In this new series of blogs from our guest contributor Isabella Zijp, who was lucky to spend the last few months in a Russian ballet immersion, we spotlight young dancers and companies that are changing the Russian ballet establishment:
Starting in Montana, a US state more associated with the Rocky Mountains than ballet, Maria Sascha Khan’s journey towards becoming a ballerina has been quite extraordinary. She comes from a dancing family, with sister Nadia Khan a ballerina with Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza, brother Julian MacKay (who has just joined The Royal Ballet after graduating from the Bolshoi academy) and another brother, Nicholas MacKay, at the Vaganova academy upper school. Passion and determination brought her initially to Monte Carlo, where she studied at the Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace, and then to the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich. The young dancer has recently joined the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera & Ballet Theatre as first soloist, and I caught up with her as she prepared to officially debut with the company.*
Maria Sascha has just moved to Ekaterinburg, a big city on the border between Europe and Asia. Dancing in Russia is a dream come true, as she has always felt a great connection to the Vaganova method and Russian ballet in general: “My siblings and I always ended up having Russian teachers. My most important teacher and mentor was Marika Besobrasova, a dancer with the Ballets Russes, founder and former director at the Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace“.
This connection with the Russian ballet world is what put her on the path to Ekaterinburg: “Two well-respected professionals from the ballet world recommended I audition here. They knew the director was looking for a new ballerina and they thought I would be a good fit. I auditioned and got offered a position as a first soloist. It was a big surprise for me. In addition to that, the director hired me specifically to perform as Odette/Odile, which is of course a dream come true for any ballerina. How can you say no to that?”
On top of having to prepare for this demanding role, the young dancer has been dealing with many logistical issues, even before arriving. Her debut with the company as Odette/Odile was scheduled for last summer, but she had to spend a year waiting for her visa. When she finally got permission to enter the country, there were only 2 weeks left to prepare Swan Lake. She rehearsed, but came to the conclusion that time was too short. To add to the pressure, her scheduled partner also left the company. But despite all these obstacles, she persevered: “the opportunity to dance Swan Lake is one worth waiting for. I read a quote that said ‘don’t give up too early, because then you will never know how victorious you could have been’”, she adds.
We touch upon her time with Bayerisches Staatsballett. What prompted her to leave the security of this renowned company behind and start a new career with a local company in Russia? Maria Sascha explains: “I loved the security and the repertory when I was in Germany, but I was still searching for coaching.” She is referring to the fact that Russian companies maintain the unusual tradition of a coach who works with dancers one-on-one: “They prepare you for roles, and they keep an eye on you, to make sure whatever you need help with, technique-wise, is being addressed”.
“I am really happy with the classes and the coaching so far”, she says. “My coach [Liliya Vorobyova] is very exacting, yet she still allows me some artistic freedom to put something of myself [as Odette/Odile]. I think that’s really wonderful. No matter how developed you are as an artist, or how far along into your career, you always need a coach”, she explains. But another thing that prompted the move to Russia is the high standard of ballet in general, plus the appreciative and opinionated audience: “The normal person on the street seems quite educated about ballet” Maria Sascha says. “It is an art they take very seriously. If you have something worth watching, they are appreciative of it, and if there’s something they don’t like, they will say it as well”.
But dancing in Russia also means accepting different work conditions. The Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre is a busy theatre with a lot of scheduled performances. At the moment, the company is rehearsing all of Giselle, Paquita, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, plus a modern work by Paul Lightfoot. Yet, they only announce the casting at short notice: “In Munich, I knew my season one year ahead of time. The casting might not have been known, but at least you knew when you had to perform. In Russia, they only give you one month’s scheduling notice. It’s a different pace of working. If the studio happens to be free and you have the time, then you use it to work with your coach. It’s much more focused on the ballet and stage life as opposed to everything else around it.”
The young dancer is also having to adapt culturally, as the only Westerner in the company. She knows some Russian and is familiar with the culture, as she would visit her family in Moscow often. But once you start living here “it is a very different way of living” she remarks. “I feel at home in the way that I love the coaching and the classes here, as well as the fact that I am living in the mountains once again. I haven’t yet had time to get to know my colleagues well, but the dancers seem very friendly and kind.” She adds: “I’ve already lived in France and Germany, left home at quite a young age and travelled all around the world both for my career and for family visits. So I do have the ability to be open to new cultures and different ways of working. I don’t feel like I am particularly stuck in one way of doing things. I think that helps a lot”.
*Maria Sascha has since made her long-awaited debut with the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera & Ballet Theatre in Giselle, dancing the role of Myrtha (on 21 October, 2015).