Behind the Scenes with Alyona Kovalyova: Rising Star, Bolshoi Ballet

The upper stage of the Bolshoi Theatre: a small auditorium located under the building’s roof, complete with a small orchestra pit and audience seating that mimics the actual stage where performances are held. It is a hallowed yet impressive space, and today it’s empty except for a small team of six people: Alyona Kovalyova, her partner Yakopo Tissi, two coaches, a pianist, the conductor…and me. It is just five days before Kovalyova and Tissi’s debut in Swan Lake. As the dancers rehearse, their coaches, former Bolshoi soloist Alexander Vetrov and former Kirov ballerina Olga Chenchikova, lead the rehearsals to the sounds of a single piano onstage. The conductor for the premiere, Aleksey Bogorad, sits to mark notes about the score and inquires frequently about the tempo while the rehearsal goes on.

I’m the sole spectator in this small but vast hall, and the work in front of me is history in the making. The traditions being passed on from Bogorad and Chenchikova are a combination of visual and emotional information. “You’re doing it all correctly, but it a bit more is needed,” Chenchikova says to her student. Known for her own attention to detail during her years as a principal with the Kirov Ballet, Chenchikova is passing down pure Vaganova traditions to her new ward, Kovaylova. This is significant because many of the Bolshoi coaches are Moscow-trained and Moscow performers — their style differs from the purity of the Petersburg heritage. But Chenchikova has a more historical approach. Incredible attention to detail is paid in the delivery of each step and the acting components of the role. Nuances about the head and arms, where Odette (or Odile) look are discussed. Nothing is left to chance. During the partnering sections Vetrov assists in how to best approach a lift. When Tissi’s back starts to hurt, immediately curative exercises are given and Tissi takes a break from the lifting. Meanwhile, conductor Bogorad receives comments from the two coaches about the orchestration and tempo– where to pause and where to slow down.

Kovalyova, a 2016 Vaganova Academy graduate who was immediately accepted to the Bolshoi, was not offered the most obvious position, one in the Academy’s neighbouring theatre, the Mariinsky. The director apparently had concerns about her height. In discussing the selection process with Makhar Vasiev, now artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet but the man who held the same post at the Mariinsky for over a decade, Vasiev said incredulously, “How could one not accept her?”

Since joining the Bolshoi, Kovalyova received two principal roles in her first year, that of the lead in Etudes and the lead in Diamonds. But she’s danced others as well, such as Myrtha in Giselle. On 16 September she debuted in the acid test of all ballerinas: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Kovalyova’s academically sculpted physique is textbook perfect and lends itself easily to any classical role. With a round, doll-like face, high insteps, endless legs — she is well over 175 cm tall — she’s the spitting image of a ballerina, whether in motion or simply standing in place.

About halfway through the rehearsal, Vasiev enters the stage area to observe part of the rehearsal and provide his own input. He has a video screen in his office that gives him a livestream ongoing rehearsals at any time of day or night. But today he has decided to participate in person.

“Continue the line with the wrists, don’t break it,” he says to Alyona, coming on stage to show her what he means. “Can you make the port de bras softer?” She tries again and this time the visual effect improves. They move on to the coda section. “What are you doing with the retiré passé? Show me.” They work on improving her position. “Cross the fifth in the entrechat quatre, don’t jump so high, and more turnout!” Vasiev shouts fearlessly to get his point across. He is stern but there is an underlying sense of care in his words. Vasiev’s quest is for quality of technique. It’s not about getting the job done, it’s about how one delivers the product.

The performance on 16 September was unique not just due to the double debut of the two main leading roles, but Rothbart was also danced for the first time by Davit Soares. Yuri Grigorovich’s numerous choreographic alterations in this version make it shorter than the Mariinsky standard version by about 30 minutes, and only the white and black duets retain a high level of similarity to the original. A gold/black costume theme underscores the libretto’s medieval epoch, the swans are still white and black, Siegfried still goes hunting, but the tragic ending is slightly different. Here, after Siegfried breaks his vow to Odette, Rothbart conjures a storm to separate the two lovers, and Odette dies. The curtain falls as Siegfried wanders off in regret, stunned by his error.

Kovalyova’s physique is by far one of the most ideal in the Bolshoi troupe, and as such lends itself perfectly to the dual swan role. Her Odette on 16 September proved to be a sensitive, vulnerable, honest creature, shy and trembling at the appropriate moments, with an easy legato and textbook positions. Surprisingly, her Odile offered moments of sharp coyness that one would not expect from someone as young as she. Kovalyova’s strong technical foundation will no doubt serve as a basis for strengthening the emotional contrast between the characters over time. It is easy to predict that in several years, she will be the Bolshoi prima everyone wants to see.

Following her premiere, we spoke with Kovalyova about her work with the Bolshoi.

How did you begin dancing?
At first I just went to an arts school in St. Petersburg. My mother considered it necessary for all girls to take ballet, that it was good for posture and to move beautifully. It turned out that was studying under a pedagogue who previously worked at the Vaganova Academy, she suggested I try to audition. Of course I had seen ballet, I had been to the theatre, but I had never thought of becoming a ballerina at that point. I was only 6 years old at the time. We went to the auditions at the Academy for the Preparatory Section, which is not full time, it is about 3 times per week but for students under age 8 or 9. When I went downstairs after the audition, some children were crying, some were joyful and I told my parents that they had accepted me. Then I told my mother that I would not attend, I said I was afraid and the people are crazy. My mother, thanks to her, she insisted I try to go just twice, and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to attend. So I tried. We did gymnastics and stretching on mats, it is not a full-fledged class , it was for the development of the body. Each time I liked it more and more, so I ended up staying. I stayed 3 years in the prep course and then at age 8 I entered the regular school.

