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About the Change

Yulia Bolshakova
Kirov’s New Swan Princess

by Natasha Dissanayake

© Natasha Dissanayake

Bolshakova in reviews

Kirov reviews

Critics who attend the opening nights only are, in my opinion, losers. Last summer they all missed the new Mariinsky girl whom I luckily saw and who became a revelation for me.

When the company came to Covent Garden in July, three ‘baby’ ballerinas were scheduled to dance Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake”. Before the matinee on the 21st of July I asked the Artistic Director Makhar Vaziev whether I can take an interview with one of them and whom he would propose.

“One who dances today”, he replied. “You will see her now”. And he rolled his eyes with the expression suggesting that a truly delightful performance is expecting us this afternoon.

The young ballerina was Yulia Bolshakova who graduated from the Vaganova Academy exactly a year ago. Throughout the performance I enjoyed her immensely, especially one particular quality of hers, which is quite rare in young ballerinas now, - a good taste. Next day I had a chance to talk to Yulia.

Who decided to enroll you at a ballet school?

The idea was my mum’s but she did not intend to make me a ballerina. I was an only child, and mum just wanted her daughter to be graceful and to move well, so that, hopefully, I would become a beautiful girl. Therefore, without making special plans for the future, she took me to an amateur dance class in the club called “Muscovite”. I was born in Moscow. My dad was a serviceman and they gave him an apartment there, in the Lyublino Borough.

Who was your teacher at that club?

Oh, we had a remarkable teacher, his name was Nikolai Vasilyevich. I’ll never forget him. He noticed something in me, some spark as he put it and said that it was necessary to develop it. Maybe, he saw that I liked to dance. He used to say that I danced how I felt, and he liked it. He advised us to try for admission to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy but it didn’t work out. May be because they preferred smaller ballerinas at that time. This was around 1992 or 1993. Besides being tall, they also said that I did not have a turnout.

It sounds strange because tall ballerinas were already dancing in Moscow at that time, like Mikhalchenko and Semizorova.

May be my height was just an excuse. So, I went to a quite basic ballet school attached to the Nesterova University, but they called it a Dance Academy.

Did you family have any theatre connections?

No, no one in our family worked in theatre but of course they were theatre-goers. Mum works now for an estate agency but earlier she taught IT at school. I attended that school for the first three years.

How did you come to St. Petersburg?

It wasn’t exactly planned. Opportunities came my way quite often, things I don’t expect. We went to see St. Petersburg during my summer vacations, to see the city, the fantastic fountains in Peterhof and the Gulf of Finland, and to see museums, in a word, for an educational holiday. We were strolling along Nevsky Avenue, went around the Alexandrinsky Theatre and found ourselves on Rossi Street. That was in 2001, I was 15 then. I forgot to mention an important detail: earlier in Moscow I met Altynai Assylmuratova who at that time was already the Artistic Director of the Vaganova Academy. She saw me at the IX International Ballet Competition in Moscow where I went through 3 tours. My teacher told me that we were opportunistic. And Assylmuratova was one of the judges there. When in St. Peterburg we learned that on the 20th of August pupils from other places can be assessed, we went there. Altynai recognized me straight away. "You were at the competition, weren’t you?" - she asked. So I was accepted, and I studied there for the next three years.

Yulia Bolshakova in Swan Lake

Did your family move to St. Petersburg?

Oh no, my family did not move to St. Petersburg and stayed in Moscow because my parents could not give up their work. They could not be with me but the Academy has many boarders, so I became a boarder and lived in the boarding school. The first year at the boarding school and separation from my home were hard for me. I longed for home. At the Academy everyone was sizing us up, they generally look at Muscovites with caution, especially at the beginning, when they don’t know you well.

How did you study at the Academy? Was it a joy for you, or a duty, or a torment? Were you the best in the class in the earlier years?

In the Muscovite Club, when I was still very young, I was the best. But when I moved to a private school, I could not do well for about three years. Yes, at the beginning lessons were a torture for me. As a child I was awfully lazy. When I was eight I had an especially demanding teacher. She did not scold us too much but complained to our parents a lot. She used to tell my mum: your daughter does not make good progress but she has a strong character. After three years things started to improve. They demanded hard work from us and told us to exercise even during summer holidays. So gradually I became more diligent. When I felt that I made progress in classical dance and the teachers noticed it, it egged me on to do better. It wasn’t mummy who was taking me to school now. It was me who ran to school ahead of mum. I loved my studies then and wanted to do better and better.

When I enrolled in the Vaganova Academy, I expected them to say that my training is not right and they would start retraining me but it turned out that I was taught well in Moscow.

Who was your teacher at the Vaganova Academy?

In the first year my teacher was Professor Irina Alexandrovna Trofimova, the oldest teacher, a student of Vaganova, she was wonderful. To my surprise she said that I had a good school that I was taught like they teach in St. Petersburg but that it was necessary for me to improve my port de bras because my arms were not soft enough. She spent a lot of time working on my port de bras, she would move and lead my arms, and then I would repeat those movements trying to do them without her help. She said I was improving. When I came to her class, my movements were quite rigid and she taught me the cantilena of movements. On the whole, we were lucky to get into her class. She usually teaches only one class and does not continue with it next year. Therefore, the following year our class was amalgamated with the class of Ludmilla Valentinovna Kovalyova, and for several months we were her pupils.

