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Interview with Svetlana Ivanova

by Catherine Pawlick

2006 -- St. Petersburg, Russia

Among the ranks of Maryinsky dancers, various stories can be found. There are those whose family backgrounds are based in the arts, who follow in their parents’ footsteps, attending the Vaganova School and pursuing a career in the theatre. There are those whose family histories were never before connected with theatre, whose parents send them to the government-funded eight-year course, hoping that their children will find steady employment in a Russian theatre following graduation. But whatever the reason for their chosen profession, after joining the company, career paths can take several routes. Promotion, stagnation, or interruption due to pregnancy or injury are all possibilities, and there are as many variations on these themes as there are dancers in the 200-member company.

During my daily visits to the Maryinsky Theatre, one particular dancer caught my eye, and her tale is especially unique. We struck up a conversation between rehearsals one day, and she shared her story with me.

Svetlana Ivanova is, on the one hand, easily overlooked. She is timid, reserved, irreproachably polite and well-mannered, built fragilely with a slight bone structure and wide, round, innocent brown eyes. On the other hand, her physique, technical capacity in the studio and innate dancing talents have been noticed and employed by more than one visiting choreographer. While soloists and principal dancers may perform intermittently as guest artists elsewhere, all the while maintaining their home base at the Maryinsky, Ivanova is the only coryphée who left the Maryinsky upon personal invitation from a major European choreographer and, after a full year of exposure to Western culture and work habits, decided to return to Russia.

Her invitation to Hamburg Ballet came at an opportune transition in her life, but was hardly an expected progression for a young corps member of the Kirov Ballet. 

Born in Cheboksara, in the Volga region, part of Russia’s “middle belt”, Ivanova spent her early years in a local ballet studio. She explained that the studio acted as one of the feeder schools for the Vaganova Academy and helped to disseminate Russian ballet to other areas of the country.“The system worked like this. Our theatre would send students from Cheboksara to St. Petersburg to study at the Vaganova School. The Ministry (of Culture) pays for the education and then, upon graduation, we must return to Cheboksara. The Ministry itself chooses which students will go, and sends them to St. Petersburg. In my case, the times changed and I didn’t return home – my pedagogue helped in that respect a lot, and so did Makhar (Vasiev), when he took me into the company.”

“It just so happened that they took me straight from school in Cheboksara, I was literally sitting in French class. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to anyone, we went straight to the train for St. Petersburg. My mother didn’t even manage to put a hairbrush or towels or even a different dress into my bag because we were so rushed. The school year had already begun in St. Petersburg, but I had spent September 1st at home in a normal school, so it was paramount that I arrive there as soon as possible. I suppose that is why everything was done so quickly. They paid for the tickets and that was that. I only came back to Cheboksara the following summer.

“I was 9 years old when I arrived in Petersburg. I remember now that I cried all the time, when I was younger. And the girls too... Now they’re my best friends, they’re like sisters to me because we grew up together from the age of 9, and now we dance together on stage every night. But then, when we were so little, I would cry, then they would cry, they also missed their mothers. Later, our studies became enough to distract us. My mom would visit me at the Vaganova Academy, and so would my grandmother, and they would bring gifts. I would go home in winter for 10 days. We also had a week off in the fall, and several months in the summer.”

Ivanova recalls the atmosphere at the Academy as “warm and supportive. We studied ballet but also normal academic classes. Of course, that was still the Soviet time and we walked around like patriots – flags and pins and what not – but that all changed. Each year at school a few students would be eliminated, but 14 of us girls managed to graduate together. I was very lucky with our pedagogue for the first five years. She was like a mother to us, understood us and explained everything from the very start. This was important, because children don’t understand everything right away  – they have to be told why, what is this for. And she told us that if we worked hard on the little details, these little nuggets, kept them, then at the end of the school year we could show the judges (at the annual examinations) what we have learned. So the atmosphere there was good, we were all friends.”

That pedagog during Ivanova’s inoculatory period was Olga Dmitrievna Iskondarova (Baltacheyeva). During the last three years at the Academy, Inna Borisovna Zubkovskaya became their pedagogue, the grandmother of Nikolai Zubkovskii, who is currently a member of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet.

“We would see Inna Borisovna in the hallways, and she was always so elegant, beautiful, and inaccessible, that we couldn’t imagine how we would begin to work under her. But she is just an amazing person, [she] became like a mother to us also. I was very lucky. We had the last three years of Vaganova Academy with her and then in the theatre she remained our pedagogue also (working in both locations).

