Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 15 October 2009
DAVID BAIN WELCOMED ALINA and suggested she might start by giving us an overview of the last four years. He said his first interview was with Alina in 2001, the next 3 years 11 months later and now here we were again after another 3 years 11 months! Perhaps she should make a note in her diary for September 2013?
At the time Alina was last our guest she had just danced Johan (Kobborg)’s La Sylphide. She said it was a big highlight to work on that production. She saw Johan from a completely different standpoint which helped her to learn more about him, the way he worked with the dancers while being involved with costumes, production, lighting etc. He was amazingly inspiring for her and the others and has a big soul. It wasn’t all about the technique or even the steps but the story and the spirit, and they went beyond that, which also enabled Alina to see her own work in a different way. She was very happy when it was brought back two years later when they were able to take it further – things happened more easily and people came along with different ideas, so it was really quite special. But it was hard after it was over to keep the same spirit going in the other ballets they were working on and she felt that whatever she was doing wasn’t quite enough – she was missing that constant food for thought and passion and she felt overwhelmed by what had happened to her.
Johan has done La Sylphide everywhere but Alina was unable to dance all of those performances! He put on a production in Zurich to which she was invited but couldn’t perform as she was injured at the time. Then he did a show at the Bolshoi during which time she was performing at La Scala but thought she must go so went just for the general rehearsal. She was amazed because she knows how things work in Russia – it’s a very different world – and it wasn’t an easy process. Neither Johan nor the dancers had a common language so translators were needed and the dancers heard things at second or third hand without knowing exactly what has been said. This makes the whole process so much slower and nuances can be lost but it was amazing to see the reaction of the dancers to Johan when he came on stage after the rehearsal. They wanted to know what he thought and were hanging on his every word – just thinking about it gave her goose-bumps! He obviously has a gift of communication and Alina felt privileged to be able to be there at the time although she then had to fly straight off to do the show at La Scala. Johan did another production in Japan last summer and Alina was injured (nothing new) but she saw him working more in the studio – a different company, different show, different rehearsal period but all enjoyable and very interesting for her.
At this point David suggested Alina might talk more about her injury. She was first injured on 10 April 2007. They were doing Mayerling that evening and it happened during a morning rehearsal. She felt it straight away but kept on working, and by the end of the day she couldn’t raise her arm because she was in too much pain and had to have help to put on her make-up. She did the performance but both she and Johan were terrified as it was opening night and they felt a great responsibility. But then as usual the adrenalin kicks in and you feel you can do anything so the performance went on but then the pain gradually returned and she realised things weren’t quite right. But you have to look ahead, which for Alina meant getting on a plane the next morning to go to St Petersburg to perform Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. This had involved a coach coming over from St Petersburg to help them learn it. It’s a beautiful production and Alina was in heaven working on it, so she couldn’t let them down but it was something she’d never forget. At 4am the night before she was still working on it and learning bits of the production which was completely different from Macmillan’s though it was the same music, she was reading her notes to check every entrance and which part of the stage to use, and forgot the pain. You’ve worked so hard for it and you think you can do it just one more time – something keeps driving you on. She knows it may be wrong but that’s what makes dancers what they are.
The problem turned out to be a disc in the neck, and it was to such a degree that she wouldn’t be able to get up, couldn’t hold a can of drink as she’d lost power in her arm. She was doing pirouettes and had to hold on to her hand as it would not come with her. Recalling this now makes her tearful. Of course it makes it hard for your partner who doesn’t want to hurt you. But the worst thing is that on stage it’s gone but afterwards she couldn’t get comfortable in any position because of the constant neck pain she likened to tooth-ache. After the show they came back to London for one more Mayerling, and again felt a responsibility as it was their show with their home company and nothing would stop Alina from doing her job. After that she had a day off so could have a scan to see what could be done though by that point she knew she would have to take time off still without realising how bad things were. She felt she should take six to eight weeks off and then would be fine, so this she did.
