A New Breed of Kirovian:
by Catherine Pawlick
2006 -- Mariinsky Ballet, St. Petersburg, Russa
Fresh-faced and smiling, her short red hair framing bright blue eyes and a porcelain complexion, Ekaterina Kondaurova arrives promptly for our meeting at the Shamrock restaurant/bar on Ulitsa Dekabristov. It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and she apologizes unnecessarily for being late. But Kondaurova has not just come from a performance. Rather, her twelve-hour rehearsal day finished just 15 minutes ago.
At 22, the tall, lithe dancer has already been in the company for four years. Just a year ago she was promoted to Coryphée from the corps de ballet. But she’s already dancing several soloist roles that aren’t shared in the repertoire lists of fellow coryphées: the Lilac Fairy in “The Sleeping Beauty” (both the Sergeev and the reconstructed versions), Medora from “Le Corsaire”, Myrtha from “Giselle”, the grand pas de deux from the second act of “La Bayadere”, the Siren in “Apollo”. More uniquely, Kondaurova’s resume includes modern ballets. She seems to have been dubbed the master of all things modern by someone in the Maryinsky administration. She dances in Forsythe’s works (“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”), in Petersburg choreographer Kirill Simyonov’s avant-garde “The Nutcracker” and the title role in his “Princess Pirlipat”. Most recently she has been rehearsing the leading role in the third of the “Nut” ballet trilogy, “The Magic Nut”, choreographed by Bulgarian-born Donvena Pandurski, which replaces the badly-received “Pirlipat” in the company repertoire.
We find a table in a quieter corner of the restaurant and start to chat. I’m intrigued that from within the ranks of a company that boasts over 200 dancers, Kondaurova has already achieved so much, but she seems nonchalant about it.
“There’s a defined repertoire for each level within the company,” she explains, “and if you dance those roles well, and more than once, you’re in a good position to receive a promotion.” However, such promotions are not guaranteed. In order for a dancer to move up, someone else somewhere in the company must leave or go on their pension. Each year new Vaganova graduates compete for places in the company. When Kondaurova graduated, 11 people were taken in, but that number varies each year.
Kondaurova began her balletic journey in Moscow, where she was born. She attended a small school of music and dance, and then tried to enter the Moscow State Choreographic Institute. They refused her, and recommended she cease her pursuit of ballet. Determined, she enrolled in Leonid Lavrovsky’s school, studying under Lyudmila Sorokina, and was there advised to try the Vaganova Academy. At the age of 12, later than most, she moved to Leningrad, entered the Academy and remained until graduation.
“Once I began studying at the Vaganova Academy, I always hoped I would be able to join this company,” she says. “I never planned to leave St. Petersburg, I love it here, and essentially grew up here.”
Of her local training she comments “I can’t say it was really hard, but it was fun. The first three years I lived with my mom in an apartment here, and after that she said I was old enough to live in the dormitories on my own. The first year in the theatre was another story however. I wasn’t prepared for the workload, I didn’t imagine we would be working from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. day after day. That was a rude awakening.”
Was the transition from Moscow’s style to St. Petersburg's difficult? Kondaurova is honest that the contrast proved a challenge at first. “The teachers would explain to me that this was Petersburg and here we did things this way. But after about two years of that, everything evened out. I actually prefer the Vaganova style because I studied here so long. I’m used to it.”
Nonetheless, Kondaurova is, like Anton Pimenov and other young Kirovians, of a new generation. She too prefers the modern ballets to classical. “I like both – but modern is easier for me because the body moves more, there are no limits, the energy is different.”
Kondaurova is one of few to be repeatedly cast in modern choreography, and execute it effortlessly. She has a natural flexibility and extremely supple feet, making for fluid movement. As is the case with many flexible dancers, this can prove a challenge in certain roles or, early in a dancer’s training when building strength.
