Press room, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, before show time (loud bells interrupt us between 7:40 and 8 pm). Natalia Osipova, American Ballet Theatre's 26-year-old star ballerina, has come from rehearsal wearing a purple T-shirt over crocheted tights and down booties. No makeup, heart-shaped face, small features, black hair pulled back, like a fresh-faced elf. Osipova's continent-straddling career—she and fiancé Ivan Vasiliev are also principals at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, after their headline-grabbing departure from the Bolshoi Ballet—has made her an international name. She puts feet up on couch, asking if I mind. I don't!
You told me once that your parents moved back to Russia from Israel, and that you spent summers with your grandmother in Israel.
Yes, that's true. It was hard times in the USSR when they were young. They wanted a better life. Israel was a young state. If you had relatives there you could get a visa. But after a while it didn't go well, so they moved back. My sister and I were both born in Moscow.
I come from a simple family, you could say working class. Mama went to school, then she met my father. She had a child—and she was a mom. That was her profession from then on, and she did it very well.
What was your father's work?
He was educated as an engineer. But he did sports.
Alina Somova appears in the distance in the plaza on a hot day during the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival: tall, wedge heels, wide khaki pants, small head, blond French twist, big sunglasses—like a goddess, or an elongated Grace Kelly. This is the Kirov’s youngest ballerina, she of the phenomenal extensions that float up from ground to ear, of the showmanship that looks both bravura and smooth. At 26, Somova has danced all the major roles. She has beauty, stamina, elegant line. Yet reviewers still can’t decide if she’s a technical wonder with no soul, or a young artist with a soul that’s just not always visible onstage. “Dancer or circus pony?” went a 2009 headline in the London Telegraph. Writer Ismene Brown concluded she was both, but growing in the right direction.
One would expect, given such controversy, somebody either defensive or remote. Somova is anything but. At her Pointe photo shoot, she sweetly puts on the suggested leotard, tights and chiffon skirt, then stands under lights on a white paper square, blond hair loose. The photographer instructs; the makeup guy darts in and out. She strikes a pose on pointe, then another and another. Each position gets a fresh smile for the click. In between she stands in that somehow endearing pointe-shoe-heels-on-floor stance—ready to hear what’s wanted next. There’s an unspoiled girl inside the goddess wrapping.
She seems so nice, one wonders how she got to where she is. The answer has to do, in part, with the mighty Vaganova Academy recruiting apparatus—and with a mom who had high ambitions for her daughter. “My parents weren’t ballet people or even art people,” Somova says. “Papa is a construction engineer, Mama, a nutrition specialist…or she was. She left work to look after me. If it hadn’t been for Mama, nothing would have happened.”
When she was small, Somova went to a regular St. Petersburg school, then a special math school at her mother’s insistence. Her mother wanted her to excel at sports too, especially her mother’s favorite, skiing. But skiing wasn’t easy in Russia in the 1990s, with the country in the midst of a political and economic transition. “So Mama took me, with baby sister in her arms—and I wasn’t much bigger—to the ‘dance krushok,’ ” a dance “circle” for children. The teachers recognized her physical gifts. When it came time to choose math or ballet, “there was no choice,” Somova says. The dance teachers insisted. She did a pre-curriculum year at St. Petersburg’s renowned Vaganova Academy, then the regular eight-year course. Those teachers pushed too. The last one, Ludmilla Safronova, cooked Somova food at home before dance exams—“meat, for strength,” Somova says. Makhar Vaziev, then Kirov Ballet head, all but promised her a place in the company if she worked on her feet.
Of course, the child had to love what she was doing—and Somova did. Even the drudgery of first-year pliés didn’t spoil her love of dancing. Nor did the grueling commute. The family lived far from the centrally located Vaganova school, on the Vyborg side of St. Petersburg. The little girl had to get up at 6 am for an hour tram ride (if she could catch it), or else a mix of subways and buses, then repeat it all in the other direction. “There were awful crowds—baboulichikis [grandmother types] who never gave you a place. I had to stand—with a backpack bigger than me!”
Somova also admits to a competitive streak. “I always wanted to be best,” she says almost happily. “I had to stand in the center. I liked corrections! If somebody was better, it was a tragedy for me. It was the Kirov or nothing.”
