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About the Change

Ekaterina Chtchelkanova

Kirov Ballet, ABT, Broadway star and now Ballet Mistress of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal

by Laura Cappelle

© Anatoly Bisinbayev

The interview took place in August 2008

Ekaterina Chtchelkanova on IMBb

Les Grands Ballets reviews

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal

The festival Les étés de la danse has carved itself a niche in the Parisian summer, usually a dry spell for ballet. No Russian company has so far graced the stage set for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal in 2008, and yet, in the heat of the Grand Palais, an unmistakably Vaganova-trained dancer caught my eye in company class – far from just exercising, she was actually the one demonstrating, in a calm and elegant manner. Ekaterina Chtchelkanova may have left Saint-Petersburg some fifteen years ago, but her lines, curving, singing, remain a breath of Russian air.

Near the end of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' tour to Paris, we sat down for a talk under the imposing nave of the Grand Palais, a rehearsal for Mauro Bigonzetti's Cantata filling the background. The soft-spoken ballet mistress has had a long, versatile career : a graduate from the Vaganova Academy, where she studied under Ludmila Safronova, she spent four seasons with the Kirov-Mariinsky Ballet before moving to New York. She was then hired by American Ballet Theatre as a Soloist in 1994. After more than a decade in the ballet world and a short stint on Broadway, she eventually crossed genres again and starred in the movie Chicago, as the Hungarian prisoner Hunyak. She is now a radiant teacher at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, but the journey, even told in English, retains the same Russian flavour as her thoughtful take on ballet.

I – Early years at the Kirov-Mariinsky

II – ABT : Balanchine, Tudor...

III – Moving out : Broadway and Chicago

IV – Teaching and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal

V – Reflections on ballet

I – Early years at the Kirov-Mariinsky

How did you start with dancing ?
It's a very tricky question. I don't know how I started, but I knew I wanted to dance. When I hear music, my body starts to move automatically. Ballet was always very popular in Russia, and my mother gave her love of art to me. I asked her for a pair of pointe shoes when I was only 3 years old, and at the age of 10 I joined the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Luckily, I was gifted enough to become one of the students, and after the school I joined the Kirov Ballet.

What memories do you keep of the Mariinsky ?
It's a fantastic place. I joined the company in 1988, and I think I was very lucky to enter the company at that time, because I was able to work and be on stage with such masters as Altynai Asylmuratova, Gabriela Komleva, Galina Mezentseva, Irina Kolpakova, Sergei Berejnoy, Tatiana Terekhova, Farukh Ruzimatov, Konstantin Zaklinsky, Gennadi Selyutsky and that unforgettable character dancer - Vladimir Kolesnikov.... It was a gorgeous era. I still remember the feeling and smell of the theatre, a smell of old velvet, rosin and coffee. Every time I come back to St. Petersburg, I visit my old theatre and I feel at home.

Did you work with a coach ?
Well, when I joined the Kirov, I was in the class of a very famous ballerina, who unfortunately was still dancing. I think it didn't allow her to give more to her protégés. Being a coach myself now, I understand how important it is to give yourself completely, to encourage and stimulate the person you work with. This is only possible when you are absolutely unselfish. My first couple of years weren’t very happy in terms of coaching. Luckily, there were people who were always willing to help. Natalia Spitsina was one of them. She was extremely strict but very inspiring, with great taste and an amazing sense of style. Then there was the one who always made me optimistic and eager to work more and more, Olga Moiseyeva. This woman was so full of life and passion. A great dancer, person and an incredible coach. I didn’t get to work much with her but every word she said I still remember. I would also like to say something about Nina Ukhova. She worked with the corps of the Kirov, what the company is most famous for. She is the most experienced and masterful coach I have ever seen. No one can rule such a huge army of dancers like she does. And the results are incredible.


