Interview with Moscow Competition Gold Medalist Evelina Godunova

How did you get involved in dance?
I began at age 5 with artistic gymnastics, and at age 6 I began to study ballet in children’s groups. I was accepted at the attended Riga Choreographic School at age 11 immediately after auditioning. In fact, I was a year too young, and they wanted me to attend a year later but i’m lucky they took me in right away. My pedagogue throughout the 8 years of schooling was Rita Harlapa- Markova, I graduated under her. I was very lucky in that respect, because usually pedagogues change for the students throughout their studies, but she didn’t give me away to anyone….she fought for me.

What was the atmosphere like at the school?
It was interesting at the school because you go from a childhood period to a more adult one very quickly, and at age 12 you have classes from Monday through Saturday usually until 8 p.m. We couldn’t wear nail polish or makeup, we had a uniform of specific leotards so that everyone looked the same, and we worked very hard. It was difficult. Our pedagogue was strict we had good-natured competition in our class, but that atmosphere actually united us together.

And what were your plans right after graduation?
Our Riga ballet stars for me were “wow”, and I wanted to join the opera and ballet theatre there in Riga after graduation. During my studies I did not remain only in Riga however, I attended courses at Covent Garden and in Moscow, I tried to expand my exposure. In 2010, at age 18 I had just graduated, and I went to the Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. It was my first large-scale competition where I saw what the level of dancing is worldwide. I was very young then, and I realized I had to not lose any opportunities and not just remain in Riga. I can’t say I knew exactly where I wanted to go, but I knew from the start that I wouldn’t stay in Riga.

I didn’t win any medals at that competition, but I returned from it with the impression of having seen the competition and knowing how I had to live going forward. You could say that’s when it all started.

Then you did in fact join the Latvian National Opera and Ballet Theatre?
Yes, that was in 2010, and I stayed there for 5 seasons until 2015. In July of 2012 in July I traveled to Seoul to attend a competition. Vladimir Vasiliev was the head of the jury. No one was awarded the gold medal, but I won the silver medal there.

They invited me at that time to join the company, but I could not gather the strength to pack a suitcase and go. I felt it was not yet the time for me and I had to dance some roles in Riga first, because usually it is harder, stricter and more difficult at home, and when you travel you realize that. But Seoul is a place where they truly value ballet and dance in the classical traditions. They value both the Moscow and Saint Petersburg styles of Russian training, the Russian classical ballet structure, on a level of crystal purity. They polish it like a diamond there, and the capabilities of the theatre there are high. We work about 10-12 hours per day, it increases the level of ballet.

In 2015, the Theatre Committee of all of Latvia awarded me the prize for Best Dancer. Within it there is a ballet committee, in which all of the directors and pedagogues gather and decide who to nominate and award the prize to, it’s somewhat like the Oscars but it is for ballet, and is considered the most honored prize to hold in Latvia. It’s given only to one person every year. I’m honored that at age 24 I received it. That season I was the only dancer who danced Juliet in all performances, and I won the award in part for that as well as for the role of Gulnara.

In 2015, I finally left Riga and moved to Seoul to join the company there under General Director Julia Moon. When I first arrived there and saw a production I realized all was not for naught, because the performances there are incredible, the level is very high, both leading soloists and corps de ballet is just chic, everyone looks uniform. In Korea they uphold all of the secrets of the Mariinsky Ballet to this day, and use them and work on it for hours…. nothing is forgotten.

I was accepted as a soloist in Seoul and at first I danced second level parts. The system is a bit different there, you have to wait for roles, sometimes girls wait 7 years to dance the role of Masha (in the Nutcracker), but I danced it after only 1.5 seasons… and slowly I began to dance leading roles.