“Inna Borisovna herself had studied in Moscow, but during the blockade they evacuated (the theatre) to Perm. So she was also in Perm, and afterwards she returned to St. Petersburg. So she was well-versed in the Vaganova style.

“Of course lessons at the Vaganova Academy were very challenging, they were difficult.

I remember, with Olga Dmitrievna, for the first five years, we always did a full class, starting on the floor doing gymnastics. Even now I can’t start the day without that, I’m so used to it. Some can. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t. So we would start the gymnastics, then we’d do the barre and then the center, jumps and pointes. But often we would run out of time, so we would do gymnastics and then go straight to the center, we’d put on our pointe shoes and do pointe work instead of jumps.

“In the third and fourth years, still with Olga Dmitrievna, we would do the gymnastics and then go straight to the center, without the barre. Sometimes during class we wouldn’t manage to cover everything during the lesson, so we had supplementary classes that no one knew about, especially just before exam time, we would meet additionally to work on certain things.

“With Inna Borisovna the last three years at the school (we were aged 16 or 17), we always did everything, a full class. And if time was constrained, we would do even just two exercises in pointe shoes, fouettes and something else. It was solid, a solid class, stable, because not everyone could do certain steps, but in the exams we would have to show what we’d learned in the center, and it wouldn’t matter if you had time during class or not, it was part of the examination.”

Following graduation, Ivanova joined the Maryinsky Theatre in 1993 and was promoted to coryphée (listed on the Maryinsky roster in English as “soloist”) in 1998. But from there her path became fraught with difficulties.

“I had been with the theatre for seven years, and then, in 2000 Inna Borisovna died, and with that came a general feeling of being lost. I had lost her, and here I was in this big theatre, the Maryinsky, where she had been our support, our stability, our wall, our everything. And when she was gone I just felt this great loss. She was like a mother to us, she worried about us, how are we, are we eating well...

“Then in spring, John Neumeier came to the theatre from Hamburg, Germany, and this was surprising. His work was new for us, because we were always only dancing the classics – ‘Bayadere’, ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Giselle’. But Neumeier was completely new. Although he set his old ballets on the company, for us it was eye-opening, and on a larger scale, a kind of revelation of sorts, because we had never danced these ballets before. The work fascinated me. I was captivated, I loved it, and in my soul I felt I understood him. Of course not only me, others felt this way too. Then his assistant Radik asked to speak to me and invited me to go with them back to Germany to dance there. For me this was a very appealing offer at the time, because nothing else remained here for me. I had lost Inna Borisovna, and so I agreed to go.

“I didn’t think I had to warn or inform anyone about my decision, I gave my agreement, I gave my word, I signed a contract and sent it back. But when it came time to tell the administration that I wasn’t going to come back next season – that I already have other plans, I’m going abroad, I have a trip to take – Makhar Khasanovich (Vasiev) asked why I hadn’t told him before. I said I didn’t know I had to tell him. I honestly hadn’t thought of it. In sum, at first he wanted to fire me and I was prepared to be fired. Then he said that living there would be hard for me, that I would have to save money to buy an apartment and that the taxes would be so high there that I would not be able to manage. But I told him I had already signed a contract, and I couldn’t turn back now. He finally then related to my situation very humanely, and he granted me a one-year academic leave. And I left.

“I didn’t tell him I had had a boyfriend here. My boyfriend had visited us at my mom’s house before I left for Hamburg. Things with him were good and easy. We separated when I went to Germany with the intent to see each other again.

“While in Hamburg I was given soloist roles. I danced Olympia in ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’ which was unbelievable. At that time I didn’t value it. Since I had lost my internal compass, my orientation, my direction, and since everything there was new – new teachers, different people – I didn’t understand what I was answering to. Now I understand, but then I wasn’t ready for it. I also danced the (peasant) pas de deux from ‘Giselle’; Moyna and Zulma; ‘Winter Path’. My coach there, Christiane Marshan, helped me immensely in the studio. She had worked in Milan and Monte Carlo. She had experience with the Vaganova School, insofar as the American and European ballet schools moved forward, and we’re a bit behind in Russia, in terms of our feet, our pointe work and footwork – she was aware of the differences. So she and I worked together in the studio additionally, often on technique.

“I so enjoyed working with her, she was like a balsam for me while I was in Hamburg. She had said that if I remained in Hamburg she would have stayed too, but I had already decided to leave, and she left at the same time I did. There were no other coaching options for me, the other coaches there had their favorite students.”

