Living & Learning: an Interview with Polina Semionova

Polina Semionova, the 25 year-old Russian star at Staatsballett Berlin, is not only a very gifted dancer but also a social media phenomenon. Her appearance in Herbert Groenemeyer’s video Letzter Tag (Last Day) made her a big hit on YouTube and she has close to 40,000 fans in her Official Facebook page, which she personally helps manage. Through this channel she interacts with her fanbase posting photos, videos and organising exclusive events. Thanks to our collaborator Richard Ho, who was assisting Polina with one event, we had the opportunity to meet up and interview her last month in London.

Polina was in town as a special guest of the English National Ballet in their production of Swan Lake in-the-round. She had been forced to miss out on opening night due to a protracted visa application. Explaining to us the process, which involved more than one trip from Berlin to the UK Visa agency in Düsseldorf and had taken longer than expected, she comes across as calm and collected. Her mature and assertive presence does not surprise us, after all, Polina had to grow up fast. Her chosen career and the fact she is in high demand to guest all around the world means she must always be ready to manage logistics and look after herself. She is due to return to London next week where another Swan Lake, the Mikhailovsky Ballet’s, awaits her.

Photo: The Ballet Bag / Melissa Uruchurtu ©

You have guested in many different productions of Swan Lake. You just appeared in ENB’s production and will return to this role during Mikhailovsky’s London season. How do you see this ballet now, after your critically acclaimed debut 6 years ago?

Polina: I see this role every year a bit different. I hope that I’ve grown artistically but I am now working so that every step becomes meaningful and is not “just a step” even though every theatre has its own different version…. I’ve danced in versions by Makarova, Nureyev, Dinn, Grigorovich, Bart and Spoerli among others. I find the second and third act are mainly the same but the fourth act varies a lot… I prefer the ones with a tragic ending!

What are the challenges of performing ENB’s Swan Lake in the round stage at the Royal Albert Hall?

Polina: It is not a very easy stage because you have the audience around you and you have to look good from all points, which is tricky. You have no “coulisses” so you’re either running upstairs – which is very hard – or you sit onstage on a chair, as is the case before the Black Swan fouettés; same thing before the variations, so you can’t go off stage and rest. Also, because there is plenty of light, you can see the audience very well, the public is sitting very close to you. When you are on a regular stage, you have your own world, that of the performance; you don’t see what is around. Here you really feel like the public is there and they are all looking. What I try to do is switch off mentally – though I have no idea how I manage…

Polina Semionova and Artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in Swan Lake. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

You do a lot of guesting. How has this helped your career and how does touring compare to dancing at home in Germany?

Polina: I do guest a lot but I also like to come back and have my place on the barre, my teacher and the time to prepare new roles. It is very important to have a place where you can work properly because when you are guesting is just “go, dance and come back”. On the other hand, you get to know new choreographers, new teachers and you can learn new styles. Every theatre has a different way of working; the way their teachers work… When I am guesting I like to work with a new teacher and to get corrections. I know that some dancers come and do what they are used to do, but I always like to take something because then you can learn new things. You also see other shows and how other people perform and, of course, the public gets to know me better in different countries, not just Germany.

Do you have any fun tour adventures, anecdotes to share with us?

Polina: Every tour something different happens… Actually Gerhard Hasse-Hindenberg covers a lot of that in my upcoming biography. Not all but some things…

Tell us more?

Polina: The book is meant to focus on the first half of my career. Gerhard proposed it and I thought – why not? It took time… In order for us to meet he had to travel with me to some countries and, in Berlin, we would try to meet two or three times a week for 2 hours; sometimes more often. First I was a little bit skeptical as I thought it would be better to do this when I’m older but then it brought back so many memories. I remembered some very nice times and also more challenging times, the time when I grew up and what my family went through. It is nice to be pushed to remember all of these things.

Where did you start and how comfortable were you sharing such personal details about your family and your childhood?