Ekaterina Chtchelkanova in Le Corsaire
© Ekaterina Chtchelkanova

Did you get to dance special parts ?
Every part I danced with the Kirov was special. My first part was the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, right after I joined the company. I danced a lot of solo roles like the flower girls in Don Quixote, Jewels, the cygnets - I barely did any corps de ballet parts. Being a dancer then was both great and very hard, I think partly because Russia was going through a crisis era at the beginning of the 1990s. I left in 1992, in the middle of changing directions, in the country, in the company, but I have very warm memories.

II – ABT : Balanchine, Tudor...

How did you decide to move to the USA ?
I actually didn't decide to move. I didn't plan anything. I was on tour with the Kirov in the States, and I realized that for personal and professional reasons it would be better for me to try to find something else, elsewhere. I am very grateful to Mikhail Baryshnikov. I don't think that without him I would have had enough courage to even pick up the phone and call American Ballet Theatre to audition. He came up to me in the hallway of David Howard’s dance studio after seeing me in class. He motivated me, he told me : you're a good dancer, you should, you must dance ! I didn't dance for two years between the Kirov and ABT. I had no papers, I didn't speak English. I had nothing. I was even unable to pay for ballet classes. With his blessing, I entered American Ballet Theatre.

Can you tell me about your time at ABT ?
ABT was probably one of my happiest experiences, and at the same time one of the most painful. It felt great being able to learn so many different styles and work with such a range of incredible people - Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Sallie Wilson who had the rights for all of Antony Tudor's ballets. She set Lilac Garden for ABT and I did the main part, Caroline. Not everybody liked Sallie’s way of working in the studio, but I enjoyed the process. She was a fantastic woman, and a very knowledgeable person. And then dancing it with Angel Corella, who is so musical and passionate ! It was heaven. I always enjoyed working with Jose Manuel Carreno, Julio Bocca, Vladimir Malakhov, John Gardner, Amanda McKerrow, Gill Boggs… and being on stage with Cynthia Harvey, Alessandra Ferri, Susan Jaffe, who I became friends with outside of the ballet studio as well.


Ekaterina Chtchelkanova in Lilac Garden
© Ekaterina Chtchelkanova

Was the difference in styles a shock when you first arrived ?
It was. The whole concept of being a dancer is not the same. The first couple of months were especially hard for me, but then I was lucky enough to find some understanding and clarity when Natalia Makarova came in to set Paquita and later on La Bayadère. It was great to work with her and see the company acquire discipline and polish. I don’t think you can call yourself a “classical” company if you have no strong classical schooling but the presence of Makarova and Irina Kolpakova definitely helped a lot.

Was it hard to fit in as a different kind of dancer ?
I think it was one of my biggest problems, because you can always spot someone from the Kirov anywhere in the world right away. It's built in you, it's in your blood, you can't do anything against that. It was very interesting for me to learn how to move otherwise - I remember having such a hard time working with Twyla Tharp at first, even physically, because my body had never done anything like this. I was miserable at the beginning and then, slowly but surely...

What about Balanchine ?
Balanchine was familiar to me. I was actually the first person to dance Balanchine on the stage of the Kirov. It was Tchaikovsky pas de deux. I was only sixteen and still in school, but we had performances at the Kirov and I was the first one ever in Russia to dance Balanchine on that stage.

How was it received ?
It was such a big success. It was huge. I remember Altynai Asylmuratova, Farukh Ruzimatov, everybody skipping rehearsals and coming to watch. Later, when I joined the company, I also danced Theme and Variations and Scotch Symphony.

Was the working process very different at ABT ?
It's a different system. I think I could only adapt in the way of trying to coach myself. Luckily, with such education and discipline you can do that, because you cannot rely so much on coaching at ABT - not because they lack coaches, but because there is a huge lack of rehearsal time. There are financial constraints. At the Kirov, we can take six months to prepare a ballet. At ABT, I danced Corsaire with maybe two or three rehearsals. Luckily, Anna-Marie Holmes was staging the ballet for ABT, and I asked her to rehearse with me, fifteen minutes here and there. That's how you work.