At first she didn’t know what to do with herself. For the first time in her life she had no class or schedule. It was scary and strange and she really missed her routine and wanted to be in the studio. But if she went to the Opera House it made her feel too sad as she didn’t know what to do there. That state of mind didn’t last long, as a week later she discovered other things – books which she’d never had time to read, the family whom she’d forgotten to call last week and when she started talking on the phone she realised she’d not been in close contact with them for a long time (‘how have you been the last few years’, they asked?). She felt she didn’t know about their lives – she knew them well, knew her sister had a daughter but she hadn’t realised how far apart they’d grown and couldn’t understand how she’d let that happen. You come to appreciate the important things in life – it wasn’t all about how her schedule worked but allowed time for her to observe in a way which isn’t possible when you are being so active all the time. It was quite an amazing experience. After a few weeks she actually felt able to watch performances, again a different experience – to see it from an audience view-point. That period went quite smoothly – the rehab started, she had a great physio to work with, little pain – and she was loving dancing again and could appreciate it the more for having lost it for a while and could enjoy the finished product. She was dying to get back on stage. Normally she’d have done a performance and happily gone off, but now she felt she wanted to get straight back on stage and do it all again. It was the same in rehearsals – there was a completely different feeling and everything was more in perspective so that period gave her the chance to see what life would be like when she stopped dancing and it didn’t seem so bad or scary any more. She knows she’d miss it but felt she’d be able to come back and give more and with greater passion so that if it all came to an end tomorrow she’d know she could do nothing about it but also she’d know she’d given her all. Every rehearsal is like a show which she’s doing for herself and her coach and she is having a great time – it’s so much fun.
So she came back but the injury recurred. Alina said all was going well so she thought she was cured but it was a very busy period with Dances at a Gathering, Rushes, Swan Lake in Zurich, Sleeping Beauty, a new creation by Kim Brandstrup as well as putting together a gala for a charity close to her heart, Hospices for children in Romania, for which she’d invited dancers to come and perform. It was one of the busiest times she’d ever experienced, she was starting to struggle but was working nearly a 12 hour day and then go home and be on the computer till 3am. She couldn’t really believe she was doing that to herself and by the time of the opening of Dances at a Gathering she felt tired and sore but thought she’d get away with it. Almost immediately she knew something was wrong and found herself lying on the floor unable to get up. She was helped up and carried on but by the evening performance there were two different pink girls on stage. Next day she had a scan which didn’t look too bad so she thought she’d take six weeks off again and would be OK. But she knew in her heart it wouldn’t be enough and spent a lot of time seeking help from doctors, acupuncturists and physios, about 25 in all, from Japan to America and Germany, hoping someone would work a miracle and say she’d be fine. But the pain got worse even when she was doing nothing.
The company was on tour and her family wanted to come over but she didn’t want them as she felt quite a mess at that moment, worrying about her dancing, her life and her future. The reason she didn’t want to see her family was because she left them at the age of nine and they remembered her as a smiling child – she didn’t want them to see her unwell at such a bad time. If you do what the doctors say, it’s out of your hands, so when considering surgery for such an injury you have to find someone you can trust, and how can you find that someone? So she continued trying different treatments and although there was no cure it made her learn something about herself and how strong she was. But when she felt a bit better she went to her family, spent time talking to them and especially her sister and husband who were a great support. They work in the medical field, so knew she’d needed surgery. Eventually they asked why she didn’t go for it as she was putting herself through so much pain and anxiety. Alina was reluctant to take that step with someone whom she didn’t know. The solution was simple but in her heart she couldn’t accept that she couldn’t cure herself. Then she started exercising with a friend who’d had the same injury four years previously, who’d had surgery in Germany and said ‘come and meet my guy’! So she flew over and saw the surgeon who asked what she was waiting for. She explained she was scared and was really waiting for some miracle cure but he said it wasn’t going away and had already got worse since she’d stopped dancing. He was the most amazing man who chatted to her, went off to do an operation, came back and talked some more and Alina realised that just in that time he’d fixed someone else’s problem. This proved the turning point and she asked when he could operate on her – as simple as that. So her sister went to support her, she had the surgery and the next day although she only moved her eyes, she felt healthy for the first time in ages – she could sleep, there was no more pain so she could rest and recover.
Just to conclude the story of her injury, Alina said she was sorry not to feel able to dance Mayerling this season. It was such a beautiful ballet which she’d danced before but knew she’d have to be strong to really go for it and be able to do what she wants with it. As it’s the first ballet of the season it’s a bit too soon but she’ll be happy to do later it on tour.
Talking about her debuts, Alina said she’d loved Voluntaries which was an absolutely amazing experience. Glen Tetley came to rehearsal and they’d been told how severe he was, so she was scared. He was giving corrections to the dancers as she was trying things out at the back of the class when he called her name and said ‘that’s how you should dance’. She’ll never forget those words which meant so much as he was the creator who’d seen his piece done by so many dancers. It’s hard to explain but as a dancer you are always trying to please everyone – your coach, the choreographer, yourself – it’s endless giving and sometimes you get nothing back, so it’s sad that he’ll no longer be around to give such encouraging words.