Yulia Bolshakova at the Royal Opera House stage door in London

One day Kovalyova came into the class with Tatiana Terekhova and Sergey Berezhnoi and told us that they are our new teachers. At first they seemed a sort of angry to us. They watched our lesson for a while and Terekhova started bombarding us with criticism, and the tone of her voice was rather harsh. It frightened us a little at the beginning but soon we realized that it wasn’t typical of her. Her manner of course is very energetic, even forceful. As was her style of dancing. This particular energy of hers began urging us to work, it was stimulating, and I wanted to do more and more. For me she became my second mum, we understand each other so well; I understand at once what she says. We are so close now that I can not imagine my life without her. She teaches me not only about ballet but about everything. She is demanding. For instance, she said to me: for a student your dancing is fine but it is not enough. And she started literally breaking me, pulling me up, to a different level, and again to work on my arms and hands.

Did you want to resemble some particular ballerina, either one whom you saw on stage or a legend of the past?

My most favorite ballerina is Maya Plissetskaya. Since my childhood she was my ideal with her beauty, with everything. I felt how she lived in her dance. Everything she does comes from life. I love so much to watch her recordings. Sometimes I watch her Carmen, and then I turn the video off and try to do something in front of the mirror. Although generally I don’t like the mirror, even during class I try not to look at one. I look at the mirror only rarely, in order to verify the pose when it is static, but when I exercise, the mirror puts me out. Maybe because out teacher in Moscow taught us to feel our body. "Feel your body”, she used to say, “Why are you staring at the mirror? Nothing good to see there".

What did you dance at your graduation?

At my graduation I danced “The Shades” act from “La Bayadere” and a piece by Roland Petit – “Tais”. Altynai Assylmuratova used to dance it and she passed it on to me and rehearsed it with me. She is very kind to me and I keep in touch with her...

Were you invited to join the Mariinsky corps de ballet immediately after your graduation?

Yes, they invited me without an audition. When we finished our final exams, the lists were displayed on the notice board with the results, and it was announced that 10 people had been invited by the Mariinsky, 6 girls and 4 boys. But two boys did not go; they thought that they had little chance of becoming soloists, so they joined the Eifman Ballet. Eifman saw them at the exams and invited them to join his company.

Yulia Bolshakova and Evgeny Ivanchenko in Swan Lake

I was accepted in the corps de ballet but I didn’t go right to the back. As soon as we came to the theatre in September, I was told to prepare the Queen of Dryads in Don Quixote and I was already dancing it on Mariinsky stage on the 25th of October. This was my very first role. Olesya Novikova danced Kitri; she is three years older than me. She and Zhenya Obraztsova graduated the same year I enrolled at the Vaganova Academy.

But I love to be in the corps de ballet. I love to dance in the corps of Swans and in “The Shades”.

What soloist’s roles you have danced?

When I came, Makhar Khassanovich told me from the start: "On the 6th of January you will dance Maria in "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai". I was very surprised: I just arrived and he already had plans for me in January. So I quietly started to rehearse. Then I was given "The Butterfly", the very “Butterfly”, which Irina Kolpakova danced with Sergei Berezhnoi. I rehearsed it with Igor Kolb for the Baden- Baden tour and for the New Year gala concert. Tatiana Terekhova was very cautious about it because "The Butterfly" was not suitable for my feet. It was meant for a small ballerina.

Then something happened to my feet although I did not have any falls, nothing like that. The doctors said that the bone tissue in my feet started changing; my bones were getting adapted to the technique, which was new for me since I had never done such meticulous footwork. I had to bend lower in order to resemble a butterfly. I felt that I was racking myself in order to achieve it. So although I prepared both, “The Butterfly” and Maria, I had no chance to dance them. Just before the Baden Baden tour I had to go to the Central Traumatology Clinic in Moscow. The doctors said that my injury, the change of the bone tissue, is quite rare and I have to take care not to overwork my foot. So I had to rest.

How do you rest in summer?

I tried to travel to the seaside to have a good rest but I also adore going to my mum’s parents who live in Murom. It’s an ancient town by the Oka River. Granny and Granddad have a big house and a large garden. From the balcony there’s a broad view of the Oka, the river is very close. I love swimming.

What do you like to do besides ballet? What do you enjoy in life?

I adore theatre and always try to find time to visit theatres although it is difficult for me to have free evenings. In Moscow, my parents used to take me to “Sovremennik” (The Contemporary) and the Satire Theatre, mainly to see serious or historic plays, and obviously nurtured my interest. I adore the Tovstonogov Theatre and Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. I love dramas with strong heroes and powerful emotions. I saw almost all plays by Ostrovsky. I even dream of playing some roles from classical literature. It is my biggest dream that one day I will play dramatic roles.

What was the last book you read?

