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About the Change

Svetlana Lunkina
Principal, Bolshoi Ballet

by Natasha Dissanayake

© Mikhail Logvinov

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"The most important thing for me is my family, children and the joy of life. And life in general."

The Bolshoi’s prima ballerina Svetlana Lunkina is surprisingly natural. Whenever she rejoices or gets puzzled or excited, she does not hide any of her feelings. She looks at you with her lovely eyes, and one can read her as an open book and immediately takes a liking to her. Her sincerity is surprising for an actress, there is no pretentiousness or bluster about her vocation and achievements. Svetlana manages to disarm even the Moscow traffic cops who more than once released her without penalty for excessive speed after learning that this lively ingenious beauty even ‘works as a ballerina’ at the Bolshoi. (Well, in Russia much is solved on the spur of the moment and through emotions.)

Svetlana is more prone to seeing her own weaknesses than recognizing her merits. Therefore, when the Artistic Director of the Kirov Ballet Makharbek Vaziev once phoned and asked her to dance “Giselle” at the Mariinsky Theatre, she could not believe that this was him and not her friends just pulling her leg. After they finally agreed to discuss it again over the next few days, she timidly asked: "Will you really ring me again?"

About five years ago I saw Svetlana’s interview on Russian TV when she was asked: “Would you sacrifice your career for the sake of family life?” And the 20 y.o. budding ballerina replied immediately: “I would.”. Now she is already the mum of a 2 year old Maxim who, by the way, she breastfed herself and introduced to the bottle only after three months.

Although due to Maxim’s arrival Svetlana’s work at the Bolshoi was interrupted for 18 months, fortunately, she did not have to sacrifice her career because her businessman husband, Slava Moskalev, also organizes ballet gala-concerts. Therefore, Svetlana’s work and tours are met with understanding by her family. Svetlana thinks that she dances better now after her maternity leave and has much deeper understanding and feeling for her roles than in earlier years. Indeed, when at the age of 18 she was preparing the role of Giselle and her coach Ekaterina Maximova told her: "Here you feel a pang", Svetlana giggled: “How is it to feel a pang?” Nevertheless, she proved to be a true Giselle memorable for her lyricism and moving nature.

Svetlana loves to play tennis with her husband and every weekend goes with her son to a swimming-pool. When still at school she used to do high board diving, and now, when she happens to be in New York, she rushes to the skating rink at Central Park. True, she keeps aside and skates close to edges taking care of her legs.

London ballet lovers fell in love with Svetlana when “Giselle”, "Don Quixote" and "Les Sylphides” were presented by the Bolshoi at the London Coliseum and Drury Lane Theatre in 1999 and 2001. In recent years she danced the leading roles in the Bolshoi productions of “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Notre Dame de Paris”, “Anyuta”, “The Bright Stream”, “Spartacus”, “The Queen of Spades”, “Passacaglia", “Gaîté Parisienne”, “Les Presages”, “Symphony in C" and other ballets. This March and April she will dance in “Swan Lake”, “Spartacus” and “Giselle” during the Bolshoi tour of Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham and Southampton. In January she came to London for the promotion of this tour. Her husband accompanied her on this trip and was constantly present at all her interviews and photo sessions. He usually tries not to miss her stage appearances and she always uses her ‘sixth sense’ to recognize his flowers among the mass of bouquets brought to the stage at the end of her performance.


I heard that today is your son Maxim’s 2nd birthday. Congratulations to you and your husband. So, Maxim is celebrating his birthday without you?

Thank you, thank you. We will fly back to Moscow tomorrow morning and hope to be with him on his birthday. It can still be celebrated tomorrow. You see, he was born in Canada, therefore, tomorrow in Moscow we will see him before the 25th of January ends in Canada. I cannot be with him today because I am here on behalf of the Bolshoi.

Many people are waiting for your performances in England. Although you missed the Bolshoi’s tour in Covent Garden in 2004, you are remembered from your appearances in London in 1999 and 2001. What are your recollections of those visits to England?