On another Tetley ballet, Sphinx, which is in this season’s programme, Alina said she wants to read more about it. It’s beautiful and you can take it anywhere. The creature’s animal-like, not human, and allows you to experiment but you have to get the right balance. At the moment she’s just having a great time with it. The coach is Bronwen Curry, who will be coming back again next week, also she is working with Johnny Eliasen, a Danish coach. Meanwhile Ursula is in charge. Johnny was the first person Alina worked with after her surgery and is someone she really trusts. She also spent time with Roland Price.
So now she’s working on Sphinx and Beauty at the same time. She’s also working on Chroma which she loves and which is very special. They had a great time working with Wayne McGregor and were on their own making pas de deux but when everybody joined up in the studio to put it all together there was a huge energy and tension with everyone getting fired up by what the others were doing. They tried to keep up that intensity during performances. It’s always special to be part of a choreographer’s creative process and it’s good also to come back to it.
Other choreographers Alina has worked with include Kim Brandstrup. He first did a pas de deux for Alina and Johan which they performed in the Linbury and have since taken to Russia. It was a beautiful, soulful piece, with no showing off, set to lovely music. She loves working with Kim as you don’t know where the piece is going, and sometimes he seems not to either, so you really become involved and part of the creative process. He’s a gentle person and it is ‘peaceful’ working with him. She also worked with him on Rushes, which is luckily coming back as there’s much more to develop in it. Repeating the piece there’s always something different – over time you change as a person and Kim changes too and sees it going somewhere different so it’s like a wheel constantly turning which she loves. Meantime, Alina said she was working on another project and asked if it would be OK if she were away from rehearsals for a while. Coming back she might take it to a different level, so Carlos may be in for a shock. David asked how much Kim explains what he’s trying to portray. The answer was not much at first though Alina was able to look at the designs and projections, and heard the music which was beautiful. Then once you get to the choreography you have to relate to the people around you. He doesn’t say ‘that’s what you should do next’ but sees where you are going and allows a lot of your own interpretation. David said his style is very European as he doesn’t tell a story direct and you have to think about it. Alina thought you get a feel for the relationships rather than an actual story and then make up your own mind of what it’s all about. She likes not knowing what will happen next, so when it comes you just treasure the moment.
Alina’s also worked with Chris Wheeldon’s company, Morphoses. They didn’t have much time for rehearsals but it was her first performance after her first time off injured. She doesn’t recall a lot of detail but just remembers it was beautiful and was a good experience. When something great happens you don’t analyse it; only if it’s bad do you keep analysing! But it was an extra special moment as she’d had to watch so many beautiful dancers partnering Johan during her time off so it was wonderful for her to be able to dance with him again.
Her Balanchine works include Jewels (Diamonds) and Theme and Variations. She loves his work which is free and exciting and colourful. Everyone thinks of her as dainty and Giselle-like but her teacher in the Kiev used to make her travel and run and move back and forwards and Balanchine asks for that. The music of the first pas de deux of Diamonds takes you to heaven. It was one of the first classical roles she did after surgery. She wondered how it would go but felt no worse for doing it with a partner whom she was already familiar with. Sphinx is more of a challenge as she wants to see how far she can go with it but then she can go back to her safety net which is Beauty.
At her previous interview Alina was bemoaning the fact that so far she’d never been able to do Song of the Earth because it was always on with Symphonic Variations in which she was cast. It’s a great piece which she hopes will come back. Gloria she thinks is completely wonderful and there’s something so spiritual about the music which lifts you to a different level. The weight of the ballet, its history and period of its creation all bring a different dimension. Even more than with the classics, emotionally you get something different from the experience. After watching Mayerling the other night she felt exhausted and emotionally drained and felt she wanted to bring these things to the classical roles. But then you are struggling with the classical style while telling the story so it’s not so easy.
Audio clip - Giselle:
Giselle is her signature role – though she says she didn’t choose it, it chose her. There is something about it that makes you feel you can keep doing it over and over again. Every time she comes back to it she sees it in a different way and this is really the same with every ballet – as she grows, she sees and interprets it differently to make it fresher and more exciting. She has done many varied productions of Giselle and David asked how that influences her when she returns to the Royal. Alina says she’ll do something and her coach will ask what she’s doing! But she wants to show what she’s learned elsewhere. She’s done so many productions – Paris Opera, South Africa, Denmark, Russia (Kirov and Bolshoi), Florida etc. Every one has a little something different and adds an extra piece to the whole of that beautiful ballet so you can then bring these ideas to other productions. You feel enriched by the variety. She loves it because even she has no idea which Giselle she’ll be performing on the night but she knows it so well that there’s no need to plan. Johan has to discover which Giselle he is going to get and which direction the spirit will go!
