Ballet Stars
The Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Svetlana Avvakum, Courtesy Kennedy Center.

Before Maria Khoreva danced her first performance as a member of the Mariinsky Ballet, she was already a superstar, with devoted Instagram fans following her life as a pupil in the Vaganova Academy (follow her @marachok). Her talent was already obvious—as were her exceptionally long lines, elegant technique and charisma—and when she joined the company's corps de ballet last summer, it was apparent that her artistry was also far beyond her 18 years.

Khoreva didn't last long in the corps: in November artistic director Yuri Fateev promoted her to first soloist, the Mariinsky's second-highest rank. Not even one year into Khoreva's professional career, her repertoire already includes the title role in Paquita, the lead in Balanchine's "Diamonds" and Terpsichore in his Apollo, plus Medora in Le Corsaire, which she is performing this week during the Mariinsky's annual tour to the Kennedy Center. Between performances in Washington, D.C., we spoke to Khoreva via Skype about her life in ballet, overcoming injuries and keeping in touch with 300,000 friends on Instagram.

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Ballet Stars
Photo Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

Hollywood portrayals of the dance world tend to be either campy love stories or dark, twisted melodramas. But a new French drama coming soon to American cinemas offers a more introspective (and authentic) perspective of one dancer's search for artistic fulfillment. Polina, co-directed by French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his wife Valerie Müller, tells the story of a talented Russian ballet student who turns down a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet to pursue a contemporary dance career. Starring Anastasia Shevtsova (a Vaganova Academy graduate who has performed with the Mariinsky Ballet), former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Jérémie Bélengard and Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche (a beautiful mover in her own right), the almost two-hour film has no shortage of dancing.



The movie, based on a graphic novel by Bastien Vivés, follows Polina's rigorous Russian training, which her working-class parents struggle to pay for. Her future at the the Bolshoi seems set, but when a French contemporary company comes to town, she's so inspired by the performance that she follows her boyfriend to France to audition for its choreographer/director (played by Binoche). She works obsessively to change her technique, but ultimately ends up in Antwerp, auditioning endlessly and tending bar. It takes a chance meeting with Karl, a choreographer and improvisation instructor, to help open her eyes to new possibilities.

Preljocaj and Müller direct Polina with a dancer's sensitivity. Many of the rehearsals were shot at his company's studio in Aix en Provence, and scenes from his ballet Snow White are featured throughout. Yes, there are subtitles, but don't let that deter you—Polina is relatable to any artist who's ever struggled to find his or her place in the dance world. The film opens August 25 in New York and September 1 in L.A., followed by a national roll-out. To find it at a theater near you, click here.

In a controversial move, former Bolshoi Ballet star Nikolai Tsiskaridze has been appointed rector of the renowned Vaganova Academy, associate school of the Mariinsky Ballet.

Tsiskaridze is, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure. He has many admirers, but was fired from the Bolshoi in June after ongoing disputes with the company's management. Some are hailing his Vaganova appointment as a savvy move, citing the dancer's myriad connections. Others are worried that Tsiskaridze has little teaching experience and will continue to be a lightning rod for controversy—not what the troubled Mariinsky organization needs. Regardless, it's safe to say that the announcement came as a surprise to pretty much everyone.

That's not the end of the news from the Vaganova, either: Mariinsky prima Uliana Lopatkina, who is still dancing regularly, has also been named the school's artistic director.

Judith Mackrell wrote an excellent piece for The Guardian discussing the questions raised by the two appointments. Click here to read her detailed assessment of the situation.

These days, we know Svetlana Zakharova as an international ballet superstar. As a young student at St. Petersburg's prestigious Vaganova Academy, however, she was...well, still a superstar, just on a slightly smaller scale. Here are some excerpts from her graduation exam in 1996. You'll probably pick her out right away, but just in case: She's on the left in the first clip. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

The Vaganova Academy has been a powerhouse for supreme technicians and artists for centuries. Iconic names—Balanchine, Nureyev, and Zakharova, to name a few—have sprung from the St. Petersburg school. Vaganova training transforms students to master the most difficult aspects of ballet technique, allowing room to grow into the utmost performers. Alina Somova, now a principal dancer for the Mariinksy Ballet (and our December 2011/January 2012 cover girl), has joined this list of icons. This video shows the 14-year-old Somova as a rising student at the school, executing unbelievable extension and control (she is the dancer farthest to the right at barre—the smallest but most ferocious). These clips expose the impressive quality with which these young dancers work, a latent strength that only ballet dancers themselves can identify. Somova draws the camera to her movement, especially at 3:00, when you can see her use the most expansive potential of her body in a tombé that lasts forever. Hoping this video will inspire your next technique class—Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Don Quixote overflows with humor, flirtation and romance. And what better character to gather romance and energy than Cupid—performed in this video by the Bolshoi Ballet’s Evgenia Obraztsova. 

 

Obraztsova is one of the elite few holding the dream title of prima ballerina. A native of St. Petersburg, she graduated from the Vaganova Academy and immediately joined the Mariinsky Ballet at 18 years old. This video of Obraztsova’s Cupid variation reveals her impeccable precision and artistry after only four years in the company. From her very first relevés, a lightness and upward energy shoots from her core, creating a quality that leaves the audience breathless. Six years later she would join the Bolshoi, originating new roles and challenging the classics—a definite prima ballerina of our time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

 

 

(Vaganova Academy graduate Olga Smirnova and Karim Abdullin, photo by Damir Yusupov)

 

Even though he was Russian and trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, George Balanchine's work has never been performed by students at the school. Now, through an exciting collaboration between the Mikhailovsky Theatre, Open World Dance Foundation and the George Balanchine Trust, students at the school will perform Balanchine's Raymonda Variations on November 29. The performance will be staged by former New York City Ballet soloist and repetiteur Darla Hoover.

The project is a true meeting of cultures and time periods. The Mikhailovsky is one of Russia's younger ballet companies, while the Vaganova Academy (formerly the Imperial Ballet School) is more than 276 years old. Raymonda premiered in 1961, mid-career for Balanchine—who went by Georgi Balanchivadze when he was a student. As well as serving as an expert on Balanchine ballets, Hoover is the artistic director of her own program: the pre-professional division at New York City's Ballet Academy East.

As Nikolai Tsiskaridze, director of the Academy says, "I am proud that the masterpieces of Balanchine, who was Georgian by birth, Russian by culture and the greatest of all American choreographers, are being performed by a new generation and continue to hold a grand place in the world of ballet."

 

At the Vaganova Ballet Academy, being chosen to dance a leading role in the final graduation performance is no small honor. One of the top ballet programs in the world, the Academy was founded in 1738 and has since trained countless stars, including Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Diana Vishneva (just to name a few). The technique taught at the school was created by one of its most influential teachers, Agrippina Vaganova, and her resulting curriculum is both intense and competitive.

 

In 2002, Evgenia Obraztsova’s final year at the school, the young ballerina was chosen to dance as the heroine of Konstantin Sergeyev’s Cinderella. In these three clips from the performance, Obraztsova’s technical prowess and charisma are clearly apparent in spite of her relative lack of experience dancing principal roles. Between the otherworldly quality of her entrance, the rock-solid control of her variation and the inspiring theatricality of her dancing in the grand pas de deux (even despite a few shaky moments), Obraztsova was clearly on her way to becoming a star. It is easy to see why she was immediately accepted into one of the world’s best companies—the Mariinsky Ballet—after this performance. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

 

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