Inner Resolve & Outer Splendor

A conversation with Staatsballett Berlin principal dancer Polina Semionova.
Published in the Dec 2008/Jan 2009 issue.

Last April when Staatsballett Berlin principal Polina Semionova made her NYC debut performing in the Youth America Grand Prix gala, her mere appearance on the stage elicited screams of delight from the aspiring dancers in the audience. They knew the young star from a video, “Demo (Letzter Tag),” in which she dances a sweet and expressive solo to music by popular German musician and actor Herbert Grönemeyer. The video has been viewed by close to 1.5 million people on YouTube, making Semionova more popular on the internet site than Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri or Natalia Makarova.

In September I had a chance to observe the young ballerina in company class and rehearsal in Berlin and to talk with her about her dancing. In person, she is both appreciative and animated, the first to acknowledge that luck has played a role in the chain of events that propelled her to fame. At 24, Semionova says she now carefully calculates pluses and minuses before making big decisions, but the opportunity to do the Grönemeyer video came before she gained such maturity.

“I was so young!” she laughs when asked if the project came from a desire to reach new audiences for ballet. “I was 18 and had just joined the company. It was supposed to be a different dancer, Nadja Saidakova, but she was injured and I was the third or fourth choice.” And though she had no idea how much the video would be watched, Semionova is happy that “people who are not interested in ballet watch it and think of coming to the theater,” she says.

Serendipity is a recurring theme in Semionova’s story. As a child growing up in Moscow, she and her older brother Dmitry loved sports, especially ice-skating, while her younger sister studied music. When Dmitry’s coach recommended that his tall stature was better suited to ballet stages than ice rinks, Semionova was forced to switch pursuits as well. “Three children in three schools? This would have been too difficult for my parents, so I ended up in ballet. I cried because I loved ice-skating.” Again she laughed at the synchronicity: her proportions, like her brother’s, are perfect for ballet.

Accepted at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Semionova worked hard but was not at the top of her class. She credits the three international competitions she participated in (Moscow, Vaganova-Prix in St. Petersburg and Nagoya) with giving her the opportunity to find herself and realize her abilities.

“In school I never danced solo roles,” she says. “We had a very talented class. Often I went into a studio to work alone. Other students could afford extra classes with the teacher but I could not. One day Yuri Vasuchenko, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, saw how I was working and said ‘I will help you.’

“He was preparing his son for the first Moscow International Ballet Competition, and asked me to be his son’s partner. I had never done solos or pas de deux before. Yuri had me run the variations three times in a row to make sure I had enough strength.” At the same time, she recalls going through a growth spurt that left her weak. “I was shaking after each pas de deux,” she says.

When her teacher and director of the school, Sofia Golovkina, heard that Semionova was planning to attend the competition, she disapproved and forbade her to go, saying she would throw her out of class. But Semionova went, albeit crying, and was awarded the 2001 junior division gold medal. When she returned to class, Semionova recalls that Golovkina said, “You won,” meaning not only the competition, but the right to make her own decisions.

Semionova reflects on the experience and adds: “Competitions are not only about medals, but about the process. In fact, they are mostly for the chance they offer dancers to reach for more.”

The ballerina makes a habit of pushing to exceed her grasp, as I saw in the rehearsal I watched later that day. Ballet mistress Valentina Savina was coaching her in Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” for the gala that opens the company’s season in Berlin. The pas de deux is a study in classical refinement: spare and technically challenging. Several times, the man places the woman in a position, lets go of her hand, and she balances. During the rehearsal, each time Semionova established a beautiful balance, she lifted her passé a little higher before transitioning to the next step. Even in rehearsal she was living her motto: “To be happy for what I have, and to try for a little more.” 

Semionova was rehearsing with her brother Dmitry (he has been a principal with the company since 2007) but she will dance with the artistic director of the Staatsballett, Vladimir Malakhov,  in the gala. Since becoming director in 2002, Malakhov has changed the look of ballet in Berlin: He guided the city’s transition from three troupes into one, and has attracted a younger, more stylish audience through smart programming and marketing.     

In many ways, Semionova’s rise to acclaim has paralleled Malakhov’s success, and offstage, Malakhov smoothed her transition from Russia to Europe. When she arrived, not speaking a word of English or German, he was not only her director, but also a friend.

Now, as she begins her seventh season with the company, she is comfortable with both languages: “Living alone changes you,” she says. “You have to be more independent, more open. When I was in school, I was very shy.”   

Both Semionova and Malakhov were trained at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy and also share unique similarities in their physiques and movement. When Malakhov visited his alma mater in 2001, he was attracted to the way Semionova approached her work.

“When I was in Moscow to film part of the PBS documentary, Born to be Wild, I visited the ballet school and saw this beautiful girl in class,” says Malakhov. “Her teachers wanted to show me other students but my head was always turning to watch her.”

Malakhov liked the way she worked so much that he offered her a contract to join the Staatsballett as a principal. She also received offers from The Kirov Ballet and The Bolshoi Ballet, the company that Golovkina expected her to join.

“I chose Berlin because a principal contract is not offered to many people,” says Semionova. “I took Vladimir coming to the school and seeing me as a sign—I thought if I didn’t take the offer, I would feel I hadn’t tried.” She admits that it was difficult to break the news to Golovkina, but that her teacher was understanding because of Malakhov. “‘He is my kid. You are also my kid,’” Semionova recalls Golovkina saying. “‘I know he will take care of you, so my heart will stay calm.’ Then she told me, ‘When I was tough with you, it was only to make you stronger.’”

Whether it was her teacher’s toughness or her own determination, Semionova pours herself into her work. “Class is not only how you warm up for the rest of your day, but it’s also for your muscles, your strength,” she says. “I would say to young dancers, ‘Don’t save yourself, but don’t work stupidly either. Work with the body and the head.’ Sometimes it’s better to do an exercise once and thinking, rather than 100 times and getting cramps everywhere.”

Practicing what she preaches, Semionova was a study in perpetual motion during the class I watched. There is an ease and perfection in her movement, which makes it difficult to watch anyone else in the studio. She plays with qualities of movement: sometimes slicing her leg to the side in a staccato manner, other times letting a grand battement float up to her arm in high fifth, seemingly effortlessly. Her legs appear attached to her body with pliable elastics. Her turns are similarly smooth: four or five pirouettes coast around rather than spin forcefully.

“She has made a wonderful development during the six seasons she has been here,” says Malakhov. “When she came to Berlin, she was called the baby ballerina by the media. She was very young, but with time she has gotten more and more stable and secure. She worked very hard for this. She is so strict with herself.”

Focused on the work, Semionova uses her concentration to get the most out of her dancing. “Onstage you perform the movement you do well, what you enjoy,” she says. “But class is our job, our work, our time to make weaknesses better. Sometimes a teacher gives a combination and I feel I need to do a little more for a certain muscle so I work my body in between exercises. I believe each dancer knows their own body the best.”

The ballerina frequently performs with Malakhov, and he continues to inspire her, particularly in “the way and how he works,” she says. “Onstage he doesn’t act, he lives.” This is what she aspires to. She wants the audience to become enamored of the characters and emotions. “When the public watches a ballet I want it to affect them like a movie.”

Berlin is an apt home for this talented artist: The opera house is situated between the Brandenburg Gate, a historical landmark in the city, and Alexanderplatz, a commercial center. Semionova herself seems to straddle different worlds: from her exquisite Russian training to her presence on YouTube and Facebook. As she explores traditional ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake, she also reaches younger audiences with new forms of technology and communication—she is a link between the past and the future.

Kate Mattingly teaches and writes about dance in the United States and in Europe.