Maria Kotchetkova, the newest principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, arrived for our interview wearing rehearsal clothes and looking rather disheveled—a stark contrast to her glamorous appearance the night before in layer upon layer of white netting in her San Francisco debut as Giselle. Her mismatched layers of practice clothes and après-ski boots were reminders of the true life of a ballet star. Stage lights, flowers and standing ovations one night followed immediately by the grueling routine of classes and rehearsals the next morning. I asked her how she felt about her performance. “The dress rehearsal went better,” she said shyly, dropping her eyes to her feet. She was so small that she had to sit on the edge of the chair to reach the floor. “And I had problems with my shoes. I went through two pairs in the first act.” I asked if she had been nervous. She paused and thought before answering.
“Nothing is harder or scarier than dancing at the Bolshoi,” she visibly shivered as she remembered her childhood debut on the world’s most intimidating stage. Though she is now only 23 years-old, she takes comfort in knowing that she has faced greater challenges than dancing Giselle—generally considered a role that separates the dancers from the artists.
The tiny dancer first auditioned for the Bolshoi Ballet School when she was nine years old. Though she was already an accomplished gymnast and ice skater, her parents wanted her to focus her talents on an artistic career rather than the short-lived fame of an athlete. Maria had her doubts about her parents’ vision. She knew very little about ballet beyond what she had seen in tattered photographs: burly dancers with short, badly cut hair and enormous calves. She did not see herself in their image. Nonetheless, life was hard in Moscow and she knew that her parents’ instincts were correct. She would need a career.
The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s threw its institutions into chaos. They were forced to change, including the 200-year-old behemoth, the Bolshoi Ballet. Sofia Golovkina, the famed dragon who had ruled the Bolshoi Ballet School for over 20 years already, no longer had the luxury of focusing exclusively on students admitted for their talent. Families who could pay cash were able to catch and hold Golovkina’s all-important attention. An only child from a family of modest means, Kochetkova had considerable promise but no ballet training when she first appeared at the doors of the school where compatriot Rudolf Nureyev had spent his formative years several decades earlier.
Golovkina summarily rejected Maria and sent her back to her beloved rhythmic gymnastics competitions. Only two out of every hundred girls who auditioned during those years were accepted, regardless of talent or financial means. Kochetkova was then approached by her gymnastic coach’s husband. He said she was a natural ballet dancer and wanted to help her prepare to audition again the following year. She agreed to try and this time Golovkina admitted her. She progressed well and was soon in the full-time program that included a rigorous curriculum of ballet, character dance, music, languages, and other academic subjects.
Maria worked from early morning until well into the evening day after day, but the famously harsh Golovkina was not impressed with her potential. The fierce school director cornered her one day after class. “You will never be a dancer. You have no neck.”
Kochetkova’s eyes still betray her outrage at being discouraged in such a cruel manner. “I had spent my childhood walking on my hands. I had never thought about having a neck!” She pulled her shoulders down to demonstrate how she worked to lengthen the appearance of her spine. Asked if she carries Galovkina’s voice with her to this day and sees only her neck when she looks in the mirror, she was quick to respond. “I have never liked anything I see in the mirror.”
The Bolshoi is famous for its atmosphere of relentless condemnation and unpredictable acts of cruelty. American newspapers and magazines gleefully covered the story in 2003 of Anastasia Volochkova, who was fired by the Bolshoi Ballet for being too fat—at 5 feet 6 and 110 pounds. Russian dancers, including some very famous defectors, have spoken and written about their complex feelings toward the institution. (In her autobiography, “I, Maya Plisetskaya,” the great Russian ballerina reflected on the challenges of organizing a celebration of her fiftieth year on the stage (yes, her 50th!). Someone suggested that the performance take place at the Bolshoi Theater. “I have not been welcome there for years,” she said. In fact, it had only been three years since she had performed there but somehow the years had expanded in her mind and her exile took on mythic proportions. In the end, she was welcomed back for the unprecedented retrospective of her life’s work. The trepidation this sixty-plus-year old ballerina of international renown felt about the imminent possibility of rejection by the all-powerful Bolshoi is telling.)
Young Maria persisted in spite of the constant criticism, the grueling schedule and the cut-throat competition. She doesn’t remember having particularly enjoyed learning the art of ballet; she only remembers that it was hard. The discipline required to master the amount and the quality of the work demanded by the teachers was only part of the difficulty. Maria felt Galovkina’s decisions about which students to promote and who should be given the most coveted roles in student performances were made for reasons other than merit.
In spite of feeling battered by the seemingly insurmountable challenges, Maria focused daily on improving her skills and artistry. She remembers working alone in the studio after hours as her mother sat on the floor against the mirror doing her daughter’s school work. She was eventually chosen to perform in the monthly Sunday student matinee in that most terrifying of places: The Bolshoi Theater. The thought of herself as a relatively inexperienced student performing in this, one of the greatest and most renowned theatres in the world, still inspires feelings of dread and horror. Because of the architecture, the audience seemed so close, even those in the three stacked balconies. The enormity of the stage combined with stingy rehearsal time in the theatre made each performance seem like punishment.
