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Interviews

“I know what I’m going for”
a conversation with Alina Cojocaru

Autumn 2001
by Marc Haegeman
© 2001

I was meeting Alina Cojocaru for this interview at 4 p.m. in the foyer of a hotel in the centre of Copenhagen. She was one of the dancers appearing in the international Ballet Gala at Tivoli, hosted by Johan Kobborg. When I arrived some five minutes before time I noticed, to my surprise, that Alina was already waiting. When I made a compliment about her punctuality, she smiled and looked at me as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “I hate to be late”, she added.

Alina Cojocaru is 19, but small of figure and slender of look, she seems at least five years younger. Moreover, by her girlish, modest, almost down-to-earth appearance off stage she is miles away from the glamorous star-ballerina image we got used to in the early 21st century. Cojocaru is Romanian and became one of the most talked about budding dancers in London’s Royal Ballet of recent years. Following some remarkable debuts at Covent Garden (mainly in the popular classics Romeo and Juliet and Giselle), which propelled her almost overnight to the very top of the company’s hierarchy, she was already, in a rather careless fashion, compared to some of the legendary ballerinas of the past. Yet, all the superlatives set aside, everybody will agree that dancers like Alina Cojocaru aren’t born every day.

After we installed ourselves in a quiet room inside the theatre and I placed the tape recorder in front of her, she remarked shyly that “she is not a good friend of this” and apologized for speaking in a rather hushed manner. And she does indeed speak in a soft voice. But at the same time there is also something definitely spirited and vivacious about the way she talks (after spending hardly two years in the UK her English is already amazingly fluent). She cannot conceal her joyfulness and after a few lines one can easily imagine the energy and confidence that characterize her dancing. Simple, straightforward, yet focusing her objective as the most experienced artist in the business. Born to dance and knowing quite well what’s she is going for: Alina Cojocaru seems to have more than one surprise up her sleeve.

DANCEVIEW: Alina, what have you been dancing in this gala so far?

ALINA COJOCARU: I danced the pas de deux from Manon and Flower Festival in Genzano with Johan [Kobborg].

DV: Had you danced these works before?

COJOCARU: I already danced the Flower Festival in a gala in Munich, but I learned the Manon pas de deux especially for the gala here.

DV: Recently you were promoted to principal dancer in the Royal Ballet, one of the world’s most renowned ballet troupes. Here now in Copenhagen you are performing in the ballet gala hosted by Johan Kobborg, numbering some of the world’s most famous dancers. Tell me about your impressions.

COJOCARU: I danced with the Kiev Ballet for a year, which already gave me the opportunity to perform in a few galas. They were maybe not as important as this one in Copenhagen now, but still they allowed me to meet dancers like Tamara [Rojo], so in fact it’s not so very different for me. But of course, I didn’t expect any of this to happen so quickly.

[hesitating] It’s much easier to express ourselves in dance than to talk, sometimes there are not enough words to explain. Ballet is an art in which you have to learn from each other. To be able to appear in a gala allows you to see what’s happening elsewhere, in other theatres and companies, it gives you the chance to see other dancers, different ballets, and styles. I do enjoy these galas a great deal, even though they mean a lot of extra pressure. Dancing a pas de deux from Manon or Giselle is also much harder, because you have to start somewhere in the middle of the ballet and you cannot grow towards it as in a full length performance. But as an artistic experience it is important.

DV: Going back to the very beginning, how and when did you became interested in ballet?

COJOCARU: I was born in Bucharest in a very normal family – there wasn’t anybody dancing or working in a theatre or anything. Just as many children there I started to do gymnastics for a year or so. I was 7 or 8 and because I was very small, I hoped that doing gymnastics would make me grow a bit. A friend of the family visited us one day and when he saw me jumping around like that, he said that I had to do something with that energy. He introduced me to the ballet classes in a school that prepares to audition for our State Ballet School. I was there for two or three months; it was interesting, because I learned things like polkas, waltzes and so. Afterwards I auditioned for the School, passed the exam, and the same year the director of the Kiev Ballet School visited us to choose a group of children - it was something like a students exchange. Nine of us were selected to go and study in Kiev.

So I went to Kiev. [hesitating] It was hard. Most of all for the families, to let us go. I was only nine, I didn’t quite realize what I was heading for and at that time I really had no idea what ballet was – actually, I had never seen a full length ballet in my life. But my parents were really wonderful, they said something like: “You can go, but if you don’t like it, you just come back.” They gave me a fair chance to try.