Was the touring schedule hard to take ?
No. I think when you're young, nothing is hard. With companies like Kirov and ABT I was able to see the world, and nothing would stop me from walking around and seeing things. I am very curious. Everything interests me. I had some miserable moments dealing with swollen feet after a day of rehearsals, museums and a performance later on but a bucket of ice usually does the trick.

Which were your favourite roles at ABT ?
I have a favourite, and interestingly, the year before I finished school the Kirov had this ballet in the repertoire, for one season only. It was Lilac Garden, by Tudor. Altynai Asylmuratova, I think, was doing Caroline. I loved the music. I remember thinking : if I could do it only once in my life, my career would be complete. It wasn't Giselle or Swan Lake I dreamt of, because I think I had dreamt of that repertoire my entire childhood. When I saw Lilac Garden, I was blown away. I think ballet moves alone do not excite me - I like drama, when I can express myself with my body, face, musicality. That really makes me crave the stage. This ballet is only half an hour, maybe forty minutes long, but it is a continuous build-up of emotions - on the surface it should look peaceful and proper, while inside you go through the most powerful emotional hurricane. When I joined the Kirov, I lost any hope to dance it as it had been dropped from the repertoire. Then at ABT Sallie Wilson chose me to do the premiere at the Kennedy Center, in Washington. It was a dream of mine, and I thought it would never be able to happen.

Did you dream of dancing some of the classics ?
For sure. I did Swan Lake for my graduation, for example. I love the music - I think everything starts for me with the music and the story. I love Bayadère, Giselle, La Sylphide - Don Quixote is a lot of funBut I'm very satisfied with my life. I could probably have more things, have done more, but I cannot be not grateful, I have had a good career.

III – Moving out : Broadway and Chicago

How many years did you spend with ABT ? Were you still there when you did Chicago ?
I spent seven seasons at ABT, and I left in 2001. We finished shooting Chicago in 2002. Twyla Tharp actually invited me to do Movin' Out on Broadway, and then while creating Movin' Out I was called to audition for Chicago.

How did you get to be in Chicago ?
When I was at ABT, the company had to do a new catalogue of dancers. Alessandra Ferri was in it and she had a copy, of course. Her husband, Fabrizio Ferri, is a photographer, and at that moment he worked with Salvatore Ferragamo - he saw my picture in the catalogue, and I ended up modelling for Ferragamo. The spread was in every big magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue and a person from the casting team of Chicago saw the picture in someone's office. It had been torn out of the magazine and put on the wall - it was a beautiful ad. They wondered who it was, someone said it's a dancer in New York…. So they gave me a call and asked me to come to the audition. At first I said no. I told them I'm not an actress and I hate to do a bad job. I prefer to do things that I know how they're done. I turned off my cell phone and went on with my rehearsals. At the end of the day I had 19 messages, saying give us a call, please, the audition is tomorrow morning at 8:30 and you should be there. They had problems finding someone because Rob Marshall (the director of Chicago) had a very particular idea for Hunyak. He wanted an Eastern European-looking woman who could learn Hungarian or at least try to make it sound OK, able to act, dance, sing, very emotional. I was very timid, because I had never done any camera work for film. But I showed up at the audition and from that moment on I enjoyed it very much.


Ekaterina Chtchelkanova in Broadway days
© Ekaterina Chtchelkanova

Was it a chance to meet different people ?
It was a very different atmosphere from the ballet world. When you are part of such companies as the Kirov and ABT though, you are very exposed, you meet people of all calibers. I was very lucky to meet Princess Diana when we were on tour in London with the Kirov. She came to a performance, and we all met her. I will never forget her handshake - warm, friendly and firm at the same time. I'm not the star-struck kind, to me everybody is the same, with little variations. It went very well on the set - everybody is very humble.

Did it take long to shoot the movie ?
We were in production for six months, three months of rehearsals and three months of shooting. For some reason it was very easy for me - I think Rob Marshall trusted me. He didn't push me in any direction, he just allowed me to do what I felt like doing. It was very interesting to shoot and be on the set every day, because I went from the first day of rehearsals to the last day of shooting. A lot of people left before. It was shot in Toronto, and every day was different. When we went to Los Angeles for the premiere, though, nobody expected anything like that. We knew we were making a great film, but it was really shocking to see it for the first time. I sometimes have problems sitting for two hours straight, but I couldn't move. I was asking myself, am I really a part of this ? We, the cast of principals, won the Screen Actors' Guild Award for the best cast.