She excelled in the immense space, in spite of her terror, and was eventually asked, on the occasion of Golovkina’s jubilee, to perform the most desired of student roles, the romantic duet or pas de deux from Nutcracker. As she attracted more and more attention, she felt the pressure against her mounting within the school. The wealthy and well-connected parents of the other students demanded to know why their darling daughters were not being featured at the Bolshoi.
Galovkina’s health began to falter, but she held onto the leadership of the school in spite of already having been at the helm for decades. Though unpopular with the students and other teachers, she would not waiver. She alone taught the advanced students and regularly demoted and promoted students based on her own unpredictable criteria.
Immediately after the Jubilee, without warming or explanation, without regard for Maria’s growing artistry, her mounting success and her tireless devotion, Golovkina summarily dismissed her. “Whatever you do is all wrong. I don’t want to see you in my class ever again.” Though Golovina was hospitalized for exhaustion shortly after this proclamation, the damage had already been done.
Kochetkova looks sad as she remembers that time. Staring down at her tense hands and intermingled fingers, she reflects. “Many great dancers don’t make it because of this atmosphere. It’s too hard inside. You can’t just be a good dancer. You need connections. Sometimes you need to do things you don’t want to do. If you’re not an evil bitch inside, you suffer.”
In spite of the inequity, Maria would not quit. She assessed her options. Instead of attending the prestigious advanced ballet class (where the protocol of deeply bowing before the teacher upon entering the room was strictly enforced), she decided to hold her chin high and join the class for character dancers. Character dancers are those who wear the operatic-type costumes and act on stage rather than dance. “They are the ones that the school felt sorry for but let them attend anyway,” she said. “So I went with them. It was unbelievable. It would be like after dancing Giselle last night, today I am fired.”
“I have always had angels,” she adds with a conspiratorial twinkle. One of her teachers at the school approached her and suggested entering the important Ballet Competition in Kazan, Russia. Working in secret, she prepared a pas de deux with one of the young men already performing with the Bolshoi. “What can I lose?” she asked herself. “I have nothing.”
After arduous preparation, they danced at the competition before a panel of stern-faced judges with clipboards. Her partner’s hands were slick with sweat and he dropped her flat on the floor at the feet of the esteemed panel. Devastated and feeling hopeless, she gathered her belongings and returned to the hotel. After taking a hot bath and climbing into bed early, she heard the phone ring. It was someone from the competition. Although the partnership had been disqualified because of the fall, the judges had liked her so much they created a special award for her.
One of the judges was Viatcheslav Michailovitch Gordeev, a renowned former dancer and head of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, which is devoted to supporting talented aspiring dancers by helping them gain exposure. Gordeev became one of Maria’s angels. With financial support from the Foundation, she entered several competitions both inside and outside Russia. “Everything started to happen,” she remembers with a quick laugh, “because of that fall.”
The Nureyev Foundation sent her to Switzerland where she won acclaim at the Prix de Lausanne. This honor comes with far-reaching exposure and an apprenticeship at a major ballet company. Although she had done her preparation for the competition in secret, she could no longer hide her success from the power brokers and her former teacher, Golovkina, at the Bolshoi School. She returned from the competition and went straight to Golovkina to thank her because “that is the way you did it.”
Golovkina smiled slyly and said, “Maybe now you should come back to my class.”
Afraid of what the doddering head mistress would do and say to her in front of the other students, she managed to decline the invitation. She couldn’t go back to that torment so she continued to attend the character classes during the day and work privately in the evening with her own coaches.
Following the televised airing of the Prix de Laussane proceedings, late one evening Maria received an anonymous phone call urging her to audition on her own for the Bolshoi Ballet Company. “They called me at home,” she said, looking puzzled to this day. “This is just not done. It scared me.”
Knowing that her success at the Prix de Laussane guaranteed her an apprenticeship at the company of her choice, she chose the Royal Ballet Company in London. If she had followed the advice of the anonymous caller and auditioned for the Bolshoi, what if she had been accepted into the company? It would mean that she might never be able to dance abroad. After years of famous defections and the loss of great talent to the West, the Bolshoi management learned ways to make it nearly impossible for dancers to leave.
Her apprenticeship would not begin until the fall so she began studying in St. Petersburg at the Vaganova Ballet Academy where she continued preparing for future competitions. She felt more affinity for the elegant Kirov or Maryinski style taught and performed in St. Petersburg. After years of having been indoctrinated into thinking that the Bolshoi, with its extraverted bravura style, was the only ballet company of any value in the world, she felt exhilarated by the opportunity to learn the beautiful lines and lyrical style taught in St. Petersburg. Although she regretted not making the move sooner, she worked hard to learn as much as she could by taking class and watching videos of the great performances at the Maryinski Theatre.
Under the continued sponsorship of Gordeev and the Nureyev Foundation, she won a silver medal and the press jury prize at the prestigious 2002 Varna International Competition.