Once she was in, the red carpet was rolled out for the long limbs and proud bearing. She was cast as Odette/Odile in her first year. “It was crazy for a girl new to the theater to get Swan Lake, when so many wait for it for years,” she says a little ruefully. The next year, 2004, she became a soloist. She was helped by a caring coach, ex-ballerina Olga Chenchikova, who ran a mini-academy for her young charges, giving them floor barres and extra conditioning. “Chenchikova turned an ugly duckling into a ballerina,” Somova says. When Chenchikova left the Kirov with her husband, Vaziev (he took the dance post at La Scala), Somova got another top-notch coach, ex-ballerina powerhouse Tatiana Terekhova. They chose each other, in fact, after working together in rehearsals of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (Terekhova was in charge). “She has the pure Leningrad style, the style of Kolpakova,” says Somova of Terekhova, comparing her to Irina Kolpakova, now a ballet master with American Ballet Theatre. “And she doesn’t try to break me, like some other coaches try to do; she doesn’t want to see a copy of herself. She leaves me my ‘I.’”
But who is Somova’s “I” on the stage, beyond the technical amplitude? The answer depends on the ballet you’re watching. Take Balanchine’s Symphony in C, whose first movement she danced at the Lincoln Center Festival. She loves dancing Balanchine. “Some ballets take energy out of you,” she says. “Balanchine’s ballets give energy back, even if they’re hard.” But the Lincoln Center audience only saw that love in some moments—in the passage, for instance, where the ballerina stabs the ground with her pointes, so overcome with excitement she seems to be doing her own drumbeat. Suddenly, a mad child shone out in Somova’s performance. But in other moments in this brisk and joyous dance, a monotone took over—nice pas de chats; beautiful poses in arabesque; no surprises, and no glee.
On the other hand, when Somova danced the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s 2009 remake of The Little Humpbacked Horse, that missing “I” came through loud and clear. She seemed like the good-natured girl of the photo shoot. Ratmansky choreographed his Horse in mock-naïve cartoon style (perhaps in homage to a beloved Soviet animated film), which suits Somova. In a white and gold princess dress, with long yellow braids, she offered audiences not just technical prowess—she whipped through the leaps and turns; she reveled in the funky dance-hall moves—but a radiantly goofy goodness.
Maybe Somova is that rarity in the ballet world: A well-adjusted, happy young woman who happens to have gorgeous technique—and maybe expressing such good-humored effortlessness onstage is hard to do. That’s what the legendary Kolpakova thinks too, after working with Somova last winter in St. Petersburg. “God gave her phenomenal gifts: beauty of line, and an expressive jump,” Kolpakova says. “You can ask her to raise her leg higher, give you a longer arabesque. She does it. But what’s amazing is that it always looks natural, not false. She’s not mannered.”
So the “I” is about buoyant naturalness, or it will be as she grows some more. Somova herself seems to know that there’s an imbalance between her technical mastery and her artistic projection. “I want to work on my acting. It needs lots of work,” she says. “After eight years in the theater, I should be good at technique. As for the acting, I want the audience to watch the ballet like a movie—not the pirouettes, if they’re correct or not, but the image, the whole picture.”
What this writer hopes is that the young ballerina will see, as she grows, that acting can’t be plastered onto the steps: It’s the steps themselves that have to be inflected with personality. But Somova’s on the way to this discovery. Beyond a sunny good nature, she’s also got a healthy appetite—for life, for experience of all kinds, which will show up on the stage. On vacation she loves car trips with friends. Last summer, the Loire Valley; this summer, Scotland. She likes all the simple pleasures: sports, Italian opera, good food. “No diet!” she says, laughing. “I eat everything. I cook, if I have time—simple food, like soup, meat, vegetables. I dream of making cakes! I love chocolate, and fruits, especially apples. If apples are in the fridge, everything is okay.”
The prognosis is excellent for the dancer to win out over the technician. She has her support system in place too, headed by family. Her younger sister, also a dancer (who has yet to find a place in a company) is her best friend. Her mom, always nervous, comes to every performance—“even if it’s better sometimes, for her, not to be there.”
Audiences need now to sit back, relax and enjoy the sunny girl in the Cadillac body. And wait for her to give the Tsar Maiden treatment to all her roles. Wait for her to let loose and play with the steps.
Elizabeth Kendall is a New York dance critic. She is at work on a book about Balanchine's youth in Russia.
Back in St. Petersburg in 1892, when those four courtier-artists (director Vsevolozhsky, composer Tchaikovsky, ballet masters Petipa and Ivanov) were concocting their magical grownup-child ballet The Nutcracker, no one could have dreamed that 100-plus years later Nutcrackers would pop up every Christmas on stages all over the world. And this December, another one pops up in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Clara Stahlbaum, naughty little Fritz, their parents, party guests, weird uncle Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker Prince, the mouse army—all will live again, starting December 23, in American Ballet Theatre’s lavish new production.
