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About the Change

Marianna Ryzhkina

The Bolshoi’s ‘secret’ Principal Ballerina

by Natasha Dissanayake

© Alexei Brazhnikov

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It sounds rather strange: the Bolshoi’s ‘secret’ principal ballerina. How could a Bolshoi principal be kept a secret? Marianna Ryzhkina is no secret in America and Italy, Japan and Brazil, Spain and Australia and many other places, including, of course, her native Moscow, where she has the title of Honoured Artist of Russia. It just so happens, however, that in London she remains a figure of mystery, although many London ballet-lovers have heard of her, and some remember her as a ballet academy graduate, visiting more than a dozen British cities with a touring Bolshoi group 18 years ago. I recently met ballet-lovers who travelled from London to Germany earlier this year just to see her performances. However, she has never appeared in London in her high rank of a Bolshoi principal – time after time her scheduled performances run into obstacles of one sort or another.

After her graduation from the Bolshoi Academy in 1989, Marianna was invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet. In line with company tradition, she first danced in the corps de ballet, but even during her very first year she was entrusted with the peasants’ pas de deux in “Giselle”, followed by solos in “The Nutcracker” a year later. And then… love came into her life, and, before she could truly spread her wings in the theatre, Ryzhkina took a long break because, for her, love meant having children.

After returning to the company following the birth of her son, she started to broaden her repertoire at considerable speed, solo parts being followed by leads, and in 1996 she became the Bolshoi’s first Katharina in John Cranko’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. The future looked bright but, after dancing Kitri in “Don Quixote”, Marianna decided that one child was not enough and took her next stint of maternity leave. Nowadays, ballerinas allow themselves such ‘breaks’, but in the 1990s it did not happen as often. There are other traits which set Marianna apart from her colleagues: for one, she is much less concerned than most with ‘star’ status. She has never collected programmes of her performances, never kept records of where and how many times she has danced - perhaps, she's never had time for that. After all, she has three men at home to look after: two sons and her husband, 19 years older than her and a former soloist with the Bolshoi. As a dancer, Boris Yefimov was especially famous for his partnering skills and appeared with Maya Plisetskaya in leading roles in “Anna Karenina”, “The Seagull" , “Lady with a Dog”, “Carmen Suite” and “La rose malade”.

Despite frequent tours, Marianna loves to bustle around her home: she cooks, makes her own curtains and even wears a coat she made for herself. She always checks her children’s homework and practises music with them daily. She has even found time to graduate as a choreographer from the Moscow State Institute of Choreography and last year produced a ballet, “Caprichos”, for herself and eight partners on the Bolshoi’s New Stage.

Marianna Ryzhkina as Phrygia in Spartacus
© Damir Yussupov/Bolshoi Theatre

I saw her dancing in Moscow and Turin, liked her and wanted to interview her during the Bolshoi’s visit last summer. The morning after she arrived at the Russell Hotel, she attended Mikhail Messerer’s class at the Royal Opera House and started rehearsing - but this, her very first rehearsal, proved to be calamitous and led to the cancellation of all three of her planned performances. Without gracing the Coliseum’s stage with her presence, she had to fly back to Moscow the next morning. So it happened again: London was not to see her dance. I was determined, however, to interview her and managed to talk to her by phone in November.

Marianna, we were looking forward to your performances in London. What happened?

It had been so long since I visited Britain and I had been dreaming of returning. I was scheduled to dance in three ballets, “Le Corsaire”, “In the Upper Room” and “Class Concert”, but at the very first rehearsal in London I injured my achilles heel. It was such a shame to go back home without dancing.

When previously had you visited London?

The first time I came to England was immediately after my graduation, along with a small group of Bolshoi dancers headed by Bessmertnova and Vladimirov. We travelled all over the country dancing almost every evening: the second act from either “Giselle” or “Swan Lake” and a divertissement. In Part 1 I danced in the corps de ballet and in Part 2 a pas de deux from “La fille mal gardee”. I had learnt it when I was still at ballet school.

Marianna Ryzhkina with Nikolai Tsiskaridze in The Nutcracker
© Nadezhda Bausova

Was it your own idea or your parents’ to enrol you in a ballet school?

That was not just an idea - that was my dream. My parents wanted me to obtain a musical education and enrolled me in the famous Gnessin School in Moscow, where I studied for four years before entering the ballet school. I did some gymnastics, then I was in a dance group at the Young Pioneers Club and danced ballet at the “Hammer & Sickle” Factory club. At the age of 10 I applied for admission to the Bolshoi Academy and was accepted straightaway.

Were you the best in your class at school?