What prompted the departure from Neumeier’s troupe?

“Once I was in Hamburg, I wasn’t myself, I was not ‘me’ there. The people were different, the life was different, everything was different. I felt lost. I felt like I had lost my internal compass. I hadn’t left St. Petersburg for good, and we (me and boyfriend) I didn’t part forever. We both knew that I would be back in a year, but I nonetheless had until then related to him sort of neutrally. My attitude was: if he is there, great, if not, then he isn’t. For me ballet was the most important thing. But there in Hamburg I understood and learned a lot,” Ivanova pauses to gather her thoughts, and then continues.

“I realized that without a personal life, I can not work. That if there is no life – and by life I mean, that you feel something, that you love someone, that someone needs you – that to me is life – when you have that, you can go on stage and give out your feelings to the audience, whether grief or joy. But I understood in Hamburg that I couldn’t give anything, I would go out on stage and I was empty because there was nothing there for me, because my life was still in St. Petersburg. I understood only then that I loved my boyfriend, that I love the theatre, that I can’t live without my (Russian) girlfriends, they’re more than friends, they’re like sisters too. And in that condition, far away from what I know and love, even ballet won’t do me any good, I don’t need it.

“Of course not everything was terrible in Hamburg, I don’t want to give that impression. There were amazing people around me there, and the working relationships were fantastic. I truly can’t complain. I just had the sensation that they drained me of what was inside. I felt that it was ‘other’, ‘different’ – not mine, not my place.

“John always had a tradition before Christmas to sit down with each dancer, one-on-one, and ask how things are going for them in the company. And when I went to him and told him I planned to leave when the season ended, he was completely shocked. He said to me, ‘We have “Bayadere” here,’ – he had taken me on as a soloist – ‘and you will dance Nikiya. ’ He offered me everything, everything. When I arrived he had given me solo roles and there were girls there, of course, who didn’t like that, because they had danced for years there, and they would have smiles on their faces, but it wasn’t…well, after a while, for the first time in my life, one could say that I incited jealousy and hatred in others.” The expression on Ivanova’s face shifts to one of deep sorrow as she says this, but moments later she perks back up.

“Overall, the relationships in Hamburg were wonderful though, aside from those few who envied me. In general they were all wonderful people. John handpicks them, people with something special, with a light coming from within …John himself is that kind of person, he’s very kind, sensitive. I like him and respect him and truly enjoyed working with him.

“So John gave me time to think about my decision, but  I explained to him that I can’t dance, that I need a different kind of life, that I can’t live only (going) on stage. And he said he’d taken me on as a soloist so that I could dance, and that my life, my personal life, would work itself out later. I told him maybe I’m not an artist completely yet, but he didn’t understand. He wanted me to give 100% to him, to his work first and foremost, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to do only what he wanted, I wanted to live my own life as well. So after time passed, I came back and I said I haven’t changed my decision, I still want to go home.”

After one season with Hamburg Ballet, Ivanova prepared to return to the Maryinsky.

“Actually, during that year in Germany I used any opportunity to return to Russia that I could. I came back on New Year’s for three days. At that time I was off in Hamburg because my calf had been hurting me. Each time I was home I came to the theatre to take class, and each time Makhar Khasanovich was so warm, welcoming, supportive. We chatted and I told him that I wanted to return to work here, and he said ‘of course, with pleasure, please do’, and he helped me return.

“It just so happened that the Kirov was on tour in New York City (in 2001) and Makhar wanted me to join the tour. John’s season wasn’t over yet, so Makhar called John to ask if he would let me leave a bit earlier. There were only two weeks of overlap in question, but it wasn’t so simple. Faxes flew back and forth, John held firm to the contract terms, and so I left only after completing the season. It was a difficult moment when I said goodbye, but I knew I was going home and for me that was happiness.

“And, of course, coming back to the Maryinsky Theatre, I was thrown back into the whirlwind immediately. We were setting the new version of ‘Bayadere’ at the time, and they set one of the little Bayaderes on me. I flew home and the next day I was rehearsing ‘Bayadere’ on the main stage, and I didn’t even know the order of the steps in this new version. I came to class, someone showed me the steps once, and I went straight to rehearsal and the whole company was watching. It was scary, but I felt strong because I knew this was home. My feeling in Hamburg and my feeling here are incomparable.”