At age 17, tiny Maria Kochetkova left Russia and her parents behind to apprentice with the Royal Ballet in London. “It is not normal in Russia for a young girl to leave her parents like that. But without talking about it I knew they understood. You only get one chance in life.”
After several years and several prestigious gold medals (at competitions in Luxembourg, Rome, and Seoul) and the slow process of learning English and trying to fit in at the Royal, she was offered a place in the company. But even after moving to the English National Ballet a few years later, she felt unfulfilled. These companies do not perform a diverse repertoire and she found herself, still in her early twenties, in a rut. “When I realized this day last year I was doing the same warm-up for the same rehearsal for the same performance, I decided it was time to make a change. I knew I could do other things than Nutcracker, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.”
Although she had never been to the United States, she heard that San Francisco had some openings. Christopher Wheeldon, the hottest choreographer working in the U.S. at the moment, encouraged her to go. Without her knowing it, he called San Francisco Ballet, recommending her and encouraging them to help her obtain a visa. Meanwhile, she sent a video of her spectacular prize-winning performances but never heard back from them. She waited for a visa from the Russian Embassy in London but never fully trusted that it would be granted. By the time her visa was finally approved, she heard that all of the San Francisco openings had been filled. She decided to fly to California anyway. After watching her take two classes, the Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, asked her into his office and offered her a principal contract.
“He doesn’t realize what he did for me. I love this company. In some companies all of the dancers dance the same way. But Helgi has a talent for choosing dancers who come from very different places, dance very different styles.” It’s true that the San Francisco Ballet roster reads like a meeting of the United Nations. Every continent is represented and the diversity straddles the corps de ballet, soloist and principal ranks.
Her San Francisco cast for Giselle included a Cuban Count Albrecht (Joan Boada) and a French Hilarion (Pascal Molat). Giselle, originally performed in 1841, is one of the most beloved of the classical story ballets. Act One takes place in a peasant village during the harvest celebration. Albrecht, who is a real-life prince masquerading as a peasant, falls in love with the young Giselle and asks her to marry him.
Although already engaged to marry the adoring gamekeeper Hilarion, she is overtaken with emotion after the proposal of this handsome stranger. Her mother cautions her over and over again not to become too excited. Giselle is weak because of a heart condition and she must avoid over-taxing herself. Instead of heeding her mother’s advice, Giselle dances for joy throughout the celebration. The act ends when Giselle discovers the true identity of Prince Albrecht and meets his glamorous and aristocratic fiancée. To summarize the finale of Act One, Giselle goes mad and drops dead.
Act One requires communicating a very difficult set of contrasting character traits. Giselle must be at once joyous and enthusiastic as well as weak and vulnerable. Kochetkova was particularly affecting as she sat on a bench with Albrecht who was trying desperately to convince her of his love. He offers her a daisy which they pluck in he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not fashion. Her trembling fingers and shy playfulness melted every heart in the audience. Later the daisy reappears in the “mad scene.” Giselle flings herself around the stage, tearing her own hair, and ripping a daisy to shreds before collapsing. Kochetkova told me she felt intimidated by the acting required of her in Act One. The challenge is to at once be a young girl while portraying the complicated and conflicting emotions of betrayal, disbelief and despair.
The curtain opens for Act Two revealing an otherworldly scene of ghostlike creatures called Wilis. Based on a German myth, the Wilis are young maidens who died after being betrayed by their betrothed. They rise from their graves at night and dance in spotless white wedding gowns. Hilarion visits Giselle’s grave and encounters the man-hating bevy. They force him to dance until he also drops dead. Along comes a repentant Albrecht wishing to also visit Giselle’s final resting place. As he weeps at her grave, she appears before him, having been inducted as a Wili.
In Act Two, Giselle dances several technically demanding solos and pas de deux with Albrecht while always exuding an air of heavy sadness and grief. Kochetkova excels in all things technical, having mastered the classical clarity of her line. She is light and fleet, graceful and confident. Her petite body lengthens in the adagio sections and fills the stage with her longing. Boada carried her through a long series of arabesque jumps in which she articulated her feet as if licking the stage, at once clinging to the ground and taking flight. When she finally abandons him, weeping at her grave, as the sun comes up and the Wilis dissolve, she bows as if to forgive him. Her tenderness hinted at the naïve girl we met in Act One. Incapable of harboring resentment, she accepts her fate.
One of the most coveted roles in ballet, Giselle has been memorably interpreted by great ballerinas including Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Alicia Alonzo and most recently San Francisco’s Lorena Feijoo (see my critique of her 2006 performance in the Scene4 Archives). Sadly, Feijoo is injured this year and was unable to perform.
In spite of the years that have past since she left the famously enormous studios at the Bolshoi School, in preparing her Giselle, Maria was surprised to hear her former teacher’s voice reminding her of a detail she had long forgotten. “I look back and realize it was very hard but good for me. I was held back for so long now I never miss an opportunity to dance. There’s not enough time in a dancer’s life to say no.”
Photos - Erik Tomasson