Oh no! My school years were a painfully long ordeal for me. I remember being always told off for looking chubby. At the time they were extremely strict about pupils’ physical appearance. No-one now would believe that at school they demanded that I lose weight. They also made comments about my head: you have to try a different hairstyle to change the shape of your head. They also criticized my character. I don’t know why they found my character difficult. School was a difficult period for me. Not a happy, rosy time, as it should have been.

To whom of your teachers did you feel especially close?

The teachers kept changing at our school. I graduated from the class of Yelena Ryabinkina and at our graduation danced Lisa in “La fille mal gardee”, produced by M.Martirosyan and S.Golovkina. My partner was invited over from the Bolshoi Ballet – Yuri Klevtsov.

Marianna Ryzhkina
© Alexei Brazhnikov

At the Bolshoi Theatre I had the very best teachers. At first Nina Timofeyeva rehearsed new roles with me. After she left for Israel I worked with Raissa Struchkova, and after her sad departure I started working with Ekaterina Maximova. I thank my stars for all my teachers. It is so good when you have your own mentor who knows you well and feels for you, and you get attached to her. Dancers in the West rehearse their roles with the repetiteurs assigned for a particular ballet, but they don’t have a permanent personal teacher as we do. My own teachers were prominent in the history of not only Russian but world ballet, and they were passing that history on to us. Through them we feel a link with the Bolshoi’s legendary times. You know, the Bolshoi is a very special body; it is in a league of its own. It has had great ballet masters, designers, conductors and teachers. It is so important to maintain this. If the tradition of permanent personal teachers comes to an end, the Bolshoi will cease to be the Bolshoi.

Which roles are your favourite?

Every role is my favourite when I am preparing for it. While you work on that role, it becomes part of you. I love Shirin in “The Legend of Love” very much, as well as Giselle and Sylphide. And my special favourite was Katharina in “The Taming of the Shrew”. I danced it on opening night at the Bolshoi and am so sorry that, now that its license has expired, it is no longer in the repertoire. And my partner Alexander Vetrov, who danced Petruchio, left for America. We danced this ballet so freely, without restraint; there were some improbable lifts there, real stunts. Technically, it was very demanding, but the main thing was that it gave us a chance to create vivid characters. I never saw the technique as an end in itself and cannot help but notice that many young dancers now see this as their main objective. But technical feats are not enough to produce expressive dancing. Individual expressiveness, supported by solid technique, is much more important. I remember how we did this all with Sasha Vetrov.

Marianna Ryzhkina as Katharina in Cranko's The Taming of the Shrew
© Nadezhda Bausova

You talk about this ballet with such enthusiasm. What do you love dancing more – classical or modern ballet?

Classical ballets are much more difficult to dance. One can immediately detect errors and shortcomings, both physical and artistic. You cannot hide them. But in modern dances it is possible – by displaying your own personality – to convince the audience that it should be danced the way you are dancing it. Interpretation is not so restrictive. Even frolics are permissible. Do I love it? Recently, for example, I danced Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”. I enjoyed working on it and as a viewer I enjoy watching dancers who do it with great dedication – but I wouldn’t like to dance such ballets all the time, just occasionally.

You have danced with many partners. What is important for you in a partner?

For me it's important that he should not only hold me well but he must be ‘accessible’, I need to have a rapport with him. I remember having a wonderful duet with Julio Bocca. He was already at the end of his career and was giving his farewell performance in Moscow. What a brilliant partner: he held me perfectly and exuded so much energy that I could physically feel how he looked at me and communicated with me. When Kobborg gave a performance at the Bolshoi, I danced with him in “La Sylphide”. Most of all I loved dancing with Boris, my husband.

Marianna Ryzhkina dancing with her husband Boris Yefimov in pdd from Le Corsaire
© Alexei Brazhnikov

When did you meet Boris?

Well, as a schoolgirl I used to go with my mum to see his performances. He was Maya Plisetskaya’s permanent partner and I could appreciate what an excellent partner he was and also that he was very masculine and handsome. After my graduation I was invited to join the Bolshoi and found myself in the same company as him. I got to know him much better on our first tour of Britain, because then I also saw his other side. He took his son on that trip and quite simply won my heart with the way he cared for him. I was watching them and thinking: this is what it means to be a father. Well, later we got married.

And you have two sons now. How did you, a young ballerina, choose to have two children?

I would love to have a third too. What is life worth without children? I wouldn’t have been able to live without them. My work? But a ballet career is so short. After graduating I worked at the Bolshoi for one year, I had just started working there and I had to go with the Bolshoi for a gala concert in the USA. I very much wanted to go but the choice had to be made and I decided to go on maternity leave. Many people literally crossed me off the list, thinking that I was lost to ballet. However, I did come back - but! – after five years went on maternity leave again. They kept telling me that it would be impossible to regain good form after the second child. No! No regrets! My children give me so much. With them I see life in a different way, I control myself and I am more composed. I wouldn’t allow myself to be involved in any gimmickry in the theatre because I am bringing up my children.

