Lead Principal, English National Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 26 August 2015
AFTER HIS WELCOME, David suggested Alina tell us what she’d been doing for the past six years, but first to fill us in on her recent travels to Tokyo where she was taking part in the triennial festival with dancers from all over the world, joining in performance at a series of galas. They take classes and do rehearsals which give them the opportunity to see different ways of working and help raise their own standards. It was also wonderful for dance students to take class with them and be in a room full of stars who are passionate about their art form. There were altogether 11 performances over two and a half weeks. Alina was dancing with Johan Kobborg in different programmes doing Ashton’s Cinderella, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, and Act II Giselle. It was lovely having Johan with her again, he has so much passion, and it was a great two weeks together which was probably more than they’d spent in the whole previous year!
Asked why she chose to join English National Ballet (ENB), Alina said that once you want to go in a different direction you want to know what you will gain. London is home as she and Johan have been here for so long so it was a question of how to make things work. Knowing Tamara Rojo and the ENB coaches whom she enjoyed working with and hearing about Tamara’s ideas was appealing. Alina also loves working with John Neumeier in Hamburg so it was a question of seeing how she could incorporate the two companies. Having spoken to both Directors, a way was found to make her available to them both and so far it has worked brilliantly. Her home town is Bucharest where Johan has been Director of the Opera National Ballet for a year and a half so it is another challenge to find more time to be there with him and the company and that’s their new journey. There’s not been a lot of time to think of the next step. When you think that something has to change you follow your instincts and some things turn out even better than you could have hoped. You have to have the courage to take an idea forward. Not everything is planned and there’s no certainty about the future but you have to try. Alina trusted the people around her and felt it shouldn’t go wrong. She enjoys the variety of different places with difference audiences. Travelling with ENB the first year, she had a week in London, packed her suitcase, went to Liverpool and then Southampton and so on. By the second year it was easier as she knew where she was going so now there aren’t so many surprises. There are more international tours and constant development and change so she enjoys working at ENB and loves being involved in the new creations. It’s lovely to be in the studio with Russell Maliphant, the choreographer, whose work is never exactly as it was the previous time. With John Neumeier if you say ‘it used to be like this’, he will say ‘but I’m the choreographer and now it’s going to be different’. It evolves so it’s alive and human. You have to have the courage to allow the unknown feeling.
Their current programme, Lest We Forget, includes No Man’s Land. She had worked with Liam Scarlett at the Royal Ballet on Sweet Violets and loves working with him. He’s very quick and knows what he wants but gives you freedom to express emotions. It’s a very emotional piece, especially at the end, when you imagine someone is there when he isn’t. The first time it was so emotional for her as Johan wasn’t there when he’d always been in the past. Before Japan she and Johan danced in Emma Maguire’s gala which was another emotional moment. It was very powerful and Alina had to hold back the emotion in order to get through the show so it didn’t come across as strongly as it might have for that very dramatic piece. Liam doesn’t insist on a certain feeling but as you do the steps the emotion comes into your head. Tamara put together the programme Lest We Forget with Liam, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan and it was she who decided who should work with which choreographer though Alina knew the days when she would be in Hamburg and when in London and therefore when she would be available to them. With Russell you feel in the presence of someone who thinks and sees things very calmly and time seems to stand still. It was wonderful as he would say something and you could see his thoughts. It’s not so much about the movement in the pas de deux they’re working on at present but the feelings between two people who discover each other again after the war. You know someone yet you don’t know them as they have become a different person after such an experience and you wonder how to respond to them. Alina said they’d been playing with it over the last few days and it’s quite emotional but the feelings are real. You have grown as a person and have to find a different way as you’ve both gained some life experience but not together so you have to learn to share with the person they have become. Every time they say something she knows exactly what they want and tries to find ways to give them movement or emotion and the dancers respond to that. You put a lot of yourself in the working process to achieve the final result and there’s nothing more exciting than to be with a choreographer in the studio.
