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.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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