Interview with Mariinsky Soloist Maria Iliushkina – June 2023

Maria Iliushkina’s humble, gracious manner and philosophical intelligence make this promising young ballerina stand out from her peers. After studying rhythmic gymnastics as a child, she shifted to ballet which held greater interest for her. Vaganova Today spoke with her about her career and life philosophy.

Your family isn’t associated with ballet: you initially studied rhythmic gymnastics and then shifted to ballet, why?

“Choreography” is in fact the term used for ballet lessons taken by gymnastics students. Rhythmic, or “artistic” gymnastics as it is called in Russia, is a school of movement that developed as a sport and is closely connected with ballet.  It’s not rare for someone to shift from one world to another –sports to art– many ballerinas on stage here now came from gymnastics and started as athletes. Gymnastics is great for the development of “plastique” (physical expression and flexibility), coordination, endurance, and musicality. It turned out that I enjoyed my choreographic lessons (ballet lessons) much more than the gymnastics. The pedagogue at our gymnastics school was a former ballerina who told me I had the right traitsfor ballet, even more so than for gymnastics. So I attended the Academy of Vaganova. There was a sense of purpose associated with it. 

In childhood you don’t think that what you do will decide your fate. Of course, on some level I thought that if attend the Vaganova Academy I will become a ballerina, but when I entered my first classical ballet lesson, our teacher said, “Please don’t think that you’re going to join the Mariinsky Theatre, because the fact that you are here does not mean that at all.” I was sure that since I had entered the Academy, that the hardest part was over. But it turned out that it wasn’t! Not that it wasn’t a serious step, but that it’s a separate story from joining the Mariinsky.
Starting in childhood, I knew I wanted to dance in the Mariinsky, and only the Mariinsky. That lasted all 8 years in the Academy. I didn’t have any question in my mind that I wanted go somewhere else. Even before graduation, when I thought that maybe they won’t take me, that thought was incredibly frightening, I tried not to think of it. I’d only imagined the Vaganova Academy and the Mariinsky, and maybe that was a limited view, but it is also part of my deep devotion to Petersburg. Then once I was in the theatre, I understood that the world of ballet is huge, there are other companies, other styles, other directions, not in the context of world ballet but in the context of my life. I probably delved more into the past and the history of the Mariinsky Theatre at that point. I knew the Bolshoi and Mikhailovsky had amazing productions and ballerinas but for me, it was only ever the Mariinsky.

You spent 4 years in the corps de ballet, what experience did that give you? Should everyone spend time in the corps first?
Some people feel it’s necessary to spend time in the corps de ballet and some do not. I think you have to look at the concrete person. For me, I can’t now see a more optimal path to my own development other than spending those (4) years in the corps. I wouldn’t have been able to go on stage without it, because I came from school physically weak, I needed to strengthen myself. Additionally, the value of the corps is that you’re within the context of a larger production, maybe you’re not dancing every second –you are a swan, you’re a bride in Act 3, then again a swan in Act 4– but you are on the stage the entire time, you hear the entire score, you see what happens. It’s not that you just become physically stronger, jumping and pointing your feet, or learning the style of the arms from older colleagues, but you delve into that role…there is that rare chance to deeply know the production from the inside out. I don’t have a precise solution as to whether everyone needs to be in the corps or not, I think it’s an individual path. However, some experienced dancers state that it’s necessary. I don’t have enough experience to make a declaration on the subject, but the corps de ballet leaves its stamp on you, and in order to become a ballerina and soloist, what you learned in the corps –the habit of being unnoticeable– has to be unlearned, you have to separate yourself out from that habit.

When danced in the corps, it was hard because I understood I dreamt of dancing solo roles. I always recalled this big dream and I knew I didn’t want to be in the corps my entire life. Your pedagogue helps you with that transition.  I was very lucky in that way, because from the first day of work I had Luibov Kunakova [former Kirov ballerina] as a pedagogue. It was hard, as we rehearsed at night or in breaks between productions. When my female colleagues had breaks, I was rehearsing with Kunakova, so I had little time off. She let me rehearse various roles and develop technical strength, because of course the arsenal of movements in the corps and those of a soloist vary greatly. Kunakova taught me the text of the language for Odile and Aurora. But when you’re in the corps and you have a burning dream to do more, that dream alone is not enough. It’s hard to achieve it alone, there are so many conditions that must be met. But when you have a pedagogue who wholeheartedly believes in you, with faith you can move mountains, and that probably speaks about what Kunakova gave me, she didn’t let me give up. My Academy teacher, Yulia Kasenkova, also always had faith in me, also came to my performances even when I was just in the corps, she spoke with me often and motivated me to continue. I’m endlessly grateful to them because they were my support. They encouraged me not to stop, and to continue on a path that wasn’t simple but has been just wonderful.

