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About the Change

Veronika Part

American Ballet Theatre

by Graham Watts

© Lisa Crosby

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The costumes from her latest performance have been packed away but something of Odette’s sorrow remains in Veronika Part’s eyes. An unbearable heaviness to her being that is rarely breached in our two-hour chat but when the smile does come, it has the impact of a lighthouse beam on a foggy day. It shines first with memories of how the six year-old Veronika would dance secretly around her bedroom to an audio tape of SwanLake and then again when we discuss the Ashton and MacMillan repertoire at the Royal Ballet. These are big tell-tale moments; illustrating - much more than words ever could - how that happy childhood passion for ballet is waiting, wanting to be rekindled here in London.

I’d already seen this light, this enthusiasm, during the intervals at the Royal Opera House on the previous night following performances of Wayne McGregor’s ‘Chroma’ and MacMillan’s ‘Different Drummer’. Two tasty morsels to set before the Queen, especially one who has tired of forever being a swan.

Veronika Part is breaking a journey from New York to St Petersburg with a two-day stopover in London. It’s a weekend of strategic importance to her: interrupting a journey from her current home to her birthplace with a brief sojourn in the city where she really wants to be.

Years ending in 8 have always been significant for Veronika: she was born in 1978; entered the Vaganova School a decade later; and became a soloist at the Mariiinsky in 1998, within a year of having graduated with top honours from a class that included Zakharova and Pavlenko. She has another life changing move waiting to happen in 2008 but what will it be?

Veronika Part with David Hallberg in Apollo
© J. Shiavone

Unfortunately, this list of lucky 8 dates does not include the one other major shift in her life; the decision to leave St Petersburg in 2002, to take up Kevin McKenzie’s offer of joining American Ballet Theatre. It all happened in the blink of an eye. One minute Veronika was performing Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ on tour in Munich, the next she was taking class with the Stuttgart Ballet; rushing back to Munich just in time for the evening’s performance. It was inspirational and Veronika knew that she needed to experience more than a lifetime at the Mariinsky would offer. Shortly after this, she jumped at McKenzie’s invitation without, it appears, ever asking herself what this would entail. It was an impetuosity that she must now regret even though Veronika herself is tactfully unwilling to put this into words. When I ask her this question directly, she talks about her time in New York as a positive life experience, making her a much stronger person. Notably, she doesn’t attempt to discuss what it has meant for her professionally.

Although she is circumspect about recent experiences, her palpable aura of unhappiness clearly stems from the fact that this turning point has ended in a career cul-de-sac. A decade after attaining the rank of Mariinsky soloist, she is treading water at the same level with ABT. Even a cursory glance at her repertoire shows that she did far more in four years at the Mariinsky than she ever has done in New York. In St Petersburg she danced Odette/Odile whilst still in the corps, within months of joining the company; plus Raymonda (her favourite classical role), Myrta, Medora, Nikiya, and the Lilac Fairy in Vikharev’s new-old, four-hour revival of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’. She also performed roles by Balanchine and Neumeier. At ABT, there has been an almost unending diet of soloist parts - Shades, Dryads and pas de trois - punctuated with an occasional Odette/Odile, Nikiya or Sugar Plum Fairy.

Veronika Part and Marcello Gomez in ABT's Sleeping Beauty
© J. Shiavone

Her big break turned out to be a strange one, dancing Aurora in the premiere of ABT’s new production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, last year. She shared the role with five Principals so it seems odd that she got the opening night; or maybe not so strange, when one reads the reviews of a production that was widely deplored and in which it seems that costumes, scenery and even choreography were changed right up until the last minute. ‘Pointe’ magazine described it as ABT’s ‘Fractured Fairy Tale’ and Hilary Ostlere wrote that ‘three choreographically blind Carabosses have imposed their dark magic on this revered ballet’. This trimumvirate of McKenzie, Gelsey Kirkland and her husband, Michael Chernov, would appear to be the case study of how not to create a ballet by committee. Veronika emerged reasonably unscathed from the general condemnation; having her technical attributes praised (‘high extensions, tapered feet and elegant ports de bras’). She had been concerned about a lack of rehearsal time for the premiere, but the crowd gave her a Met ovation on the very first attitude of the Rose Adagio which banished the nerves.