In Kiev we had our own classes, separately from the others, and there was an interpreter with us all the time, for we didn’t speak any Russian. The first classes were nothing more like “left”, “right”, “arm”, “leg”, and so on.

I went on with it and after six years at school, I started to participate in competitions, in Moscow and in Lausanne. In Lausanne I won a two-year scholarship to a ballet school. I took the Royal Ballet School. It wasn’t my own decision, because in Kiev we didn’t have much of a chance to find out about other ballet schools. Yet, someone advised me to try the Royal Ballet School.

Without having finished school in Kiev I went to London. It was a great experience working at the Royal Ballet School, especially with people like Lesley Collier and I really learned a lot there. After six months they moved me up to the second year, but then I received an invitation from the Kiev Ballet to join the company as a principal dancer.

I said : “I’m going to Kiev!” [laughing] when at the same time Anthony Dowell offered me a contract at the Royal Ballet to dance in the corps de ballet. Again, it was a difficult decision. I didn’t know what to do at first. As you will understand I had to choose between London and Russia, and for many people the choice would have been very obvious. Eventually, my family left me decide for myself and promised to support me in whatever way I chose. So, I decided to go back to Kiev.

I started to work in the Kiev company, at the same time preparing the exams for the two years that I missed. It was a really hard time. But the people there were nice and not so hard on me with the exams [laughing].

I had a good year in the Kiev Ballet dancing roles like Kitri and Aurora.

DV: Principal roles - Immediately?

COJOCARU: Yes, my debut was Kitri. I didn’t do any corps de ballet at all.

DV: How did you feel about that: starting like a principal dancer?

COJOCARU: [laughing] I was more or less familiar with the company and had already performed with it. And there was a teacher who prepares young dancers to perform leading roles. She took me under her wing, helping me a lot; really becoming like a mum for me.

Of course, the beginning was tough. I mean, the whole theatre was watching me – “Who is she? What is she going to do?” - You know, not everybody thinks that such a young girl should be dancing Kitri. Yet, I think that Kitri can be just that, she is not necessarily a woman. I rehearsed for some five weeks and the performance went well. I enjoyed it very much.

Afterwards I danced Aurora, Cinderella, Swanilda, Clara,… yes, quite a lot in that year.

I enjoyed the time in that company. It had a nice atmosphere and we toured frequently. However, after a while, doing the same things over and over again, I felt I needed something else and something more, because I wasn’t growing anymore. I remembered when I was at the Royal Ballet School (it was still the time when company and school were in the same building, in Baron’s Court), I had had the opportunity to see dancers like Sylvie Guillem and Darcey Bussell, the repertoire, the various ballets like MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet - which I dreamed of dancing. And also, London is an important ballet centre. Every major company tours to London, which I thought was interesting – [laughing] I didn’t realize then of course I wouldn’t have much time to see them.

Anyway, after one year I decided to return to London. That was two years ago, just at the beginning of the new season. I first sent my CV, talked to Monica Mason, and I had to take another audition – that felt kind of strange as they already knew me. Yet eventually I was offered a place in the corps de ballet. Anthony Dowell explained that I would have the opportunity to dance new choreography and so on. I was very happy, because I wanted a new job and I knew what I was going for.

DV: Did you ever consider applying for other companies than the Royal Ballet? For instance, the Kirov Ballet comes to mind as this company now recruits more and more dancers from other (Russian) schools, and there is the famous example of the young star Svetlana Zakharova who studied in your School in Kiev as well.

COJOCARU: Yes, I was thinking in the beginning to try some other companies. But the Kirov is such a specific theatre, the core of their repertoire is the big classics as well. Now they start to do more, which I didn’t know at the time. But these dancers are so tall out there, and their schooling is so very different. I didn’t want to take the risk. But I considered it, that’s true.

DV: How did you start out at the Royal Ballet?

COJOCARU: I started as Snow Flake, [laughing] which was hard to do, because I wasn’t used to dance in line and to follow the style of everybody else. Also I am small and so I was in the front row all the time. It’s difficult, because you cannot actually show want you want to show when you are in the corps, but you get used to it and you try to enjoy to be on stage as well. Moreover, you learn to get disciplined and it gives you a better idea of what’s happening on stage. It’s not just yourself as principal, but it’s the whole company that counts. It did make a big difference for me, [laughing] but I don’t know if I could have done it much longer than I did.

