Interview with Prima Ballerina Nadezhda Batoeva: her studies, career, promotion and dreams

Within the last 12 months, three Mariinsky dancers were promoted to prima ballerina. One of the three is Nadezhda Batoeva, who hails from the city of Volgograd. VaganovaToday first met her when she was just starting her career, and sat down with her recently to see what has changed in the last decade. Read on for the details. You can find the Russian version of this article here.

How did you get started in ballet?
My mother and father are engineers. I took classes in a children’s club for amateur performances. Modern children’s classes are very professional, but in the past they were just for general development, nothing serious. Roughly speaking, from there you wouldn’t go anywhere, if it wasn’t a professional school, you would end up going to study as an engineer.

I liked to dance but in the children’s classes they tried to stand me at the barre to take the class. At that time they were trying to create a more professional school in Volgograd. And I thought “I want to dance, who needs the barre?!” They tried to do something like ballet. And a friend of my mother’s said, “Why would you do this in Volgograd, go to a big city, to the best school.”

And you immediately travelled to St. Petersburg?
First we went to Moscow. It was summer time, during summer break. The pedagogue came out, looked at me and said, “Come back at the start of the school year, we will most likely accept you.” But my mother decided not to take that risk, not to just travel back at the start of the year and wonder if they would take me or not. So we came to St. Petersburg. Here there was an additional audition, 3 rounds, starting on the 20th of August, with 30 people for 1 spot.

Did you have some sort of preparation for attending the Academy?
No. Until I was 9 years old I didn’t take ballet classes. In principle, I entered from off the street, and I had to develop my extension, turnout and stretch.
We also had girls from rhythmic gymnastics who were more prepared but many came without any preparation at all.  They accepted the most capable children. In first order, they checked your traits: turnout, jump, and extension. No body asked you to perform a variation. And then they taught us everything from zero.
Did you want to do ballet specifically?I didn’t know what ballet was. I liked to dance. In Volgograd, there wasn’t any ballet. What we did were very unprofessional dance classes. Yes it looked like ballet, but to call it ballet in the sense of the Mariinsky or Bolshoi, of course you can’t do that. I had only seen “Swan Lake” on television. But I didn’t know that in order to dance, you had to stand at a barre.

And they accepted you into the Academy…
They accepted me “conditionally”, which means in the future they will most likely dismiss you. The first years in the Academy they tried to dismiss me. In the first six months there was an exam after which they eliminated the children from the first class (grade). Some people had “conditional warning” status, and all of them were dismissed. When they accept you, you’re happy just that they accepted you. This “conditionally” was with me up until the 5th year. But it really motivated you to work on yourself.What was the atmosphere like at the Academy?
There was no glass in pointe shoes. In ballet the children are still children, just more disciplined.

Your pedagogue – Ludmila Safranova – what was she like?
She taught us beginning with the 4th class (grade). Of course, I’m very grateful to Ludmila Nikolaevna, because she is probably the first person who believed in me, that I could do something and become something. Of course she had really difficult classes, incredibly difficult. She was a student of Vaganova, so the lessons were strength building.  She was strict to a degree, when she needed to be, in order to make you do a movement better, but she also didn’t forget to give praise. I believe she had pedagogical talent. Generally speaking that generation from the war are unreal – they have this thirst for life, thirst to teach and learn, so that what they give finds a continuum in their students.

When you began work in the theatre, your pedagogue was the famous Galina Kekisheva. 

Yes. At the start of this season she retired, she’s already 93 years old. But we still call and see each other. Now my pedagogue is Elvira Tarasova.

Do they differ?

Kekisheva is also one of Vaganova’s students. Each of them is unique, I don’t want to compare them because they’re both very dear to me.

When you were accepted into the theatre what was your impression?
Nerve-wracking for sure. Because you come in and you don’t know what will happen next. You don’t know how your career will turn out, what awaits you in the theatre, what kind of people are there, what sort of system there is. But it’s very interesting.

During your first years with the company you danced a lot of character roles. What did they give you?

I don’t in any way regret that I danced these character roles, they were always close to my heart. And it’s not that they help me in some ballet roles, they just exist in me, and so I can use them in both character and classical roles — in Paquita, in Don Quixote, and so on.

Do you see yourself in a specific emploi?

This is a difficult topic, many people say that the limits of emploi have been erased. But I think otherwise. Currently, people imagine some image or character that they have seen someone do on youtube and they really like, for example, ballerina N, how she does a certain role. If someone else does it differently, “It’s not her emploi, she doesn’t do it like ballerina N.” Some people do not accept the fact that this part can be played differently.

What is emploi? We’re actors. It seems to me, that when you fully know what you want to bring to the viewer, then the viewer who is ready and open to that, they’ll accept you.  For everyone else it will probably seem like it’s not your emploi.

I don’t like watching ballet on video. But I have to, since there are technical elements I need to watch there, to see which movements are being done and so forth. But I never form an opinion, I cannot allow myself to form an opinion about a dancer based on a video. Because when you go to the theatre, an unreal world is created around you, sometimes you watch and “Maybe this gesture was a bit overdone” and then you think “No, actually I liked  it”. And on the video it may seem that the gesture was done horribly, but in the live performance it looked good. So it’s very strange to discuss ballet based on a recording.

Are you more Odette or Odile?
A completely separate interview could be done about emploi, because this is a deep subject. Odette is closer to me. I really like the White Adagio, the music, I like all of it. I understand that some people like my Odette and some don’t, they need those long legs and height.

