Interview with Ekaterina Shipulina: Bolshoi Ballerina

You were born in Perm and began to dance there?
Yes, both of my parents danced in the Perm Theatre, and I studied there as well for 5 years. But my parents were invited to join the Stanislavsky Ballet troupe in Moscow. So we moved, and I transferred to the Moscow Academy of Choreography, where I studied for 4 years.

Was there a noticeable difference? Perm is known to uphold the strictly Vaganova traditions.
In fact I was advised to repeat one year when I came to Moscow because the two programs differed. A lot of things that I should have known in the 5th year I didn’t, so they asked me to work an extra year. As a result I studied a total of 9 years, not 8.

Was the technique itself different — more free, less strict?
They’re considered different schools, although it’s one school in the sense that it is the Russian classical method of ballet training. I would say that technique is the same everywhere, but the approach to jumps is different, there’s more attention paid to them here in Moscow. You could say I learned to jump again when I came from Perm, and that was very beneficial.

Did you expect to join the Bolshoi?
To be honest, even when I transferred to the Academy, for some reason I never thought about it. I thought first about my studies, and how I have 4 years ahead of me, then 3more years, and so on. The closer I got to graduation, people started to discuss who would go where, and as is done, the directors of various troupes began to come to watch us, to decide who to invite to join their theatres. But since my parents both worked at the Stanislavsky I was 100% sure that I would go there. But I deceived all expectations, I received an invitation to the Bolshoi and I didn’t even think twice, I immediately accepted. Out of 6 or 7 girls in our class, I was the only one who was invited.

The first day or month at the theatre, was it difficult?
I don’t know if everyone has this impression, but for me it was, yes. First of all, because the season starts right after vacation, and you just finished a challenging year of studies, and you’re relaxing. But then you enter the theatre and suddenly it seems that everything you studied was not right — in the theatre you start to learn everything all over again. It was nerve-wracking to stand next to such talented dancers, People’s Artists (of Russia) and various ballerinas, watching them with an open mouth, in awe, seeing how they worked. That isn’t really done anymore, but then the younger generation would always come and watch all the stars in all of the performances from backstage. Today that isn’t the case anymore, people are scurrying around, busier, they don’t have time; the younger generation do not pay attention to the same extent as they used to, just a handful do; but we used to be here from morning to night.

Do you feel the quality of Bolshoi or overall dancing has changed as a result?
Previously the Bolshoi had 2-3 ballerinas and they danced everything. Now we have 11 or 12 ballerinas. So each of them has fewer performances as a result. Previously we had fewer performances also. Now we may have 2 ballet performances per night, one on each stage simultaneously. And there are more people in the troupe, twice as many. Although prior to Maya Plisetskaya’s death she said “Such things happen on stage now and ballet has become so much like sports and gymnastics, that it has changed so much. They would never accept me at the Academy today.” She felt that the aesthetic had changed considerably.

She said she was a tall ballerina in her generation, but she was only 165 cm. Today there are girls who are 190 cm and that’s considered normal. Also, now we have more injuries than previously, because we used to be able to rest before a performance. We never rehearsed the day before a performance, we rested the day before and the day after. But now you rehearse all day long, run-through in the morning and in the evening you have to be on stage. Today you have Swan Lake, tomorrow you have Kylian, and after that Ratmansky. Every day there’s something different. So there are a lot of injuries because the body just wears out. And also the technique differs, evidently because it’s closer to sports and gymnastics, steps are performed nowadays that were never performed before.

What is the hardest part of work in the theatre then, the schedule?
Of course physically everyone gets tired. When a new production is being set, it may not even be physical load insofar as you may be required to sit in the studio for 4 hours, but it’s difficult because you do not leave the theatre, from morning to night, sometimes without a break. You don’t see the light of day, as they say. You come here in the darkness, especially in the winter. and you leave in the darkness.

What’s the best part?
We have a wide repertoire, and in principal you obtain enjoyment from the work even when you’re tired. And when new choreographers come to set something, it’s wonderful. Of course taking class every day, the routine, the same thing over and over, is a challenge.

Probably the best part is when you go out on stage, because of course taking class every day, the routine, the same thing over and over… From the side it probably looks really easy — like we jump around, smile, and receive flowers after the performance. But it’s a daily, laborious effort. Then when you go out on the stage and energetically emit various emotions and the viewers give that back to you — it’s wonderful. You get filled up with the energy from the hall.

Do you have a favorite role?
Everyone asks this question, because everyone presumes there is one production that you really enjoy. But we have such a high number of ballerinas that you may only dance, for example, Swan Lake once per year. But each time you dance you are like a child, that you are encountering it all over again, it’s new in a way. Likewise, sometimes there are productions that maybe you don’t like so much, but insofar as it’s your job to go out on stage, you try to find a positive aspect to the ballet. In the end you will find something to like, even if it’s not your favorite, because you cannot not love what you do, otherwise it’s visible to the audience.

Is there a role you would like to dance?
You know, it so happened that I have danced Gamzatti and from time to time and then began to prepare Nikiya but something always happened to interrupt that: the production wasn’t running, or the administration changed, or an injury occurred. I hope in any case that my premiere as Nikiya will take place, because this is a dramatic role that I feel is better to dance it at a mature age when you know the emotions you can put into it, because in the first year of work you are so young. It’s the same with Giselle, when a young girl dances it it’s very different from when a more mature ballerina dances it, more consciously and more dramatically.

