Alina Somova

The Russian ballerina takes on Manhattan.

Photograph: N. Razina

Alina Somova is remarkable, and here's a story to prove it: After she performed The Little Humpbacked Horse, Maya Plisetskaya, the revered Bolshoi star, visited her backstage, took off her diamond earrings, and handed them over. As part of the Mariinsky Ballet's season at the Metropolitan Opera House beginning Monday 11—thank you, Lincoln Center Festival—Somova will reprise her part of the Tsar Maiden in Alexei Ratmansky's Humpacked Horse (for which she, as well as Ratmansky, won the Golden Mask award). She doesn't dance small. Beyond her astounding extension is an enticing duality contrasting fragility with force: At her core, she's wild, and that's a beautiful thing. Somova, who will also dance George Balanchine's Symphony in C, recently fielded questions about her life via e-mail.

When and how did you know that you wanted to be a professional dancer? When did it click for you?
The realization that I wanted to dance professionally crept upon me gradually. It wasn't that I woke up one morning and knew that there was nothing else I wanted to do. It's even hard to remember how and when it happened—although I probably understood perfectly well that I wanted to do this seriously and professionally when I decided to study at the Russian [Vagonova] Ballet Academy. I was, of course, very young, but I knew I was entering a school where they taught dance professionally and that there was no other career path for me. During my studies I did have some other passing ideas, but they always passed quickly as I always asked myself, What do I want to be? And I knew that there was no other option than ballet, to be a ballerina.

What is your relationship with Maya Plisetskaya? How did you meet?
I first met Maya Plisetskaya in Spain where there was a gala in her honor with dancers from all over the world, and I was there too. I went to her dressing room before the performance with the book I, Maya Plisetskaya. My mum gave it to me for my 14th birthday. I loved that book and read it many, many times; I took it to Maya Mikhailovna to get her to autograph it. I told her how much I admired her, that it was always lying on my desk when I was studying, and that I could never have dreamed of actually meeting her and talking with her. Maya Mikhailovna signed it for me. And what surprised me more than anything was that I had never imagined she would know who I was—I was just another dancer. But Maya Mikhailovna wrote, "To Alinochka with my admiration." It both touched and amazed me that she knew my name. That meeting took place two years before the premiere of The Little Humpbacked Horse. The next time was at the Mariinsky Theatre after the orchestral rehearsal of The Little Humpbacked Horse, which was attended by Maya Mikhailovna and [her husband,] Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin. My partner, Leonid Sarafanov, and I approached them to convey our thanks and gratitude. Maya Mikhailovna encouraged us, wished us success and said that we were wonderful, that she liked the production and that the audience would too. And after the premiere she came backstage. I don't remember anything of what was said; after the premiere I was so full of emotions, I was on cloud nine, in a state of euphoria, and my head was buzzing. Maya Mikhailovna kissed me, hugged me, and I saw her taking off her earrings and giving them to me. And no words were needed.

How did ballet school affect your love of dance?
Despite the problems at school, my love for dance never disappeared, it was always there, although with some, it destroys the desire to dance. Of course, it wasn't easy. It was hard to overcome my own self, hard to cope, especially at the start when I was very young and physically underdeveloped, and it was hard to combine my ballet studies with the standard school curriculum and various subjects that had nothing to do with ballet. They began to use me in performances very early. I would come home late. And I was still little, you need a routine, so my mum was very strict with this and made sure that I went to bed at 10pm on the dot. But I had to do my lessons—math, drawing an atlas and other things. And I had to get up early, about 7am, as classes at the academy began at 9pm. It was a long journey from home to the academy—on the tram, the bus, the metro and often at rush hour. That was very tiring, too. But the desire to dance and my love of dance nevertheless remained strong enough to survive.

You performed Swan Lake at the very beginning of your career. What was the preparation process like? Also, how has your Odette-Odile developed over time?
I well remember that my premiere in Swan Lake took place on May 13 during my first year at the theater. That was eight years ago. Gradually I became familiar with the role, and I started to learn the variations with my teacher at the time, Olga Ivanovna Chenchikova, immediately after joining the Mariinsky Ballet in the summer. In class, we studied the text of the role, and then I asked to rehearse with different partners and try things out; sometimes we were even rehearsing Swan Lake on trains. Probably the work took over six months. For me, Swan Lake was and still is the highest achievement any ballerina can attain. It is the quintessence of the beauty of classical ballet. Both psychologically and physically, it was a tremendous strain as it was my first role in a ballet with several acts. And, of course, some things have changed since then. Today, I can say that the greatest difficulty for me lies in the "white" part of the ballet. But back then I think that I found it very hard to dance as Odile, as the "black" act is much more technically demanding.

