ALINA COJOCARU "IN CONVERSATION" with Mike Dixon
3rd November 2020 via Zoom
Mike began by recalling that he and Alina had spoken previously in both London and Bucharest and that, in fact, she had trained initially in Bucharest in her native Romania before going at nine years of age to Kiev in Ukraine on an exchange scheme with eight other students. Alina confirmed that her training system was Vaganova and Mike asked if there were differences between how Vaganova was taught in, say, St Petersburg and Kiev?
Alina said she couldn’t give a precise answer to that but noted that the training system made wonderful use of the upper body. “I left Kiev with a great knowledge of the classical training in ballet and along the way I acquired more knowledge and developed myself further,” she said.
She went on: “But now with the lockdown I’ve been looking into some really old videos of myself and I saw a recording of myself doing Aurora at 16 and I was really, really surprised because everything was there. Now looking back I realise the basics I learned there about strengthening and presentation and interpretation and everything somehow had a really, really round package.” Those early teachers had given her something quite special and unique. Whatever came later when she was in a company, she was ready for it. “I think I was very lucky,” she said.
Alina had undergone a six-month training scholarship with The Royal Ballet before returning to Ukraine where she joined the Kiev Ballet for a season, subsequently coming back to join the corps at the Royal. Mike pointed out that she joined the Royal at age 17, by 19 she was promoted and by 21 had done many major roles. He said: “You had danced an incredible list: Manon, Cinderella, Nutcracker, Coppelia, Bayadere, Don Q, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Mayerling, Onegin. That’s an incredible repertoire for such a young dancer so it was hardly surprising that you were promoted at such a young age. Because, as you say, you were fully formed when you arrived in the UK.”
Alina agreed that she had been very fortunate. “Looking back at that time Sir Anthony Dowell saw that in me. In a company there are so many dancers it’s easy to get, not lost, but when you do corps de ballet work it’s not always easy to see who has the potential. I think I was also lucky that Sir Anthony did see all that in me and in my work.” With each opportunity she was able to show that what he saw in her was indeed there and that she could deliver what was required. At the same time, she was able to continue growing and developing.
Onegin, in particular, she described as challenging. “Because I had to portray someone who has lived a different life, who was much more mature and has so much more experience, same as with Mayerling.” She had always approached such roles with “ a lot of research and homework” but these years in the Royal were very full, she said. “It’s like a speeding train that keeps on going forward, forward, faster, faster, faster. Just when you think it’s stopped it starts again. I didn’t have time back then to realise the fortune and the luck, I just really was enjoying it,” and she added: “ But I don’t even think enjoying it was the right word. I was just putting myself out there every day to deliver.”
Mike reminded Alina that she had once said to him that one was ready for certain roles at certain points in one’s career and that the older Tatiana was not someone she was really ready for initially. “You were perfect for the young Tatiana, but you hadn’t had enough life experience to deal with this more mature woman, married to a powerful man,” he said. She had so many opportunities at the Royal to dance so many roles and had a number created on her: David Bintley had created the Seasons on her, Ashley Page another ballet, but, he added: “you were so busy dancing the major classics, that there wasn’t a lot of time to work with creators in the studio.”
Alina agreed. “It wasn’t just for me. I think at that time there were a lot less creations compared with now,” she said. “ I think there are definitely a lot more opportunities and connections with choreographers and dancers in the studio than back then,” and she continued: “In a way isn’t it a more normal development that we focus on the classics and the young always get the chance to perform the classics?” Then, in regard to Onegin, she said: “Reid Anderson had such belief in me, I was supposed to only do Olga but he cast me in Tatiana as well.’”
So she appeared on opening night as Tatiana alongside Johan Kobborg as Onegin; she was one of the youngest dancers to take on the role. She told Mike, she recalled so clearly the rehearsals and the guidance given by Reid. She said that whenever the role of Tatiana came her way, it would continue to grow. As always she did her homework, “Knowing how I should walk as an older lady, how I should sit as an older lady. I would be in the street observing, going for extremely older ladies just to see the heaviness of their bodies and to try and learn from that, just to see how the physicality changes in a walk.” She added: “ So Onegin will always be special. For the length of the experience from when I started and what that offered me along the years.”
Mike said that Alina had left the Royal Ballet (in 2013) after a very successful career there and moved to the English National Ballet. Why did she leave? Did she feel she had exhausted her options there?
Alina answered by first looking back at her time with the Kiev Ballet where she had worked for one year. “There I had an amazing season,” she recalled. “Cinderella, Coppelia, Don Quixote, Aurora. I mean there was a huge amount of work I did there but not only that, I had an amazing teacher – Alla Davidovna - who was like my mum in ballet who would work with me all day and guide me so I couldn’t have had a more nourishing environment for that beginning. And then we came to the end of the season and I considered the next season was very much the same and in that conversation I had with my teacher, I felt that having been with the Royal Ballet School for six months I could see the repertoire, I could see Macmillan, I could see Ashton … and I expressed to my teacher that it was time to move on and learn more and she agreed with me.” The then director of the Kiev Ballet felt it was too soon for Alina to leave but she was resolved and took an audition with the Royal, was accepted, and joined the corps.