Have jumps always been your strength?
[laughs] Nature gave me some talent but I worked on them a lot, it’s not that easy, I don’t love jumping as much as it may seem, sometimes its nice just to stand on stage…

What roles do you prefer?
I like a lot of roles, i dream of being a diverse ballerina, not just technical but romantic. I like romantic parts such as Juliet where I can act and show my soul, love and suffer. I also love Don Q, where can we go without it? Happy joyful Kitri who leads the entire production with charisma and joyfulness. My favorite role though is Giselle, it’s romantic and I dream of dancing it. Princess roles are not quite my area, but I would dream of dancing Aurora…so i have to study for these roles. I’d also love to dance La Sylphide. I appreciate the classical, lyrical, airy tender roles, the idea of what a ballerina should be with French accent, that pleasant lightness like a breeze during the day in warm weather.

You know, in ballet probably the best thing is that an artist can show himself in various roles. On stage when you go out in a specific part and you can fully create a character, put your entire heart into it and be a bit different from real life, perhaps be more restrained or more romantic. People may not understand it but it is a great profession we have, the ability to travel and participate in competitions. But it’s also very difficult. It is physically hard and sometimes morally too.

What’s the biggest challenge?
Routine classes – the discipline is the hardest. Even in the summer I do not have vacation. Today for example, I worked all day, and just now came from the school after class. We are constantly working so that our muscles do not lose their shape, so that everything remains in working conditions.

Often we have up to 10 hour rehearsal days, and sometimes not enough sleep. and when that happens, then morally it is harder to work. But during performances you “rest” on the stage, that is where you’re free, and all the work is in the studio –hat is the kitchen of ballet– comes to fruition. On stage you are happy, you can share emotions, and it isn’t as tiring as the daily discipline and the work on your self even when you don’t want to work.

Do you follow a special diet?
I don’t eat potatoes, blinis, I don’t eat bread or flour products. I can gain weight easily so I eat salads, fish, rice. If I eat meat then not cutlets but just steak, preferably not fatty. I rarely eat pork, usually beef. The food you eat affects your body, so if you want a more “plastichnaya” body, then you need more fish so that your muscles will be more elastic. But if you want them to be stronger and bigger then you need to eat more meat. For me, fatty dishes not allowed. If you have larger load you can eat a bit more, but it’s desirable to be a bit hungry and not overeat.

Why did you participate in the Moscow Ballet Competition?
I actually was very worried with both Grigorovich and Tsiskaridze sitting on the jury, because dancing in front of them is a huge responsibility. I know that those competitions occur frequently but I didn’t really think about it, I honestly didn’t dream of placing at all, I thought maybe the jury will like me and maybe I can talk to them a bit. Again it was my adventurous spirit that drove me there. I listened to my heart, and it told me to go. Why? It’s hard to say or explain. Even when I went out on stage, I didn’t do so as if it were a competition but as an adult artist. I understood the details and mistakes, where things worked and where they didn’t. But the entire time I was working on developing myself. So I attended just as Evelina who loves her profession, and wants to please the audience. I’m really happy that the jury felt my energy because I was very sincere in what I put out.

Has it opened new opportunities to you?
Yes, there are many offers coming in now, it’s hard to say what the next step will be, it’s a process and not something that can be decided in one day. There are a lot of offers for gala concerts, I have to have some time to decide where and how.

It’s a busy time – my boyfriend and partner, Evgeny Khissamutdinov, just proposed to me yesterday at the top of a mountain here in Kazakhstan [Editor’s note: Evelina posted the news on her Facebook page the day after this interview], so this has been a fantastic year for me! Now I will now think about career and family I am very lucky, there are so many kind, caring people. I’m really happy, and my work has paid off.

We just flew from Seoul to Moscow to Riga to Paris, then back to Riga and now we are in Kazakhstan. So it has been super busy. .For now we plan to go back to Seoul and then decide where to buy tickets for. We will see how the cards fall.

