Impeccable training in the city of Perm, clean lines, and loyalty to classical traditions won Ksenia Ostreikovskaya entry to the Mariinsky Ballet after her studies.
As the first swan, and first Bayadère shade, to enter the sacred Mariinsky stage thousands of times during her 25 years dancing with the Mariinsky, Ostreikovskaya also performed numerous solo roles in an extensive repertoire of works ranging from Petipa to Balanchine to Hans Van Manen.
She recently retired from dancing and began coaching other dancers as a pedagogue. VaganovaToday joined her to discuss her stage years and her new role coaching others.
You were born in Obninsk outside of Moscow and studied at the Perm State Choreographic School. How did you start dancing?
My mother performed with the Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre her entire life. I grew up “in the wings” backstage, and so to some degree my fate was predetermined. I saw all the productions there. So when the time came, I attended the Perm State Choreographic School.
Was there a chance to refuse?
There was no question about whether you wanted to dance or not, but whether you were capable of becoming a dancer or not. I grew up with ballerinas all around, and people noticed that I had the ability. At the age of 5, my mother ordered me special small pointe shoes from the workshop, and I started to dance in them at home. So it was understood that I wanted to do this.
What was the atmosphere like in Perm?
My pedagogue was Lidia Grigorievna Ulanova and I studied 6 years under her. My memories of her are very positive, I wouldn’t say she was strict. Sometimes teachers have to physically correct the smaller children, but I have no bad memories with her.
I also studied for a short time under Ludmila Sakharova. She was the Artistic Director at the time and also taught her own class of students. At one point she took the ballet “Class Concert” to Japan, not just her own class of students but from parallel classes. She was not evil but she had a different approach to pedagogy. I was in her class just a short while and I can say that, from the point of view of a pedagogue, she was stricter. Overall I have quite positive memories of studying in Perm.
Did your mother participate much in your training since she also danced?
It’s impossible to separate the two worlds — home and school — when your mom is a ballerina. When mom is not a ballerina, then yes. It wasn’t that she concretely taught me ballet at home. But we paid attention to our figures and food. When I became a teenager, as with everyone, keeping your figure becomes an issue. So at home she hid all of the bad foods from me, and helped me not to overeat at that age.
How did you end up moving from Perm to joining the Mariinsky Theatre?
During our last year of study in Perm, a girlfriend of mine and I travelled during the winter to Leningrad to audition with the Mariinsky. After the audition, the artistic director at the time, Makhar Vaziev, said to me that he would accept me into the company if I came to work in the springtime. And when he attended our graduation examinations in Perm in the spring, he confirmed that I was accepted into the Mariinsky.
I immediately moved to Saint Petersburg. For one month I took classes and learned the repertoire. So before the start of the next season I was already working here.
How was that transition?
It was difficult. I look at the young dancers now, and even those who live and studied here in the same city, the first year in the theatre is very difficult for them. You have to learn the new repertoire, it’s a new place, and for me it was also a new city. Prior to that I had always lived at home. So living suddenly in the dormitories –and at that time they were on Rossi Street (which is not near the theatre)– was a huge shift. It was a large Petersburg “kommunalka” [communal apartment]. The first year is hard.
Was your workload heavy immediately?
There were fewer performances then, as we only had one theatre building. But we had more rehearsals in proportion to the performances we did have. So we rehearsed more. It seems to me the more rehearsals you have, the more well prepared you are. But with that comes less stage experience perhaps. And I mention that because we rehearsed and studied a lot, but nobody immediately went on stage. You had to wait your turn even to be a swan in the corps. My first year I didn’t perform a classical role for sure. Only if someone got sick would you get placed into the performance.
You weren’t immediately one of the 32 swans despite being hired? I watched you in Swan Lake probably more than 300 times.
No, I wasn’t in the swan corps, not at first. I remember my first solo was in the Neopolitan Dance in “Swan Lake”. The rehearsal process was very intense but going onstage didn’t happen that quickly. There were fewer performances. Later I was in the swan corps practically every performance.
What memories do you have from your years on stage?