But you have long legs!

I mean it is beautiful when for example, Katya Kondaurova runs out and the swans are lower than her, she’s taller, and she immediately emits a sense of  majesty. It’s hard to say what suits me more, really hard. In some performances, Odette suits me more, and in others Odile. A lot depends on your partner. Odette is closer to me.

How do you approach a role when the character does not coincide with your personality?
I had this issue with Gamzatti. They cast me alongside Vika Tereshkina, Katya Kondaurova, and Alina Somova as Nikiya. And I have good relationships with all of them. It was frightening to me, I can’t take a ballerina by the hand and throw her across the room. After the first act, I was always shaking, I cried, I was angry. The emotions were so contrasting, that I didn’t want to offend them but I had to go on stage and play this role, get mad at them, tell them I was going to kill them. But at some point I stopped and thought about it. I didn’t like that Gamzatti was a negative heroine. But I started to think, why do people think she’s bad?

Maybe the viewer doesn’t see it, but sometimes I plant the snake for Nikiya as if it is from me, and sometimes I feel badly for Nikiya and sometimes I think that Gamzatti’s father ordered her to be killed. And when I accepted that Gamzatti is not such a bad person, maybe that snake just happened to be in the basket (she laughs), then the role came closer to me. No you always have to think about the background of the heroine, why they act the way they do. After all, people do not act badly when they have a good life, something pushes them to act that way.

Your role in “Miraculous Mandarin” is a complex and extreme character. How do you see it?

I feel that the choreography isn’t over the top. The description is one thing but the ballet itself doesn’t have any vulgarity. So dancing it is probably easier than reading the libretto. You’re so involved in the production that you don’t even have a second to think about what might be vulgar! I really like “Miraculous Mandarin”. The Mandarin (hero) craves love and attention. It seems to me, that the girl also has some feeling towards him. The Mandarin doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and she understands that until she gives him what he wants, she wont be free. The final kiss for me, you know when you have this yearning, for some unreal desire, and then it becomes reality, and that’s it, there is some sort of devastation. It’s like a metaphor.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Not knowing your schedule for tomorrow until 6 p.m. and of course, it’s hard to then to manage your time. And the emptiness after a performance. Very often it seems to me that it all went badly. And the next day, you feel the same way. Saying goodbye to your character, with whom you have lived the past week, and they have suddenly left you. You think, “It’s so good to be with this character on stage.” There’s a sort of internal dissatisfaction. And yo have to return to the studio and work again.It seems to me that dancers are rarely satisfied with their performances. Plus, if someone posts of of your most unflattering recordings. At times you just want a few days, to not see anyone and recover, but you’re again in the studio… The performance has passed, but you’re continuing to think about it! You need time to redirect yourself. And each time you recreate this character again, it isn’t like it is created and you just put a stamp on it each performance. You create the character each time anew with your partner, your pedagogue, with the other dancers…

What’s the best part of your job?

Of course, the performance itself, and the first moments afterwards, the bows and so forth. There’s some sort of euphoria then.

When we first spoke about 10 years ago, you wanted to dance Giselle, and you’ve done so. Is there a role that you would like to dance now?

You know, I have a dream which I understand will likely never come true, and that’s to dance “Manon”. They wanted to restore this ballet, but due to the recent events… I may retire prior to its return to this stage! But yes. It seems I want to dance every role.

Superstitions? Rituals? 

I don’t have any. But there’s one interesting thing. Vladimir Kim takes his dog Patty out for walks. They walk on various routes by the theatre and if suddenly I run into them before a performance, then I know that everything will go well.  I don’t know how it works, or what it is connected with, maybe because I have a good relationship with Vladimir, but I always feel emboldened when that happens.

Do you have days off? Sometimes, but not always.

How do you spend your vacation time?

We have vacation 2 times per year now, winter vacation for 10 days and summer for about 1 month. Honestly, we don’t always manage to rest because we’re invited to teach in studios here and abroad, master classes. But we try to rest for at least one week. I love to rest… because for a full year you are under such stress! In our youth it was possible to take the entire vacation off. I remember, I could take the full month off and come back and everything was fine. Now, even with the classes we teach, you keep yourself in some degree of shape, that’s for one. Secondly, you still have to work out during the summer, simply because if you don’t address some body part and something starts hurting during vacation.. it’s just so necessary to stay in shape for your body. Naturally I don’t force myself to do jumps fully, but if I’m on vacation, I try to take class at least every other day. If I am off for one week, then I take class at least 4 times. That’s necessary. You have to return from the break and start the season ready to go.

From where do you draw strength?
It depends, sometimes you look at the blue sky and sun and immediately everything is made easier, although it’s true, in Petersburg that’s a rarity. I don’ t have a singular source of strength. But of course, if we manage to get outside of the city on the day off, you remember that it’s not only the theatre — despite my huge love for the theatre– and you manage to relax just a bit so as not to burn out. But  your thoughts are still constantly filled with technical elements and characters.

Advice for young dancers?
I probably don’t have any advice. I just want to wish them patience, hard work, attention, and thoughtfulness because an intelligent artist is the most valuable artist.

Dreams for the future?
Sometimes I think how I will water flowers during my retirement. I understand that I do not want to do this, but I just think about it when I’m very tired. Dancers are nonetheless always in motion. I suppose I have just one dream: that we would live in peace. Because before creating castles in the sky, we need reality to be good.

All photos courtesy of the Mariinsky Press office.