The Soul of a Star
Alina Somova appears in the distance in the plaza on a hot day during the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival: tall, wedge heels, wide khaki pants, small head, blond French twist, big sunglasses—like a goddess, or an elongated Grace Kelly. This is the Kirov’s youngest ballerina, she of the phenomenal extensions that float up from ground to ear, of the showmanship that looks both bravura and smooth. At 26, Somova has danced all the major roles. She has beauty, stamina, elegant line. Yet reviewers still can’t decide if she’s a technical wonder with no soul, or a young artist with a soul that’s just not always visible onstage. “Dancer or circus pony?” went a 2009 headline in the London Telegraph. Writer Ismene Brown concluded she was both, but growing in the right direction.
One would expect, given such controversy, somebody either defensive or remote. Somova is anything but. At her Pointe photo shoot, she sweetly puts on the suggested leotard, tights and chiffon skirt, then stands under lights on a white paper square, blond hair loose. The photographer instructs; the makeup guy darts in and out. She strikes a pose on pointe, then another and another. Each position gets a fresh smile for the click. In between she stands in that somehow endearing pointe-shoe-heels-on-floor stance—ready to hear what’s wanted next. There’s an unspoiled girl inside the goddess wrapping.
She seems so nice, one wonders how she got to where she is. The answer has to do, in part, with the mighty Vaganova Academy recruiting apparatus—and with a mom who had high ambitions for her daughter. “My parents weren’t ballet people or even art people,” Somova says. “Papa is a construction engineer, Mama, a nutrition specialist…or she was. She left work to look after me. If it hadn’t been for Mama, nothing would have happened.”
When she was small, Somova went to a regular St. Petersburg school, then a special math school at her mother’s insistence. Her mother wanted her to excel at sports too, especially her mother’s favorite, skiing. But skiing wasn’t easy in Russia in the 1990s, with the country in the midst of a political and economic transition. “So Mama took me, with baby sister in her arms—and I wasn’t much bigger—to the ‘dance krushok,’ ” a dance “circle” for children. The teachers recognized her physical gifts. When it came time to choose math or ballet, “there was no choice,” Somova says. The dance teachers insisted. She did a pre-curriculum year at St. Petersburg’s renowned Vaganova Academy, then the regular eight-year course. Those teachers pushed too. The last one, Ludmilla Safronova, cooked Somova food at home before dance exams—“meat, for strength,” Somova says. Makhar Vaziev, then Kirov Ballet head, all but promised her a place in the company if she worked on her feet.
Of course, the child had to love what she was doing—and Somova did. Even the drudgery of first-year pliés didn’t spoil her love of dancing. Nor did the grueling commute. The family lived far from the centrally located Vaganova school, on the Vyborg side of St. Petersburg. The little girl had to get up at 6 am for an hour tram ride (if she could catch it), or else a mix of subways and buses, then repeat it all in the other direction. “There were awful crowds—baboulichikis [grandmother types] who never gave you a place. I had to stand—with a backpack bigger than me!”
Somova also admits to a competitive streak. “I always wanted to be best,” she says almost happily. “I had to stand in the center. I liked corrections! If somebody was better, it was a tragedy for me. It was the Kirov or nothing.”
Once she was in, the red carpet was rolled out for the long limbs and proud bearing. She was cast as Odette/Odile in her first year. “It was crazy for a girl new to the theater to get Swan Lake, when so many wait for it for years,” she says a little ruefully. The next year, 2004, she became a soloist. She was helped by a caring coach, ex-ballerina Olga Chenchikova, who ran a mini-academy for her young charges, giving them floor barres and extra conditioning. “Chenchikova turned an ugly duckling into a ballerina,” Somova says. When Chenchikova left the Kirov with her husband, Vaziev (he took the dance post at La Scala), Somova got another top-notch coach, ex-ballerina powerhouse Tatiana Terekhova. They chose each other, in fact, after working together in rehearsals of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (Terekhova was in charge). “She has the pure Leningrad style, the style of Kolpakova,” says Somova of Terekhova, comparing her to Irina Kolpakova, now a ballet master with American Ballet Theatre. “And she doesn’t try to break me, like some other coaches try to do; she doesn’t want to see a copy of herself. She leaves me my ‘I.’”
But who is Somova’s “I” on the stage, beyond the technical amplitude? The answer depends on the ballet you’re watching. Take Balanchine’s Symphony in C, whose first movement she danced at the Lincoln Center Festival. She loves dancing Balanchine. “Some ballets take energy out of you,” she says. “Balanchine’s ballets give energy back, even if they’re hard.” But the Lincoln Center audience only saw that love in some moments—in the passage, for instance, where the ballerina stabs the ground with her pointes, so overcome with excitement she seems to be doing her own drumbeat. Suddenly, a mad child shone out in Somova’s performance. But in other moments in this brisk and joyous dance, a monotone took over—nice pas de chats; beautiful poses in arabesque; no surprises, and no glee.
On the other hand, when Somova danced the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s 2009 remake of The Little Humpbacked Horse, that missing “I” came through loud and clear. She seemed like the good-natured girl of the photo shoot. Ratmansky choreographed his Horse in mock-naïve cartoon style (perhaps in homage to a beloved Soviet animated film), which suits Somova. In a white and gold princess dress, with long yellow braids, she offered audiences not just technical prowess—she whipped through the leaps and turns; she reveled in the funky dance-hall moves—but a radiantly goofy goodness.
Maybe Somova is that rarity in the ballet world: A well-adjusted, happy young woman who happens to have gorgeous technique—and maybe expressing such good-humored effortlessness onstage is hard to do. That’s what the legendary Kolpakova thinks too, after working with Somova last winter in St. Petersburg. “God gave her phenomenal gifts: beauty of line, and an expressive jump,” Kolpakova says. “You can ask her to raise her leg higher, give you a longer arabesque. She does it. But what’s amazing is that it always looks natural, not false. She’s not mannered.”
So the “I” is about buoyant naturalness, or it will be as she grows some more. Somova herself seems to know that there’s an imbalance between her technical mastery and her artistic projection. “I want to work on my acting. It needs lots of work,” she says. “After eight years in the theater, I should be good at technique. As for the acting, I want the audience to watch the ballet like a movie—not the pirouettes, if they’re correct or not, but the image, the whole picture.”
What this writer hopes is that the young ballerina will see, as she grows, that acting can’t be plastered onto the steps: It’s the steps themselves that have to be inflected with personality. But Somova’s on the way to this discovery. Beyond a sunny good nature, she’s also got a healthy appetite—for life, for experience of all kinds, which will show up on the stage. On vacation she loves car trips with friends. Last summer, the Loire Valley; this summer, Scotland. She likes all the simple pleasures: sports, Italian opera, good food. “No diet!” she says, laughing. “I eat everything. I cook, if I have time—simple food, like soup, meat, vegetables. I dream of making cakes! I love chocolate, and fruits, especially apples. If apples are in the fridge, everything is okay.”
The prognosis is excellent for the dancer to win out over the technician. She has her support system in place too, headed by family. Her younger sister, also a dancer (who has yet to find a place in a company) is her best friend. Her mom, always nervous, comes to every performance—“even if it’s better sometimes, for her, not to be there.”
Audiences need now to sit back, relax and enjoy the sunny girl in the Cadillac body. And wait for her to give the Tsar Maiden treatment to all her roles. Wait for her to let loose and play with the steps.
Elizabeth Kendall is a New York dance critic. She is at work on a book about Balanchine's youth in Russia.