You are certainly in excellent physical shape. I saw you as a Little Radish Girl in “Chipollino” and noticed how graceful and light you were. How do youkeep yourself so trim?

I don’t know. Perhaps because I am busy all the time and fly round between my work and my home.

Marianna with her husband Boris Yefimov
and their sons - Klim and Gleb

© Marianna Ryzhkina
If I am not with my family, I am at work. If I am not at work, I am with my family, working at home.

And what do your children do now?

Klim is 15 now; he is at the Bolshoi Academy and will graduate after three years. Nature has been generous to him: he has a good physique and an aptitude for dancing, very suitable for ballet. He is already 182 cm tall. However, luck is very important in our ‘business’, I know this very well and very much wish that luck will be on his side. And the younger one, Gleb, will be 10 in March; he studies at the Shaporin School of Music and at an art school. I also do music lessons with both of them at home.

If you are not on tour, of course? I know that, in addition to your work at the Bolshoi, you go on a lot of your own tours. Why? Is it not too tiring?

On the contrary, these tours help and support me. Somehow it so happens that I haven't always gone on tour with my company. And when I am invited personally, my name is on posters and the people know of my performances and are waiting for them - these tours give me a lot of pleasure. I have accepted personal invitation to many cities and countries: I danced “Don Quixote” in Israel and Dresden and “Swan Lake” in Sweden, Finland and Korea. Almost every year, since the last century (she laughs), I travel to Texas on the invitation of the Metropolitan Classical Ballet. There I have danced “The Firebird” by Balanchine, Alonso’s “Carmen”, Pas de deux by Auber and with Boris I danced “La rose malade”.

Marianna Ryzhkina as Kitri in Don Quixote
© Damir Yussupov/Bolshoi Theatre

How do you rest?

This is a difficult question because it does not work well for me. I have not had a holiday in the past three years and perhaps it has affected me and I sustained these injuries.

My favourite holidays are in the country. We have a little country house near Kalyazin on the River Volga. It is such a beautiful place and the river is close by. It is a civilised dwelling: we have a kitchen, a water main and a shower. Boris did the wiring work there himself. It is always so difficult for me to leave that place. Although I love my work very much, I never like to leave the shores of the Volga.

What are you now planning to do in the theatre? What are your prospects?

That's something I don't want to plan right now. You see, I had a whole series of plans for last summer but the achilles injury ruined them all. Then in October I was invited to Texas to dance Alonso’s “Carmen” but tore a muscle there. All the billboards and posters had my name, and so before they raised the curtain they announced that I was sitting in the audience. The people clapped. I got up, took a bow in thanks, sat down and watched another ballerina dance my role. My main plan now is to recover completely.

However, I also hope to dance in the new “La Sylphide” that Johan Kobborg will be producing at the Bolshoi next February.

Are you happy with the way your career has gone? Has it panned out well?

One always longs for more but I have no complaints. Maybe I did not always act in a way that would benefit my career. I did not compromise nor pretend. I usually did what I considered to be fair. It is not easy to make a good career in the theatre and at the same time preserve your integrity.

Once we were on tour in Egypt. Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova approached me and said: «You have to prepare for “Swan Lake” now. Do you want to? » Of course, I wanted to. And I wanted to work with Ulanova. But I had my own teacher then, Raissa Struchkova, who worked with me on other roles but had not suggested “Swan Lake”. And so I said ‘No’ to Ulanova.

Marianna Ryshkina in La Sylphide
© Damir Yussupov/Bolshoi Theatre

Do you regret that now?

I very much regret that I did not work with Ulanova and that I haven't danced “Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi but I don’t regret that I said ‘No’ on that occasion. I could not do otherwise. You cannot get everything out of life that you wish.

Is there anything else you regret?

I regret that I haven't danced Nikiya. And that I have danced Odette-Odile and Aurora at other theatres but never at the Bolshoi. It’s a pity. It also hurts when I miss out on performances, after the casting has already been announced, I've done my rehearsals and then suddenly I learn that the performance has been taken away from me. These secrets and undercurrents always hurt.

And you try yourself as a choreographer now?

That was a ballet set to music from Bruch’s Violin Concerto. I love to create choreography. Sometimes, when we work on a new ballet production, I dare to propose some movements. I should probably keep these ideas to myself to avoid the choreographer’s displeasure. Oh, well, it's probably my character again. Oh no, my character isn't bad at all. I just happened to have a character, that's the way I am.

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