I remember some of the more successful performances and roles. I loved to dance Balanchine and danced a lot of his works. I performed solos in “Emeralds” and danced in “Serenade”. I danced solo roles and lyrical parts such as in “Chopiniana” [“Les Sylphides”], those were closer to my emploi. I felt the most inspiration in those roles. Despite years of experience, I was always nervous on stage, before every performance. The first performance in any role is the hardest, and then with experience it becomes easier, there are some psychological approaches –such as breathing– that help you to be calmer and more self-assured.
I worked with great pedagogues. Elena Evteeva rehearsed all of my solo parts with me. And Nina Ukhova worked with us on the corps de ballet. I danced more than 25 years on stage. I have great memories of all of my colleagues.
I spent practically an entire lifetime in the theatre. And I’m lucky because I experienced a rather smooth transition to working as a pedagogue, but it’s a very difficult shift for most ballet dancers, when you have to leave the theatre. Each artist reaches that point and for many it’s very challenging. You’ve spent your entire life here, and most dancers live nearby the theatre so as not to waste too much time going back and forth…
But my transition was smooth. I finished dancing and I don’t want to offend anyone, but the dancer must sense when it is their time to leave the stage. It is difficult and complicated, but in my opinion you should dance while it brings you joy and the viewer joy… and maybe the pedagogue too. But when it only brings you joy, then probably it is time to stop. It’s difficult to see yourself from the side of course, but probably that’s one of the qualities of a pedagogue: you can look at yourself from the outside but also look at others with a fresh view.
If you were injured or just didn’t feel like performing but had to go on stage, how did you cope and where do you draw strength from in such cases?
First of all, it’s our responsibility to go out and perform in front of viewers. Ballet is an art form, it is our calling. When you take that first step on stage, that’s it. It’s over. You’re in another world and, at least symbolically speaking, once you take that step, nothing (should) hurt you.
I see the dancers in the morning, as I have been giving company classes for 2 years now, and I know their bodies hurt after the last night’s performance and maybe their mood isn’t great. But we still perform.
When I performed, of course injuries happen. And it was always a shame for me when, you have rehearsed endlessly and used a lot of time and strength and you don’t want to mislead another dancer because they have to replace you. You have a responsibility as a dancer. So if I rehearsed I tried to carry the task through an complete it and just go on. Sometimes that means with a fever.
You left the stage not too long ago?
I stopped dancing last season (2021-2022). My last performance was in “Anna Karenina”. I didn’t announce it on social media. It seems to me that this is simultaneously a celebration and not a celebration, it’s a two-sided coin. There’s something positive about it, but there’s a lot of negative too, it’s a challenging moment. Some people may not want to celebrate per se, it is a type of good-bye, and good-byes are always sad. It’s a certain threshold in your life and career. I wasn’t a soloist. Many stars want to go meet the spectators afterwards, but for me it wasn’t maybe that sort of event. In part because I continue to work here in the Mariinsky.
How did you become a pedagogue? Was it your choice or did the administration ask you?
Probably everything in the theatre occurs due to lucky circumstances. And that concerns not just pedagogues, but ballet dancers as well. It’s a combination of many factors: hard work, talent, and luck, given certain circumstances. Because if we speak about the pedagogical profession, it’s a different one, and not every dancer can be a pedagogue. I received a Master’s Degree from the Pedagogical Faculty at the Vaganova Academy, it is a 3-year program for a higher education degree. I was still performing, studying to receive the Master’s degree, and began to rehearse other dancers all at the same time. The first production I rehearsed was Hans Van Manen’s “Adagio Hammerklavier”. It turned out they needed a new cast. I had danced in the premiere and knew the part well. The artistic director, Yuri Fateev, gave me the opportunity to rehearse the duet, the one that I had performed, with a young dancer. This was 2019. But then there was an insurance: Viktor Baranov rehearsed the men in that ballet. He worked with the men and I with the ladies, and we worked together. And this coincided with my desire to give the younger generation a chance.
The next ballet that I rehearsed was Shemyakin’s “The Nutcracker”. During the acute period of Covid, everyone got sick. I was not sick, so I replaced two pedagogues who were sick and normally coached the corps de ballet. So I rehearsed the corps de ballet as well as some solo parts in this production.
That’s why I say there is some level of fate at work here. I also danced in this production numerous times. For a pedagogue, when you have danced it yourself, you know many nuances of how to best perform the ballet. It’s not the most important criteria, but it’s one very helpful criteria so you can go rehearse other dancers in a ballet well.