“Classical is more difficult for me, it can be dry, or restrictive,” she says. “But I don’t want to dance only modern. There are classical ballets I would still love to try. I’ve done only the Shades scene from 'Bayadere' and I would love to dance the full ballet. 'Raymonda' and 'Legend of Love' are others I would like to try.” As we move back to the topic of modern choreographers, she comments on Forsythe. "His ballets help one’s breathing. They're also easier than classical, and help one’s muscles become stronger."
Kondaurova explains that typecasting does still exist to some extent. She feels it remains mostly in character dancers, and less so for the rest of the company. She explains to me that it is more difficult for a corps de ballet dancer to break out of their mold than for dancers at other levels within the company. She unknowingly echoes [Director Makharbek] Vasiev's comments to me in an interview two years ago, stating that those who want to try a new role are welcome to rehearse it – on their own time.
"Normally time constraints prevent opportunities for corps members to simply start rehearsing a new soloist role from scratch. The rehearsal directors are busy and the studios are booked. But if you want to, you can start practicing on your own. If the results are fruitful, you're on your way."
Kondaurova's conversation is lively and, unlike other dancers, she is happy to chatter about the theatre with an American. I inquire if the dancers or the administration pay attention to the critics. “The foreign audiences always appreciate us,” she comments. “They also don’t see us year-round, so it pays to read their reviews. But here – everyone is a critic. Sometimes the audience just won’t applaud at all, and that’s really difficult. I’m always more relaxed on other stages, it’s easier to dance anywhere else. The audience here is more demanding.”
We speak of the challenges of combining personal life and professional demands. "I don't want all of my life to be in the theatre," she says, "But for now, I need to achieve something first, to focus on my career. Who knows for how long. It is possible to have a family here, as Uliana [Lopatkina] did, but if you're only in the corps de ballet and you have a child, it will stop your career growth, you won't progress any further." She explains you'd need a minimum of one year off for maternity leave, and then additional time to get back into shape.
She pauses for a moment in thought and then hastens to add, "Anything can happen, each situation is different. Maybe a dancer would return from leave and they'd need someone for a certain ballet and put her in it. It's hard to say what would happen. It's not a fact you will return."
Despite the fact that most well-known dancers choose to retire around age 40, Kondaurova points out that the age is not a hard and fast rule. "If you still dance well at 41 or 42, no one here is going to stop you. You can still keep dancing. There are dancers in the corps de ballet or character dancers who often dance past 40."
Nonetheless, signals that one might consider retirement include being cast in operas, or not being cast at all, without explanation. Perhaps a surprise to western theatres, there are such dancers within the Maryinsky – those on payroll who don't dance for various reasons.
Among those who are actively performing, the load is heavy, and the same handful of dancers tend to be on stage repeatedly. "Everyone wants to dance, so of course there is some sense of competition but it's mostly good-natured and sportive. I've heard that in the past it was much worse," Kondaurova says with relief.
As a recently promoted corps member herself, Kondaurova doesn’t look down on the lower ranks. "The corps de ballet of the Maryinsky Theatre has a huge significance," she says reverently. "It's actually much harder than a soloist role – staying in line, holding a pose forever. The rehearsal directors want the corps to look good too."
Kondaurova, like any Maryinsky dancer, has precious little free time. If she could she would change the rehearsal schedule, in which a dancer may be called in for morning class and then have a four- or five-hour wait until an evening rehearsal. When she does manage to have a free day, she might eat out, or "very rarely" attend a concert, walk in the fresh air. "Or I'll go to the banya [Russian sauna]. I love that."
I ask her if she ever stops to consider the part she plays in this global phenomenon that is the Maryinsky Theatre. Without hesitation her excitement comes spilling out.
"Of course I'm proud to be part of this theatre! It's one of the best in the world. People often ask if we think of leaving, but I can't honestly say where I would go if I did leave. Maybe it would be interesting for a short time, a guesting opportunity someplace else, just to see what it was like. But my focus now is just on progressing, moving forward within the company."
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