Polina: Well some things you really have to push out, because you think most things are private and that you shouldn’t tell them. We started from the time when I was at ballet school. Gerhard went to Russia, he saw the place where I was born, he went to my school and met my teachers; my family.  Then I went to visit one of my teachers, Juriy Vasuchenko, with whom I worked closely for 3 years and who is now director at Odessa Ballet Theatre. I went to dance there for a gala as a way to say thanks for those years at school. Gerhard also came – so there is a big part about Juriy in the book because he was so important and helped me in my career.

Photo: The Ballet Bag / Melissa Uruchurtu ©

How did you cope with the responsibility of being a principal dancer from early on knowing you were going to be taken away from your family and homeland?

Polina: Actually I wanted to achieve this independence, so that wasn’t so scary a step for me, to live alone, because I wanted it. But of course when you go to a country where you’ve never been before, and you don’t know much about it – and especially I didn’t know much about ballet there… so it was a risk, but the position that Vladimir offered me, made my decision easier.

Is it true that initially Vladimir offered you a corps de ballet position and you turned it down?

Polina: Yes but I thought that if it had been a choice between the Bolshoi/Mariinsky corps de ballet or the Berlin corps de ballet, I would have taken the Bolshoi/Mariinsky offer. So after turning down his corps contract he offered me to join his company straight as a first soloist. I think he believed in me more than I believed in myself and I am so thankful to him. That’s the most important thing, I think, to have had someone in the beginning of my career giving me this chance.

He also plunged you straight into the deep end with The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. Were those not tricky roles to start with?

Polina: I think Nutcracker is a good role to start with, for a young girl. The Sleeping Beauty is very difficult, especially because we have the Nureyev version which is very tough. But, again, I think Vladimir was giving me opportunities and that is so important for young dancers…

Can you share any important advice that he has given you?

Polina: I think the most important thing that he has taught me is discipline, because he is himself such a disciplined person.

Polina Semionova, Vladimir Malakhov and artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in Swan Lake. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

How is working with Vladimir as a choreographer?

Polina: He choreographed one of the first ballets created on me, Cinderella. He is a perfectionist, so he is always looking for the exact position which he likes. He doesn’t give you actually much freedom to change it, so if he wanted it like that, you’d do it like that.

Speaking of new work, last year was the premiere of Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio…

Polina: …Yes, it was amazing! I loved working with Bigonzetti as a choreographer and as a person. His way of seeing these sets, the light. The ballet has some leitmotifs, but not really a story. It is about Caravaggio, though there is not too much action, so you can improvise and imagine it. He indicates who you should be and what he wants but you are quite free in the expression.

Polina Semionova and Vladimir Malakhov in Bigonzetti's Caravaggio. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

Polina: When I heard that this ballet was going to enter the repertoire I went to see the Caravaggio paintings. I was in Vienna performing and I went to the Kunst Historiches Museum where they have some paintings by Caravaggio. I liked his work a lot. I kept thinking why was he creating these scary things, why was he drawing these? I found that it was amazing that Bigonzetti could bring that same feeling of mystery as in Caravaggio’s pictures. And Monteverdi’s beautiful music, the set, and the movements, all add to the feeling of mystery.

Who are your favourite choreographers?

Polina: Other than Bigonzetti, I also love Nacho Duato and Jiří Kylián.

Polina Semionova and Vladimir Malakhov in Bigonzetti's Caravaggio. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

In 2004 you had said your favourite role to perform was Tatiana. Is that still the case? Any others, including dream roles?

Polina: It is still Tatiana; Manon too. Those are my favourites, they are so human. They are very real. I also like Giselle and Nikiya in La Bayadère. As for dream roles, I’d love to do Neumeier’s Kameliendame [Lady of the Camellias], maybe when I am older.

And your feelings towards Swan Lake?

Polina: I like to perform it… audiences like it, they are familiar with it, it is just beautiful. Sometimes if I am watching a performance, not as a member of the company but just watching a show like I did the other day at the Royal Albert Hall, it is amazing, and beautiful too see, the swans, the white tutus and Tchaikovsky’s music.

