In the middle of American Ballet Theatre's spring season, principal dancer Christine Shevchenko takes a break from her comedic role of Pierrette in Harlequinade to (briefly) transform into a swan. During the half hour rehearsal, Shevchenko seamlessly transitions from Odette to Odile, running through her various solos without pause—save for the short conferences with ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, which switch between Russian and English almost as quickly as Shevchenko whips out her fouetté turns (but more on those later).
"The rehearsal process is a lot different right now because every week it's a new ballet," Shevchenko says during a rehearsal break last week. "I'm really trying to squeeze in as many Swan Lake rehearsals as I can, and at the same time, I'm trying to prepare for Don Quixote, which is the week after," she explains of juggling the season's eight programs. "This is my first year as a principal during the Met season, so I'm learning how to figure it out as we keep going. In a way, I'm used to doing parts last minute because that's how I got most of my roles," she says. Ahead, Shevchenko shares exactly how she's gearing up for her Met debut on June 20.
On learning the role for the first time
"I began learning Swan Lake when I was in school, and I learned Odile first. For Odette, you need to be more artistically mature, and so when I was younger, I never really felt ready for the White Swan.
With the company, about two years ago, I did the White Swan pas for a performance. Then last year they told me I'd do the full-length ballet. I premiered it in Singapore in March, and then I knew I'd be doing it this season in New York.
Kevin McKenzie's version of the ballet is very well paced. Yes, there is a lot of dancing and it's really hard, but the way it's spread out, you can sort of get yourself together before the next thing. I actually thought it would be so much harder than it was for my premiere, and I was happy that it was pretty manageable. It's exhausting because of how much more you're using your body and your arms—it breaks your breath, so it's harder to breathe with all of the bending—but once you get used to that, it's okay."
On mastering the dual role
"For me, White Swan is much calmer. I love Odette because I just love adagio. I feel better in it because it's slow and you can really try to control every step you take. White Swan is more humble and pure, and everything is delicate and clean and precise.
Black Swan is more vivacious and powerful, so I kind of just bust it out and show a lot of confidence. As long as you appear confident and in control of the whole stage, it works really well. We also have a great acting coach who helps us, Byam Stevens. He'll work with us one-on-one—explaining the role to us, and how to make it work so the audience understands what we're trying to say and understands the story."
On her unique take on Odile's fouettés
"I saw an old video when I was little of a ballerina doing the à la seconde combination in one of the Russian companies. I saved that in my head for if I ever did Black Swan even as a student, I tried it that way. I thought it was so cool and different, and I'm always searching for new and unique things to bring to each role, so it's fun for me."
On dealing with nerves
"I feel like we all still get nervous because you always want to do your best and look good. The day of a performance, I usually get there early and do makeup and hair before class. I like to stretch a lot before my show, so after class, I listen to upbeat music to get my energy up. Right now, on Spotify, I've been listening to oldies classics, and then sometimes I just put top hits on. Before I go onstage, I'm usually trying out some steps backstage or going over the character in my head—I like it to be quiet and I like to be in my own bubble so I can focus on what I have to do. There's always a little bit of nerves beforehand, but I feel like once I get out there and start dancing, it all goes away."