Last week, I was previewing a behind-the-scenes video I shot featuring San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova. Maria is all the things you would expect from a principal dancer at one of the nation’s top ballet companies—elegant, expressive, sophisticated, and thanks to her Bolshoi Ballet School training, technically uber-refined. However, there’s one thing about her that you wouldn’t expect, and certainly took me by surprise when I met her, which is that Maria is barely over five feet tall. This made for quite a first impression, since I am 5’9”. We were like two opposite ends of the ballet world’s height spectrum, and watching her photo shoot made me think about height in two different ways: the actual physical height of the dancer and the illusion of height created by their dancing.
There's not much anyone can do about your physical height, and life in the ballet world can be hard for dancers that are considered too short or too tall. I’ve gotten excited by seeing “Looking for female ballet dancers” in the title of audition postings many times, only to go on to read “5’2”–5’6” only” further on in the paragraph. Being told you’re wrong for the job right off the bat because of something you can’t help is disheartening, and I’ve often wished I were shorter and more delicate. On the other hand, if you’re very petite, it can be hard to feel authoritative onstage, and it can be a struggle not to get lost in the crowd.
Watching Maria go through her poses, though, made me abandon my preconceptions about my own height and the height of other dancers. Her lines were amazingly long and completely unbroken, from her fingertips to her toes. When she hit a high développé in ecarté á la seconde, in the moment that the movement was at its apex, it was absolutely complete. The line from her side arm to her working foot was completely stretched but not static; it looked as if she was still reaching and extending her line farther and farther. Her torso was tilted and lifted over her standing leg just enough to make this illusion possible, but never broke her line or made it look un-classical. The overall effect was that she was completely filling up the space she was given to dance in, and left me without a doubt that she dominates whatever stage she is on.
By the end of the shoot, I had completely forgotten about her small stature, and admired her all the more because she had inspired me to think about height as an asset to one’s dancing, rather than something that works against you if it doesn’t conform perfectly. I’m now working harder to achieve the length she can, and extend my arms and legs infinitely in whichever direction they are pointing, instead of concentrating on keeping everything underneath me in an iron grip to look more compact. I’m already starting to see a lighter, brighter quality in my dancing as a result. I know now that a beautiful line is a beautiful line, no matter how tall or short you are, and will definitely get you noticed.
Oh, and what correction do you think I got in class today? “Use your height!!”