Prima Ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater
For Olga Smirnova, a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater, last season was particularly productive and abundant in new roles. Working with Jean-Christophe Maillot, John Neumeier, and Manuel Legris, a debut in Alonso's Carmen Suite and Kylián's Forgotten Land. This fall she already danced the Bolshoi's premiere of William Forsythe's Artifact Suite. We met the ballerina and talked about the most interesting events of the past year and her plans and dreams for the future.
by Ekaterina Baeva
The most memorable moments

The days of the ballerina with such a rich repertoire, indeed, go by very fast. Roles replace one another, and sometimes in a whirlpool of performances it seems that at least three years pass in one year.

"Last season I danced Carmen in Carmen Suite. I had always dreamed of dancing Carmen, although, probably, neither by my appearance, nor by other roles can you say that this role would suit me. Back at the ballet school, dancing characteristic dances, it was the Spanish ones I loved. I felt them very deeply, and dreamed of dancing something like that. When I joined the Bolshoi, at first my repertoire was made up of roles of a different style. Mahar Vaziyev's suggestion that I should prepare to dance Kitri in Don Quixote was my first artistic challenge. I thought that this role would not come to me that soon, but here it was, such an impromptu decision. And this role, while also technically complex, did give me a lot. It opened up a new understanding of my body and what I am capable of. Mastering Carmen after Kitri was a breeze."

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However, each role still requires an individual reading. "I cannot say that I took a lot from Kitri for my Carmen, these are rather different personalities," admits Smirnova. "For Carmen, of course, there is the canonical image of Maya Plisetskaya. It is impossible to be like her, yet everyone is familiar with that iconic image and would always admire it. It was Viktor Barykin who helped me a lot while working on my performance. He used to dance in this ballet, he later mounted it in various theaters, and he was generous to have shared the smallest nuances and details of the original version. But for me it was also paramount to find my own Carmen."

They had been rehearsing Carmen for quite a long time, while saving their strength and passion for the premiere. Carmen Suite is a complex and multi-layered performance. "Carmen is one of those performances that you need to be dancing for a long time in order for your performance to reach inner freedom and lightness. In this regard, I still have a way to go," she smiles. "Perhaps, when I have danced about a hundred performances, it will be a lot easier to feel real confidence and liberation. I may be able to indulge myself to some spontaneous nuances."

"For me, Carmen, first of all, is a strong woman who is not afraid of the challenges of fate. In fact, she might be creating some of them herself. For her, life is a game. She is a fatalist, as, indeed, I am myself. I believe in destiny, in foreshadowing and foreseeing. I like to analyze and try to decipher the signs of fate."

One of these gifts of fate for Smirnova in 2018 was working with John Neumeier - first in Anna Karenina at the Bolshoi, then in Lady of the Camellias, with the Hamburg ballet company. "Anna is another character who, like Carmen, is looking for happiness," she speculates. "At the beginning of the performance there is an episode where Anna is, on the surface, the embodiment of the perfect wife, but in her soul there is confusion and longing for intimacy. She is really trying to set up a mutual understanding and emotional connection with her husband, but, alas, Karenin is not able to give her what she wants, so she is goes looking for love and tenderness in Vronsky."

When the role is learned and the steps are mastered, thanks to the help of the assistants of the choreographer, Neumeier himself takes over. Smirnova shares some precious memories of being in the studio with the renowned choreographer. "John is an amazing person, a real genius. A man of such talent, who, at the same time, is friendly and polite with everyone. He fills your every move with meaning. For every gesture there is a comment about what my character is thinking or feeling. These are some sort of subtitles for the artist, without which it would be impossible to create a role so deep and authentic. It also helps the audience to witness something more than just a dance. I also appreciate the set design," she adds. "There is nothing superfluous that would distract the spectators from the relationship of the characters, and oh, Anna's beautiful costumes – I could well wear them in my off-stage life, heading to a party or a reception."

Having worked with John Neumeier in Moscow, Smirnova had been so mesmerized with his creative style that she assured the choreographer of her eagerness to participate in any other joint projects. So, along came an invitation to Hamburg Ballet. She was to partner a young soloist in Lady of the Camellias during his première. "I enjoyed the local audience. It is never by accident that they find themselves in the theater. They are well-prepared and educated, basically brought up by Neumeier's ballets. The acts in his ballets are often long, but no one seems to be surprised or impatient. For them, Neumeier is a national legend, so he is duly treated with respect and admiration. At the end of each show, there are always standing ovations. Many artists also became a kind of idols for the theater-goers, and each has their iconic roles. For example, for Alexander Ryabko, this is his work in Nijinsky."

