In Conversation with Maria Khoreva, Episode Two

April 14, 2024

Jerry Hochman

When I last saw Maria Khoreva in person, the Mariinsky First Soloist had only recently joined the company following her graduation from the Vaganova Academy. The occasion that prompted the interview was her appearance in City Center’s 2018 Celebration of George Balanchine. I saw her the evening before her first New York appearance on November 1st, performing as Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo (together with two other Vaganova graduates from the same class who had also been accepted into the company, Anastasia Nuikina and Daria Ionova, and with then Mariinsky Principal Xander Parish as Apollo). For those unfamiliar with the prior interview, it’s available via this link: In Conversation with Maria Khoreva: The Mariinsky’s Precocious Young Ballerina – CriticalDance 

Time passes. Five and a half years later I was advised that Khoreva would be in New York City again, performing in two Galas in celebration of Youth America Grand Prix’s 25th Anniversary. I jumped at the thought of a “follow-up” opportunity to speak with her, which YAGP arranged. This second conversation took place on Sunday, April 14th, near Lincoln Center. Her father, who had accompanied her to New York, did not participate in or in any way interrupt the interview.

Maria presented as she had 5½ years ago, though more casually dressed and not at all apprehensive, as I sensed she was then. And, not surprisingly, she’s matured, at least emotionally – but she’s barely less youthful-looking than she was then.

In deference to YAGP and its celebration, and to the fact that it had arranged this meeting, I decided to limit my questioning to matters relating to YAGP and dance, as well as, of course, Khoreva herself. Additionally, prior to the interview I asked her what she’d be dancing at the two YAGP Galas. I later ascertained that what she told me was not yet written in stone, so I didn’t formally question her about that in the interview.

Our conversation, lightly edited to make it read more fluidly and to eliminate irrelevant comments (mostly by me), proceeded as follows:

JH:  Maria, it’s great to see you again. The last time I saw you was almost 5½ years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long.

MK: Time flies so fast.

JH: I know you’ve been interviewed a gazillion times. Do you know what “gazillion” means?

MJ: [laughs] Yes

JH: I’m sure you’ve been asked these questions before, so I apologize if some of them are ones you’ve already answered.

MK: Whatever you ask me is ok.

JH: I know you’re not a YAGP alumna. What’s your connection to YAGP?

MK: I’m feeling really grateful to be a part of it, because all of this talent being shown and all of this talent you see in kids makes you want to give them everything you’ve got, whether through dance or through teaching, through coaching, through something. So I’m super grateful and happy to participate, to share what I’ve done through my ballet career and my ballet education, and to share the happiness with the kids and with other artists. So it’s a very warm connection between people and YAGP and me, and I hope it will continue.

JH: What will you be doing for YAGP while you’re here?

MK: I’m performing at two Galas on the 18th and 19th, their Anniversary Gala and Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow Gala, and it’s very special to me because I’m just coming here after recovering, being almost completely recovered from, a serious injury I had about five months ago. So I’m happy to be performing here and to be putting the inspiration that has been growing inside for these long months offstage on this stage of Lincoln Center.

Maria Khoreva
at autograph signing
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

I’m also doing a photograph and signing session today actually with the YAGP kids.

JH: I was just going to ask you about that.

MK: (beaming) Yes.

And I’m also privileged to be taking classes with the ABT Studio Company, and to be also giving a little pointe shoes master class for the ABT girls from the Studio Company, and [Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis] school girls, so I’m also super excited to share some of the Vaganova  technique with them. So it’s a big plan, but so exciting.

JH: I was going to ask you whether and where you were taking classes, so you once again anticipated my question.

Have you already met any of the YAGP Finalists?

MK: No net yet, since I arrived only yesterday.

JH: Do you expect to do any teaching or coaching for YAGP?

MK: I’m not sure, but maybe. We’ll see within the next [few] days.

JH: Are you returning to Russia immediately after the second Gala, or are you performing elsewhere?

MK: No, I go back on the 20th.

JH: I got to know you through your Instagram posts back when you were at Vaganova. You had a large following then. I would assume now that it’s considerably larger than it was then. Do you have any idea how many followers you have?

MK: Yeah. On Instagram I have around 620,000 followers; on YouTube around 250,000.

JH: Seems like a decent number. [Laughs]

MK: I’m so grateful to people who choose to subscribe to me and who choose to follow my career, because it is so motivational. And I feel that through these people I’m able to share my love for ballet and my love for the thoughts, for the deep deep thoughts of art that are the base of ballet; of the art of ballet.