At the Royal Ballet Alina danced mostly with Johan and she knew her other partners but she’d seen ENB only once before. When she went into the Paris Opera, the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi she felt at home as she knew probably 50 percent of the dancers and teachers. At ENB she knew no-one but they are wonderful people, it’s an amazingly hard working company and the most important thing is for the show to go well, and everyone has the desire to make it work so you feel part of a wonderful group. She learned for the first time that opening night can be more scary as there’s more pressure not about her having a good show but to present the company in a good way. If it gets a bad review it is bad for the company as they need the right support. Alina’s debut with the company was dancing Corsaire with Vadim Muntagirov and she was so nervous but she was among colleagues who worked so hard with her every day and helped and supported her. She enjoys going to work every day even though it is so physical and demanding. Alina feels she is in a place where she should be and when she wakes up she’s excited to go to work. It’s quite a change after the Royal as they only have two and a quarter studios! On tour there are different stages, some big, some very small. They take classes on stage at the Coliseum and it is enjoyable because you feel it’s home. In Tokyo the classes were on stage and she felt herself getting stronger. It’s not until you are actually on stage that something else kicks in which you can’t create in quite the same way in the studio. Once on stage you can lose yourself in the moment.
Working with Anne-Marie Holmes on Corsaire was good as she is very honest – what’s good is good, what’s bad is bad – and with a Russian traditional background she knows what she wants and knows the ballet well. It was the first new ballet for Alina in a long time and with a new company. She loves this production. Before the stage call in Southampton she went out front to see how it looked. She loves the intimate connection with the audience and it was magical with the new sets and lighting. It’s a romantic ballet though the story is hard to follow. When she saw the set she relaxed as it created a different world – unreal, mystical and hardly human and everything was giving her space to play with. She was very excited about being in there and looks forward to doing it again next year. She danced with Vadim her first season, and last season with Alejandro Virelles who is now injured. This season it is James Forbat who stepped in last season, and Junor Souza who she’s also danced with previously. Alina will dance Romeo and Juliet with Isaac Hernandez which they have started to rehearse.
Alina’s collaboration with John Neumeier in Hamburg really began when she created Julie in his new work, Liliom, based on the Ferenc Molnár play. It’s an amazing collaboration but it’s hard to explain what it is like to work with John as we don’t know a lot of his work here. But the role of Julie has been the highlight of her career and she feels if she stopped dancing today, she would be happy as it couldn’t be bettered. Asked what makes his choreography so special, Alina said it’s not the choreography but the steps and the story and emotions which are the reason behind each step. Having danced so many ballets in different companies, it was a question of watching and rehearsing and performing. Now she can really discover the choreography and the steps and strive for a different dynamic. Watching and learning what the choreographer likes is even more important and John gives so much information. Talking to another dancer who plays an artist who has to paint a portrait, John said ‘this is the biggest day of your life when you have to paint this beautiful woman and every detail is important’. He spoke about it for half an hour after which Alina felt she wanted to do the role herself!
After so many years as principal you need to be fed with an emotional charge which she felt early on and would read books about roles she was due to perform. There is a desire to develop. Now John gives so much information so it’s not necessary. If he wants something stronger she has three ways of doing it and he says good. Even if on the second occasion she does something completely opposite, he still likes it. She knows what she is supposed to do but can do something completely different but as long as it is in the moment it is all right for him. He never says something is wrong but rather it needs more depth. It’s a never-ending journey and he communicates constantly. In the studio he would say “we failed to achieve” rather than say something was “bad”. You know where you stand, particularly in emotional terms. Alina will be working with him again this season doing some exciting roles, and on tour to the Bolshoi and Japan.