Svetlana Lunkina in Giselle
© Mikhail Logvinov

Of course I have very warm recollection. We were very pleased with how our “Giselle” was received at the Coliseum in 1999. Like nowhere else I felt the audience’s cordiality here. I danced "Don Quixote" then on my birthday, the 29th of July. After the performance I was leaving the theatre with my teacher Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vassilyev. These two people are very dear to me, and they love me too. When we came out, many people were waiting for us by the stage-door and started singing: "Happy birthday to Svetlana!" Even when I signed their programs and we walked away towards a small restaurant to celebrate my birthday, the people in the street continued singing: “Happy birthday, Svetlana!"

How old are you now?

26 now but then I was 19.

Dancing abilities usually manifest themselves quite early. Were you the best in your class at the ballet school?

Oh no, I never was the best at school. Teachers did not even pay much attention to me. I was physically weak and therefore could not catch up with the school program. Only in later years, when I was15 and 16 and Marina Leonova took our class, only then I started improving. The graduates usually have some repertoire but I only had one pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty". This was not enough. Those who are considered as promising usually learn several pas de deux and whole fragments from ballets.

Why did you graduate with one pas de deux only?

Technically I was not strong enough then. The technique should be mastered earlier but for me it came later. My own attitude was probably not good sometimes. Although I loved to dance, I did not like to do the class. At home I would tell my mum: I don’t want to study any more, I should leave the school. Additionally, the teachers in our class kept changing; we were handed down from one teacher to another.

To which of your teachers you are most grateful now? Who made you a ballerina?

It is difficult to say. Each teacher gave something to me but there was one teacher who really influenced me – Larissa Dobrjan. She was very gentle, polite, never shouted at us and never belittled us. We were 14 at that time and she had an individual approach to everyone. She was such a kind and nice person that we loved, even adored her. She spoke to us with respect and treated us as individuals which, unfortunately, was not commonplace at the school. We did not feel shy with her and tried harder in her class just to please her. Sadly, she taught us for one year only and then was invited to teach in Germany. It was a shock for us when we learnt of her departure...

You were given the role of Giselle at the Bolshoi when you were just 18, being simply a little chick. What was most difficult for you to master - the technique, the style or acting?

Most of all I worried about not being able to physically survive the whole ballet. I also worried about the technique and had to rehearse a lot. Ekaterina Sergeyevna (Maximova) was my coach from the very beginning and Vladimir Viktorovich (Vassilyev) also used to come and watch our rehearsals. However, rehearsals are not the same as performances when you can not stop and must carry on to the very end. At our graduation we did not dance a whole ballet but just a concert programme. Therefore, when I was given the role of Giselle, I could not imagine how I will be able to survive the two-hour performance in front of the audience and to finish it.

Maximova recalled in her book that you asked her during your rehearsals of “Giselle”: How can the heart ache? And she had to explain to you what it means when the heart aches.

Oh yes, I had no experience in life, I was very naive. Not only on stage but generally in the theatre. When I came to the theatre, I was told: it is so complicated there, there are such uneasy relationships. I could not understand it since I did not see anything complicated there. May be it is just my nature that only gradually I understood that the theatre has its own principles, traditions, and relations system. When I joined the theatre six years ago, the people used to tell me: if you only could see what it was like six years ago. Probably after some time I will say the same words to the newcomers too.

Svetlana Lunkina offstage
© Bolshoi Ballet

Which roles at the Bolshoi were created especially on you?

Lisa in "The Queen of Spades" by Roland Petit but it is a rather short role. I think it was the only role which I was first to dance.

How Petit worked with you - did he use to bring the already prepared ‘text’ for your rehearsals or made this role together with you?

You see, "The Queen of Spades" run together with “Passacaglia", two ballets in one evening; therefore, I was preparing the leading role in "Passacaglia" simultaneously with the role Lisa; naturally, Petit paid more attention to the former, since it was longer and more difficult. Well, the leading roles in “The Queen” were danced of course by Nikolai (Kolya) Tsiskaridze and Ilze Liepa, so Petit worked mainly with them. He gave me the role of Lisa probably because it suited my appearance. He choreographed everything very precisely and explained to both Kolya and me what we do in our short adagio and what I do in my brief scenes. There is indeed a scene there when I simply appear for a moment and stand still but this must be very expressive. Petit has a great intuition, he knows what he wants, he feels what I can do and when it works, I think it is his achievement, his direct hit.

You obviously enjoyed working with Petit. What distinguishes him from other choreographers?