So I’m super excited to be growing, maturing together with these people, and getting to discover new thoughts, getting to discover new meanings of ballet and art together with them.

JH: During our previous interview you said that you created your own Instagram posts. Do you still do that?

MK: Absolutely.

JH: Now we’ll talk about what you already started to talk about. Your injury.

Can you tell us what the injury was, and how it happened?

MK: Injuries are always very sensitive topics for dancers, so here now I’ll only say that it was a knee injury and it happened when I was about to perform the role of Odette in Swan Lake. So that’s about as much as I can say about it.

Injuries – I take them as a way to stop and grow spiritually rather than physically, so I learned to take it as opportunities to grow further as an artist not being able to perform physically but taking time to think and develop your inner self.

JH: And you feel you’ve recovered sufficiently to dance here?

MK: Absolute yes. I’m ready.

JH:   I suppose you wouldn’t have come here to dance if you didn’t feel that way.

Have you performed anywhere else since the injury?

MK: Yes. I performed at the Mariinsky.

JH: Oh really. What did you dance?

MK: I just danced a variation at a Gala.

JH: You’ve grown a lot since the last time I saw you. I have too, but [sarcastically] in a different way. Can you tell us how YOU think you’ve grown over the past 5½ years – professionally, personally, whatever is important to you.

MK: [Thinks] Well, I think I definitely see the world of art differently now, and I’ve grown to understand my purpose, I guess. Because the thing that’s definitely changed drastically is my love of ballet. Now I can say that I love ballet so much more. And I see so many philosophical meanings in it; so many meanings that, you know, move us to the transcendental side of things.

So now I see ballet as something wider, something so much bigger than just dancing, you know what I mean. So I think I’ve definitely grown to understand that there’s so much more; there’s the technical side; there’s the artistic side; but there’s also a very spiritual and philosophical side to [the] ballet world. And I definitely now want to pay a lot more attention – to the artistic side of course – but also to delivering the hidden meanings; delivering the thoughts, delivering the plot, the stories, and giving my heart to the people in the audience.

Maria Khoreva
at autograph signing
Photo courtesy of YAGP

JH: We can stop now; I think you’ve covered everything.

MK: [Laughs]

JH: I’m kidding. I’ll get back to YAGP later, and go into some of what you’ve already said in more detail.

You’ve danced an extraordinary number of leading roles since our last interview. Including Paquita, Raymonda, Masha in The Nutcracker, Medora in Le Corsaire, Kitri in Don Q, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Giselle, Nikiya in La Bayadere, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, and the lead in George Balanchine’s Diamonds (from Jewels) and in Serenade also, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo (which is the performance you were doing when you were here 5½ years ago).

MK: Right, right.

JH: [In awe] How old are you again?

MK: Twenty three.

JH: Is it unusual at the Mariinsky for someone who’s been with the company for that relatively short period of time and who is so young to be given so many roles to do?

MK: I think it’s not for me to judge whether it’s unusual or not.

You know again, I’ve learned to not really pay attention to such things; not to compare to anything and anyone. I know my path – and whatever comes my way comes for a reason and comes for me to realize my mission, so to say, in this world. Maybe some people would say that probably it’s unusual, but again, it comes to a spiritual level; how an artist can express their soul.

So, I don’t know. I guess any role you are performing in a leading role in a ballet, it definitely transforms you as a person. It is definitely in my essence.  So you know how with actors, right, with movie or drama actors, any role that they are in it almost becomes like an alter ego, and, maybe even more themselves than their true selves.

I had a chance once to play a character in a movie in a TV series of a young ballet dancer and I really felt that playing that character in a movie – really, it was an experience that totally changed my personality however weird that might sound. But the same with any role, any leading role in a ballet, it transforms you. And I take these opportunities as very important experiences that happen to me, and they were all of them, all of these beautiful ladies, they were so unique, and I really try to find true connection with each one of them. So, I don’t know, it’s just very special for me being given [these] opportunities. It’s unusual for ME to experience that; I don’t know if it’s unusual for another ballet company.

JH: Of all the roles that I just mentioned, to me there is one that I would think would be appropriate for you, but isn’t there. Juliet.

MK: Right

JH: Maybe by asking you’ll tell me you’re already rehearsing Juliet; I don’t know. But do you expect to dance Juliet in the near future?

