David Kornfield, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada

This Former Ballerina Is Now One of the Ballet World's Sought-After Conductors

I first saw Maria Seletskaya when she was dancing as a leading soloist in Europe. Years later, she sent me a video of herself with the Stuttgart Ballet—not as a dancer, but as a guest orchestra conductor! I found her work and this particular transition very exciting and so I brought it to the attention of David Briskin, musical director of the National Ballet of Canada (where I dance), to see what he would think.

Being a ballerina is certainly challenging on its own. But as Seletskaya negotiated a career transition that felt right for her, she opted to pursue another, equally demanding passion: music.

As of this year (and after a few preliminary performances with the company in 2019), the National Ballet of Canada has hired Seletskaya as its first conductor in residence. "Maria's experience as an international soloist combined with her ongoing training as a conductor has prepared her well," says Briskin. "She brings a unique perspective to conducting for dance."

Naturally, I wanted to catch up with Seletskaya to hear about her fascinating journey so far.

Maria Seletskaya wearing a pink tutu performing an arabesque balance on pointe

Maria Seletskaya during her ballet days

Maria-Helena Buckley, Courtesy Seletskaya

Tell me more about going from the barre to the pit.

Music has been my companion since I can remember. Like most of the kids born in the Soviet Union, I started attending children's music school, and studied piano. I participated in several competitions and festivals, and according to the teacher, had a significant talent. But life thought it would be a great idea to make me a dancer and took me the ballet school instead.

Throughout the years of ballet training, I continued to improve my piano skills, but did not consider music ever becoming prominent in my life.

During my first season in a ballet company, I started having more free time on my hands, and piano came back to my life in its full glory. I would stay in the opera house until midnight, practicing. Then, one day, I spoke with one of the violinists and said: "I would give two years of my life to conduct Nutcracker just one time. I cannot play in the orchestra, but I would love to know how it feels to make this wonderful music together." The violinist looked at me simply and said: "Why don't you just become a ballet conductor?"

And so it started. It took years for me to really understand that this is what I wanted to do; then it took more years to figure out how to combine my studies with a ballet career, and some more years to actually do the studies. And here I am now!

How many different directors did you dance for?

I worked in four ballet companies under six directors. All of them in one or another way contributed to my development, but the director I absolutely loved working for was my first director at the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Kathryn Bennetts. Professional of highest caliber, in good way obsessed with her mission. She was always there, ready, leading and inspiring us.

When asked once about how an orchestra treats you as a female conductor, you replied, "I am not simply a woman, but I am a ballerina." What did you mean by that?

(Smiles.) Oh, I remember! Back then, I was voicing my concern about not only being a woman in a (still) male-dominated profession, but also being a dancer! How often I feared that there would be a person in the orchestra, who could say, "But the king is naked!" Now I am starting to feel a little bit more confident, but the awareness will remain there forever as a vaccine against becoming arrogant. (Laughs.)

To be honest, I only see advantages of my ballet past: I have a particular niche in conducting, where I can fit well; I have quite a good working discipline and ethic; I have ambition and am good at taking criticism. While considered a norm in ballet world, these traits are perceived as something outstanding in other professions.

Do you feel significant differences when working with musicians compared to dancers?

Yes, absolutely! As a dancer, you are never alone: You take daily class together, you spend rehearsals either with colleagues or with a coach and a pianist. Dancers are often hanging out together; company becomes their second family.

As a conductor, you spend a ton of time alone—score study and preparation require silence and concentration. Then during rehearsals with both dancers and orchestra you feel a weird mix of being both connected and distanced.

Probably a good moment to socialize is after the show, but I am often missing the opportunity—I am running home with or to my 6-year-old son. I shall catch up in the future, I promise.

Maria Seletskaya sits in the studio with her son, each of them with a violin behind their backs

Seletskaya with her son Benjamin

Nicha Rodboon, Courtesy Seletskaya

What is the preparation like for a dancer versus as a conductor?

The two processes are so different, that I would rather point at what there is in common: Before the start you have to "warm up" your soul.

Conducting of course has much less impact on the body, than ballet. However the concentration of a conductor during a show or a run-through is immense: One doesn't relax even for a second. After a three-act ballet one's head gets very heavy. (Smiles.)

You said that a certain ballet director once may have had difficulty with you being too inquisitive or forming your own opinions or giving piano lessons to other dancers. Do you have advice for young professionals who may be feeling misunderstood or ostracized?

You know, in the end, when you go home after a long day and go to bed, you remain one to one with yourself, with your thoughts, doubts and desires. In the end, no one's opinion matters, as long as you are being truthful with yourself. Follow your heart and trust it blindly, because deep inside it always knows what's really yours.

Are there some good examples of working relations between dancers and conductors that you have seen?

I have always felt that the conductors who felt for dancers, recognized their hard labor and did not necessarily impose their musical vision were the best to work with. Dancers are incredible masters of their bodies: They can move at any speed and do that with the most glamorous smile. It is very rare that they need to be "pushed." Help them to phrase and play with choreographic text, to do their best on stage, and you will be rewarded with a wonderful collaboration!

Do you ever compose or choreograph?

I have a bachelor's degree in choreography, but I have no urge to compose or choreograph. I am not daring enough and believe that I haven't anything to say what hasn't been said before. I am an executor, not a creator type.

