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"Cinderella, Hamburg-style"

Interview with Ivan Urban and Anna Polikarpova of Hamburg Ballet

by Catherine Pawlick

February 28, 2003 -- Washington, D.C.

Cinderella is not just a fairytale. It can happen in real life too -- at least the part where the beautiful young girl finds her prince. That was the case with Anna Polikarpova and Ivan Urban, currently both principal dancers with the Hamburg Ballet. John Neumeier's "Cinderella Story" was their first ballet danced together and last month they made real the fairytale with a wedding in the States.

"We knew each other from rehearsals. And then in the company, we worked together and danced together a lot," explains newlywed wife Polikarpova by phone from her hotel in Washington, D.C. "I was scheduled to dance it ("Cinderella Story") with another partner who fell sick, and we had ten days until the performance. John (Neumeier) chose Ivan to replace him." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Of the recent wedding, she comments it was a sudden event that neither she nor Urban had planned. "He said it would be a good souvenir from America." Her smile is audible even over the long distance phone line. It was clearly a good decision.

At the end of February the Hamburg Ballet finished its U.S. tour which began in Orange County, California. The company heads to Italy next. European tours are a regular part of their annual performance schedule, and the internationalism in the Urban-Polikarpova story doesn't end here. With Urban hailing from Minsk, Belorus, and Polikarpova from Tomsk, Russia, they have a similar heritage and a culture in common, if not a country. Polikarpova trained at the Vaganova Institute before performing with the Mariinsky Theatre for three years. Urban graduated from the Minsk Ballet School in Belorus (also a Vaganova-based training) and was sent to the Prix de Lausanne competition where he was spotted by John Neumeier, at the time a judge for the competition. Urban was then invited to the Hamburg School for a final two years before joining the company.

Polikarpova came to the Hamburg in slightly different fashion. John Neumeier arrived in St. Petersburg in 1992 as part of a gala featuring a number of well-known choreographers. Polikarpova was dancing Leonid Jacobson's "The Dying Swan" (Saint-Saens), a version in which the swan wears black instead of white. The gala also featured artists from the Hamburg Ballet. Polikarpova was able to watch the pas de deux from "Othello" and Neumeier's work made such an impression that she sent him a videotape with samples of her dancing. He watched the tape, sent her a solo contract and she headed off to Germany.

"Everything was strange for me, but I wanted to try something new. I've been here ever since. I love it because you can't always just do old things, old ballets. I love the new works too." She enjoys dancing the neoclassical ballets and among her favorites are Balanchine's "Apollo" and Tudor's "The Leaves are Fading." She comments that she prefers roles in which she can act, and not simply dance.

Urban also appreciates dramatic ballets, but he clearly points out his preference for more lyrical, romantic roles, noting "Giselle," "Romeo and Juliet," "Daphne & Chloe" and "Cinderella" among his favorites. "These ballets have more soulful emotions, more love. I like this best of all."

Like their common backgrounds, the couple share similar views on the difference between the repertoire in the Russian and Belorussian companies and those in Europe.

"In Minsk they tend to repeat the classics, and don't invite guest dancers," says Urban. Polikarpova notes similarities in St. Petersburg. "During my three years in the company I began to notice things. They are always doing Swan Lake and Don Q but there wasn't much new work."

At the Hamburg Ballet, that's not the case. Mats Ek has set his "The Sleeping Beauty" on the company, in which Polikarpova dances the Golden Fairy. "It was a big deal to work with him, and very interesting," she says. In addition to bringing in outside choreographers, Neumeier's contract stipulates that he will also create two new works per year.

The company has a significant classical repertoire in addition to their neo-classical and modern ballets. "We have 'Swan Lake,' with almost all of the Petipa choreography; 'Sleeping Beauty,' 'Giselle,' and last season we did 'La Bayadere.' This mix (of classical and neo-classical ballets in the repertoire) is very rare in large companies, and a big plus for us," Polikarpova says.

Urban continues: "In Europe it is generally much more open: there is a wider range of repertoire, encompassing classical, neo-classical and modern ballet. John (Neumeier) invites different choreographers to the company, and he has his own work as well. So we dance all of John's choreography."

In fact, the couple just finished preparing and performing Neumeier's latest creation, "Nijinsky." In it, Urban dances Diaghilev and Polikarpova dances the role of Nijinsky's wife, Romola de Polszky. "We read about this history in school," says Urban, "and so I took what I knew from that, and added it to the choreography. It's difficult for me to play a man who is trying to seduce Nijinsky, but as an artist it is part of my job, and artistically a challenge. I have an image of him as elegant and distinguished, and I tried to depict that in his character."

Urban pointed out one of the pleasures of working with Neumeier is the freedom of interpretation he allows his dancers. "The steps are the same, but the feelings may change. Every night I can do as I wish. We can add dramatic interpretations and afterwards he may say 'that wasn't enough' or 'that was too much' and then we adjust accordingly. I like working with him. He allows me the freedom to dance and react to the role as I see fit."

Home Sweet Home
Does Polikarpova miss her home country? Her answer points out the lift in travel restrictions for Russians in the post-Glasnost era. "In the past, if people left Russia, they would not be able to return. Just knowing that there was no going back would be a cause for suffering and nostalgia. Now it is a different situation. If you miss home, you can buy plane tickets and go."

Not only that, but both Urban and Polikarpova's mothers make annual trips to Hamburg for the June ballet festival, when the company performs a different ballet every night, not just a few times a week. This solves the problem of cross-border phonecalls, at least for a while.

And Russia's open borders bring other advantages as well. Last year Polikarpova was able to perform on her home stage in St. Petersburg as a member of the Hamburg Ballet, as part of the International Ballet Festival. The company performed "The Seagull" and "Nijinsky" there. "It was a great pleasure to return to my birthplace, and it felt like home to dance different ballets there. I had always dreamt of coming home and dancing 'La Dame Aux Camelias' there, and last year I did that," she says.

Urban points out that Polikarpova has four or five years left in her career by most traditional European standards. "It is typical to dance until you are 38 years old or so, and then it is time to do something else," he explains. What would that be?

Polikarpova is simply convinced she could only work in some sort of artistic field after she stops dancing. "For me I can't imagine studying again. I can't go somewhere not in the arts. I really like ballet, but I also like to teach, I like photography, movies, dramatic theatre. So I see my future going in these sorts of directions."

Polikarpova says Urban will teach, and Urban agrees. "If you think about it, artists have little choice. If you work for 20 years in one field it then becomes very difficult to change specialties. You need to study the new area first, and at that age it is difficult to learn new things. Many artists will teach or will work with a company in some capacity. When I look at the future, I would like to teach or choreograph."

Life on the Road
The Hamburg tours almost every year. This year they visited Spain before America. Next year they will be in Japan for five weeks, but the couple both voiced their warm impressions of California and desire to return here to perform.

The constant touring inherent in the dancer's life does have its drawbacks. "I have a house in Germany but I feel as if I'm a perpetual tourist," Ivan confesses. "I spent 8 years in Minsk, which was not my home town, and then 8 years in Hamburg. Who knows what will come next? I have no other plans at this point, but I like America, especially California. If there was a possibility of dancing there, I would of course go. The people, the climate are wonderful. I have a wife now, and so the next step is to find a real home."

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

See also the following reviews:
- Hamburg Ballet - 'Nijinsky': A Rite of Spring
Hamburg Ballet: Neumeier's Nijinsky - Beautiful and Haunting
- Hamburg Ballet - 'Nijinsky': Nijinsky as Text

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