DV: When did you get other opportunities?

COJOCARU: After six months. I got my big chance with Symphonic Variations. I was still in the corps de ballet and behind Sarah Wildor and Miyako Yoshida. But both got injured and I had to step in. People asked me how I coped with this ballet, as they say it’s so different, so modern. But in fact it’s so classical. I find it very classical. I wasn’t worried when I went on stage, because even if there was very little time, it was rehearsed very intensely. And it went well. I was lucky to rehearse it with Bruce Sansom, who had worked with Ashton himself and he helped me a great deal. Also, the experience I acquired in Kiev helped me to go through that, it gave me security. I’m not sure whether it would have been the same if I hadn’t gone to Kiev and stayed in the Royal Ballet from the start.

At the end of my first Royal Ballet season I was promoted to first soloist, which was a real shock. Soloist, yeah, but first soloist, that was something else! It sounded so unreal to me. I went to the rehearsal after I got the news and I kept wondering, so much that I went back to see if I understood everything right [laughing].

DV: In your second season you received much praise for your performances in Romeo and Juliet and Giselle. Tell me about these.

COJOCARU: During my second season I found out that I was listed for Giselle. That was amazing as well. But before I came to that I had to cover as Juliet. When Leanne Benjamin, who was cast as Juliet was not well, they asked me to come to the rehearsals to prepare the role with Johan [Kobborg]. Eventually Leanne had to cancel her performance, so I had to do it. I had eight days.

The performance itself was an amazing moment. The whole company was so happy. Never in my life did I receive so many presents. I guess everybody must have bought something, a chocolate, a card, a toy, and the night of the performance when I was on stage I could feel the support from everyone around. I loved every single second of it. The only thing that was missing was the presence of my parents, because they couldn’t obtain their visa in time.

Then Giselle came up. It went well – not as good as I wished, but well.

DV: Why do you say “not as good as I wished”?

COJOCARU: Well, …. I don’t know…. [hesitating]. It reminds me that Patrice Bart, the ballet master of the Paris Opera Ballet, stated “I have never seen a convincing Giselle younger than 30 or 35”.

Well, honestly, I think Giselle is a ballet which gets better with more experience. It is one of those ballets in which everything has to be so clear, so clean, and in the end just simple. But actually sometimes I start improvising on stage, responding to people or situations around me, especially in the first Act. I like Giselle a lot because there is such a huge difference between the two acts and you have to make that step.

DV: Which is the most difficult act to pull off for you?

COJOCARU: It depends, sometimes the first Act feels better, but then the other day, it can be the second. It’s really never the same. Actually, I could summarize it like this: in Act I you speak about love, in Act II you dance about love. That’s the difference for me.

DV: You mention that you often have very little time to learn these roles. How do you prepare for them except by working in the studio?

COJOCARU: By watching videos. In Kiev we didn’t have the people to show us the movements, so we had to learn with videos. With the Royal Ballet it’s different, but here we have to prepare roles on very short notice. Even for Symphonic Variations there was just one rehearsal and the next time we were rehearsing on stage. We had only three and a half hours or something, half the ballet maybe, and then I had to go home and learn the rest. When I arrived in the studio the next day, they asked me to continue where we left off the previous day, but because I learned it the night before, I was able to do the whole thing. It seems like a waste of time for me when I arrive in the studio and somebody still has to teach me what I have to do. In my view it’s far more rewarding to work on how it has to be and how to improve it. When there is really not much time I am writing it down to memorize – I was living far from the theatre and on the tube I’m dancing through the ballet and have a look at the notes when I am stuck [laughing].

I started to prepare Giselle in Kiev just before I left. I was reading a lot about it, watching some old Russian performances.

DV: Do you have a ballerina whom you consider an example for yourself?

COJOCARU: Hmm, many people ask this. I cannot really say there is a particular person, because I get inspired by many people. For instance other soloists I can watch working in class or in performance. Sometimes I see them perform something which I find beautiful. It can be anybody and it can happen any time.

But of course, I like Sylvie Guillem. I had the chance to dance with her at the end of last season, when we did A Month In The Country. That allowed me to have a closer look at her work in the studio and so on.

DV: And that’s an experience!

COJOCARU: I really think she is great. I had a good time being on the stage with her. There was a funny moment when in the ballet she has to slap me on the face [laughing] - I mean, not even my mother would slap me on the face. But the thing is that you don’t have to act with her. It’s all so natural. Yeah, it was really an experience.