I liked that he is a man of few words. Using a minimum of words he explains very well to the dancers what he wants to get from them. He doesn’t insist on anything and doesn’t put any pressure on you. During rehearsals I felt free to try and be able to achieve something. He creates such an atmosphere that you want to work and work more. He sympathises with dancers when something is difficult for them. Sometimes I would come and look how he was working with Kolya Tsiskaridze. He perfectly understood that Kolya is a complex person and his role was very demanding physically as well as dramatically stressful. Sometimes Kolya would lie down and say: I not can do it anymore, it is so stressful. Petit always treated this with understanding and would say: it’s all right, all right, I understand. He knew how to react in such cases and how to encourage dancers to overcome difficulties.

You dance with the different partners. Which of your partners do you have a more satisfying rapport with and why?

The most important for me is what kind of a person my partner is, how he communicates in real life. This is even more important for me than what he looks like on stage. It is important for me to have a human contact with him. I am very lucky in having good partners. For example, when I did “Giselle” at the Mariinsky, I danced with Anton Korsakov for the first time, nevertheless it was easy to work with him, he immediately understood what is convenient for me and what we should do to feel comfortable together. This is very important for me. At the Bolshoi I dance with Andrei Uvarov, Yuri Klevtsov, Sergei Filin, and recently I started dancing with a younger dancer Ruslan Skvortsov. I dance often with Sasha Volchkov. I also love working with Andrian Fadeyev from the Mariinsky, usually we dance with him just after two rehearsals. We did "Swan Lake" with him in Rome, it was a new version for us where Act 4 was entirely different from our Russian versions. We also danced scenes from "Romeo and Juliet" at a concert in Moscow. There are such interesting concerts: "Spivakov Invites You" at the House of Music. After Andrian arrived we had only one rehearsal. The conductor felt nervous and said: "I never conducted for ballet". It was quite an experiance for us because we danced in front of the orchestra and could see it behind us on stage.

I heard from many people in the Mariinsky that they liked your performance of “Giselle” there last year, and I know that their praise is worth a lot. How do you remember that “Giselle”?

That was a very uneasy visit. I had to come there with Dima Gudanov, we did rehearsals with him but on the day of our departure he could not go. When I rang the Mariinsky and told them about it, it plunged them into shock. They did not have any Albrechts at that time: one was away, another one had flu, and they could not find anyone to dance with me. I asked: “What should I do now?” They said: “Come here and we will think.”

When I arrived at St.Petersburg in the morning and asked at the theatre: "Have you found a partner for me?", they answered: "We don’t know yet. We will let you know in the afternoon. You had better go to the studio now and rehearse while we will try to find someone". Just imagine, the performance had to be on that evening but I still had no idea who my partner will be. Well, I went to a studio and did some exercise. Then I was told that there will be a rehearsal with the entire cast from 12 noon till 3. They found Anton Korsakov as a partner for me. It turned out to be a very good performance although we had so little time to rehearse. We did not rehearse Act 1 with him because I had to rehearse with all other characters, mainly verbally (let’s do that, that and that); we also rehearsed some of the Act 2, mainly Adagio, with Anton’s teacher Anatole Nisnevich. Everyone was supportive and prompted me during the performance. It is amazing that we were told afterwards that Anton and I had some good nuances as partners.

Svetlana Lunkina as Giselle
© Nadezhda Bausova

You danced that “Giselle” after your return from maternity leave. Have you discovered something new in your old roles?

I resumed my work after nine months and saw my old roles in an entirely different way. When I regained my former shape and form and started rehearsing, I kept recalling what Ekaterina Sergeyevna used to say to me earlier and I wondered: why, why couldn’t I understand this earlier? Why did I dance it differently? I have an absolutely different feel of my body now and ask myself: how could I perform without understanding anything? In the past I used to say to my teacher that I could see what has to be done but did not understand, did not feel it. Now I have so much feelings for my roles.

Is your Giselle different now?

Of course she is different. And she will be different again. Soon I will dance it in Rome at the invitation of Carla Fracci. My partner will be Yuri Vyskubenko from the Imperial Ballet. We will have to learn a new version.

As far as I know you did not dance in super-innovative ballets but did some relatively modern ballets, like Passacaglia and Le Notre Dame de Paris. What do you think about contemporary ballet?

