B:Motion Guests: Tatiana Senkevitch interviews Elena Kunikova, Ballet Master


da redazione

Torna l’appuntamento con il balletto e i suoi grandi protagonisti; questa volta riceviamo questa interessante intervista concessa liberamente dall’autrice, Tatiana Senkevitch, che ci concede questa sua conversazione con una grande Etoile della Danza Classica: Elena Kunikova. Le foto all’interno dell’intervista ci sono state concesse liberamente, ringraziamo la nostra inviata Mrs.Senkevitch per questa interessante e bella intervista. Buona lettura! 




B:Motion is thrilled to welcome back guest contributor Tatiana Senkevitch with her recent interview with Elena Kunikova, NYC Ballet Master and Choreographer and former ballerina of Mikhailovsky Theatre.

Elena Kunikova is a graduate of Vaganova Ballet Academy. After graduation she was invited to join Mikhailosky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, where she performed a wide range of ballets such as Giselle, The Nutcracker, Carmen, Esmeralda, Paquita, Swan Lake, Cinderella, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth, amongst others.

Elena has taught for Steps on Broadway, School of American Ballet, The Julliard, Barnard College (technique and academic courses), Berlin Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ballet West, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and others, as well as teaching master classes, repertoire seminars and participating in dance symposiums and panel discussions.

Throughout her career in the United States she has staged classics performed in theatres worldwide including New York’s City Center, Joyce Theater, Paris’ Theatre de Chatelet, London’s Peacock, and Berlin’s Deutsche Opera. Her recent work Diverimento has been performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ballet West II.

Elena has worked with Les Ballet Trockadero for the past two decades to stage a large portion of their current repertoire.

In addition to being profiled for numerous documentaries and professional publications, Elena has also written for Wall Street Journal Europe, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine as a guest contributor.




Tatiana Senkevitch is a historian of art and dance. Apart from her teaching work, Tatiana has served as Research Associate at the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Getty Research Institute; Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris, and the Canada Art Ballet Project, Toronto. She is the author of numerous journal articles. book chapters, and film-interviews. She currently lives in Paris, France.



We can speak a world through movements:


In the early spring of the 2020 the performing arts throughout the world came to a halt. In the wake of the pandemics, the dangers of having musicians in the orchestra pit, a choir placed shoulder to shoulder on the stage, or dancers holding hands in a chorus line, not to mention the exposure of the public, were too great. Theatres became silent everywhere. Many opera, dance, and theater companies continued to broadcast their recorded productions digitally, while the current repertoire and new productions were suspended. Online mode adaptable for certain businesses and affairs can be an adversary to the art of dance that cannot function without a relentless daily routine in studios, demanding eyes of coaches and close physical interaction between the artists, and not lastly, without the presence of the public. Living dance performances became one of the casualties of COVID 19.

My Paris-New York conversations with Elena Kunikova, the New-York based choreographer and ballet master, held during the anxious fall of 2020, centered around her ballet experiences, those of dancing, staging, and teaching. My questions to Elena, one of the best-known experts on classical dance, who graduated from the fabled Vaganova academy in St Petersburg and danced with the Mikhailovsky Theatre, centered on the issues of transmission of traditions. In dance, these traditions survive when they passed from teachers to students, or from legs to legs, to use the dancers’ professional parlance. Transforming a historical tradition into a current and making it immediate for every new generation of dancers is a challenging task of a ballet-master and choreographer.



Staging classical ballet in the Russian tradition is your trademark. What was the first ballet that you staged in the United States?

Soon after my arrival in New York, Jean Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia MacBride invited me to stage Grand Pas from Paquita for the Chautauqua festival. I had to work with professional dancers and advanced students from the Summer course. Paquita became my first experience of staging a ballet of great technical and stylistic difficulty for a diverse group of dancers who were not trained in the Russian classical tradition.


Paquita stands at the crossroads of the French-Russian nineteenth-century classical tradition. What makes it attractive for North American companies?

It is beautiful, very upbeat, with the joyful music by Ludwig Minkus, dashing costumes and grand style. This ballet appeals to any company growing its classical repertoire. Its challenging choreography holds attention making it a great spectacle. The fact that the Grand Pas from this nineteenth-century narrative ballet can be performed as a separate act adds attraction. Usually it makes an impressive, bravura finale for an evening.


What are stylistic features of this ballet?