DV: You emphasize the importance of having examples. Who else have you been working with at the Royal Ballet so far (you already mentioned Bruce Sansom, Johan Kobborg, Sylvie Guillem)?

COJOCARU: Jonathan Cope. He was in Month in the Country as well. With Ivan Putrov I danced Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty pas de deux from Ashton at the end of last season. With Hubert Essakow I danced The Dream.

DV: Which interests do you have besides ballet?

COJOCARU: I love movies. Maybe many people say that, but for me it’s a way to get out of the daily situation, you know, relaxing, not thinking about your own problems, just clear your mind and enjoy the movie. But I think you can also learn from them. In a way they are almost doing the same things that we are; they are talking, we are dancing. I once saw a movie, long time ago, which touched me a lot, “The Honest Courtesan”. But I like different kinds, action movies, comedies, it depends of the mood I am in.

DV: What else?

COJOCARU: Oh, [shyly] I started using a computer. It’s easy to keep in touch with friends by e-mail. Everybody was saying that, until I tried it myself – and it’s true!

I like to read a lot. Right now, I just finished Onegin, in Russian. I started to read in English as well, easy things – Harry Potter stories [laughing].

I like to relax, just walking in the park. Back in Kiev I had many friends. When they had a party they invited me, even if they knew that I wouldn’t drink any wine, just a coke or something. I loved these guys, because they didn’t try to change me. They accepted me and I was part of the group. I miss them a lot. Last summer I was in Kiev, although most of them were on holidays. But we try to keep in touch.

DV: Do you know Svetlana Zakharova?

COJOCARU: Yes, but I didn’t see her this time because she was with the Kirov. Yet when she comes to London we usually have a chat. It’s different though, because we weren’t in the same class and she left Kiev early.

DV: Do you like her?

COJOCARU: I do. She is very beautiful. You see, what I’m trying to do is like this. Sometimes I see something which I find beautiful, but at the same time I would like to see it a bit different. So when I’m going in the studio, I try to obtain that position which I have in mind, which I’d like to see. This is the way I keep going. It’s interesting work. I love dancing.

DV: When I ask you what ballet means to you, I almost know the answer for sure…

COJOCARU: [laughing] I guess all the dancers answer that. And yes, you guessed right, it’s my life!

I was thinking, we had a break just now and I went on holiday. I had a great time with my family, it was the longest time that I was able to spend with them in a while. It felt great. But…. as soon as I got back, I got excited again, I got this feeling again.

DV: I was almost going to say that you were born to dance….

COJOCARU: To be honest, yes [laughing]. It feels special, maybe it’s something coming from there [pointing upwards]. I don’t know….

DV: Who knows. In any case your dancing has a communicative power that leaves very few people indifferent. Tell me what you will be dancing in the coming season?

COJOCARU: I start with Kitri in the new Don Quixote – Nureyev’s version. Then we’ll have Onegin. We still don’t know the casts for Onegin, but I think I will dance Tatiana as well as Olga. In Nutcracker I will dance Sugar Plum Fairy alternating with Clara, which I like.

DV: No more Snow Flakes?

COJOCARU: No… that’s good [laughing]. Then we have Nikiya in La Bayadère, Giselle,…. And I don’t know yet what we are going to take on tour.

DV: So you’ll have your hands full, to say the least?

COJOCARU: It’s a lot. Yes, and everything is coming up really quickly. It will need a great deal of work. Because next to the principal roles I’ll be dancing smaller solo parts like Cupid in Don Q and so on. I’ll be very busy but I’m looking forward to it.

There is also a new choreography by Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek is coming to the theatre for his Carmen, but I don’t think I will be involved in it. It’s so different, but it could be very interesting.

DV: Would you like to be?

COJOCARU: [excited] It’s a challenge, you know! I like Ek’s Carmen, but I don’t see myself in it. Not yet.

DV: One final question. What makes a ballerina?

COJOCARU: In my view a ballerina is somebody who can lead a ballet, from start to end. And not just in the moments when she is in the footlights, when she is dancing or acting, but actually all the time, even when she is just walking or standing still, the way she presents herself on stage, all this makes a ballerina for me. There are instances when you can have a good performance, and still see the difference between a good “dancer” and a good “ballerina”. There is a difference.

 

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