And was it automatic to join the Academy?
No. I attended the prep course for two years, and at the end of that time I auditioned for the Academy. At first they did not accept me, they said I was too young since I began early. I was 8 years old in September and they normally take children only at age 10 or maybe 9. They said the physical requirements and the load would be too hard at my age. So I did one more year of the preparatory course and then auditioned again and they accepted me.

What were your initial impressions inside the Academy?
I’m from St Petersburg so I lived at home still with my parents and went to the Academy every day. The first year was very difficult, despite the fact that I knew the place and the walls from the prep course. But to go there every day it was unusual and difficult. It was hard with other children as I was rather humble and I was used to my old class and the lessons were hard. But after a while I started to like it and the walls of that building became a second home to me.

Your pedagogue at graduation was Yulia Kasenkova. What was it like to work with her?
It was very interesting being her first graduating class since she had finished her career at the Mariinsky in August that year and in September started teaching us. So she was able to tell us a lot as a performer. It was difficult, she was very demanding about accuracy of the hands and purity of style; everything had to be harmonious even in the lessons. But I’m very grateful to her, she’s a very open, positive person, we still have very good relationship and she comes to Moscow to all of my premieres.

The Mariinsky Ballet, the obvious troupe for you, didn’t accept you after graduation?
No, I understood during my last year of studies that they probably wouldn’t, they said I was too tall.

In the last year of my studies I auditioned at various theatres in Russia. I understood that, with my height, I needed to search for a place where they’d be interested in working with me. In the end I was accepted at the Bolshoi. Of course I always wanted to join the Bolshoi, in fact it was the last audition I did. I came here and they accepted me without any doubt or hesitation and there was no discussion of my height. It’s an honor to be here and work with a theatre with such a history and such great artists.

What were your first impressions of the Bolshoi?
I had to adapt very quickly because the first month of work I was to debut in Diamonds, so I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time to adapt to things. Thanks to Makhar Vasiev I had the chance in that first month. It seems to me now that I’ve been here much longer than I have, because my schedule is so full, it feels like it’s already been several years. Now it seems like my studies at the Academy were a very long time ago.

Did you expect the premiere in Diamonds?
No, I couldn’t imagine the fact that just 3 weeks into the season I’d have the chance to debut in that role. Even after the premiere I was in shock, I wasn’t sure what had happened to me, but thanks to Olga Chenchikova, my pedagogue, she helped me prepare it in such a short period of time.

What is it like to work with her?
I’m endlessly glad that I work with her because she’s a rare individual, a professional, not just as a ballerina but as a pedagogue. It’s very difficult to explain to a dancer in a way that they understand what is needed, but she can always find the words so that I understand what she wants and I achieve the results faster.

She’s from the Kirov/Mariinsky but other pedagogues here are not. Do you notice a difference in style here from Petersburg?
Technically speaking, no. It’s possible there are nuances that differentiate the Moscow style, the expansiveness of gestures or arm positions maybe, but not technically.

Did you expect to dance Swan Lake so soon in your career?
No, I didn’t expect it, it’s very rare to do Swan Lake so soon – as a ballet it’s a very important step in a ballerina’s career and requires great responsibility. I am grateful for the trust that Vasiev and Chenchikova placed in me to try this role. Swan Lake is difficult technically and emotionally, since it is necessary to transform into two different characters for the viewer. Plus to do it at the start of the season …

Is one of the characters closer to you?
It’s really difficult to say. I enjoyed the possibility of trying both, in essence giving part of myself to each role, not doing it in a template, but different personalities in my understanding of these roles.

What is the hardest part of your job?
That’s hard to say…when you love what you do, you don’t notice fatigue or sacrifice, because you’re doing what you want and you feel comfortable.

What is the best part?
The performance itself. Going on stage, the result of all the rehearsals and hours in the studio. And having the audience experience the character and the performance with you.

How do you spend free time?
I enjoy reading or strolling outside. I still don’t know the city, it’s still a new city for me.

Do you see your family often?
My parents come for performances, my sister as well, so I still see them.

Do you have to watch your weight?
When there’s a large workload then you tend to burn everything off, but if you notice any weight gain you can just limit yourself a bit.

Do you have a favorite role or a dream role?
The most recent role I’ve danced is usually my favorite, including on an emotional level. It becomes innate and then you move on to a new role, so it’s hard to say what is my favorite. Each role gives you something new. Probably I’d like to dance La Bayadère and Makhmene Banu — it’s a difficult but unusual role. I want to try both classical and modern.

What advice would you give to aspiring dancers?
Work hard, don’t give up and believe that everything is possible. Through desire you can achieve whatever you want if you love it and live it. And remain yourself. There is an individuality and something special in each person, not just in artists, that is attractive and unique.

Photos: portrait courtesy of the Bolshoi Theatre. Other images, Mikhail Logvinov.