In the middle of 19th century stylized ethnic dances were in vogue on stage. Marius Petipa, a French dancer and choreographer who worked for the Russian Imperial Theaters for almost sixty years, used them in most of his productions. Paquita is set in Spain, so we have Spanish-influenced steps and poses. He also added movements from Polish dances, possibly because Polish Mazurka and Polonaise were very popular in ballrooms of the day. When coaching this ballet, I am aiming to preserve Petipa’s ideas and make them work for today’s performers. In rehearsals I demonstrate each movement by breaking it into tiny details to show their logic and mechanics. The results, as the public and critics admit, are quite convincing.


What is your approach to staging of classical ballets?

My goal is to make my dancers look natural and at ease to engage the audience. In every production I make sure that corps de ballet and the soloists can demonstrate the best of their professional qualities. Apparently, it works well. For example, my staging for Ballet West got very favorable reception and reviews, and my rehearsals became a part of the BBC/CW TV series “Breaking Pointe.” By the way, Adam Sklute, Ballet West Artistic director, just asked me to revive this ballet for the company’s coming Spring season, saying that he “feels the audience missed the beauty on stage” after a difficult 2020.


Your work with Ballets Trockadero is well known. What did you do for them?

Years ago, Tory Dobrin, Artistic Director of the company invited me to stage several ballets and shorter pieces for this comedic company. Over the past twenty-odd years I staged for them many things including Grand Pas from Paquita, Esmeralda, and Laurencia, excerpts from Le Corsaire, and The Valpurgian Night. As a dancer I like comedy. The trick is to be funny while staying competent technically. The Trocks became inspired by my demands. The more I demanded, the better they danced. They called me their “guru” and one of them thanked me for “showing how to become a Russian ballerina”. The Trocks grew much stronger to the degree that The Dance Critics Circle in England gave the company Best Classical Repertoire Award. Their strong technique allowed me to introduce not only situational, but stylistic jokes.




Do you experiment with comedy in your own choreography?

Most definitely! I try to add humor to everything! I also like to stage comic ballets for children. There is not a lot of them being performed. My first ballet for children was based on Aesop’s fables. I think the Fables are very entertaining and educational, and I chose a few which I could translate into comic choreography and amusing theatrical effects. To fill time between episodes I came up with a stand-up routine performed by a professional comedian. The characters were our contemporaries, and I designed costumes looking like what people wear these days. In “The Ant and a Dragonfly” the Ant is a house builder in a yellow hard hat. In “The Lion and The Mouse” my Mouse was a ballet student in a tiny tutu and my Lion was a rock musician in teared jeans and “Tina Turner” wig, which I bought at a Halloween store. For the vocabulary I used a little bit of everything, movements of different dance styles including ballet, tap, jazz and rock-n-roll. I was delighted to see that younger viewers and adults laughed at my jokes.


What did you choreograph in the Russian classical tradition?

Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of The Dance Theatre of Harlem asked me to choreograph a purely classical divertissement. I thought immediately about Divertimento Brillante by Mikhail Glinka. The idea was to build up the technical strength of the company. I staged a ballet for three couples, each presenting three different characters: the first couple represented a noble style, such as in Sleeping Beauty or Paquita; the second was a comedic couple, such as in La Fille Mal Gardée or Harlequinade; and the third was a sylph and a poet in the romantic tradition of Les Sylphides. I inserted some quotes from old choreographers, some pointe work and small jumps that are rarely used today. When we started to rehearse, I told dancers: “you guys will be dancing all ballets at once”. I put in many comical moments throughout this ballet ending with “he loves me, he loves me not” mime scene. The company performed my Divertimento very successfully. After seeing the recording, Adam Sklute invited me to restage it for Ballet West II, his junior company.


We are having this conversation in the fall of 2020, at the time of the pandemic that hit the international dance community particularly harshly. How do dancers stay in shape when most theatres and studios are closed?

It is very important to stay in shape, and thanks to the internet it is possible. The problem is, many people exercise in their kitchens and living rooms, where space is limited, with furniture and pets in the way. For the time being, I am teaching “ballet classes in a box” and doing “rehearsals in a box” over Zoom. I am managing to give all elements of the class: the barre with strengthening exercises, adagios, diagonals of pirouettes, small and even big jumps! The artists will return to work and the public will enjoy their art fully.



Author: Cris

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