This new Nutcracker, though, won’t be another ritual of sweetness and light—not just “the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing to entertain Clara,” in the words of its choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It will be something that matches the “very enigmatic score,” as Ratmansky puts it. “This is music that makes you cry,” says the choreographer, who’s grown famous for ingeniously emotional responses to a whole range of music. And he’s right: If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s music with fresh ears, you hear those notes of anguish underneath the familiar themes. Think of the tree-growing music—it’s majestic and grand, yet deeply sad. When he wrote it, Tchaikovsky might have sensed how fragile was the cozy Tsarist life he knew. The Mariinsky prima ballerina Gabriela Komleva once refused to dance the role of Clara: She thought the story too light for the anguished music.
But the story itself has dark places. E.T.A. Hoffmann, its German author, was a three-time refugee in Europe’s Napoleonic wars; in response, he wrote tales of fantasy and horror. Hoffmann’s 1816 Drosselmeyer was a much scarier magician than the figure in the ballet, and his mouse king was nasty: He could turn beautiful people into ugly ones. Even when Tchaikovsky and Petipa lightened the story for the stage, they left in some scary things. Armies of mice taking over your living room at night aren’t exactly reassuring.
Ratmansky wants to keep those dark parts of the story in his new production; at the same time, he believes Nutcracker should be family-friendly. “And I still want it to be classical,” he adds. “Honestly, I don’t have interest in dance without pointe shoes. I don’t know of anything more—what’s the word—full of opportunities. Pointe gives another dimension to dancing.”
A tall order: to make a Nutcracker that’s light enough for children and dark enough for adults; pure enough to be classical, surprising enough to be new. But anyone doubting Ratmansky’s skill at resolving paradoxes has only to hear him talking. A few months ago, the 42-year-old choreographer sat backstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and quietly answered questions about his Nutcracker plans. As he talked, he grew intense; his brown, slightly-pop eyes lit up. He adores the 1954 Balanchine Nutcracker that holds sway every Christmas at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. His won’t be like that, though it’s hard for him to describe something that’s not finished. But he can explain a few things: His new snow scene won’t be the usual wintry benediction, but instead, “a bit dangerous, not sweet.” His first-act party scene won’t be “all hobbyhorses and frilly petticoats, not quite as warm as usual.”
And he wants to deepen the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier that serves as the climax to the ballet’s second act. The music for that pas de deux seems to him “strangely unrelated” to the action that comes before. “It adds a lot of dramatic color to quite a light story. For me it sounds like Tchaikovsky’s painful look back on the beautiful times of childhood and growing up. Like looking from a distance.”
Audiences will get to see Ratmansky’s understanding of these complicated emotions, deepened by his two earlier encounters—or half encounters—with the ballet nine years ago. For the infamous revisionist, Mikhail Chemiakin-designed 2001 Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre, the one that dwells on mouse soldiers in Napoleonic retreat, Ratmansky was replaced in mid-choreography, presumably because he didn’t see eye to eye with the famous scenic artist. In that same year, he was grabbed by the Royal Danish Ballet to finish a half-choreographed Nutcracker being prepared for Tivoli Gardens (“That was the craziest month in my life,” he says).
Now, with many more ballets under his belt, and a stint as director of the mighty Bolshoi, ABT’s resident choreographer gets what he didn’t have before: time to work and distinguished collaborators. One of these is décor and costume designer Richard Hudson, of The Lion King fame. “He has exquisite taste,” says Ratmansky, “a feel of shape and form. I saw he could lead me somewhere I hadn’t been yet.” If preliminary sketches are right, Hudson has found that balance between traditional and fresh that Ratmansky wants. The waltz flowers have flouncy tutus of intense magenta. The Rat King wears an elegant gray waistcoat, pink baroque shoes and a hat of rat heads.
In the end, though, it’s the music that’s the key. “It’s so rich and deep—every new choreographer can get something out of it.” And Ratmansky didn’t even like Tchaikovsky’s music when he was young. He confesses, “I thought it was too emotional. I much preferred Stravinsky and Prokofiev.”
What’s changed? “I don’t judge anymore,” he says quietly. “Tchaikovsky knows how to look into the deepest cores of your soul. I don’t want this aspect to be lost behind a toy story. There are things in his music—and I hope in the dancing—that can’t be put into words. My main goal with this Nutcracker is never to forget about this side of Tchaikovsky.”
Elizabeth Kendall is a dance critic based in New York, at work on Revolution and the Muse, a book about Balanchine’s youth in Russia, and his ballerina-classmate, Lidiia Ivanova.