Was becoming a principal a surprise?
It was expected and desired, and in fact I awaited it with impatience. Because when I came from the Academy, everyone was taken in – -regardless of if you had grades of 4 and 5 (out of 5) in school or a red diploma or another one, everyone was accepted into the corps de ballet, in the same level and you had to, during the process of work, prepare a role and show the director. And later they would decide if you would receive the role or not. So gradually, starting from the corps de ballet, you did trios and duets and later solos and variations. At one point I had already danced the entire repertoire and they should have given me the status of prima ballerina, but at that moment there were a number of ballerinas who had not yet retired on pension and so there were no spots to be taken. This was after Ratmansky left.

You have a child and husband now, does that change your approach to dancing?
I met my husband by chance, it was in one of those restaurant openings or societal events, but we had shared friends in common, and that’s how it started.

Does it help when artists live and work together?
My parents did that but I think it’s a catastrophe, because then you are together 24/7, you work together and then come home and live together and start to argue and then at home together, at work together. In my view it’s very difficult.

My husband and I have totally different professions — we both think we understand what the other does. But the one thing we have in common is hellishly hard work. A lot of people look at our professions like a hobby and do not understand that to reach a certain level you have to first study for a number of years and then study again in the theatre, and you are still learning later on in your career. Because if we were at this level after graduation from school we would not need pedagogues or studies. At home with my husband we never discuss work, that’s probably the key to good relationships. Then too, when you are always on tour, you are apart a lot and start to miss each other so you can’t really argue. People ask me if we argue and I say, in principal, no, we do not.

Will your daughter dance too? She would be the third generation of ballerinas in your family.
Her father says that she will not be a pianist or a ballerina, he says ballerinas have a profession that is too difficult and thankless, and pianist, the number of great ones you can count on one hand, and they are all a bit crazy. Of course it’s difficult to say so we will see what happens. She has specific genes — she loves music and when she hears it she starts to move and dance, so we will see. Right now it’s hard to say. If the talent arises and what her soul wants to do. Maybe she will be a singer, who knows.

Did having a child change your approach to your art?
Absolutely. There’s the sensation that your brain shifts 360 degrees. After giving birth, I stopped paying attention to a lot of things that I worried about a lot previously. Now you only worry about your child. There are nuances in theatrical life about which you may be nervous or anxious — receiving a role or not receiving it, I used to worry about it, but now I approach it more philosophically. Then too, some people say that after returning to work is easier, although others say it is more difficult, but it’s easier in my view. But of course the physical process of getting back into shape is difficult, but after you get there, it’s different, your body works completely different somehow.

Do you do cross-training?
I have a trainer who helped me recover after giving birth, she has a medical diploma, she knows how the body works and now when I can, after vacation or if I want to get in shape fast, I go see her and we work out and I go to the ballet barre only after that. I was back taking class 2 months after giving birth and 3.5 months giving birth I was already performing on stage. Now a lot of dancers take Plates or do yoga, it depends on what you need. Often when you are rehearsing you use the same muscles over and over for a specific production, and you may have a large physical load but it’s one-sided. You have to remember the other muscle groups and compensate with other exercises. I go to the gym and also to the swimming pool, but the latter is more for relaxation than for a physical workout.

Do you cook?
Yes, but not often, because I am colossally busy. I’m at the theatre from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and by the time you get home, you put your child to bed and there’s no time for cooking. I love Italian food though, and Japanese food. There’s something I like in almost any type of cuisine. I love Uzbekistan pilaf, and I also love sweets. I am probably lucky that my profession is connected with physical exercise, it helps me, but if I didn’t exercise and ate so many sweets, it would be scary.

What is your opinion on fashion? Just looking on the streets, it is a big part of women’s lives here in Moscow.
I relate to it very neutrally. Often if you go to Europe you can immediately see a Russian woman from a kilometer away especially in the summer when girls go to the beach in high heels, it probably scares a lot of people. My girlfriend lives in Switzerland though and there she just puts on tennis shoes, wears what is comfortable. But in Moscow, first of all you never know how your day will finish, you may go to the theatre, the movies, or an exhibition after work. For example, I always have a change of clothes in the trunk of my car because there are so many events happening, and you want to manage to attend everything if you don’t have a performance in the evening. So to go to several spots and make it to a restaurant too, and a lot of places work all night here, you can wash your car, or go to the bookstore or the pharmacy — things that you can’t find open abroad.

What are your dreams for the future?
I want my family and friends to be healthy, happy and have their own dreams come true. Naturally children are our future and so you want things to work out for them and them to be happy about their parents, not disappointed in them. For me personally, I don’t like to guess the future or to plan things. Because practice has shown whenever you set a specific goal, for sure nothing will work out. So I like the element of spontaneity, so there is no plan such as “I’m going to dance X in January.” There’s nothing like that.

Photos: Courtesy of the Bolshoi Press Office. Images as Gamzatti and Odette courtesy of Damir Yusupov.