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Angelina Vorontsova in the company's revival of "Cinderella." Photo by Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

Ella Persson remembers the rehearsals for her debut as Giselle. "I was in my first year with the company, and I started preparing with Mikhail Messerer during late evenings," the Mikhailovsky Ballet's Swedish-born coryphée says. "I was definitely not ready, but he gave me a chance to push myself and made me so much stronger, mentally and physically."

Under Messerer, the Mikhailovsky Ballet has carved a niche on the Russian and international stage by investing in coaching and dancers' growth. Unlike the older Mariinsky, St. Petersburg's second ballet company was only founded after World War I. But with a classically focused repertoire and productions that rotate onstage every month, it offers plenty of opportunities for talent to thrive.


Ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer. Photo Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet.

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Photo by Nisian Hughes for Pointe.

This is Pointe's December 2017/January 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Few ballets are as unforgiving for a young dancer as Swan Lake. Both Odette's heartbreak and Odile's deceit of Siegfried demand the kind of dramatic commitment and maturity that often come with experience. At the same time, when a director entrusts an 18-year-old corps de ballet member with the double role, the implicit promise is clear: A special ballerina will emerge from that chrysalis.

So it was with Alena Kovaleva, who turned 19 shortly after her Swan Lake debut, last September, on the historical stage of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. Barely a year after her graduation from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Kovaleva isn't a full-fledged Swan Queen yet. At nearly 5' 10", she is so tall that her coltish limbs sometimes falter, and she was visibly tiring by Odette's final pleas.


Kovaleva in "Swan Lake." Photo by M. Logvinov, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

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Evgenia Obratsova

Bolshoi ballerina Evgenia Obraztsova is sunny and spritely in this 2003 video clip from the Grand Pas Classique Hongrois in Raymonda. She performed this solo at 19 during her first year with the Mariinsky Ballet. Audiences around the world love Obraztsova's contagious sense of joy, and this fun little variation is a preview of her successes down the road in other high energy-roles.

Obraztsova beams as she flies across the stage in this video, nailing the fast footwork. At some points she seems to barely touch the floor. She incorporates folksy details, like a charming head wobble, with a natural flair for character. Even in this light-hearted and super-quick dance, Obraztsova lets her soul shine through. It's sure to make you smile. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Ballet Stars
Photo Courtesy Lopatkina

The Dying Swan, choreographed by Michel Fokine for Anna Pavlova, is a short but powerful solo often reserved for the most revered ballerinas. Mariinsky Ballet principal Uliana Lopatkina shares the thought process behind her iconic interpretation.

Although The Dying Swan is a very short piece, it has tremendous depth because both the audience and dancer are facing the question of life and death. Often we don't want to think about that—we want to live forever here on earth. This miniature has special meaning for me, as it helps me overcome the fear of death; it invites us to imagine that moment of transformation into the following life, which lasts eternally. It's very scary to die, but it is just a moment that you need to go through.

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Kristina Shapran photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's December 2015/January 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

A rehearsal for Balanchine's “Diamonds" is getting underway in St. Petersburg, and Kristina Shapran is smiling and teasing her partner, Xander Parish, as she adjusts a belt to protect her sore back. As soon as the pianist plays the first notes of Tchaikovsky's score, however, the Mariinsky Ballet first soloist transforms. Suddenly, she seems to be stepping onstage, her classically beautiful face projecting as if to the back of an auditorium; with luminous simplicity, she embodies the elusive Russian soul, that spiritual quality that the St. Petersburg ballet tradition values so highly.

Surprisingly, Shapran's road to the Mariinsky was a difficult one, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back, with much self-doubt along the way. Her delicate, singing lines are a pure product of her Vaganova training, but instead of entering the Mariinsky straight after graduation, she opted to join smaller Russian companies—first the Stanislavsky Ballet, then the Mikhailovsky Ballet. There, she struggled with loneliness and technical frailty, and it seemed like she might not deliver on her early promise.

In 2014, however, Shapran finally found her way to the Mariinsky, and she has been making up for lost time. At 24, she is on the express track to stardom under acting director Yuri Fateyev, who is nurturing her unique gifts. Rather than a powerhouse technician, Shapran is that rare creature in the fairly stereotyped Russian ballet world: a true dance actress. In her debut as Juliet last July, she moved as if free from any constraints, letting natural reactions take their course and infusing the steps with expressive life.


Shapran in Angelin Preljocaj's "Le Parc." Photo by Natasha Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet.

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Ballet Stars
Nathan Sayers for Pointe

Russia is often perceived as a closed book from abroad, and ballet is no exception. Though David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, the country's top companies have been slow to open their ranks to non-Russians. Under acting director Yuri Fateyev, however, the venerable Mariinsky Ballet has welcomed a handful of dancers trained abroad. South Korea's Kimin Kim and Great Britain's Xander Parish initially struggled to fit in with the culture, but both have found their niche in St. Petersburg, and are thriving today among Russian colleagues.

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For ballet dancers, Christmastime means The Nutcracker—and endless weeks of rehearsals and performances. By the time the New Year arrives, we can stand to wait 10 more months for the next round to begin. But despite its relentless repetition, The Nutcracker remains near and dear to many dancers' hearts, with familiar moments sparking memories of childhood. 

 

Waltz of the Snowflakes closes Act I, with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince traveling through a world of snow towards the Kingdom of Sweets. Tchaikovsky's score sets the scene, blending both the beauty and fury of the storm. But the Mariinksy Ballet’s dancers shown here warm the stage. Their movement rushes in cyclical patterns, absorbing Clara in the most spectacular dream. Happy #ThrowbackThursday! 

 

A great ballerina holds an immense amount of power: She can adopt any role and become another being, using movement as the ultimate means of expression. Some of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century have honed this skill, but few have become as powerful an icon as the Mariinsky Ballet's Galina Ulanova. Named by Joseph Stalin as prima ballerina assoluta, Ulanova became the masthead for Russian ballet in the former Soviet Union. Her power extended beyond performance to her country’s artistic identity, setting a standard for generations of ballerinas to come. 

 

In this clip from 1952, Ulanova dances the waltz from Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides alongside Vladimir Preobrazhenskii. She transforms the stage into an oil painting as her limbs reach across the space in expansive brushstrokes. Chopin’s score touches any dancer's heart (his familiar tunes enter almost every technique class), but Ulanova's movement caters to each intricate moment within the music. She has created the definition of a beautiful sylph. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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