A swan's way

The secret of a famous ballerina? Keep the glass full

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DEAD AND ALIVE Ullana Lopatkina as the Dying Swan.

DEAD AND ALIVE Ullana Lopatkina as the Dying Swan. Photograph: Petra Bober

It would seem that there are better ways to fill an entire January day in Washington, D.C., than waiting—and praying—for an interview to happen with the elusive Uliana Lopatkina. For one thing, the Kennedy Center really needs more dining options (the canteen, where performers hang out before a show, is particularly grim). But to spend even a bit of time with Lopatkina, the Kirov ballerina who appears with the company for its City Center season, is worth it.

Important life lesson: Russian time is not American time. The sun had set when Lopatkina—a tall creature, both tough and elegant, with cropped red hair and eternal legs—materialized, alongside her beloved coach, Irina Chistiakova, an elfin blond and former Kirov dancer (together, they create a look: rock-star ballerina). In Russia, Lopatkina, 34, is a true diva; her Dying Swan, which she will perform in New York, renders those who have seen it speechless. Following a late rehearsal, the dancer, born in Kerch, Ukraine, discussed (partly through an interpreter), a couple of things that she holds dear: her coach and the arduous, unrelenting quest to transform from a dancer to an artist.

In Russian companies, there is an involved tradition of coaching. How long have you worked with Irina Chistiakova?
Four years. When I started working with her, it was a difficult time for me after the birth of my daughter. I realized that I needed more attention and intensive training; my body had changed after the birth, and I needed to work even more than before. Irina was kind enough to agree to work with me.

Why did you choose her?
Because I remember how she was dancing. She was a brilliant ballerina, especially from a technical perspective. Another factor was that I could visualize her success as a teacher; I was able to see the concrete results of other dancers in the company working with her: how she was training them, and how they improved under her training. And 100 percent proof is a couple who was at the theater and who had certain gifts, but were not really given roles. They were in the corps de ballet, and after they started working with Irina, they were actually invited to join another company where they started performing principal roles. It wasn’t only technical; as dancers, they became calmer and more comfortable with themselves. So her method worked, and I saw that completely.

What is that method exactly?
It would take very long to explain—like a book. I would say it’s a healthy system. Obviously in ballet there is a posture issue with spine and placement and correct position, but this system, the way she sees it, is logical. It allows the body to progress and succeed and to improve faster because it’s set in such a way that the human body can actually respond to those requirements and understand everything that needs to happen with alignment and with posture. Altogether, it makes something very complete.

What is important to you in terms of phrasing and musicality?
To answer this question from one angle, first of all, it depends on the music. What you’re dancing—and how the conductor is reading the piece and how the orchestra is playing it. It’s important for me that the music itself has high emotional points, that the sound is able to give birth to the emotion inside of me. Most of the time, these nuances and these accents are worked on in the studio during rehearsal and then discussed with the conductor, so that during the performance, also, it could take place the way it was rehearsed; it gives the audience the effect that was being worked on in the studio. The same performance can be different at each time because there is the individual touch to it depending on the performance: the dancer, the conductor and the teacher.

How did having a child affect your art?
With the birth of my child, there was a deeper meaning to my life and my art as well. Everything became more serious. This is of course a very vague type of answer, but also a vague type of question. [She smiles, baring no teeth.]

What does The Dying Swan mean to you on a spiritual level?
This can relate to your question about musicality and how each performance changes, because obviously The Dying Swan does not have a concrete story. Each time, you approach it differently. Every little microscopic move that you make depends on how much emotion you have built up inside. For me, the swan is the state of the soul. And it changes according to how your soul is at that moment.

How did you learn such an iconic part?
The process was a very long one for me to prepare my Dying Swan. I worked with very respected dancers of that time. I looked at books and at different recordings and at pictures, and I took something from each of them to build my own version. I wanted to avoid plagiarism. I didn’t want to take something from someone and then be blamed with having taken that move from that dancer or this one. I did not want it to look like anyone else’s—only mine.

Ivan Kozlov, a former dancer with Eifman Ballet, is now one of your main partners. How did you discover him?
I was appearing at a gala of Boris Eifman, and the partner I was supposed to dance with was injured. It was a critical situation; I had to prepare the same role with someone else, and that someone else was Ivan. What was different was that it was comfortable from the first rehearsal. He was really careful and the performance was about us as a couple. I’m always trying to find a person who can answer me onstage. What is really important is to find some reason to come onstage to present my story. And not only my story. For a story about love, it should not only be me and a partner. [Laughs] So that was the reason to start working more.

Would you ever want to become an artistic director? Do you have dreams like that?
I know that it’s a difficult job and a difficult task, but I think it’s interesting. It is hard work. And I know, from previous colleagues who have now have become directors, what it takes. So I think in general the answer is that it would be an interesting and serious continuation of my career.

What would you do differently? At the Kirov, for example?
I don’t think that you have to necessarily be an artistic director to change something within a company, because as an artist you can obviously influence things one way or another. And also, it’s not necessarily of doing something differently or changing what the person before you was doing than bringing all of your experience and your vision and adding it to the existing base, as opposed to just taking and changing things around. And I think that it all comes from your individual approach and vision and building up on what is there.

Do you have a vision of what a classical ballet company should be?
I have never had time to present my vision. I am using my potential for my dancing onstage. So, for me, now it’s not the first question. It’s my private question. I’m using my energy for my stage. I think that is much more important for today. It is also my life. Of course, I’m thinking of something, but I’m interested in my dancing. If it is necessary to change something, it should be a process. I believe in process.

What makes a ballerina? You are one of the few, and it’s very rare.
I think ballet is interesting because the audience can see actors onstage. I think this is one of the most important parts of being an artist, of the art of ballet. In Russian, there are two words: a dancer and artist. I have to be an artist, because that acting and that conveying of emotions is the direct link between the soul of the dancer and the person sitting in the audience. The audience member is the connection that links the two; it’s the connection that makes the audience member feel something to the point of feeling the need to come and watch the performance and understand what the dancer onstage is trying to accomplish with her movements and with her gestures and her dancing. The most important part for me is establishing that direct link with the audience. That was why I wanted to dance with Ivan. He should be onstage. I saw him onstage like an actor, and I wanted to give him a chance.

How do you prepare for a performance?
It is not only the time in the studio. There is your heart. The next step is to change something inside, and that is what I work with Irina to create. So before a performance, I am thinking of life situations. I have to be sick maybe. Like I have to cry inside until the performance. I have to keep inside some of my experience. I’m trying to take this glass of water and to keep it full until the performance. [She unsteadily holds an imaginary glass of water.] Irina sometimes is trying to help me to keep it. She is saying, “Do you remember? Just remember that day….” And I’m starting to cry! [Laughs] She’s trying to push special buttons. And I’m like, [Winces] yeeooww! Sometimes it’s different. Sometimes, you have to use your power, and sometimes you can use your weaknesses. It is a very thin line. Likewise, the audience cannot always say what touched them at a performance: It’s a combination of all of it. And words sometimes are not enough to express these feelings. It’s difficult to talk about art. We can talk about it, but still not be able to say what we can only feel.

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