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About the Change

Olesya Novikova

First Soloist
Mariinsky Ballet

Olesya Novikova, sadly not on the London tour this time - we hear she is pregnant, was dancing a few months ago in Baden-Baden which is where Laura Cappelle had a few words...

By Laura Cappelle

© Natasha Razina

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When Olesya Novikova appears at the stage door, in regular clothes, looking very reserved, it is hard to believe you are meeting a first soloist with the Mariinsky Ballet. Aurora, Raymonda, Gamzatti, Giselle, much of the Balanchine and Forsythe repertoire – her repertoire may already span as many leading roles as that of seasoned principals and the rehearsal schedule hung by list her as Kitri or Terpsichore, but the young dancer still looks like a fragile young fawn. Demure throughout our conversation sitting in the orchestra stalls of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, she gazes at the stage being set up from time to time for answers – as if, even on tour, the mother ship was never very far away.

As I ask her (through the German translator) how it all began, she states that it was "her own wish" to take up ballet, although it took her time to enjoy it fully. She had no relatives in this particular world, both her parents being teachers – "as a child, I just saw a beautiful picture of a ballet dancer". Growing up at the Vaganova Academy, side by side with other future soloists such as Evgenia Obraztsova and Mikhail Lobukhin, it comes as no surprise that the company remains the one visible alma mater to her. She reminisces fondly about her years at the school, "particularly great ones", where names such as Alicia Alonso, Maya Plissetskaya or Altynai Asylmuratova were the ones she looked up to. But, she adds immediately, as I ask about dancers that would be role models in the current company, there would be too many to mention, and she goes no further.


Olesia Novikova in The Sleeping Beauty
© Natasha Razina

Olesya Novikova shares one thing with Asylmuratova, who became head of the Vaganova Academy two years before Novikova’s own graduation, in 2002 – she is taught in the company by Olga Moiseyeva, who celebrated her eightieth birthday in 2008. The dancer lights up when discussing her coach. "I absolutely wanted her to be my teacher, I absolutely wanted to work with her", she says quickly. She mentions her strictness, her strong character, and laughs softly : "We share the same Zodiac sign, and people say it is hard when two people of the same sign meet, but we understand each other very well." She points out with genuine pride one of Moiseyeva’s star students, Svetlana Zakharova, and her work growing several generations of Mariinsky Ballerinas. Novikova's own trust in her teacher appears touchingly limitless. I asked what she thinks Moiseyeva saw in her; “no idea” is the short reply – but that Moiseyeva "knows her dancers. She knows how they should be."

Her large, dark eyes and porcelain face have remained so modest while talking that Novikova is really hard to picture as Kitri, the joyful, light-hearted girl from Barcelona who runs away with Basilio. And yet the lead in Don Quixote was the first milestone of her career, barely one year into the company, and she has been heralded for her approach – "the sweetest way possible with the drama", as Clement Crisp observed. Asked if she now considers it her signature role, as many tend to think, she seems unsure but acknowledges it is the one she dances most often. "When it was offered to me, I was shocked. I had just come from the school, and I didn't know what I wanted." Makhar Vaziev gave her the opportunity nonetheless, and Novikova praises his eye – "he sees what the dancers are capable of" –, although she doesn't mention Don Quixote among her favourite ballets. These would actually be Nutcracker, which she loved as a child, and two very different pieces, Boris Eifman's Red Giselle and The Rite of Spring – while she herself is the epitome of the traditional Giselle.


Olesia Novikova as Kitri in Don Quixote
© Natasha Razina

And Novikova, as a matter of fact, seems caught between two worlds when discussing her own wishes and modern choreographers. A child of the long Russian tradition, she aims, ideally, to dance every ballet in the repertoire of the Mariinsky, especially Diamonds, Balanchine's ode to that very tradition; she observes, though, that she finds it hard to present expressively to the audience a work such as Apollo, which she danced the previous night. Is it the lack of narrative ? She has in fact solved the question for herself, finding that "all of Balanchine's ballets are about love."

Yet creations are still another story, made ever more complicated, Novikova says, by the lack of money for ballet at the Mariinsky, where the opera continues to prevail. The tight schedules of the dancers are no help either – Pierre Lacotte, for instance, "had a hard time in Russia", she adds, when he came to mount Ondine. "He would come to the rehearsals every day and someone was ill, someone was injured..." Olesya Novikova danced the waternymph some time after the premiere, and mentions her apprehension and admiration : "He knows so much – he is like a book on ballet." Rehearsal difficulties and lack of choreographers mean that she misses working with a choreographer; when I ask about Russian choreographers that she thinks will be of importance, she answers firmly : "For now, there are none."

Does touring complicate that situation even more? The intense competition at home means on the contrary that Novikova thoroughly enjoys being on the road with the company, despite the initial homesickness, and indeed doesn't seem annoyed by the many languages being talked during the interview. At least, this daughter of the stage says, "on tour I can dance every night", while there are many waiting for their turn in St. Petersburg. Audiences are another factor, as the dancers find them more appreciative abroad than at home. "At the Mariinsky, the audience now claps in a very bored way,", she explains, mimicking their expressions with a sudden flair for comedy, "perhaps because they have seen so many good performances." The cost of tickets has come to deter the faithful balletomanes, "those who really know about ballet", from attending so often.

Olesia Novikova
© Natasha Razina

In London, however, of all the places the company has visited, she didn't exactly experience love at first sight. Her first tour was in 2003, and remains a bitter memory - "I had started to dance soloist roles, and all of a sudden I was in the corps de ballet again." Once this issue vanished, she found London closer to her heart, and likens the city to St. Petersburg – "very soulful, gray and sad. And in Russian dancers there is sadness, as in all Russian people."

Paradoxically her success in the happy Don Quixote allowed her to dance parts that take advantage of that natural sadness, especially Giselle. Shortly after her debut in 2006 she went on to dance the part abroad and during the company's International Festival, with Matthieu Ganio. Does the intense touring impede the preparation of such major parts? The adaptable Novikova doesn't see it as any sort of drawback, saying that there is still plenty of time to prepare every role carefully at the Mariinsky, whether it is through reading or watching performances – as she did for the coveted role of the peasant girl. She talks beautifully of musicality as an absolute necessity : "To express the beauty and gifts of nature, one must have a feeling for music. When dance and music don't go together, don't correspond, there is no harmony." Interestingly, she makes no difference between the Russian approach and other countries' take on music, as if there was only one obvious way to be completely in it. In that regard, the works of William Forsythe or Roland Petit "have also become classics" to her – their inner harmony justifying their place alongside Petipa or Balanchine.

Olesia Novikova with Paris Opera Ballet etoile Mathieu Ganio in Giselle
© Natasha Razina

When we finally get to the topic of her life outside ballet, she turns shy again, seemingly finding it hard to expand on the subject. If she had money and were no longer dancing, she would "like to build shelters for homeless animals, of which there are many in Russia." As I wonder about her answer, the translator repeats that she finds waitressing particularly interesting; as for her hobbies, she says sweetly that she likes "what normal people like". She merely focuses on her "luck" being able to work at the Mariinsky, an institution that she obviously wants to live up to. "The Mariinsky Theatre is the Mariinsky Theatre", she adds, with veneration and a sense of humility. And with that she goes off quietly to honour that name again, on the stage.

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