What has your time in Toronto been like? 

Being new in the company, I felt both cautious interest and pressure and had to work every day to gain trust.

The last ballets I have conducted in Toronto were Balanchine's Chaconne, Kylian's Petite Mort and Lander's Etudes. In the spring I will return for some big classics. There were several big dramatic ballets which I dreamed of dancing but never had a chance to do. I hope I will conduct them all one day.

If you weren't a conductor, what else might strike your fancy as a career?

Since my childhood I am fascinated by space. My dream was to become an astronaut and fly to the ISS. I would become either that or a pilot!

Does your son learn dance and music as well? 

Benjamin expresses zero interest in ballet! (Laughs.) He speaks three languages though.

When he was 4, he asked to get him "a small violin from the shop because mama's violin is too big for me." According to his teacher, he has some talent and natural musicality. Even though it is not clear, whether or not he will become a musician, violin lessons and practice are a part of our everyday schedule, be it at home or abroad. Just in case.

Latest Posts

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

2020 Stars of the Corps: 10 Dancers Making Strides In and Out of the Spotlight

The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

A male dancer catches a female dancer in his right arm as she wraps her left arm around his shoulder and executes a high arabesque on pointe. Both wear white costumes and dance in front of a blue backdrop onstage.

Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

Wearing a powder blue tutu, cropped light yellow top and feather tiara, Wanyue Qiao does a piqu\u00e9 retir\u00e9 on pointe on her left leg and pulls her right arm in towards her.

Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

Three male dancers in tight-fitting, multicolored costumes stand in positions of ascending height from left to right. All extend their right arms out in front of them.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (far right) with Saul Newport and Austen Acevedo in Oliver Halkowich's Following

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

Wearing a white pixie wig and a short light-pink tunic costume, a female ballet dancer poses in attitude front on pointe with her left arm bent across her ribs and her right hand held below her chin.

Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

Mike Watson, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

Hiromi Platt, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

Dressed in a green bell-boy costume and hat, Alejandro Gonz\u00e1lez does a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in retir\u00e9 and his arms in a long diagonal from right to left. Other dancers in late 19-century period costumes watch him around the stage.

Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

Kate Luber, Courtesy Oklahoma City Ballet

Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

Wearing a long white tutu and crown, Nina Fernandes does a saut de chat in front of a wintery backdrop as snow falls from the top of the stage.

Nina Fernandes in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet

Quinn Wharton

Pacific Northwest Ballet's Angelica Generosa Shares Her Classic, Comfy Style In and Out of the Studio

"I love the feeling and look of effortless fashion," says Angelica Generosa. Preferring a classic style, the Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist keeps her wardrobe stocked with blazers. But they serve a practical purpose, too. "It tends to get chilly in Seattle, so it's the perfect accessory for layering," Generosa explains.

She's also quite fond of designer handbags. "They're my go-to accessory, and they're also my weakness when shopping," she says, naming Chloé, Chanel and Dior as some of her favorite brands. "I really appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to produce one—they're so beautiful and each has its own story, in a way."

In the studio, Generosa prioritizes comfort, and she'll change up her look depending on the repertoire (leotards and tutus for classical works, breathable shirts with workout pants for contemporary). But she always arrives to work in style. "I really love putting together outfits for even just going to the studio," she says. "It's another way of expressing my mood and what kind of vibe I'm going for that day."

The Details: Street

Angelica Generosa, wearing a blue blazer, white blouse and gray jeans, is photographed from underneath as she walks and looks to the right.

Quinn Wharton

BCBG blazer: "It has some shoulder pads and a really cool pattern," says Generosa. "It reminds me of my mom and '80s fashion."

Zara blouse: She incorporate neutrals, like this white satin button-up, to balance bright pops of colors.

Angelica Generosa looks off to her right in front of a glass-windowed building. She wears a blue blazer, white blouse, gray jeans and carries a small green handbag.

Quinn Wharton

Madewell jeans: Comfort is a major factor for Generosa, who gets her fashion inspiration from her mom, friends and people she comes across day to day.

Chloé bag: "I tend to have smaller purses because I'm quite small. Bigger bags overwhelm me sometimes—unless it's my dance bag, of course!"

The Details: Studio

Angleica Generosa, wearing a blue tank leotard, black wool leggings and pink pointe shoes, balances in a lunge on pointe with her left leg in front, facing a wall of windows.

Quinn Wharton

Label Dancewear leotard: "This was designed by my good friend Elizabeth Murphy, a principal dancer here at PNB. Her leotards always fit me really well."

Mirella leggings: "I get cold easily," says Generosa, who wears leggings and vests to stay warm throughout the day.

Angelica Generosa, wearing a blue tank leotard, black wool tights and pink pointe shoes, jumps and crosses her right foot over her left shin while lifting her arms up to the right.

Quinn Wharton

Freed of London pointe shoes: "When sewing them, I crisscross my elastics and use an elasticized ribbon from Body Wrappers," which helps alleviate Achilles tendon issues, she says. She then trims the satin off of the tip of the shoe. "Then I bend the shank a bit to loosen it up and cut a bit off where my arch is."

Getty Images

This New "Nutcracker" Competition Wants Your Dance Studio to be Part of a Virtual Collaboration

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks