In Conversation with Maria Khoreva
True confession. Occasionally, and sometimes more frequently than that, I monitor posts by dancers and dance organizations on various social media platforms. Since I often find that I’m the last one to know of certain dance-related developments, doing so enables me, at least in part, to bridge that gap.
The first dancer previously unknown to me who I noticed after coming across a few of her posts was a young student at the Vaganova Ballet Academy named Maria Khoreva. I’ve often written that ‘sometimes you just know’ when seeing a dancer for the first time that the potential is there to be particularly special, but I’d never before gotten that feeling from photos or brief video snippets, but there it was.
Nearly two years after I first noticed her, Khoreva graduated from Vaganova, was accepted into the Mariinsky Ballet, and immediately began fulfilling that expectation, being assigned featured or leading roles that one would not expect a ballerina fresh from graduation to be given. One of these was the role of Terpsichore in George Balanchine’s Apollo. When I subsequently learned that The Mariinsky would be performing Apollo during New York City Center’s “Balanchine: The City Center Years” celebration, I thought it was unlikely that the company would select its newest members of the corps (Khoreva, Daria Ionova, and Anastasia Nuikina) to dance the Muses during these showcase performances. And then the casting was announced. After allowing a period of time to make sure it was really happening, I arranged to meet her during her stay.
On the eve of her New York (and American) debut, Khoreva presented as a “typical” casually-dressed teenager, except she was much taller than I’d anticipated and thin as a string bean, albeit one without a blemish in sight. But she had an air about her – beyond the anticipated poise and bearing that most young ballerinas seem to learn as part of their training – that betrayed that she was hardly an ordinary teenager, or an ordinary member of the corps at one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. And she sat ramrod straight. We introduced ourselves (she arrived unescorted), and she suggested we move to a more private area to talk.
JH: Let me tell you a bit why I’m here. I was introduced to you via your Instagram posts. I’ve never seen you perform, but there was something about those images and the descriptions in your posts that made me want to see you dance live, and to know a little bit more about you.
First question, and maybe the most important: how did you learn to speak English so well?
MK: [smiles, and beams] Well, my mom is an English teacher by profession. She doesn’t work now because she was raising us – me and my sister, who’s three years younger than I am, and she wasn’t trying to teach us English on purpose. But she was always incorporating English words in her speech and helping us with our English lessons in school. That’s just how it came out.
JH: She’s Russian, isn’t she?
JH: It’s amazing. You speak English better than I do.
MK: I was lucky.
JH: When I first started reading your posts, I thought they were written by a publicity person. I couldn’t believe they were written by a Russian teenager.
MK: No, actually I always write my posts by myself. It may take time; sometimes it might take an hour to write a post, but I try to make it, like, good – you know what I mean?
JH: Well, they are. Did you study English yourself at school, in addition to what your mother taught you?
MK: Well, at school they have a very weak level of English. For example, if you get like “5,” which is the highest mark in Russia, like an “ace,” you still may not be able to speak English at all. So you need to learn it yourself, apart from school.
JH: I’ve seen posts by other dancers, either at Vaganova now or recently graduated like you, and they all seem to speak English well.
MK: Well, but you know Google-translate and all that helps. But I think most of us graduates learn English relatively well at some point in our lives because it’s very important – I think.
JH: What made you get on Instagram in the first place?
MK: Actually, my dad once said: “Masha, you need to register on Instagram.” So it just started. I was interested in sharing my story, sharing my life with people. At first it was very, like, strange. I made some silly posts, and silly selfies. I didn’t know what I was doing. I would tell people I was preparing presents for my classmates, or preparing to dance some roles at the Mariinsky – some kids’ roles.
Then, I think in 2013, I got a message from a woman who works for Instagram Russia and she said “Masha, can we do an interview with you?” And we did the interview and she posted it on Instagram Russia. I think it had maybe hundreds of thousands of followers. A few months went by, and then I see that my interview is on Instagram – the main Instagram account, a worldwide account. I think it had maybe 60 million followers at that time. It was incredible. And then on my own account the number of followers increased and I became a blogger (laughs). It’s been a long time now that I’ve been on Instagram.
JH: I forgot – are you 17 or 18 now?
MK: 18. I turned 18 the third of July.
JH: Well, this is a first for me; the first time I’ve done an interview with someone born in this century. [we both laugh]
You’ve been in New York two days now? Well, three actually – you arrived on Monday.
MK: But Monday was, like, crazy. We arrived in the evening and we just went to Times Square. So this is the second full day.
JH: So what do you think of New York?
MK: Well, it’s been a dream of mine since very early years to get to New York. And this place – it’s so iconic and so legendary. It’s like dreams come true; for me it’s unbelievable to be here. And it feels surreal, to see all these crazy high buildings and skyscrapers. But at the same time it’s a very different culture. And I already can say that the people are very different: they are friendly and communicative. I’m enjoying it.
JH: You don’t think people in St. Petersburg are friendly?
MK: It’s different. People in St. Petersburg are very nice also. I actually love St. Petersburg; I think it’s the perfect city to live in….except for the terrible winters we have.
JH: Do you live in the city?
JH: Do you live with other dancers or on your own?
MK: No, I live with my family.
JH: Oh – you’re still with your family in St. Petersburg?
MK: Yes. I was lucky. I was born in St. Petersburg and I’ve lived there my whole life. And I was trained at Vaganova Academy and it’s five minutes away from where I live. So it’s very comfortable; I’m very lucky to have my parents’ support and my sister always there with me. It’s made my life much easier. There are dancers who come from different areas of Russia and are living in the dorms, and it’s so difficult for them, I think. I can’t imagine myself living in the dorms, actually.
JH: Getting back to New York (we’ll get to the dance stuff in a minute), what have you been able to see?
MK: Not a lot, unfortunately. We are having rehearsals and classes, so we don’t have plenty of time. We’ve mostly been shopping. Today we’ve been to Central Park, and Lincoln Center.
And we have huge plans for our day off, on Sunday. Maybe I’ll go to Central Park in the daylight, because I think it’s beautiful there. And we want to go to the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty of course. And the World Trade Center. I hope we can get to all of them.
JH: When did you know you wanted to be a ballerina?
MK: The idea of ballet was flying around me since I was like three years old, I think. I was doing rhythmic gymnastics for about seven years before I got to Vaganova Ballet Academy when I was ten.
But I got to Vaganova Academy accidentally, actually. On a summer day we were walking by the Academy and we saw that there were auditions planned in a few days. And we decided, me and my parents, that maybe I should try. And then I went to auditions and got accepted.
But when I was doing gymnastics still, I think when I was about six years old, my choreography teacher (for gymnastics) said “I would not say this to anyone, but you have such light legs and they are very suitable for ballet, so maybe you should try to go to Vaganova Academy.” So the idea was always there, but we didn’t decide until a few days before the audition started when we walked by the audition notification.
JH: That’s incredible. You were just walking by and saw the sign, and now, eight years later, you’re a member of The Mariinsky Ballet and dancing in New York.
JH: You said that your choreography teacher told you you have light legs? What did she mean by that?
MK: It’s a Russian expression, I guess. It means legs that go high easily, with no apparent effort.
JH: Well, she was certainly right about that.
What do you like about ballet? Aside from “everything.”
MK: (laughs, a lot) That’s a very easy, but very difficult question at the same time.
I love that through dance, through ballet, you can express yourself in a very unique way. You can share your story, and your feelings and emotions with people, and you can get their reactions and their emotions back from them. It’s such an energized form of art. After every performance you are filled with so much joy even if something hurts and you are not feeling great and even if you’re exhausted. It’s so uplifting. It’s what’s addictive about being a ballerina.
JH: It’s addictive also if you’re a member of the audience and decide it’s something you really love.
JH: That’s the way it happened with me. Obviously I’m not a ballet dancer. I started going about 45 years ago, and got hooked.
MK: That’s great.
JH: Were your parents involved in the arts at all?
MK: No. Not at all. But they loved ballet very much, and they were always going to ballet performances. They just loved art, I guess.
JH: Is that unusual in the St. Petersburg environment? Said another way, is St. Petersburg a very arts-loving city?
MK: Definitely, definitely. It all revolves around the arts, if you know what I mean. St. Petersburg is the Imperial City, and it’s an “art” by itself, if I can say so. And there, Russian ballet is very important, and like a friend in a way.
JH: Before you started at Vaganova, did you and your sister (who I am aware is also a student at Vaganova) used to perform at home? Like put on little shows for for your family?