Her return to the Opera House was in Giselle – ‘the most surreal, magical and beautiful day of her life’. About 10 days beforehand she thought she’d try it by herself just with the music to say how it would go. It seemed to come back so easily that on the Monday she said she’d try rehearsing it with Johan. She was shaky and a bit scared but felt strong with all the physio, weight- training sessions and one-to-one classes so thought she’d be able to turn and jump and do all the things she needed to do. She still felt good the evening after the first rehearsal and the next day a bit better still. But there was still pressure in wondering can you, can’t you do a performance. She was afraid to say yes but also afraid to say no because maybe she could make it. Three days after her first rehearsal they were running the ballet with no stops to check her stamina because however much preparation you do it’s not the same. But you have to recover afterwards and she wondered if she’d have enough time to recover before the show. It was something you don’t normally think about as when you’re young you feel invincible but Alina had learned the hard way that she was human after all. So, they did the show which felt surreal and not like a show at all, but just a day for celebrating with colleagues and friends her joy at being back on stage. Act II seemed very real and very moving for her – she was fighting to save someone she’d lost and she felt that’s what she had been doing for so long, fighting to come back to dancing again.
She’d also experienced another new choreographer in Johan. Alina said she’d had a ball with Les Lutins. The piece is so much fun, boys doing amazing stuff. Johan has great trust in his dancers, whereas most choreographers ask you to repeat and repeat steps with Johan it was very relaxed. They did it in Cuba where they just love ballet and it went down amazingly well. Havana proved a bit of a problem as Johan had food poisoning and Steven McRae was also ill, so James Hay was taught the work during a day in the studio with the performance that evening. It wasn’t easy but Alina thought he was brilliant, very focussed and wanting to ensure he knew exactly what to do so the rehearsals were long and very tiring. Although they were prepared to go with him wherever he went, James danced beautifully and his timing was good so it was very successful and she hopes he’ll have the chance to do it again.
She finished last season on tour with Manon. Johan was very sick but once on stage he just got on with it and although she was very concerned at how difficult it was for him and wanted to try to help to take the pain away, Alina really enjoyed the shows. One lift in Manon is similar to the one where she was injured so there was a bit of anxiety about how it would go but those two shows were the best they’d danced. David said that as part of the audience you were aware of the impact of Johan’s illness at the beginning but as the show progressed you forgot about it. Alina said she couldn’t comment on that but it was another thing she’d learned while being off – what the dancers feel and what the audience see are two very different worlds. Sometimes you think you’ve done a great show but for the audience it’s not so good, at other times you think it’s not so good but it’s very well received. From now on she feels she won’t be able to judge what the audience is seeing but she has to trust her coach to tell her the truth. It’s so important to have trust in your coach because at the end of the show it’s in his hands to guide her.
Questions from the audience:
What is Alina’s favourite role? She said it was difficult to choose. There is something special about where Giselle has taken her and she’ll never match the amount of rehearsal time she’s spent on the ballet but normally she would have to say it’s the show she’s currently working on which is the favourite.
During her time out with injury she set up a web-site. What made her decide to do this and how did the ideas come to her? Alina said Johan asked her what her favourite colour was (she said it was a strange question to ask after six years!) and he made the website for her. She loves the simplicity of it and the beautiful pictures he chose and the way it was put together.
There were pictures of Alina dancing with Roberto Bolle – was that the performance at La Scala? The answer was yes. She had a lovely time there with a beautiful company and nice people. Alina had actually danced Romeo and Juliet with Roberto at the Opera House when Darcey Bussell was injured, and also two performances here of Bayadère.
Are there any choreographers she wants to work with? It would be wonderful to work with William Forsyth, Mats Ek, John Neumieir. The past few years have made Alina realise how many opportunities she’s missed working with some great choreographers. They don’t usually come this way so you have to seek them out and make something happen as you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Although people may think some of the works aren’t that great from a dancing point of view, it’s very special and a great experience to be able to work with and learn from them.
David suggested although she’s changed and realises she doesn’t have to do everything, Alina will still try to fit it all in. She acknowledges she’s changed the way she works on a daily basis and in her rehearsal routine. Instead of rehearsing the whole day, she’ll stop and have lunch if she feels her body doesn’t need to be pushed any further at that point. Rehearsing makes you find new things about the piece but if you want to get strong you can do other exercise. You don’t have to rehearse every ballet every day, six days a week, and you can still learn by doing the movements without going full out. You don’t need to abuse your body so much but can use it to create beautiful things. She has missed the excitement of going somewhere by plane to perform on stage, not just to see a specialist! It’s just a wonderful feeling.
In thanking Alina very much for her fascinating and thoughtful comments, David said it was rare for a dancer to be so frank about what has been a very difficult period in her career, and he spoke for all the audience in expressing our heartfelt appreciation.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Alina Cojocaru and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009.