I also danced the “Faun". If we talk about Petit's ballets, then I always enjoy dancing them, just because I like his choreography. Whatever ballet or piece he offers to me, I will be happy to do them. My rule is not to reject anything. I generally love to work, enjoy traveling and dancing with other companies. I accept the conditions which they offer to me.

What do you give preference to - classical or contemporary ballet?

Probably, to classics.

Since the Bolshoi’s historic building is closed for major renovation, some ballets are not performed on the smaller, New Stage. Do you miss some of your ‘lost’ roles and which of them you would like to dance again?

I feel awfully sorry that the ballet “Anyuta” is not performed. Although I heard that when we perform here in England in April, it will be shown at the Bolshoi twice. This was one of my first roles and, perhaps, is my favorite role. I prepared it with Ekaterina Sergeyevna and danced it with Vladimir Viktorovich Vassilyev during our tour in St.Petersburg. I also miss “Le Notre Dame” very much but understand that it is unrealistic to transfer such a huge production to a smaller stage. “Anyuta”, however, is a ‘chamber’ production and fits a small stage perfectly.

What new roles you are dreaming of?

I dream to dance “La fille mal gardee”. In fact, I have prepared the role but postponed it when my partner was injured. My special dream is to dance “La Bayadere" but it will take time. It is a big role and will take long time to learn. When I do it, I will keep it in my repertoire because you can grow with this role. It requires a lot of work but I do a lot of traveling. Just recently I came back from Japan where we traveled around the country with international gala concerts. With Ruslan Skvortsov I danced Adagio from "Spartacus" and fragments from the “La fille du pharaoh”. These tours make it difficult sometimes to find time for work in the theatre.

Your teacher Ekaterina Maximova wrote in her book "Madame No" that she advised you to turn down some invitations since these tours break the ballerina’s work routine in the theatre, and you sometimes resented it. How do you feel about it now?

Oh, now she has a different opinion. She is saying: “Svetochka, please go, this is very important, do travel and dance.” You see, I learn my repertoire in the theatre step by step. It is impossible for me to dip into all roles at once. One can not embrace everything. May be it is easy for others but I decide myself which roles suit me and at what particular time.

I know that you love to sing and to accompany yourselves on the guitar, and you do it very well. How did you start it? Who taught you to do it?

My dad plays guitar very well. He did not attend any music school, just he has a very good ear and enjoys playing his guitar for his friends. My mum calls him: “the soul of the company”. As long as I remember him at any spare time he would take his guitar, which is quite old and well used, and the whole family would come together to sing with him. I always watched with great attention how he ran his fingers over the strings. He showed me a few chords and I started to play. When I tour with the Bolshoi and we stay in hotels or travel by coach, I play for friends. Some of our boys write poetry or songs and always request me to provide the musical tracking to them. I love this, this so wonderful. Sometimes we arrange improvised concerts or sketches. The boys always call: come on, Svetlana, come over here, let’s sing.

Svetlana Lunkina as Phrygia in Spartacus
© Damir Yusupov

Do you have friends in the theatre?

My very best friend was always with me - Anya Tsygankova. Unfortunately, she had to leave our theatre. Once we started with her at the Bolshoi as two promising ballerinas but after Vladimir Vassilyev’s departure she had no roles. She had an enormous desire for work but was not given even variations, they just haven’t seen anything in her. So she left and she is a prima ballerina now with the Budapest Opera and dances in all their productions. Some ballets are produced for her.

Apart from your guitar do you have time for any other hobbies or reading?

I love tennis and play it with my husband at the Seagull Tennis Court, on the embankment near the Gorky Park. But reading? My reading consists now mainly of children’s books like “Cheburashka” and “Crocodile Gena”. As soon as I come home Maxim demands that I read to him, four or five times a day. He memorizes the text very quickly, after it was read only twice and then he repeats it after me.

Are you planning to give him a brother or sister?

Certainly! It is so good to have sisters or brothers. I have two sisters. And my Maxim will also have sisters and brothers.

What in life is most important for you?

I think, it is not ballet. Certainly, ballet means a lot to me but it is not the main thing. If ballet was in the first place for me, I wouldn’t have had my little Maxim. Without any doubt life is much larger than just ballet. The most important for me is my family, children and joy of life in general. And life itself.

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