosis is excellent for the dancer to win out over the technician. She has her support system in place too, headed by family. Her younger sister, also a dancer (who has yet to find a place in a company) is her best friend. Her mom, always nervous, comes to every performance—“even if it’s better sometimes, for her, not to be there.”  

Audiences need now to sit back, relax and enjoy the sunny girl in the Cadillac body. And wait for her to give the Tsar Maiden treatment to all her roles. Wait for her to let loose and play with the steps.

























 

Elizabeth Kendall is a New York dance critic. She is at work on a book about Balanchine's youth in Russia.

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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Pointe Stars
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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Your Best Body
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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