MK: Maybe a little when we were little kids. I was always performing on the carpet with gymnastics, and in the competitions. But I was a very reserved kid. I was raised that way – I was never really “showing off.”
JH: You graduated from Vaganova last summer, and were accepted into the Mariinsky right after that.
JH: And it seemed to me that you were given the role of Terpsichore in Apollo within a couple of weeks after you started there.
MK: Yeah. Actually, we started to rehearse when I was still at the Vaganova Academy. Yuri Fateev, the Director of our ballet company, offered me the opportunity to start rehearsing this role, I believe in March of this past year. So I started rehearsing, and he scheduled a performance for the 21st of July.
JH: Ahh. Then it all makes a little bit more sense.
Is it unusual for you and the other two graduates who were accepted into the Mariinsky …
MK: [interrupting] No, no. It wasn’t just the three of us. There were so many more. I believe it was around eight girls and five boys. It’s very unusual for so many graduates in one year to be accepted into the Mariinsky.
JH: What did you think when you started rehearsing Apollo? Did you know that you’d be performing it?
MK: At first, Yuri Valeriavich said that “we will just try something.” And then after a few weeks he said it would work, and he scheduled the performance. And then a few weeks later he said that it would be that cast; that the cast was fixed.
JH: How do you prepare for the character you’re dancing in Apollo?
MK: How do I prepare the role? I’ve been watching tons of videos, on the Internet and at our video class at the Mariinsky. It’s been very helpful to find some small details of other incredible dancers performing this role. I really try to capture this Balanchine style. I don’t know how it will turn out. Though I try to be in the Balanchine style, still we are Mariinsky Ballet, not an American company, and I’m sure we perform this very differently. Still, I guess I’m a perfectionist, and since the costumes are very minimalistic in this ballet, it’s very important to keep the form as clean as possible. So that’s a concern of mine.
JH: What other dancers have you seen dance Terpsichore?
MK: Suzanne Farrell, in a performance from New York City Ballet, and other dancers from more recent performances. And I’m sorry I don’t remember the names, but the cast that was performing with Baryshnikov. That was a very beautiful performance. And the cast with Peter Martins also.
JH: You’ve done other roles already at the Mariinsky. I know what they were, but could you tell us what you’ve danced so far?
MK: The trio of Odalisques from Le Corsaire, then the Pas de Trois from Swan Lake, and then Paquita.
JH: Are those roles you learned at Vaganova also?
MK: No, no. At the Mariinsky theater.
JH: It’s still pretty fast.
MK: Not really.
JH: Is that something that happens routinely at The Mariinsky; that they’ll give “new” dancers an opportunity to dance lead or featured roles in a ballet?
MK: I don’t know if it’s “usual,” but I think it’s really nice. It’s a way to get something new and interesting to the stage for the audience to see. And of course it’s great for the young dancers. It’s a great opportunity for us.
JH: Is there any jealousy between new dancers who get these roles – not necessarily you personally – and the older dancers who’ve been there awhile?
MK: I don’t think that at the Mariinsky there’s a lot of jealousy. People say that the company is not very friendly, but I personally think that it’s incredibly friendly, and people are very supportive and very generous with their time and their advice and their help at the Mariinsky. So personally I don’t think there’s any jealousy between us, and between the new dancers and the older dancers.
JH: You mentioned roles you’ve already done. Are there other roles in the pipeline that you’re beginning to learn and train for, or that you know you’re going to dance?
MK: After these New York performances, seven days later, on the 12th of November, I am joining the big Asian tour to Korea and China, Japan, and then back again to China. It’ll be more than a month – we don’t get back to St. Petersburg until the 15th of December. And I’m going to be performing the Dryad Queen from Don Quixote, then again the Pas de Trois from Swan Lake, the variation from Paquita, and then I’m going to be performing the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty.
JH: The Sleeping Beauty. Naturally.
Are there roles that you would like to dance? And don’t say “everything.”
MK: (laughs, loud) Ha, ha! I was just preparing to say “everything.” My desire is to try as many things as possible, and when I see any ballet, I want to try to dance it, to prepare a role in it, whatever role it is. I’d love to do The Nutcracker with the Mariinsky in the future. I learned it at Vaganova, and so I already know the steps. Also, I love Giselle; I love La Bayadere, I love Swan Lake, I love Jewels, from Balanchine, especially Diamonds. It’s like I want to do everything, and if I had the chance to do any of them I’d be more than happy.