Ivanova mentioned that even the difference in working hours was hard to adjust to in Hamburg, where labor laws dictated that the dancers could leave at 5 p.m. if there was no performance that day. Compared to the typical Maryinsky rehearsal schedule, this was a shock to her system. “I felt as if we weren’t doing anything, we weren’t really working. Because here (in St. Petersburg), you know, we have rehearsals sometimes until 10 p.m. at night.” A typical Maryinsky day includes morning class, followed by rehearsals that run up until the 7 p.m. curtain.  If one isn’t performing, as Ivanova points out, the studios are active until 10 p.m. with various rehearsals. In a land where labor unions do not exist, twelve hour days are common at the Maryinsky. Moreover, this pattern continues on Saturdays and Sundays. Rare is the occasional day off.

Despite the knowledge that her return to Russia would incur longer working hours, that was not Ivanova’s greatest concern.

“Of course I had many fears. I worried that upon my return that maybe I would not be dancing often, or they would demote me, or I would only be in the corps de ballet.”

In fact, after her return, William Forsythe chose Ivanova for one of the soloist roles in “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude”.

“I love Forsythe very much. In fact, while I was in Germany I watched his company perform. I don’t remember what the ballet was called. I thought to myself ‘we will never in our lifetime do that on stage, never’, because they have a different way of moving, a different plastika. But we have managed it, somehow.”

Ivanova describes how Forsythe coached her personally in the role. “He noticed some details that were proving to be a challenge for me, so he simplified them slightly, or offered workarounds. A talented choreographer gives you an opportunity to move, he shows the audience how you dance, not just how many pirouettes or ronds en l’air you can do.

“It was intimidating – he moves so amazingly, and he shows it all very fast, and that has to be enough. It’s almost impossible to follow, you can only just copy it.

“I treasure these moments in my life, working with Neumeier and Forsythe. These choreographers give something of themselves, and they offer you the possibility to feel. You relax with this openness, and then learn the ballet with pleasure.

“As for other ballets, I really like ‘Jewels’, ‘Serenade’, ‘Imperiale’…although they are difficult, you feel that you’re dancing.  I like dancing the classics, I love ‘Bayadere’ for example, but I’m tired of ‘Swan Lake’. Probably because we dance it so often. In and of itself it’s a great ballet, for ballerinas it’s challenging and there’s a great range in the choreography.”

How does preparation for a character role that encompasses emotion differ from preparation for a pure dancing role? Ivanova recently danced the female lead in the premiere of Gogol’s “The Overcoat”, and she uses this as an example for her response.

“In my most recent rehearsals, what I did was too much for the choreographer, he wanted less visible emotion from the character. So you have to listen to the choreographer. For me that is challenging, because I wanted to show more emotion and he said no, there’s no need. So here it’s the choreographer’s demands, not what you feel. But, for example, in ‘Symphony in C’, you just go out there in a good mood and dance. In ‘Serenade’, although there isn’t a libretto, the choreography and music give you a lot to work with. The second half of ‘Symphony in C’ also differs, also relates to your mood. I think a lot comes from the music. I didn’t especially think about it before, but in a ballet like ‘The Young Girl and the Hooligan’, [music by Shostakovich] where it is very dramatic, there is a text to follow, but first you have to understand what you’re going to show, and then you have to show your feelings through gestures and poses. You have to let it, the dance, go through you.”

Often dancers must go onstage with a smile despite a bad mood, a personal problem, or fatigue, and I ask Ivanova how she deals with this challenge. 

“With the mood you can fight that. It depends on what the mood is from. If someone died or is sick, for example, that is difficult, and then you have to just go out there and smile specifically, try to act. But if you’re just in a bad mood, you go out on stage and in the process of dancing you forget, you smile, and the mood is resolved of its own accord. I don’t know, you come out from the wings and, somehow, it just happens.

“There are some hard tours we have been on, when the performance itself can improve your mood. For example ‘Don Quixote’ is a great ballet, fun and entertaining, and it puts you in a similar, lighthearted mood when you dance it.

“I also like ‘Leningrad Symphony’ – but very often I’ve been cast in it and not anced because ‘The Young Lady and Hooligan’ was set for the same evening, and I often dance the role of the Young Lady.”

When asked which roles she dreams of dancing, Ivanova’s practical answer is tinged with the sad truth underlining the brevity of a career in ballet.

“I think that the roles I want to dance are roles that I never will dance, because too much time has passed. And so I don’t even think about it, because it’s not realistic.”

Nonetheless, when pressed, she gives a short list.