Polina Semionova and artists of the Staatsballett Berlin in Swan Lake. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

Do you watch many ballet performances from the audience’s side?

Polina: I do. I like to watch ballet so if I have time and it is a nice show or if there are new pieces that I am interested in… I’ll go wherever I may be around the world. Just to enjoy it. Also sometimes one can learn a lot when you see it from the sides…

You seem very open to learning new things…

Polina: Yes, I  am very open, I like to learn new ballets, new repertoire and not be just a classical dancer.

Any other things outside ballet that you’ve tried?

Polina: Yes! [laughter] I always learn something new! I like to cook Russian recipes but also foods from around the world. And I finally learnt how to make cakes! I know how to make a good apple pie. My grandmother usually bakes it for me and I love it.

Photo: The Ballet Bag / Melissa Uruchurtu ©

Are there any ballerinas, coaches or mentors that you particularly admire?

Polina: I admire Alessandra Ferri. I met her, she is beautiful. She was a beautiful dancer and she is a great woman. She has kids; a family, so I think about how she carried out both her career and her private life. I also admire Darcey Bussell; women who can create not only a career but a life, besides and beyond ballet. Right now we have a coach, Christine Camillo, I do most of the classical roles with her. She is French and danced for the Staatsballett and I am very happy with her.

This July your brother Dmitry [Semionov] will also be guesting with the Mikhailovsky. Dmitry is dancing Swan Lake with Ekaterina Borchenko. Do you ever dance with him?

Polina: We’ve danced together in a few gala performances but always in non-story ballets. We would not dance together in a love story… after all, he is my brother… it would be strange once you look into each other’s eyes! But we actually work very well together. Some people say that dancing siblings working together always fight but it never happens to us. On the contrary we are very calm. I have so much fun dancing with him because I worry about him more than I worry about me and I always want him to do well.

Polina Semionova as Odette. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Staatsballett Berlin ©

And back home in Germany, any forthcoming premieres?

Polina: We have Giorgio Madia’s new The Wizard of Oz and Esmeralda, the same version as recently danced by the Bolshoi. I still don’t know the casts yet but I’m hoping to be involved. Both premiere in April 2011.

What’s in your Ballet Bag?

Polina: Pointe shoes, elastic band for warming up, tape, scissors, rollers, massage ball. I always bring a lavender sachet a friend made for me, shellac and a lot of spare needles for sewing shoes.

As our interview time runs out Richard invites me to stay for the meet and greet with fans, some of whom had traveled long distances to be with the ballerina. Now I am listening in to a different Polina. The performer and eager pupil becomes a mentor as she offers them advice on ballet classes and tells them lovely anecdotes about her days of ice skating and folk dancing. Her Russian dark eyes sparkle as she recalls these memories. She gives them encouragement and tells them, above all, to carry on dancing.

Photo: The Ballet Bag / Melissa Uruchurtu ©


Polina is scheduled to dance Odette/Odile in Mikhailovsky Ballet’s Swan Lake at the London Coliseum on 17 July (evening). Casting subject to change. For more information & bookings visit the ENO website.

Polina also appears during Staatsballett Berlin’s forthcoming season which includes:

Swan Lake: 3 | 8 | 9 | 15 | 19 | 22 | 27 October 2010

Caravaggio: 28th November 2010  |  2 | 3 | 6 | 9 | 11 | 17 | 22 December 2010  |  6 | 8 January 2011

For more information, casting details & bookings visit the Staatsballett Berlin website

With our thanks to Richard Ho and Спасибо/Spasibo to Polina Semionova

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. A self-confessed Alexei Ratmansky devotee, she has seen (and adores) 20+ of his pieces. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, and foreign languages.

13 Comments

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  • June 27, 2012

    newfangirl

    Just watched her yesterday at the MET. She was beyond wonderful – almost immortal on stage! How she could dance the way she did is beyond human ability! Go watch her this Friday.

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  • July 9, 2010

    riley

    haha i thought that “letzter tag” meant laser tag

  • July 9, 2010

    melissa uruchurtu

    Great! awesome!!! congrats girls!