Working with top-level choreographers is a bliss for ballet dancers. It is a chance to fill your professional experience with knowledge and a few trade secrets from the ballet creators. "While working on a role, the artist always aspires to enrich it to the uttermost by painting the character with brightest colors imaginable. It was John who told me, Olga, stop.
Add only one thing at a time. He taught me that there is an incredible power in a pause if it is made at the right moment. I put his advice to practice even during my classical performances, for example, in La Bayadère or Giselle. Sometimes you should just be present rather than dance. It's curious that the inspiration from working with Neumeier lingers for many months afterwards. This experience is really inspiring."

Another great success of this season is William Forsythe's Artifact Suite to the music of Bach, which premiered at the Bolshoi this fall. "It was unexpectedly great to be learning this piece," Smirnova glows with happiness and pride while reliving this moment, "because I had never thought that it would be so interesting to prepare a play without a plot, nor a story or any psychology whatsoever. This ballet is pure plastique. You do not have a costume that adorns you or creates a certain image, neither is there any scenery, so there's nothing you can hide behind. Only music, light, atmosphere, and the two bodies, you and your partner. This choreography is surprisingly addictive. Especially when you have already learned the steps."

Dreams and aspirations

The current vast repertoire of the Bolshoi is a source of fulfillment and inspiration for the artist, says Smirnova. "In a very short time you learn to switch from one choreographic style to another. The experience of different roles adheres to all subsequent ones. We have such a short-term career that idleness is our worst nightmare. That's why we appreciate it so much when the theater gives us a chance to learn new ballets in various choreographies and to work directly with choreographers. For example, this season the Bolshoi will be staging the Winter Tale by Christopher Wheeldon."

With every year your skill becomes more profound, the number and variety of your roles increase, and as an artist grows up, so do her characters, even though the choreography remains unchanged. "For example, I think I've outgrown the role of Masha in The Nutcracker but Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty is still appealing. After all, Aurora is considered the pinnacle of classical ballet. Moreover, this role represents a certain style, or class. If you stick to it, you can always feel like a sixteen-year-old. Juliet or Tatiana in Onegin are also "young" characters," she adds, "but it's interesting for me to embody them onstage, probably because there is a dramatic story behind them."

There are roles that you shouldn't rush into. "I think that Mekhmene-Banu in the Legend of Love should be done as late as possible, only once you've gained tremendous life and stage experience. I also thought so about Aegina in the grandiose Spartacus, but now the moment has come when I feel confident enough to begin rehearsing for this role. "

"Forsythe, too, for example, appeared in my life at the right time," she observes. "I've already gone through the classical repertoire, through the ballets of Balanchine, Cranko, Neumeier, Kylián, Maillot. The body has accumulated enough to try to master the language of Forsythe. In his choreography every move is dynamic and aggressive; it is sharp yet elegant. After the first rehearsals my classical, "academic" body would ache in quite unusual places, because of all the muscles involved. Unfortunately, Forsythe himself had become ill and could not attend our premiere. I would have loved to find out what he'd have thought about our performance."

Olga speaks warmly of her experience of working with Manuel Legris who is now the artistic director of the Vienna State Ballet. Last season Olga was invited to be a guest star in Giselle and Swan Lake. She says that it was very rewarding and comfortable experience. "Next year I really hope to work with Manuel Legris a little bit more. He invited me to participate in his gala concerts in Japan. We will dance a duet staged for us by the choreographer Patrick de Bana. I do admire Manuel, both as a person and as a dancer. He is truly devoted to his profession and very mindful of the dancers of his company. I really hope that our project will come true."

When asked to choose five roles that could remain her repertoire, Smirnova contemplates for a while and finally chooses: "Tatiana. Anna Karenina. Giselle. The soloist in the Artifact Suite and... of course, Nikiya in La Bayadère."

The holiday season

Having spent two New Years in a row in Monaco working with Jean-Christophe Maillot on La Belle and Casse-Noisette Circus, she smiles and says that for her spending the New Year at +15°C (59°F) doesn't really feel right. "New Year is the holiday I associate with childhood, and I like everything traditionally Russian – you know, a Christmas tree, the Russian salad, a lavish family dinner in front of the TV. Someone in the family would be setting the table while somebody else would be baking a cake... I love old-fashioned Christmas trees decorated with mismatching ornaments. I can never resist buying another birdie or a beautiful Christmas bauble. I own so many decorations that last year I had to put up two Christmas trees in order not to leave a single figure unwanted in a box!" she laughs endearingly. "For me, this is a very snug holiday, an opportunity to get together with the whole family and just stay home. I never make New Year resolutions, but, as a Russian tradition goes, I do make a wish, however, for some reason, later on I always forget it."

"I believe that the main thing is not wish for something better, rather than remain in harmony with yourself and with your loved ones," confesses the modest prima ballerina. "When I was a child, I could not even dream of such a fulfilling creative life as I have now. I think I just want to cherish and enhance it. I could only wish that every new artistic challenge I take would leave me slightly altered."

Well, it does seem like a great New Year wish.