Who is your current pedagogue?
Evgeny Neff, the former Mariinsky Ballet principal. He is very demanding in the studio and sometimes shouts, and when he does it is scary! But we are friends, we understand and accept each other as we are, we complement each other and that’s probably most important thing. That you understand each other when working together. That is why there is a result.

His student, Jay Wong, who is a Korean and danced leading roles there, worked with me on the roles for the Moscow competition. I was sure I would just dance the first round and then rest…..who knew that everything was not that so terrible with me?! Then I flew to Moscow and I was happy that Neff met me there because I needed his support. He’s one in a million sent by God, there are very few people like him in the world. The first 3 days we cleaned my variations, and it was important that he saw me.

Your native language is Latvian, but you know Korean?
Yes a little bit, but not a lot. Talking to me is like talking to a 3 year-old who only knows “forward, back, left and right”! It’s a very difficult language, but I can write it. I’m a ballerina and lucky that I don’t have to speak on stage, my profession is easier. Actors have it harder because they have to speak. I just smile and breathe. [smiles]

They tried to save the national language in Latvia. I was born 1991 and in that year they began as sovereign government to do a nationalist movement so that Russian is not prominent, but that is politics and not my area…

However, politics now plays an interesting role in my life, because Putin was at the competition and when I returned to Riga, the President of Latvia asked to meet me!

Do you have any pets?
We have a cat, a Canadian sphinx she is tiny, still just a kitten. We left her in Seoul with our pedagogue and she’s waiting for us there.

What is your shoe of choice?
Gaynor Minden, the blue ones. Green are the hardest and violet are too soft, so I prefer the blue.

Who were your idols growing up?
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Gudonov and Marius Liepa all studied in Riga, so I understand that level of dancers who are famous across the entire world. These individuals raised the level of ballet and went against the Soviet Union at the time, they are people who sacrificed a lot. Baryshnikov now has a Latvian passport and often comes to perform or vacation there. But personally I grew up more on Alina Cojocaru, I love her because she’s very sincere, natural, kind and expressive plus she has amazing technique. I looked more at the girls, to understand what they try to give to ballet. I love Sylvie Guillem too, I don’t think anyone will be born with a better body for ballet than her, that crazy jump and pirouettes and incredible traits. I also like Oksana Skorik, Olga Smirnova, Polina Semionova.

What do you do in your free time?
Sunday is our free day. My, well now he is my fiance, we usually go to museums. We love exhibitions, and National Geographic, photos of the world. We gather inspiration from other artists, not just dancers, but from other art forms that fills our soul and what inspires us we aspire to it.

When you are in the same place for an entire season, you want to see something different, not just the same four walls, home or theatre–the theatre is our home as well — to so we have to change something to vary it.

What are your dreams for the future?
To remain a happy person. To indulge in enjoying my profession. To believe in miracles, and to develop.

Also, to take care of my parents, and to have a child, not immediately but in the further future, because we have a lot of work now.

What advice would you give to young dancers?
Don’t focus on the four walls around you, or on society’s opinion that something is not possible, or on physical inadequacies in ballet or on thought barriers such as “I can’t”. Never set barriers for yourself. Always work a lot and there will always be fruit from that work. Enjoy living, love your family, loved ones, and your profession. And do not forget to happy be, because with age it’s hard to remember our childhood, the times when we were happy about little stupid things. We have to be happy about kindnesses every day, share them, respect and love everyone around us.

Also, work sincerely, even when you want to give up, or when it seems even that you don’t like ballet anymore, remember why you began to dance in the first place. Do not look sideways, do not fear competition. Read books, expand your mind, dance roles with your soul and thoughts. Do not just go out on stage and demonstrate movement. Give the audience happiness and emotions, raise the level of ballet and never give up, always work and believe in miracles.

When I held the gold medal in my hand, I realized that is when you need to believe in God and miracles, because up until the very last minute I thought there is no way I will get it. So take what life has to offer. And we are going to live happily ever after.

Photos: courtesy of Evelina Godunova by her permission.