After the first performance, as documented in Bertrand Normand's documentary Ballerina, you were told to "forget the theater and rest" the next day. Judging from your reaction, you have a hard time relaxing. Is that true?
Regaining your energy after a performance in any full-length ballet in a role as emotionally draining as those in Giselle, Swan Lake, La Bayadre and Romeo and Juliet takes some time. Normally for a week after such a performance, I go around looking as if my soul has been dragged out of my body. If I have the chance to relax for a week or even two or three days after a performance then I try to relax completely and utterly—I don't go to class at all and even prefer to get out of town or even abroad. But as a rule there is never enough time because the next day you often have to rehearse a new ballet. I try to make sure I catch the gaps in my timetable and at the very first opportunity I organize some kind of normal rest. And for me, that's only when I can completely switch off from my normal activities and when I have the chance not to be at the theater.

How do you deal with jealousy or competitiveness?
I really try not to react to such things. For me, the important thing is not to get emotionally involved in rivalry or competitiveness. That kind of emotion absorbs a lot of energy and strength. And often people or situations can make you flare up emotionally. I always try never to react, not to get involved, not to be jealous and to keep a distance.

What is it like to work with Ratmansky? What is his influence on your dancing?
Ratmansky is an incredibly talented man, and that wins you over and encourages respect. His choreography is highly original and it has its pearls. Today, unfortunately, there are so many choreographers who have "borrowed" a bit from everybody—Forsythe, Kylin, Balanchine and many others—but they have nothing of their own, nothing original, nothing unique. Ratmansky has his own unique and recognizable style. And I like the fact that his choreography is still based on classical ballet. It's great rehearsing with him. In terms of his inner culture, he is a very noble man. He is very demanding, but he never piles on the pressure; he can set a task and get you so involved in the process and convince you that it never once enters your head to say, "I won't do that, I can't, it doesn't suit me." You believe him absolutely and you follow after him however difficult it may be.

Are there similarities between the choreography of Ratmansky and Balanchine?
I'll say something in general about what attracts me—the common schools. At the end of the day, both Balanchine and Ratmansky came from the Russian school of classical ballet. That's my school, too, it's my language, and I love it immeasurably. And as a ballerina, it provides me with the greatest pleasure to dance it.

With Tatiana Terekhova, who is your coach now, how do you work together?
Terekhova is totally and absolutely dedicated to her work and she knows her stuff brilliantly. She was a marvellous ballerina, so brilliant and exceptional, and now she is an amazing teacher. She never bends anyone to her own will, she can sense everyone's individuality and she gives precise indications and advice. But she will never judge you by her own standards, no. She bases everything on your own character and shows you how to make your own dancing better and not how to bring it in line with some abstract norm.

How was it that you were promoted to the rank of principal dancer?
I don't know; everything was decided without me and I learned about it on the Internet.

Seriously? In a newspaper article? How did that make you feel?
That story is absolutely true. I found out that I had been made a prima ballerina on the Mariinsky Theatre website. Or rather my sister found out. She was looking at the theater's website to see the repertoire and she clicked on the page of the ballet company and saw that I was listed as a prima ballerina. She told me. Honestly, I didn't actually believe it, I thought it must be a mistake or misprint. And then, a little while later, it was confirmed by the director of the ballet company that I had been made a prima ballerina.

Have you returned to your natural hair color? Will it be darker in New York?
I have a trick up my sleeve—I am going to dance the role of the Tsar Maiden in The Little Humpbacked Horse as a blond, just for one evening, and then I will perform my roles in other ballets with my natural hair colour—light brown.

What do you like to do when you're not dancing?
I love to do a great many different things. I love going out of town, to the countryside. I like cycling. I love opera—not listening to it on a CD but actually going to see it, normally, of course, at the Mariinsky, but sometimes I also go to other theaters. Last summer, for example, I was at the Arena di Verona to see Zeffirelli's production of Turandot with Guleghina in the lead role. I always watch football. And I love plays.

See more in Dance