MK: Oh, I would really want to. It was an intentional decision not to prepare Juliet too early, because our version of this ballet, it is really intense dramatically, and it requires from the dancer the ability to really use the movement to express the strongest feelings. And although it is, of course, in all of these roles that you mentioned, in Juliet, I think, you have to go through all of these [other] roles to be able to really make Juliet a true statement and a true story. So now I actually think that I might be ready to perform it, and to start preparing it. I haven’t started yet but I expect to in the future.

JH: Of roles that you’ve danced already, is there one that’s your favorite of them all?

MK: There isn’t one that I debuted in. My absolute favorite ballet, and I would say, it is the most difficult role to perform for sure but it’s also my most favorite – maybe because of that as well because it’s so challenging it’s so much my favorite…

JH: You keep answering questions I haven’t asked you yet.

MK: [Laughs] Well, I’m happy to hear that. Maybe.

It’s Odette/ Odile. Swan Lake is my favorite ballet, and my favorite role. It is so technically demanding that in a sense you have to forget about technique to be able just to survive through this ballet. And you can only survive through this – because it is so intense – you can only go through it if you connect spiritually to the music, to the plot, to everything that happens on stage. If you totally forget about yourself on stage; if you become selfless and just indulge in this genius ballet. Then maybe you can be able to just survive it and be able to tell the story. It’s a huge challenge, and I hope I’ll be able to develop my understanding of this ballet.

JH: Do you think that there’s one of the dual roles that’s more difficult than the other? Odette more difficult than Odile or vice versa?

MK: No, no. You cannot separate them; that’s for sure.

There’s something very mystical happening during dancing Odette/Odile. Like, you would imagine that dancing Odile in the middle of two Odettes in Act 1 and Act 3 would break the character, but for some reason dancing Odile intensifies Odette. And I see them as alter-egos of each other. So Odette/Odile, they are one.

JH: That’s the way I see it as well.

MK: So after finishing Odile and taking over Siegfried, you come back to your dressing room and you’re about to perform this totally broken –  heartbroken and about to die Odette, die of sorrow. And changing from Odile to Odette in the dressing room it is, like, such a magical process and it is mystical but it’s an unexplainable feeling. I feel like they’re inseparable.

Maria Khoreva
Photo by Darian Volkova
Courtesy of YAGP

JH: The role of Odette requires seduction, both of the Prince and of the audience. Do you think that’s something that at your age you’re able to handle?

MK: Yes I do think so. You meant the role of Odile, right?

JH: Yes. Did I say Odette? Then I misspoke.

MK: For sure. Like if we take the books of romanticism, for example, or for example the medieval books, all of the main female characters are like 16, 18; I’m 23 – I’m already 24 by these past times standards. So I’m very mature and experienced if we judge by the olden times.

But anyway, there are several types of seduction. Definitely there is the femininity of the very young lady; she’s also able to seduce, but in her own way. So I definitely feel like in ballet the ballerina is able to show different versions of Odile throughout her career. Like, at first she attracts with her youth, with, like, maybe her laughter and happiness and the love for life. And then she becomes more experienced, more mature, and seduces differently; she seduces the prince with different mechanisms so I feel like Odile changes with age, but definitely young ballerinas can find their chance as well.

JH: I look forward to seeing your Swan Lake, sooner rather than later.

MK: Thank you.

JH: Aside from Juliet, are there other roles that you look forward to dancing in the future?

MK: My dream is to dance more Balanchine, to be honest. I love his choreography in Theme and Variations, something that would be absolutely incredible to dance.

JH: I’m smiling because when I first started attending ballet I really didn’t like Balanchine very much.

MK: Oh really.

JH: I preferred the ballets by Jerome Robbins. But eventually, and after seeing Theme and Variations, I understood what Balanchine was doing: it clicked. It’s now one of my favorite ballets [and Balanchine one of my favorite choreographers]. I’ve seen it – I don’t know – dozens of times. It’s interesting that you also look forward to dancing that.

MK: My dream would be also to try my strength in Manon, maybe one day. It’s also an incredible ballet. We shall see.

JH: [Smiling, like this was another example of being on the same wavelength. How did she know that Manon was next on my list to ask her about?]

Let me see if I can go ahead to what you haven’t already answered.

MK: [laughs]

Maria Khoreva
at autograph signing
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

JH: Getting back to YAGP – Do you have any advice to give to YAGP Finalists performing here, or any young dancer, besides what you’ve said already?