JH: This is a dumb question. Have you attended ballet performances?
MK: Yeah, sure. I love doing that, because every time it’s a huge inspiration, no matter what ballet it is, no matter who is dancing. And seeing how much work is behind the performance – that is really fascinating for me. And when I see this work is transformed into a beautiful form of art, it’s the moment when I want to do it myself. I want to go tomorrow to work and perfect my movements.
JH: So is it the end product that’s most important to you, and what you have to do to get there is what you have to do to get there?
MK: No, I’m not working only for the result. I’m working because I’m getting a lot of inspiration and motivation, and I enjoy the rehearsal process as well because it’s so interesting to try something new and find something different in a rehearsal, and find what your body can do and what it cannot, and try to improve the flaws and try to correct the mistakes.
JH: What is a typical day like for you?
MK: It starts with the company class at the theater. It starts at 11, but not always, it can start at 10:30 if there’s a morning performance. So from 11 to 12 there’s the morning class, then we have rehearsals, The timing varies: we can have two rehearsals in the morning, or we can have one rehearsal in the morning and the other at 8 p.m., so it’s very different every day. And then if we have a performance it usually starts at 7 or 7:30. And there are morning performances sometimes, at 12 or at 1 p.m.
JH: Do you ever get tired of it?
MK: Tired? Of course. It’s the thing that makes ballet a little less of a happiness and less a joy. Not the tiredness – I would say pain and that a lot of things hurt, and they hurt on a daily basis.
JH: I was going to ask you about that. Are there challenges you have to overcome to be as successful as you’ve been so far?
MK: A very big challenge is to try to deal with the pain, and be mindful about when to stop and when to push your body a little bit more. It takes a lot of effort to sustain your body and muscle. Sometimes you just need to go through the pain and dance even when something is very painful. That’s a huge challenge for every dancer, I think. And everyone has their own ways of overcoming this.
JH: Do you have an interest in other forms of dance, or other performing art, like theater or film?
MK: I love drama theater, but from an audience. I went to performances of the students at the theater academy in St. Petersburg and it was an awesome journey. I really enjoyed it, and visited performances like three times and four times. It was very interesting. And I love watching movies.
I don’t know if I see a lot of potential for myself in drama or in movies, but I’d love to try. I love acting on stage. Like in Paquita. There are so many acting opportunities in this ballet. I didn’t expect to enjoy them as much as I did. I would love to try it sometime.
JH: Are there any ballerinas you particularly feel you want to become like, or particularly admire? Aside from everybody with the Mariinsky.
MK: (laughs) I don’t only look up to the Mariinsky Ballet. Thanks to the Internet I watch a lot of performances by dancers from all over the world.
I’ve never actually thought about becoming “like” some ballerina. I always knew that I’m myself and working on my flaws and trying to work out the way I would like myself to dance rather than to, like, copy someone. But I’ve admired different ballerinas and ballet dancers as well.
One of the biggest inspirations of mine is Diana Vishneva, who was taught by the same teacher who taught me at Vaganova; we both radiate her knowledge and spirit. And also Ulyana Lopatkina, of course. Another great inspiration for me who I see at the theater every day is Ekaterina Kondaurova, who happens to be rehearsing with the same teacher as me at the theater. She’s very beautiful.
JH: I’m glad you mentioned Diana Vishneva before I was going to ask you about her. When I first started reviewing dance performances I saw Diana with American Ballet Theatre. I think maybe with the Mariinsky also, I’m not sure. I ended up writing an article that ended with: “If I could, I would travel the world just to see Diana Vishneva dance.”
JH: Have you ever met her?
MK: Yes, of course. We are even in the same dressing room in the theater. Can you believe that? Seriously. So we meet from time to time.
JH: Well, I’m sure that that wasn’t accidental. Obviously other people see what I see.
And with that, our 45 minute interview concluded, and I let Maria return to her hotel room to relax and prepare for her debut performance – and, as it turned out, to learn that she’d been promoted to First Soloist that same day, perhaps while the interview was taking place, since she seemed unaware of it when we spoke.
As I left, I kept thinking that there’s a long, long way to go and lots can happen, but maybe sometime I’ll write that if I could, I would travel the world just to see Maria Khoreva dance.