Then, 13 years later, she felt herself to be at the same point in relation to the Royal. It was time to move on. “I wanted more new creations and I was invited to work with John (Neumeier at the Hamburg Ballet) on the creation of a ballet.” The thought of being in the studio with a choreographer – which was not happening at the Royal – decided her. “I felt I wanted to learn more. And one has a choice: to sit comfortably and remain as I am, which for some dancers it’s a good place to be, or seek for more, which in my case it meant to go outside. If what you need and what you seek as an artist does not come to you, I felt I had to go out there and get it.” And she added: “Time flies in our profession. It just goes so fast and I knew there was more to learn, there was more to experience and this was the time for me to take that step.” That step took her to the ENB and Hamburg Ballet and she shared her time between the two companies. “There must,” said Mike, “ be a big difference between the working environments in the ENB and the Royal Opera House. What were the biggest differences you found when you moved from Covent Garden to ENB?”
Referring to her relationship with Johan Kobborg, she answered: “ I lost my man. I lost half of myself. Not only that but I didn’t know anybody except for Tamara (Rojo) and Loipa (Araujo ) at ENB. Even though the company was just round the corner I had seen them performing perhaps twice in my life, during the years I was in London. So I was not familiar with the dancers.” Then she laughed as she said: “ I felt more at home going to the Mariinsky. I knew more dancers and I had been more often performing with the company, full length ballets, and the teachers.”
She reiterated that the main loss in leaving the Royal was no longer being in the same company as Johan as their careers had grown side by side at the Royal. “With us together, it was something that was truly unique. In today’s world we meet, we go, we dance, sometimes you do a production for three months together, but we’re talking 13 years. Pretty much as soon as I started dancing there we were put together as a couple, so to get to know someone so deeply as a dancer, and as a person, to have that kind of freedom and trust, I don’t see it any more.”
Mike recalled that the first time he had a conversation with Alina she and Johan had not at that stage formed a relationship “but you did say to me there is somebody and ‘I think there’s a relationship that could really, really work’ and it had not come together at that point but I just saw the look in your eyes and it was love. So I thought, ‘whoever this guy is, is a very lucky man’. It showed very much when you were on stage together.”
He then noted that Alina had just mentioned the Mariinsky but that, apart from the Royal and the ENB, she has also danced for every major company in the world. What, he asked were the highlights, which places and companies had given a new dimension to her career, outside of the UK?
Alina said she’d start by describing the Mariinsky. “When I was young I was overwhelmed by the history of the place and I loved working with the teachers but just walking through those hallways! Having lived in Kiev when I was a student I could see similarities with Russia with being there and it felt so familiar. It was like going back where I started. Of course Russia and Ukraine are different countries but for me the way people were talking, I felt at home. I understood everything that was happening around me. So it was the whole experience; the language, the teachers, it was all so familiar and the place was so historical.” And she added: “ What was really amazing in the Mariiinsky is that you walk around the city and people admire you for being a dancer, it sounds strange but dancers walk with such dignity and all shows are sold out, no matter how many shows a day, and they treasure them and I felt that being in a place that was treasured and loved to that degree; that is beyond my experience.”
Then she recalled dancing with American Ballet Theatre. “At ABT there is Irina Kolpakova who is the most amazing person to work with because she has a familiar school for me, a Russian school, a great sense of humour and I cannot think ABT without seeing her.” The two would have wonderful conversations, asking questions, seeking clarification on certain points. “ We’d pick things apart and try to find out why what we were trying to achieve did not come across. She has such passion, desire, understanding and respect for the artist to try and figure out how to bring across what she feels we can give. So working with her has always been an amazing experience,” said Alina.
She also recalled working with Johan in South Africa on a production of Giselle for the South African Ballet Theatre where dancers doubled up as backstage technicians, but one thing in particular had an impact on her. “There was a dancer performing who was deaf,” she explained. “He couldn’t hear the music so he was doing the peasant pas de deux and there was another dancer in the wings showing him when the music started and he had the rhythm for the solo within his body from rehearsing. For me it was mind blowing. There was this person who couldn’t hear the music but he could sense, feel the rhythm of the music, the vibration and the other dancer would help him. He was phenomenal.” And she added; “So every single experience I’ve had in big and small companies, it all helped me so much.”
She also spoke about the importance of differences that occur in every performance she has undertaken in different places. “Everytime I came back to Giselle I would experience it differently, different companies, different productions, dancers, partners, I would be different. I cannot develop by being in one place, in one production.” Each experience had helped her to learn. “Sometimes I have to do something I disagree with and it takes a big amount of time to find a way to convince myself to believe in what I’m doing.” This was of great importance. “Because if I don’t believe, how can I make you, the audience, believe in what I’m doing? So when I came across challenges, I grew by overcoming them and making things real and honest for myself.”