“In ‘The Nutcracker’, Vainonen’s classical version, the role of Masha. I danced this in school [for the Vaganova graduation performance, as is done each spring]. I was Masha, and that music, each time I hear that gorgeous music I want to dance that ballet again. Also, ‘Giselle’ – actually I prepared that role with Inna Borisovna, I rehearsed it a lot. The mad scene, everything. They invited me to dance it at the (Rimsky-Korsakov) Conservatory but it’s always with just one week’s notice. And that’s too short if you want to dance it well. You need to live through that ballet in your soul, you can’t just go out and dance it.”

Ivanova explains that she was able to rehearse several roles on her own, unprompted by the administration, and then later dance them on stage.

“I’ve danced Princess Florina and Aurora, the 11th waltz of ‘Sylphide’ in that fashion. But in my time, I had such a big load that I was injured often, my knees, my feet – and so I understand that to dance them now would be difficult for me physically. The corps work is enough for me now, and I don’t believe that I will dance these roles again. Of course I would love to, but I doubt it will happen.”

When asked if she would be interested in dancing in other theatres in Europe or abroad, Ivanova’s answer is firm and to the point.

“No.  Now, only if I went with my boyfriend, then I think it would be possible. But I would not go alone. I think I wasn’t prepared for what was in Hamburg; now I would be. But I wouldn’t go without the people who are close and dear to me.”

I inquire if she noticed differences in working styles between the European schools and Russian schools of ballet while she was in Germany. “Well if you take partnering, for example, the approach differs only in the male’s relationship to the female, not in the technique. I think in Europe and America more attention and care is paid to the female. And I didn’t notice it in Hamburg, I only notice it here now, after my return. Because we have guest artists who come here during the (Mariinsky) Festival and you can compare, how they relate to the girls, how the girls relate to them.”

The ongoing debate about the level of artistry among today’s ballerinas, including those in the Maryinsky Theatre, compared to what it was 50 years ago, is a sensitive one. Ivanova concurs and offers her own thoughts on the subject.

“I think the aesthetic has changed, not so much here but across the entire world. And speaking, for example, of the demands of Christiane in Hamburg, you need to do a step correctly, and not so that your body is on the ground and your leg is behind your ear. But for us it’s more often than not done that way in school. And why does the school require it? Because it’s required in the theatre. So I think that yes, there is some truth in this argument [that artistry is being lost at the expense of flexibility]. I agree. It seems attention should be paid to this – to the feet, to footwork, to placement, and not to the height of the leg. Or, if the leg is going to be that high, then place more attention on how it is placed there.

“When I was in Hamburg, I would tell Christiane that my leg hurt, my hip hurt, and she would respond that it was because I was placed incorrectly. And of course at first I fought that, because I studied it for eight years that way, throughout school, so it had to be right. And that helped me a lot, working with her, to understand this. And I don’t know how to address that, probably an entire system is needed. So I think in this there is some truth in this discussion about a lowered artistic standard. I mean you can’t say ‘only this way’ but…it does happen, yes.”

Ivanova doesn’t claim to have many hobbies but she spends her free time in several ways.

“I like to cook normally, for someone else usually, probably like everyone else. And, like every normal person, I like to read. I like to clean the house, to get everything very clean when there is energy to do so.”

Questioning Ivanova about the future brings about a positive, concrete answer.

“I would want to combine a family with my life in ballet. I want to study to become a pedagog. I already tried two years ago, I began to attend the course (for Vaganova graduates, also held at the Vaganova Academy), but I understood that I’m not the kind of person who can do both at once – work and study. One of my girlfriends can, she is very mobile, she does both. But I’m the kind of person, I have to come to the studio early, get warmed up. So I plan to become a coach and I would like to continue what Christiane taught me. Already I’ve had a small experience in teaching. Someone introduced me to a woman whose daughter is enrolled in the Vaganova Academy. And this little girl wasn’t very interested in ballet. She needed help, so I coached her a little bit. And during her exams, her results were slightly higher and her mother was very grateful to me. So you know maybe I can give something back. And of course one-on-one is a lot easier than teaching an entire class, but I want to learn to be a coach, and of course, I also want a family. Because there are many examples in the theatre of someone who danced many years, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t do anything else – there is respect and fame and success – but that isn’t everything. To come home, knowing someone awaits you, someone is there for you… Because ballet isn’t life, it is a part of life. And I understood that in Hamburg. Maybe I wasn’t right then in my decisions, but I don’t regret them. And thank God, everything is fine now. So of course I plan for the future.”

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