RETIRES AFTER TWENTY YEARS
I met Maria in a conference room on the second floor of the Colorado Ballet building. I’ll admit, I was a little starstruck when she walked in. She’s this tiny person, her frame slight and her legs reluctant to let go of first position. She’d come straight from rehearsal, so her hair was in a bun, a few rebellious fly-aways framing her face. One of the lapels on her black and gold striped blazer was flipped up. Around her neck was a gold chain with two charms; one was a gold angel, but I couldn’t make out the other. Her beaded earrings shimmered as she spoke.
After I got over my crush-like nerves, we settled in and started talking about her incredible career. She has these big blue eyes that are so incredibly kind, but also have a fervent intensity to them. Her passion was palpable within the first few seconds of our conversation.
As is evident from her enduring accent, Maria was born in Russia. Her mother says that she started dancing before she could even hold herself upright. At four months old, when her mom would play music, Maria would light up. Her arms would sway to the rhythm and her tiny body would bounce as she fell over. Maria says, “I always danced. They put me on the table, and I just liked to perform in front of the audience.”
Even after rehearsing for hours, she danced as she spoke. Her hands gestured and her spine swayed. You can tell sitting still is not her strong suit.
Maria’s professional career reflects this passion. Incredibly, she has only danced in the corps two times in her entire career, both when they were in need of an understudy, and both in Swan Lake. In Russia, she performed the second act, and at the Colorado Ballet, she danced the entire show. Other than those two evenings, all of Maria’s time onstage has been spent dancing principal roles.
As Maria spoke about this, it was like she had never thought about it before. We laughed at the absurdity — what other dancer can say the same?
Maria decided to move to the U.S. so she could experience more styles and choreographers. In Russia about 20 years ago, only Russian choreographers set work, even at the most prestigious companies. Maria felt limited and knew she needed to explore outside the borders of her home country. Tours all over the U.S. had familiarized Maria with the country’s dance landscape. She saw that she’d be able to experience more versatility in the States, and found the people in Denver friendly, so she decided to stay.
It was in Denver, at the Colorado Ballet, where Maria has poured her heart and soul into every role she’s danced. She described the process of preparing for a performance like nurturing a baby.
“Especially when you are preparing for a principal part, you have to dig in, you know, and it’s like you are pregnant.” She likened the rehearsal process to growing an infant inside of her, eventually giving birth and raising her. Maria puts everything she has into preparing for a role, “My brain, my thoughts, my soul, my heart…even if it’s a small [part]. And you have to work all the time mentally and of course physically. Even when you are not in the studio, the process keeps going.”
Watching her describe this process, devotion was written all over her face. It is no wonder she’s held exclusively principal roles; her passion is simply unmatched. “That’s why every role, every ballet, is close to my heart,” says Maria, touching her chest. She says she cannot pick her favorite, “I’m always saying I love them all.” Yet even with all of the opportunity Maria has earned, she will never be able dance every part. “There are a lot of ballets that unfortunately, I will perform in my different life,” she laughs.
The only thing that rivals Maria’s passion for ballet is her love for her daughter, a now nine-year old who takes class at Colorado Ballet. “She is not like me when I was her age,” she says with a smile. When Maria was young, seeing a ballerina left her in awe. Her daughter, on the other hand, has grown up backstage and in the company of professional dancers. Being in the green room has become an everyday occurrence for her. Maria says that maybe her passion will grow, but she will not be disappointed if it does not.
I asked Maria which she thought was more important: natural talent or passion. “First of all you have to be passionate,” she says. “You can work on something that you don’t have from nature, for example, turnout. You can work on it through your career, or you can work on pointing your feet better…. But it’s art, it’s not a sport. It’s not about that overall…it’s not about technicals for me.” Though of course, this passion is what allows ballerinas like Maria to achieve such physical excellence. In fact, she said she can count on one hand the number of ballerinas who possess both the natural physical ability and passion necessary to be a truly great performer.
Maria also spoke of the differences between young ballerinas in Russia and in the U.S. In her home country, only young dancers with obvious natural physical abilities are selected to study ballet. “You have to work hard,” she reiterated. “Here, in ballet schools, parents brought their girls to have fun. It’s fun…but it’s hard work. If you want to be a professional, you have to sacrifice your whole life.”
I asked Maria what she felt she had sacrificed for her career. Her voice softened, and she nodded as she admitted that it was a lot. She’s sacrificed physically, reflecting that ballet is not “normal” for the body. She’s sacrificed her “private life,” as well. “Sometimes you have to make a choice between what you’re passionate about and…” she trailed off, her big blue eyes still looking into mine. I wanted to ask her more, but I could feel she’d shared as much as she wanted.
We shifted topics, and I asked Maria about her time with the Colorado Ballet. She spoke about her close relationships with her fellow dancers, saying that they’ve gotten especially close over the last few years. The vast majority of their time spent together has been in the studio as opposed to onstage. This is one of the reasons Maria values studio time more than performances.
“For me, most of the time, I’m not satisfied with my performances and that’s why I like to be in the studio. You can repeat it and you can do better and better and better, and there is no perfection for us.” Though performances are what the audience sees, the rehearsal process is more demanding, and in a way, more real. The hours spent in the studio hardly compare to the fleeting moments of performance. The process of nurturing a role like a child is far more interesting, more demanding mentally and physically. That work, both in her body and in her mind, is what Maria will miss the most.
Though Maria is retiring from performing, she will continue her devotion to ballet through teaching. She spoke about all of the teachers that helped her grow into her own as an artist, and she feels that it is a natural progression for her to feed that knowledge back into the ballet community. She also wants to offer up her roles to younger dancers, giving them the chance to challenge themselves and grow.
“I don’t think my life will change dramatically,” she says. She’ll still spend her days working hard in the studio, though she knows teaching will bring it’s own challenges. In a way, stepping back and letting dancers figure things out for themselves is more difficult. With all of her experience, it will be a challenge for Maria to let young dancers struggle to understand things she knows so well, but she knows it will ultimately be the best way for them to learn.
Maria says that the most important advice she can give to young dancers is to maintain a positive attitude and listen to their bodies. She emphasized the importance of a strong technical base that teaches dancers how to use their bodies in a sustainable way. Once a dancer has refined her classical training, alternating to other styles will be easier. At the beginning of Maria’s career, dancers were either classical or contemporary. Now, they are expected to be incredibly versatile, and Maria stresses that this is only possible once they’ve dedicated themselves to classical training.
Maria has come to value Pilates in recent years to keep her centered, and physical therapy to keep injuries at bay. Nature determines if a dancer is prone to injury or not, she says, but warming up properly, listening to your mentors, and keeping yourself healthy will certainly help.
“For me dance is more about your soul, your heart. Of course training, but it’s more about [expressing] what I’m feeling for the audience. It’s passion.” I asked Maria if there was anything she would do differently if she had the chance. She answered quickly and definitively, “No. I’m happy with what I’ve had here.”
Ali Weeks: Ali is a professional dancer, Pilates instructor, and writer. She grew up in the Chicago area, studying dance and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduation, Ali spent four years in San Francisco pursuing her dance career, teaching Pilates, and exploring her passion for writing. She moved to Denver in February 2016, where she continues to dance and foster her writing career. In addition to her contributions to Presenting Denver and other independent publications, Ali writes for SF-based Pilates studio OnPointe Training and Denver-based fair trade company Threads Worldwide.