On the day that Veronika was born her mother remembers a nurse saying that the baby had “pretty legs” and perhaps she might be a ballerina, but her early artistic inclinations were channelled through rhythmic gymnastics, a sport at which she excelled as a child. Neither of her parents was into ballet but her Grandmother was a Kirov regular, hence the present of the SwanLake tape and occasional childhood visits to the Mariinsky theatre, inspiring those secret bedroom dancing fantasies. Someone must have peeked through the keyhole because, in 1988, Veronika sailed through the three levels of the Vaganova entrance tests (physiology, health and musicality) to win a place at the famous Academy. The same thing happened at the other end of her school career and Veronika never had any doubt about winning a place in the company, nor of her rapid promotion to soloist. “All my life, I didn’t plan what I want, it just happened to me” she says about her vocation, although it is also, I suspect, a veiled confession about where things have gone wrong at a later stage in her professional life.

Veronika Part
© Lisa Crosby

Going to America was certainly a massive risk that took Veronika out of her comfort zone into an alien lifestyle, where she spoke no English and knew little about the company she was joining. It’s obvious that the first couple of years were hell for her. She had no idea of how to open a bank account and is completely blank when I ask her about the lifestyle or psychological support I would have expected the company to provide for her. It was a year before she could begin to understand things going on around her, another before she could really speak enough language to be understood and two more before she had any real grasp of the company politics. She says that she was shy before going to the US and these early difficulties can only have added to her introspection. She admits to having been very depressed, especially thrown by the lack of rehearsal time compared to the Mariinsky regime, but also understood that no-one liked being around someone who was “always crying”, so she determined to “pull myself together, be stronger and work in their style”. To her credit, she has stuck it out for almost six years and knows now that she can’t do more in the ABT system. She performed only in the revival of Tudor’s ‘The Leaves are Fading’ in ABT’s Autumnal City Center season and has no regular partner in the company: her recent performances have been with Marcello Gomes but the spring/summer schedule shows that he is now needed to partner Julie Kent.

When we met for this interview, Veronika had not long finished a Christmas/New Year season guesting for the Perm State Ballet in Amsterdam for six performances of Makarova’s SwanLake, partnered by Alexei Tyukov (a Principal with Colorado Ballet). She finished performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy in New York on the 19th December and was dancing Odette/Odile in Amsterdam, three days later. On New Year’s Eve, sitting in the Het Muziektheater watching the Het Nationale Ballet’s production of Peter Wright’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Veronika made a resolution to come back to Europe and preferably to London. She turned to her boyfriend, Alex, and said simply “I don’t want to go back”.

Veronika Part as poster girl for NY City Centers 'Fall for Dance' Season
© J. Shiavone

She has now given notice to ABT and will leave at the end of the Season, having just two Lilac Fairies (in Miami), two Nikiyas and another Odette/Odile, plus sundry soloist roles, scheduled before then. She has options for the future – including an offer to join another American company – but there is no doubting where she wants to see herself.

“I care what I’m doing on stage and how long I have to do it”, she says with a directness that brings us back to London. Veronika clearly has at least another decade of great dancing left in her and relishes the chance to get to grips with character and narrative, both of which permeate the diverse rep of the Royal Ballet but (the night after seeing ‘Different Drummer’) it’s MacMillan’s work that brings forth the brightest smile.

Veronika Part and Marcello Gomez in ABT's Sleeping Beauty
© J. Shiavone

It’s heart-breaking to see a potentially great career having been put on hold because of one impulsive decision that didn’t work out. I had a brief window to observe the innate sadness that this means to an artist of such exceptional talent. As I write this, I have a vision that somewhere in a New York Apartment Veronika is dancing secretly to a tape of the Schoenberg music used in ‘Different Drummer’ or, better still, Massenet’s ‘Manon’. Pass me the wishbone; throw a coin in the fountain; cross your fingers and hope. There is, after all, an 8 in the year.

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