MK: [Thinks, a lot.] It’s super difficult, of course. I can imagine how nervous they are.  For me, it always worked like this: being able to find the joy of dancing; being able to find the pleasure of being able to dance on stage, if you’re able to find the joy of performing, has always helped with the technique, with the artistry, with everything.

So I would advise to try finding that and to try not to forget that by dancing you share the joy, share the happiness, with the audience – even when it’s a competition, even though the stakes are super-high – not taking the road of being super-nervous and having this pressure on their shoulders of having to perform good. Rather, trying to find the joy and the happiness of dancing, for themselves, being a little egoistic, and just dance for joy for their souls. I know it’s very difficult. I know it doesn’t always work for me; it doesn’t always work for very experienced dancers, but I think aiming for that is really key.

JH: And the joy of dance is not limited, I assume, to professional ballet dancers. It’s applicable to anyone?

MK: Anyone and that’s what’s so beautiful about ballet.

JH: In one of your YouTube posts you said that “Ballet isn’t only a profession, it’s a lifestyle.”

MK: Absolutely.

JH: What did you mean by that?

MK: Well, I stand by these words and hopefully will.  Because ballet is not only limited to physical movement; it’s a world of music, costumes, like the world of theater, of the literature that the ballet performance is based on. Again, it’s like actors – they are inside their roles, if they’re preparing for something. Like method actors, right, they are really trying to be like their characters. It’s kind of [the] same for ballet dancers when they learn a role; they’re trying to find the connections in real life to the life of the character on stage. So that’s one side of that.

The other side of that is [one] that not everyone understands, but ballerinas have a very particular regimen. Ballet dancers in general, male or female.

JH: You mean professional ballet dancers

MK: Yes. How you eat, how you sleep, how you exercise, how you rest – which is very important. The “rest” time of the day cannot be just anything. Some days it has to be recovery of procedures, [or] a certain amount of hours lying in bed just to recover the muscles. So there’s that. So the regimen is not only so you just work and then, whatever. You have your work hours – and then you recover to make the next day more productive. So you have to do massage; physio-therapy, and, as I’ve already mentioned, eat well, sleep well, etc. So yeah, you have to, like, professional ballet dancers have to dedicate their whole life to it.

Maria Khoreva
at autograph signing
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

JH: Again, in the area of advice to young dancers – in the course of one of your interviews you said that “you have to do things on your own; it’s not enough that teachers tell you what to do.” Can you explain that a little bit more?

MK: Right. [Thinks.] I wouldn’t put it that way, as you put it. Of course it’s definitely more than enough what teachers tell you because they’re so much more experienced. But in order to understand more what teachers tell you you have to have, like, self-understanding. Like, give back to yourself. You need to understand. It involves both looking in the mirror, what’s happening to your body, and to understand the algorithms of your body when you’re doing ballet. So, you need to listen to your coaches but you will be able to listen to them even more when you understand how your body responds to all of these pressures. So I feel like the time by yourself, on your own, is very important when you’re a student.

JH: I didn’t mean to surprise you by that question. You said it in the context of your own evolution as a student. I think it was around fifth grade when it “clicked” for you.

MH: Yes, yes. I started going to the studio more, and I understood how much more I need to understand about my dancing before I can start understanding my teachers. So there’s that – like self-worth makes you understand better. Just quiet time – focusing, concentrating, searching, it’s super easy.

JH: One other question relating to what you might talk about, or advice you might give to young ballet students. Again, in another one of your interviews – I love listening to your interviews because they’re so informative; so precise.

Back when we had that initial interview, I said that you speak English better than I do, and you still do.

MK: [Laughs]. That’s so funny.

JH: In ballet – you said in the context of one of your interviews – you can get lost in all this beauty. Can you explain that, elaborate on that a little?

MK: Honestly, that is so true. Because, like, imagine putting on these incredibly beautiful costumes every time you perform. In a way we get used to that; we get so spoiled.

You are so beautiful on stage – better than designer clothes – everything that a woman would desire. Same goes for male dancers. It is just so pretty to look at, and so beautiful to see yourself wearing. You would never wear it in your everyday life, but on stage you get to wear it.

Also like the set, and the music. One time I was dancing Odette/ Odile, and I heard that music in the third act when the Prince runs on stage to save Odette, this beautiful light music by Tchaikovsky striking through this music of the storm, and I cried on stage. Lying on stage dying as Odette, I cried because of how beautiful this music was.