Romanian National Opera. Alina has always wanted to dance more at home for her family and in her country where she has a certain following but there is pressure because she wants to give a special performance. If people are excited about a show, they enjoy everything which helps her relax. A couple of years ago Johan was in Bucharest staging La Sylphide and he rang saying he’d been offered a contract. Financially things are difficult so she didn’t know what to say but it was the right next step for Johan so she had to be supportive for him. Now Alina is guesting with the company and has three different partners there and eight in Hamburg and this helps her to grow. In the studio she can’t say “Johan says…” so in the studio you do things differently. You learn about life and relationships through the people you work with, and Alina had to learn to adjust so as to achieve a wonderful show. She’s enjoyed this discovery and questions herself a lot so as to understand the feelings of the person she works with. She’s spent many weekends in the air, flying overnight on Friday for a day and a half and back here for rehearsals on Monday. It’s been quite a tough year but if you work with people you love and it excites you and you stay healthy, it’s good. There are some injuries in daily life and her performances over the last three years have tripled, but physically she has been able to achieve it. After her serious injuries in the past her health is a priority so she questioned if she could do it but when the moment comes it is fine. Afterwards she takes four days off to rest though she tells everyone she is busy! The more you do this the more you can enjoy the next step and do better in rehearsals. She’s learned to listen to her body. As a dancer you always want to push. She used to think she was weak and had to push hard to get stronger. Now she knows when she needs to relax and rest and when to push.
Talking of Johan’s position as Artistic Director, Alina said they all knew he would be a good Director and it seems to be the right company as he has a free hand artistically in decision making. He has his choice of rep and dancers come from many different companies, just to work with him. He’s wonderful in the studio because he knows what it takes to be an international dancer and has a certain respect, understanding and ability to communicate and once you have these things you really can’t go wrong. The energy and excitement in the studio every day is truly phenomenal. One thing they had was a very hard floor and next year there will be a new one in the studio and on stage. It is a big deal for the dancers who can now believe that someone is on their side to create better conditions for them. It’s the beginning of a long journey which requires a lot of patience. Alina is quite excited but she never forgets that it is a country where anything can happen in a moment so it depends who is in power and they are happy for every small achievement. There are five huge studios and a wonderful stage so everything is there but they need constant support and there are always problems with finance. So far things are great and it’s an amazing learning curve for Johan. He is teaching the press department how to deal with the press, and everything to do with the company falls on his shoulders. So there’s a lot to do but he’s really passionate about it and after you have danced you want to contribute so this contribution to his art form is a natural step forward. Alina loves being around him as it challenges her. She is coaching for the first time and loves it. When you see someone doing better it makes you happier than achieving it yourself.
In recent years Alina has set up a charity to support hospices in Romania. Hospices of Hope is based in the UK and she was asked to donate some shoes for a fund-raising auction and learned something about their work which interested her. She tries to help her country, and on many occasions has been to the school to give performances and left shoes for the pupils. But afterwards she found the shoes were being sold to the students and she couldn’t believe that would happen. How could she trust that what she gave would go to the right place? With the hospice she felt that it was a project where she could really help and over the years they have had two events and raised over £60,000 which goes a long way in Romania. Last year the hospice opened in Bucharest which was amazing. Alina visited when they were still working on it but hasn’t had the opportunity since it was finished. She finds it satisfying to contribute to something bigger than herself and is lucky to have this opportunity so will do more in the future.
With the Royal Ballet she performed in Las Hermanas. It was the first time Alina had worked with Ray Barra and enjoyed it a lot. She didn’t know what to expect and was very excited to meet him. Into the studio came a man full of energy and passion who said this ballet is dramatic and full of sex, violence and evil and it’s so much fun! She loved working with him and found it a unique experience. There was also Alexei Ratmansky who was someone she’d wanted to work with for a long time. He is more precise and detailed than anyone else she’s worked with and she loved the challenge. Each movement has a meaning and a dynamic and he gave all the information she needed. Coming from the Russian school with which Alina was familiar, you found just when you thought you had got it right there would be a correction, and then another one and another so there was always something more but it’s a productive way of working. Every day she felt she was going somewhere and was developing so enjoyed it very much. It was not about being dissatisfied but rather that things could be done better and dancers like to be pushed. There’s nothing worse than doing a solo and someone says ‘OK, good, thanks’ when you feel you could do better.
