A Free Soul

Bolshoi-trained Maria Kochetkova soars at San Francisco Ballet.
Published in the April/May 2010 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Things are not going perfectly in a rehearsal of the Grand Pas de Deux from Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker, and San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova is not happy. A running leap onto the shoulder of partner Gennadi Nedvigin lands acceptably, but merely okay doesn’t satisfy Kochetkova.

 

“I just have to find a way…one, two, three, four,” she counts almost to herself, calculating how many steps she needs to take. They try again, and with unerring aim, she sails into place.

 

You might think that would be that, but as Nedvigin rehearses his solo, Kochetkova slips on a sweater, pauses to gaze out a window at the view of the War Memorial Opera House and then proceeds to repeat those same four steps over and over again, fine-tuning them even more.

 

Young and energetic, with porcelain features that belie the steely security of her technique, 25-year-old Kochetkova is part of a new generation of principals at SFB. She seems even slighter in person than she does on film: She dances this same pas de deux on SFB’s Nutcracker DVD. In the hallway, with no makeup and strands of hair escaping a loosely tacked high bun, Kochetkova could easily be mistaken for one of the school’s students. But once she begins to dance, her face—indeed her whole body—lights up with the unmistakable glamour and refinement of a ballerina. Even in the most complex variation, she breathes purity into every step, moving with both assurance and poetry. Each arabesque looks delicately spontaneous yet solidly secure. Her jumps ricochet off the floor with barely a sound. The only hint that any of this is difficult is her heavy breathing—and you must be very close to hear it.

 

Born in Russia, Masha, as she is known to friends and colleagues, had initially hoped to be a gymnast. When she was 10, her parents (both of whom are engineers) convinced her to change to ballet. At the time, dance seemed to her like a girlish diversion, while gymnastics was serious work. That opinion quickly changed once she began at the Bolshoi Ballet’s Moscow State Academy of Choreography.

 

“It was really, really tough,” Kochetkova recalls. She was chosen to be in the class of Sofia Golovkina, the famously ruthless academy director. “We were scared of her. Every class was like a performance.”

 

Still, Kochetkova says training with Golovkina gave her discipline. “I’m grateful that she was so demanding. She saw something I didn’t know about myself as a dancer. She’d make me jump higher, she’d make me turn better, she’d make me stay on balance. She made me the dancer that I am,” Kochetkova says. “It is a very different mentality from schools in America—more competitive. The
first thing you understood was that you were there to work, not for fun or pleasure.”

 

During the final year of her training, shortly after she’d won the bronze medal at the Moscow International Competition, Kochetkova decided to compete at the 2002 Prix de Lausanne. It was a
risky move: Her teachers hadn’t sanctioned her competing, so she had no coach and was forced to rehearse alone.

 

“But this was my chance to get out there—to be seen,” she says. Her plan worked: She won the silver, and was offered an apprenticeship with The Royal Ballet. “I knew I couldn’t just wait and hope for a job to come to me. I had to do it myself.”

 

Which brings us back to Kochetkova’s workaholic reputation. Fellow SFB principal Joan Boada—who created a stunning pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour with Kochetkova—notes that she’s the only person who can get him into the studio on his day off. Asked what she’s like to work with, he says with mock agony, “Oh it’s horrible!”

 

“She’s a ballet freak,” he confides. “In fact, she even has a shirt that was made for her at the English National Ballet that says ‘Ballet Freak.’ We joke that if she had the keys to the studio, she would stay there overnight.”

 

“It’s really good for me though,” he goes on seriously, noting that Kochet­kova is always pushing to find new ways to do things. “She thinks ballet is really hard for her; that’s why she does it for so many hours a day. But she can accomplish things that are brilliant. That’s the kind of training she has—and it takes you places, when you’re that committed. She’ll get what she wants.”

While at The Royal, Kochetkova found herself enthralled by London and the variety of contemporary choreography the city had to offer. But adjusting to a new language and way of doing things in a com­pany with such long-standing traditions proved difficult. After a year, she moved to the English National Ballet in search of new inspiration. “I saw ENB perform Forsythe disciple David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin,” she says, “and thought, ‘I so much want to do that kind of ballet.’ ”

 

On holiday back in Moscow, Kochetkova had the good fortune to run into Christopher Wheeldon, who was staging a work for the Bolshoi. Earlier, she had sent a DVD of her work to SFB but never got a response. Unbeknownst to her, Wheeldon put in a call to director Helgi Tomasson.

 

“Helgi had asked me to look out for a small ballerina,” Wheeldon recalls. “On watching Masha in class at the Bolshoi and talking to her, SFB seemed like a perfect fit. Masha displayed the qualities of an artist: strength mixed with a delicacy and vulnerability.”

 

Kochetkova took class at SFB and Tomasson quickly offered her a principal contract. “There was something special about her,” says Tomasson. “Maria has excellent training, as well as an inherent musicality and lyricism. I’m amazed at how she can move so easily from a classical role like Giselle to contemporary pieces by Mark Morris or Jorma Elo.”

 

That versatility has made her a natural ambassador to new audiences. “Most people don’t get to see good ballet,” she says. “I want to get them interested in it.” In 2009 she competed on the NBC show Superstars of Dance—and took the top honor for individual performer. “I remember standing backstage, watching these Chinese acrobats standing on each others’ shoulders,” she says, “and thinking, ‘Wow—I just do ballet.’ “

 

“I didn’t realize how much response I would get from being on the show,” she continues. After winning the gold medal, 2,000 people wrote to her and, she notes with pride, she answered them personally.

 

Eschewing the mystique of the “untouchable” prima donna, Kochetkova is an avid social networker, blogging, tweeting and posting about everything from her rehearsal process to her favorite dance movies. Moments before our interview, a quick glance at her Twitter feed reveals this cheerful dispatch from “balletrusse”: “Off to the interview with @pointe_magazine.”

 

Kochetkova credits her husband, Edward King, who works in the film industry, with impressing on her the importance of communicating with a larger audience. Some might view all this as mere self-promotion, but for Kochet­kova it’s less about egotism than reaching out. “Dance is for everyone,” she asserts. 

 

And if her desire to share her love of ballet takes extra effort and time, well, Kochetkova is no stranger to hard work. That ethic has contributed to a meteoric rise in just a few short years, putting her on the same footing as her idols. Last summer Kochetkova danced in the renowned World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, a gathering of some of the greatest names in ballet.

 

“There were so many great dancers there and we all took class together. To be in class and rehearsal with Sylvie Guillem was…” Kochetkova pauses. “When I had just joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice, I was one of the little girls under the carriage in Manon, and watched her perform up close. I so admired her, and there I was sharing the stage with Sylvie.”

 

In Guillem—another renowned perfectionist—Kochetkova recognizes not just inspiration but a kindred spirit. “It was great to realize that the more talented you are, the more you have to work.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

Want to see more of Maria?  Check out exclusive footage from our cover shoot here.