I am reading "The Karamazov Brothers" at the moment. Dostoyevsky is my favorite writer now. He is very close to me. I read "Crime and Punishment" three times and every time find something new there. For me it is interesting to understand what drives a person like Raskolnikov to act as he did? Indeed, it feels as this was written about our time, such things still occur in St. Petersburg now. The same well-like courtyards remain. I live in a house like that myself. I rent a room; I don’t live in the theatre hostel. When I enter the courtyard, I recall Dostoyevsky; he is so up to date.

Yulia Bolshakova backstage at the Royal Opera House
© Natasha Dissanayake

Do you feel homesick in St. Petersburg?

Not desperately. There is so much work now. When I am here in London, Mum and Dad phone me every day. During the last four years I got used to communicating with my parents by phone. And we visit each other. I can not of course communicate with my cat on the phone. I have a wonderful black cat in Moscow, her name is Frosya, Frosya Bolshakova, but in St. Petersburg my landlady also has a cat, it is also black and has similar white specks on her tummy. At first she did not accept me, didn’t even let me walk in the flat but now we are such friends that she is always in my room when I am at home. She is a good substitute for my cat, she understands me.

Is this visit to London your first tour abroad?

No, as a student I traveled to Japan with the Vaganova Academy. I danced Clara in “The Nutcracker". Honestly, I did not expect to be given this role because we had such petite, statuesque girls at school. My Prince was a Korean dancer Pien Kuhn, a pupil of Gennady Selyutsky. After his graduation he left for Korea and he is a Principal dancer there now.

When were you given “Swan Lake”?

I came back from Moscow in winter and was told to prepare “Swan Lake” I danced it at the Mariinsky on the 21st of June.

Don’t you regret that you leapt so quickly to the very top role and did not dance many solo variations which are so important for building technique?

Variations are very important, indeed. But I am in the corps de ballet and will have a chance to dance them.

What are you working on now? Did they promise to give you a new role?

In August we will give several concerts in Turkey and in October I will dance Princess Florina in the USA.

How do you see Odette and Odile?

I wanted very much to contrast Odette and Odile. In Odette there must be sincerity and some reticence, she is not forceful, while Odile is the absolute opposite: she is resolute, bold, her look and glances must be very expressive, full of some devilish force. She destroys the good that Odette gives to Ziegfrid. It is well described in a Gayevsky’s book about Petipa, which I have read; he describes it in great detail.

May I remark that you did not seem a devilish Odile to me.

Oh no, I did not want to be evil, I strongly wanted to tempt and to seduce the Prince, so that he would forget about that other Swan and would turn to me. Truly, I don’t possess any malice and can not portray this as yet.


That’s true, Yulia Bolshakova was a surprising Odile for me. She was distinctively different from those dozens, perhaps over a hundred of Odiles that I saw in my life, and I liked her both as Odile and Odette. It wouldn’t be enough to say that she has good lines and good technique.

Yulia Bolshakova and Evgeny Ivanchenko in Swan Lake

She is well-proportioned, thin (but not painfully thin), with elongated but not overelongated lines, fragile shoulders and graceful neck. In her fist appearance as Odette she made the traditional six careful steps on points, arabesque and a prolonged pose. Not a Swan Queen but a Swan Princess. A delicate brush of her hand along the cheek. She was human, only ‘flapping’ of arms and supple wrists reminded of a swan but her behavior and reaction to Ziegfrid were very human. Not a remote bird but a girl looking into his eyes and waiting for his glance.

Was everything perfect? Certainly not but throughout the performance I did not find anything that I could dislike. (With the exception, perhaps, of the 6 o’clock arabesque, which crowned the Adagio and which looks to be almost compulsory now for Mariinsky’s ballerinas.) Whether she moved away from the Prince, or approached him, or put her head on his shoulder - her movements were graceful. Especially touching was the way she was bending her head in attitudes. Her arabesques were well extended. And none of her movements looked senseless.

Her Odile was smiling charmingly and enjoyed the ball more than anyone around her. Sometimes we see such malevolent Odiles that the Prince’s fascination with them puzzles.

Yulia Bolshakova and Evgeny Ivanchenko in Swan Lake

I had the impression that Bolshakova’s Odile had neither evil intentions nor plans to fool the Prince. Rothbart brought his young daughter to the ball being confident that she is capable of charming and fooling Ziegfrid. Being given such a prominent role – to dance with the Prince, this girl was simply enjoying every minute of it. In fact, she might have fallen in love with the Prince: on two occasions she embraced his neck with a touching sincerity. Every time when Rothbart pulled her away from the Prince to give her a new instruction it didn’t please her and she was looking back at the Prince. She rejoiced like a little girl at being presented with a bouquet and was overwhelmed when he vowed his faithfulness to her. There was no malicious intriguer there but a happy sweet young debutante. Never before I saw an Odile who would stroke Ziegfrid’s neck so tenderly.

You may ask: did it work if there was no vivid contrast between good and evil? For me it did. I saw a very young 19-y-o ballerina who was honestly showing what she was capable of portraying. She was as much a Rothbart’s victim as Ziegfrid and Odette.

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