When working with Liam Scarlett for the first time on Sweet Violets they had a very short period of preparation which Alina doesn’t remember much about. It’s a very dramatic piece. Even doing the research she would look at it from the others’ points of view and when not in a scene she looks to see the bigger picture around her. Unlike most choreographers Alina’s worked with, Liam gets into the piece and does a lot of the partnering himself. What’s nice is he will say this feels organic, how does it look? Alina recalled creating the pas de deux and being killed! Liam didn’t explain a lot about the plot and left the dancers to interpret things in their own way, guiding them where necessary. He waited to see how things developed – like doing a sketch and filling in the colour later on – so you do the movement and add the drama as you go along.
Alina loves working with Kim Brandstrup and worked for the first time with Carlos Acosta on Rushes in which there was a lot of emotion between the two characters. Kim is very calm and likes to talk so has a lot of input. He hadn’t worked so much with dancers on pointe so wanted to discover the movement for himself. He never said do this or do that but rather what about going this way or the other. You try to do what he wants and then he changes so much just as you’ve got it right! Even during a performance he sees something else and Alina likes to try to recreate what he sees. She respects and loves being part of it. If someone says is it possible she says let’s try and in this way is contributing to the art form. It’s inspiring when choreographers do that. Alina had a great time working with Wayne McGregor on Chroma which was an amazing experience and a completely different way of moving. He was very focussed, and it was one of the first times the dancers had experienced such extreme movement and such quick and different coordination. It was a great challenge, the creative process was amazing and she loved the Chroma shows very much.
Returning to Alina’s arrival at the Royal Ballet in 1999 she recalled being in the corps of Shades in Bayadère for the reopening of the Opera House. She was terrified and being small was at the front so had to lead. It was a big responsibility as the corps is the meat of each show. In Swan Lake with ENB the swans are amazing. She recalled being given a DVD of Swan Lake and she learned the corps role in the middle of snowflakes. She did Waltz of the Flowers in Nutcracker with Peter Wright and everyone at the front, and someone gesticulating at the back, telling her what to do! Peter said they did really well. Then she discovered Johan and danced with him more and more and time went so fast. For Symphonic Variations, Alina said she was asked to go into the studio to learn a new piece. She was at the back and there weren’t many other people there but she waited for someone to start so she could see what she had to learn. Then they told her she was the centre girl. The next day was the stage call with Bruce Sansom and she was told to do what she could. She learned from a DVD and they did the whole piece, for opening on the following Monday. There was no pressure to do the show. Alina was worried she wouldn’t have sufficient stamina but did it twice. She felt she had done everything possible to make a good show. It is hard to go home after a bad show or one which you feel should have been better but sometimes you just have a bad day. You go to the studio next day and work towards a better show the next time. Neumeier gives you constant feedback and working with a choreographer is a perpetual dialogue so the responsibility isn’t just on her shoulders. It gives her the possibility to go home and have a life – watch a movie, go for a walk and enjoy a relaxing time – as someone else does the thinking for her. If she chooses to think about ballet it is with a positive attitude. You want to get better but if people just say ‘it’s fine’ that isn’t enough – it has to be extraordinary.
Why did she leave the Royal after 14 years? Alina recalled so many wonderful things which allowed her to do what she loves. But life isn’t black and white or about everything being great or everything being terrible. You have to think if you just want to do a job or discover your art form. Once she answered that question then she knew that it wasn’t the right place to be. Perhaps it would be different at a different stage of her career but at that point she didn’t just want a job because the art form is too interesting, fascinating and demanding and life’s too short for it just to be a job. She never wants to get to the point where she is bored with her work and her injury made her wake up and ask herself what she really loved about it.
In thanking Alina very much for coming, David said it was the fourth time she had been our guest. He recalled her being the first dancer he had been allowed to interview by himself so they were both nervous and he remembered her sitting on her Mum’s knee before the interview. Since then we have all followed her career with enormous pleasure in whatever role and we look forward to the next stage of her career wherever it takes her.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Alina Cojocaru and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2015