And you went on with your acting career ?
Well, I kind of didn't, but I did... I never had an agent, and I think I should stick to what I do best, what I know best, which is classical ballet. There are professional actors, a lot of beautiful and younger people around. While shooting Chicago though, I met a woman who is a director and producer and we created another film, The end of silence. It was a small production, but people found it interesting and it went to a lot of festivals, it was sold worldwide. I co-produced and starred in it. Last year I’ve also met and worked a bit with a fascinating director - Guy Madden. I hope we will work together again one day.

Do you plan on doing other films ?
If it finds me, I will. I'm not going to really look for it, but if it comes my way I don't think I'll say no, because I really love working with the camera and transforming myself into a different person, body and mind.

IV – Teaching and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal

How did you decide to become a ballet master ?
I could have continued dancing, but I think being without company, without base is very hard, especially because I took six months out of ballet life to film Chicago, which is a lot. I did guesting later, but I find it very hard to keep in shape. Opportunities presented themselves, I started coaching, teaching, and I really enjoyed it.

Did you always want to teach at some point ?
I kind of knew I would be coaching, I really love to coach. While I was dancing, I taught a couple of times, but I don't think you can be all that good when you're still involved so much in dancing yourself. When I stopped dancing, I realized I love it. I think it's even more creative than dancing. I've been at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens for a year, and it is an amazing company. Gradimir Pankov (the artistic director) really has an incredible talent for finding not only good dancers, but talented artists. Real artists. They can sing, they act, they move like probably no other company because they can be both on pointe and with no shoes at all, barefoot. To me it's incredible. And they're a very nice bunch of people, beautiful people. I love these dancers.

What are you looking to do precisely with the daily class ?
It depends where we are in the year and in the repertoire. Right now, on tour, the most important thing for me is to keep them healthy, happy and in shape, physically and mentally. With performances everyday it's very hard. But if we're not rehearsing something very intensively, I try to push them a little bit further and harder, in a way to create more classical dancers, better built bodies, to make them go longer without being tired. The classes are really different then.


Ekaterina Chtchelkanova
© Anatoly Bisinbayev

Are you inspired by the Vaganova training ?
I remain so, for sure. There is so much in Vaganova training that I don't think you can ever run out of combinations, explanations, details. I myself still discover a lot of little things - why it was done this way, ways to make it understandable. It's nowhere in any book, unfortunately. My two focal points are ports de bras and feet, because I cannot stand sickled feet or people who dance without using the upper body.

Do you think it has changed the company already ?
Definitely. The dancers are very hard-working, they pay a lot of attention. It's a pleasure to work with them and it is very rewarding to see the results of our work. I can see it from day to day sometimes. And it is the best feeling of all, very, very satisfying.

What do you think about Les Grands Ballets' repertoire ?
I like it. It is a very unique combination of styles. I love the Italian program (in Paris : Les Quatre Saisons/Cantata, by choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti). Minus One (Ohad Naharin) was also very exciting, especially the beginning, and I love Les Noces (by Stijn Celis) - the music and the choreography are one disturbed, mad and unexpected harmony. Every piece brings a very different emotion. What is so unique about Les Grands is not only the choice of dancers and choreographers, but a unity of all creative sources. It is very exciting to be a part of it, to be in the moment of something incredible happening, to watch a masterpiece being born in front of your eyes. It is a miracle… It's stronger then being lost in the beauty of a painting or sculpture, being moved by it. It’s different, it takes you to a state where you are about to lose control… This feeling is the next greatest one for me, after dancing or being in love.