Does the pedagogue’s role differ in Academy and the theatre?
You know, they differ in some ways and are similar in some. Both of my pedagogues danced in this theatre, they both know the Mariinsky style and taught it to me. We were Yulia Kasenkova’s first graduating class, she understands the trends of contemporary ballets –Balanchine and Forsythe– she danced a lot of contemporary and saw a lot of troupes abroad, how they dance in America or in London, and she taught us not just the Vaganova Academy/Mariinsky style but also the clean style in Europe, for example high retiré passés in France. She would give us videos, for example, of Sylvie Guillem and many other performers, so that we could study them at home, because to talk about them is one thing but to view them is another. She taught us how to watch them. What is close to me is that she worships crystal cleanness in dance:  ideal turnout, high lifted legs, and clean lines in the legs, arms and the tilt of the head. I like this too, when the dance is crystal clean. Liubov Kunakova is a very experienced pedagogue, she coaches wonderful ballerinas such as Viktoria Tereshkina and Elena Evseeva, and she preserves the traditions more in that way, she transfers the work from Yuri Grigovovich or Konstantin Sergeev, a bit of a different generation from the 20th century, which has other nuances. She works a lot on expressiveness in movement, so that each pose and each arabesque has its own emotional colors and she works more with the artist, not just technically speaking. They both attend my performances, and when they discuss it backstage afterwards, they always agree with each other from different sides of the same river. I’m really happy to be able to work with both of them.

What were your first impressions of the theatre?

I didn’t expect there to be so much work! What surprised me most of all is the change in repertoire:  today is Raymonda, tomorrow Don Q, the next day modern, and the next day Balanchine …and the body has to adapt incredibly quickly to this wide range of demands. I recall how I first danced Swan Lake in the corps. When we rehearsed it wasn’t a problem. I was in the waltz, then a white swan in the corps de ballet and then I was not in the 3rd Act during the Black Swan pas de deux, but in the last act I was again a swan. I recall how I entered the stage and I could not even jump because my legs would not move, it was such a huge load on my legs. In the 2nd Act, tears ran down my face, I really enjoyed dancing it, but when you have to stand there immobile while others dance, then to start to move after that, it was difficult, it was a shock. When I started to dance the Four Big Swans it was a saving grace because you don’t have to stay immobile so long. I always joke that it is easier to dance Nikiya in Bayadère than to be one of the shades.

How has your approach to your work changed over these past 6 seasons?
You know not long ago, if not for 6.5 years then for at least 6 years, I lived according to the principle of “working through I can’t” as they say here, which means even if you can’t, even if you’re tired, you still have to do it, until the end, with full strength and give 1000% , give all you can and even more. But at some point it turned out my theory was not correct since, when I tried to continue working “through I can’t”, running the entry of the Black Swan pas de deux to the end, I became injured. I was guilty because I felt my legs were tired, I had not rested. I had a lot of work and I needed to rest and then I would have gone into the performance ready to dance. But I was scared, I thought, “How will I go on stage and do this?” So I forced myself to rehearse all the way through, “even through I can’t”. It was not a smart decision and I injured myself. This experience taught me that you need to work smart, and do the movement, maybe not 100 times but 2 times, but both times correctly using your brain and with an understanding of how it should be done, and pay attention to your body and your overall condition. You must treat yourself with respect. As Kunakova said to me after I got the injury, everything a ballet dancer does should be done with the performance in mind. The goal is not to go to rehearsal and do the entire thing, especially when you’re tired. Every minute you must consider what the performance will be like, what to do today so that you will perform well. So now I focus on working smartly. I can skip a run-through or today skip jumps and do them tomorrow, that’s “smart” work, when you can regulate the process. The pedagogue is never going to force you, because they have also lived through this and understand the fatigue. They can often see based on your body that you should not, for example, jump today.

What inspires you?

It is almost summer in Saint Petersburg now, I get up early for work and while I walk to work and see the beauty outdoors, I want to live and work and the flowers around, I want to just dance. My colleagues inspire me, as do foreign ballerinas. I like to watch my colleagues in performances or films of foreign ballerinas, especially Paris Opera under Claude Bessey, and when you see how others dance well you also want to dance well. This city itself inspires me, it’s an incredibly beautiful city. Time with friends is rare, but it gives me positive emotions, and their support helps me. If they are people outside of ballet, you listen and understand how big life is, and you don’t need to get caught up only in your own problems because there’s so much that is wonderful out there. Generally the world inspires me, and when moments of disappointment or grey minutes of sadness creep in, it means I am looking at it incorrectly and need to just shift my perspective and everything falls into place immediately.