In the Master’s program you need a certain amount of years of work experience in the theatre in order to even qualify for the diploma. It is 7 years. You have to have experience. But when you have danced a specific role, it helps. Of course, I didn’t perform every single role in “Nutcracker,” but the main ones — Snow and the Waltz, and so forth.
The fact that I had that stage experience helped me when rehearsing other dancers in the same roles.
The other thing that plays into becoming a pedagogue is the creation of a new production. When a choreographer creates a new ballet and they need a rehearsal coach, and then you’re assigned to it. That is a unique opportunity to demonstrate your skills. For example, Yuri Fateev held the Choreographer’s Workshop here, the idea being that young people create new ballets and the best ones will enter the theatre’s repertoire permanently. In those new ballets, if there is a scene with many dancers, then someone has to rehearse those dancers in it, and they need a pedagogue. And so this gives you a chance to show yourself as a pedagogue. In my case, Yuri Smekalov created a ballet for that workshop called “Concert for Contrabass” which had 8 ladies, 8 men, and a soloist, Tereshkina and Timur Askerov and Daria Ionova. And it was accepted into the repertoire and I rehearsed the group of dancers each time it ran. That was one of my first experiences.
And you work as a pedagogue or coach now, based on the productions you rehearse, and not with certain dancers?
There are two approaches. If they give you a particular dancer, that is usually for a solo role.
But I work mainly on the corps de ballet sections. So I work on the productions, not particular dancers. I have rehearsed 17 ballets so far. That’s a lot, despite the fact there are many older pedagogues than me here. If it is a particular production, the corps is worked on by one pedagogue and solo parts with another pedagogue.
What do you try to give to the dancers you work with?
To rephrase the words of the philosopher Confusious, he said a teacher is someone who aims for the new while cherishing the old. I ‘d rephrase that by saying I would like to aspire to ideal new form but maintain the “old” school training and academicism. Cherishing the old – academism and training. I would like to give them this combination.
The pedagogue has to know the dancers capabilities well and that’s another profession, it is based on a dancers’ capability, they need to dance and have experience, but added to that of course is knowledge of the school training and how to perform something, which is what higher education gives you.
In the past we did not have videos. All pedagogues showed the steps from ballets “from hand to hand, from foot to foot” to the new generation. I think having danced the role yourself helps. The pedagogue must have their own view on how to approach the steps. I know what to do so that certain steps will work out in a performance. So I suppose what I give to the dancers whom I work with is a synthesis of what my pedagogues gave to me, and what I learned from my own experience.
If we are speaking about coaching just 1 dancer, then that requires, of course, that I pay attention to the character. You want to see the role’s character naturally, as expressed through movements and plastique. Maybe some level of coquettishness, in the case of the role of Shirin, for example. But all based on the training. You want to see musicality as well.
What if you request the dancer to show, for example, as you noted, some flirting, but the dancer doesn’t really emit it?
That’s when you show how to do it yourself. This why it is so important that the pedagogue has performance experience. So that you can show it. Sometimes you can give them expressive description using words, for example “like light feathers”, in order to get the message across to the dancer. And if that doesn’t work then show what you mean with your torso or arms.
What’s the hardest part of work as a pedagogue?
Sitting and watching the performance. You can’t help any more at that point, your work is done, and I always want to add something and help somehow. But at that point only the dancer can do the work.
You have two older sons. Did you want them to dance?
It seemed to me that men always want to be “first” and have to be first. And in this manner, the “men in first place” in a ballet company can be counted on two hands because there are very few principal dancers. That means the other men in the company have to agree to be in second, third or tenth place. That may not be good for them. But for girls, ballet is better for girls. A female can spend her career in the corps de ballet quite well, find joy and interest in the work. Also I saw my sons’ physical traits and I decided they would be better off in another sphere. They need to have the talent for ballet first and if they’re not set up for it well, not capable, then it is doubly difficult.
What advice do you have for the younger generation?
Value each performance because our artistic life is short. It will never repeat. Value each moment.
What are your dreams for the future?
That new productions will be added to the repertoire so I can try something new. Premieres of new ballets. And to continue to perfect my role as a pedagogue.
Photos courtesy of Ksenia Ostreikovskaya’s personal archive and the Mariinsky Press Office. Photo as Myrtha in “Giselle” by Jack Devant.