V – Reflections on ballet

How important is musicality for you?
To me musicality is everything. I still cannot understand movement without music or any rhythm. I played the violin for almost 5 years before entering the Vaganova school, where we all had 8 years of piano. It allows us to be familiar with music terms, to read scores and to feel comfortable working with conductors, pianists and any other musicians. It is a necessary part of dance education, as much as the history of art, music and ballet or literature...

During my time with ABT, I would often choose which class to take by the pianist who was playing. I have to admit that classes were a very weak element in that company, unless such people as Vladilen Semeonov, Gradimir Pankov, Sergei Berejnoy or Mr. Carreño, Jose Carreño’s uncle, came to teach. I see with great sadness the loss of musicality in almost every company and school around the world. It is all nowadays about pirouettes and extension, rearely about soul, mind and body becoming one, lost in musical harmony and phrasing. I always remember how my teacher, Ludmila Safronova, who was Agrippina Vaganova’s very last protégée, chose music for every exam and even every class, especially when it came to adagio. I’ll never forget my graduation. For the grand adagio she picked Rachmaninov’s elegia. When I think about this music, even now, I have goosebumps. Every note would resonate in the tips of my fingers and toes. I felt it in my eyelashes, my spine was like an electric cord but the whole body, me – a wild, strong but meek and sad animal. That’s the musicality she was teaching us. Technique is powerful but it is still just a tool that helps building a way to the real freedom every dancer, every performer, every true artist needs. Dance is music or, I would say, music is dance. To me, music is life. I can’t imagine my existence without it.

What do you think of the current trend of hyperextensions ?
I'm hyper-extended myself, actually, but there are ways to avoid that. Even with hyper-extended limbs, you can build a straighter and stronger base. Unfortunately, not everybody knows how to do that. I guess aesthetics change as well.

Do you think it has changed the artistic side of ballet ?
Yes, I think so. I hope real musicality and acting will come back. I'm going to train and coach the way Vaganova established it, and the way I was coached. It makes sense, of course, to open your eyes and know what's going on in the world, and I'm very lucky I was able to dance both a contemporary and classical repertoire. But I hope that ballet will not bury its best traditions and keep on going strong.

Is classical ballet an art you feel is everlasting ?
It depends on us. I feel like I would betray it if I pursued my acting career. I really think whoever was able and lucky enough to get a good education should continue spreading the seeds. For me it is a duty. I dream of creating more venues for people to come and learn, not only for professionals, but also to educate the audience. I'll be looking into creating or helping to create something like that in the future.

What do you think of the state of classical ballet in Russia ?
It's still strong, but there are things that are already missing. I hope it's just a little cold, like a flu, and beautifully pointed feet and proper port de bras will be in style again very soon.

Are partnerships important ?
Yes. ABT is a complicated company in that regard. You don't have any real opportunity to build a partnership because the performance season is quite short and we had to switch partners from one ballet to another. A partnership is very important, because you get used to the body type, the grip, the feeling, you build a unique musicality and way of moving. Great partnership is harmony, I think.

Is it linked to the search for dancers who can do everything ?
I truly believe that it's very hard to do both classical and contemporary equally well. This company (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal) pulls it off, somehow, but their repertoire is very smartly chosen. If we're talking of the highest level of classical dance, and the highest level of contemporary dance, like barefoot dancing... At ABT I was pushed into parts that do not belong to me at all, or which I didn't belong to at all. It's almost like you have to constantly prove yourself. It would be nice to be able to do what you can and know best. It's like making someone without good pitch sing. Challenge is good but, to me as a performer, it was very important to enjoy what I was dancing instead of fighting with the piece. We all like to be challenged, but to a certain point.

What do you think of the tradition of picking out future soloists very early in Russia ?
I think in school you can always tell right away who can get where. But the transition between the school and the company is very painful. You're lucky if you have a good coach, you're lucky if you have someone who believes in you and sees something in you that your school teacher saw. It also depends a lot on your personal abilities, on how hardcore you are. I wasn't at all. I learnt later in life how to stand up for myself. At the age of 18 – I was like a little baby. But I learnt a lot and I met fantastic people. I think it's been a great life, so far.

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