We are so lucky to take what’s in this refined, the most pure art of classical ballet and music and surrounded by the most beautiful sets and costumes. We are lucky, but we’re also spoiled by that.

JH: Is there anything that you would tell a young dancer that would enable them to avoid that, or is it just a matter of being mindful of that situation that exists?

MK: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s very bad, necessarily. If you’re surrounded by such beauty, I think it’s a little beneficial. But there’s always one thought that you have to keep in mind, like being honest, being always growing spiritually from the inside, and staying kind to others; not being selfish, all of these truths that we all know from our childhood but sometimes we forget, especially to remember not to be egoistic, not to be in love with yourself, especially in an artistic world.

JH: Getting back to the competition questions, is there something in Russia that’s comparable to YAGP?

MK: I don’t think so. I think YAGP is a one-of-a-kind organization.

JH: Have you participated in any competitions involving scholarships, or financial rewards or something like that

MK: Yes, I did participate in a Chinese ballet competition once. That was a very nice experience. I was meant to participate in the Prix de Lausanne but I couldn’t because I got injured while still in school, so I just missed that chance, but other than that, not very much.

JH: I read somewhere – you might not think about it as a competition, but in Russia – I should have written it down – there was a competition where you received a perfect score, the first dancer ever to receive a perfect score. Maybe it was television related?

MK: Ah yes. Television. It’s actually very nice because it’s on one of the main TV channels, and it’s called “Grand Ballet.” You could call it a competition I guess, but it’s also somewhere between a show and a competition because they show it on TV. I participated with Vladimir Shklyarov, a Principal. It was an amazing time, right after the epidemic, to get back on stage with him and to prepare so many pieces of the repertoire with him, contemporary and classical. We were lucky to win.

Maria Khoreva
Photo by Darian Volkova
Courtesy of YAGP

JH: One more question to ask you, and again it relates to something you said in an interview. I’m asking you because I thought it was so incredibly simple and such a beautiful statement. Other people have often said that dance is a state of mind. You said in the course of one interview that “dance is a state of soul.” Can you elaborate on that?

MK: It’s a bit difficult to elaborate on that in English. [laughs] But I will try.

Well, [thinks]. I always thought there’s something more to this world than just materialistic things and things that we can touch. There’s something definitely inspirational; something greater. And by dancing or by watching dance, ballet, we can definitely reach that high state of our soul.

We can feel so greatly inspired that it gives us true happiness. Not momentary happiness that we can achieve by, like, drinking coffee or like sunbathing or swimming in the sea or whatever – but the true happiness that lasts. It’s that kind of inspiration that goes directly through your soul. I think dancing ballet is one of the easiest ways to achieve that state of soul; state of spirituality. So for me, watching ballet I get shivers, I get so inspired – of course dancing ballet as well. It’s inspiration that can drive you, that can give you so much more power than just physical things. Ballet is such a powerful art.

JH: Is that state of soul something that would carry over to the characters themselves, the characters that you portray? In other words, the consciousness of the spirituality – is that something that can be seen through the characters in your performances?

MK: I would hope so. I would hope. Because all the characters, they are super-complex. They are unique, because they wouldn’t be the characters in ballets if they weren’t unique.

Dance is born when the words end, right?  So dance itself is already the state of a soul when you can’t express your feelings with words.

So, for example, like in Swan Lake, you’re literally portraying a human soul when you’re Odette, like the purest soul there can be. And the dream of Prince Siegfried, this almost naked soul, is so pure and beautiful that you can [still] see it in [the] formerly white swan. So I think classical ballet, refined by centuries, already tells us it is the soul of the soul.

I would hope that having the Vaganova School and being coached by the great teachers at the Mariinsky Theater, through the means of classical ballet I’m able to also contribute a part of my soul to create that spirituality on stage. That’s my big aim; my big goal.

JH: Well, from the little I’ve seen of your performances, you may have already achieved it.

I look forward to see you in those roles, and other roles as well. Have a safe trip back. And thank you for allowing me to participate in your monologue. [all laugh]

 

With that, the conversation ended, and we all (including my wife, who also listened to but did not contribute to the conversation) exchanged thanks and goodbys. And I told her I hoped I’d be able to interview her again after another 5½ years.

Moments later, before exiting the area where our interview took place, I saw that Masha hadn’t walked 20 feet before being pounced on by fans who had immediately recognized her, seeking photos and autographs.