On perfection

It’s true, I commented once about how, in nature, everything is perfect, flowers and trees, but people are not. I thought later about that thesis. Some people have a type of perfection, but it is like a self-sufficiency. That happens when you understand that you cannot add or take away from a dancer that you see on stage. Even if you start to objectively analyze their anatomy and it’s not ideal, you see the performance, the dancer and you understand that you cannot add or take away from it, it seems to me that that level of “self sufficiency” is close to natural perfection. When a person lives their genuine life, is in the right spot for them and does what suits them, does it from the heart, then it’s good and then immediately negative blame is gone, and that’s close to natural perfection. For humans it’s difficult because we have to aspire to perfection and that requires constant work, day and night, on yourself. There are so many distractions, and sometimes you want to just stop and say, “it’s good enough”, but you can’t do that. You always have to move forward, even when you feel you’ve already done everything. Not in the sense of faster is better, but in the case of kinder, gentler, nicer more compassionate… and not just physically. There are emotional/spiritual things that we need to aspire to. Humans are given a lot because we were given rationality. But as they say, he who is given a lot has a great responsibility. But that is wonderful because when you follow self development, a lot opens up to you.

What does it mean to be a native Petersburger?

For me, being a Saint Petersburgian means having intelligence, humbleness with internal beauty. The city itself is like a watercolor painting — it’s not like a bold and bright oil painting as maybe Moscow would be. There are quieter, softer tones here, something left unsaid. Also there is still internal strictness and strength of spirit, heart and thoughts, as a Petersburger is an inflexible person to some extent. If you think about the blockade in World War II, and think of our grandparents and great grandparents and what they lived through — frozen conditions without food and water– I cannot imagine how to handle that. And this is imprinted in us genetically on some level and affects us. Of course we all love sunshine too, it’s always a celebration when the sun comes out here because it comes out so rarely.

According to physical data, the city itself, built on a swamp, is disgusting, but the city has amazing architecture and beauty, so from this level of zero physical attributes you can create this kind of beauty. So physical traits are not everything.

What experience did the XIV International Ballet Competition give you?

It’s one of the brightest, most wonderful memories in my life. That sounds strange, and has nothing to do with winning a medal or a title.  It gave me colossal experience and showed me the world of ballet. First, I saw the Bolshoi Theatre from the inside for the first time, and danced on the stage, that was an incomparable dream. Then also to see Ulanova’s studio and the Grigorovich studio. It’s amazing, that beauty, but I was in awe of the Bolshoi stage, I have no words for that. If our stage at the Mariinsky is unique, then the Bolshoi is also, but totally different. And thanks to the competition, I had the opportunity to attend the class of Nadezhda Gracheva, one of my favorite ballerinas who always inspired me.

A few years ago, I watched some films about her. You know when you don’t know the person, but feel you’d give anything to work with them in class? So when I had chance to attend her lessons for almost 2 weeks…

I recall that incredible feeling, thinking, “this is a competition, I have to save my energy and not do the class all the way to the end.” But Nadezhda had a very difficult class physically at a quick tempo, and I could not stop. Even the Bolshoi dancers asked me, “Masha why are you jumping now, don’t you have to perform tonight? what are you dancing?” and I said the Black (swan) pas de deux. I understood I can’t stop, I enjoy it so much, I left the class in absolute happiness. I still recall her class with great love, and thanks to that alone it was worth going to the competition. I like to dance before a public and professional jury, for some reason it’s easier for me as strange as that may be, it was not scary.

But I return to the point that I came from rhythmic gymnastics, a sport, and I was always interested in learning about the Olympics. I watched a lot of documentaries about it. The Moscow Competition is similar to the Olympics because it happens once every 4 years and is similar in structure to the Olympics. I’m not a fan of competitions, but that Moscow competition was part of my childhood dream and I knew I wanted to participate in it even back when I was in school.

Social media?

I understood this is not for me. I tried to post ballet photos and develop my account, but I didn’t enjoy it, I constantly deleted the photos. I don’t like doing something for no reason. If I don’t see the purpose, I don’t like it. If I don’t have something particular to say, then it’s better not to post. Although I have an account and am subscribed to colleagues, I like looking at nature photos, and there are some amazing travel blogs, from Kamchatka to Niagara Falls. Dancers who are active online inspire me, and I’m interested in their opinions, because as colleagues we all have the same problems in principle.

Your dream?

To dance neoclassical works: by Robbins, Macmillan, Neumeier, Petit, and even Forsythe although he is more modern. I’d love to try their choreography. Joh Cranko, his Onegin and Dame des Camellias.  That’s probably my dream. I think fate will decide it.

Photos: First two portraits by Yulia Suzmina; images in Swan Lake by Sila Avvakum; in Pharoah’s Daughter courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre Press Office.