Mike commented that it was curious how sometimes an amateur performance could provide an insight that a professional performance did not, perhaps because of a directness and a sincerity and a better understanding of what the performer was doing without what he termed the veneer and the sophistication.
He then turned to Alina and Johan performing together in Giselle. The first time Alina had performed this at the Royal Opera House was the production where she made her debut with Johan. “And at the end of Act I after the mad scene there was a sea of handkerchiefs in the stalls and this was something I had not seen since Fonteyn had done the role in the 60s,” he said. “You were perfect for Giselle because you looked so young, you were so young and vulnerable and sincere and it was truly heartbreaking.” A lot of that performance was derived from Alina’s relationship with Johan, suggested Mike, “… but, as you say, you’ve danced that role in so many places since with other partners but what I think happened over time was that your Act II became as powerful as your Act I. ”Giselle, he said, was “ definitely a ballet of two halves.” He wanted to know if Alina had derived insights on Act II from other dancers, partners or productions?
“Interestingly,” Alina replied, “ it was the ballet my teacher in Kiev wanted me to do there and prepare for. I think the first time you do it you do the best you can with what you have. I don’t think at that time I would have analysed Act II, or even Act I, so just follow the instinct and the story, who I thought Giselle was. But with time and experience – for example in John (Neumeier)’s production my mother is blind and I take care of her and that gives to Giselle a different sensibility, a responsibility, a different struggle and conflict between Hilarion and Albrecht who the mother doesn’t really trust, so suddenly it adds a completely different dimension and, for Act II, it becomes my favourite to perform.” The reason for this was straightforward; “ This is because I believe in eternal love, I believe in forgiveness and, I think, not only with learning to forgive people but in time learning to forgive myself in life, it’s given me a lot more insight into what forgiving really is.”
She went on to recall working with Sorella Englund on La Sylphide. “She tried to explain to me ‘you can imagine a forest as you want it with as many flowers as you want, as many butterflies, you can have a river, or a stream, or a waterfall. It’s yours to see.’ And after that I went into Giselle and suddenly my Act II forest was not just the trees I could see around me in the sets. It was more and I could make for myself an Act II that was spooky or sometimes I would make it more romantic, just those slight changes, changes that performers add to the role and then I can start having fun with it.”
She would also apply this approach to Act I: “When I hear the knock on the door, am I waiting for it? Am I washing the dishes? If I am and there’s a knock on the door I’ll come out with one kind of energy, if I’m waiting for him to visit me, I’ll come out with a different kind and I don’t think any one is right or wrong. It can change the performance completely.”
She admitted that she hated nothing more than repeating herself on stage. Throughout her career she posed the question to herself, how she could use her imagination to, as she described it, bring a new world to a role that she had danced so often? And even though she had danced with Johan so many times, and they had rehearsed together for so many hours, “… the magic part is that you go on stage and let yourself go … responding to what each other does. This is absolutely magical and surprising for ourselves and I think when this happens on stage it comes across, that moment when we enter the stage, it can spark a completely different performance.”
Mike noted that a student once asked him how come, of all the romantic ballets, Giselle had survived to the present day? He had responded that this was because the ballet had a message that love is more powerful than death. “And,” he said, “ when there is real love on the stage, as there is between you and Johan, that makes the message of the ballet doubly potent. You said to me once,” he told Alina, “’I don’t pretend on stage, I’m being.’ That’s the difference between a good dancer and a great artist.”
He then asked about Alina’s work with John Neumeier in Hamburg and wanted to know how this had come about?
It was, she said, soon after she had been promoted at the Royal that she and Johan were invited by Neumeier to dance the flower festival and she was asked to dance Giselle Act II with Ethan Stiefel at Neumeier’s Nijinsky Gala. Neumeier asked her to do Act II because, having seen her at Covent Garden, he felt she had something to bring to the role. “He remembers that after that performance he saw me waiting outside and he tried to explain to me how much he felt that it had just been performed for the first time then by me and that it was something so new. And I didn’t answer him back and he was wondering if I understood what he had said. I was just so overwhelmed because somehow I was always very intimidated by him,” and she added; “ I think I still am.
“If you see me speak with John outside the studio you think I’m a shy girl but when I’m in the studio I feel I have something to give.” He had told her “You’re a dancer for a choreographer.’” As it happened a number of years passed before she actually worked with him again. She had searched to see what companies were putting on Neumeier’s productions and discovered that the Royal Danish Ballet was to perform his Midsummer Night’s Dream so Alina made contact and asked if she could guest in his production? His answer was yes, so they began working together.
After Dream he invited her to work with the company for a while. She recalled that following one rehearsal when she was due to fly back to London the following day she received a phone call in her hotel room late that evening “And it’s John and he tells me about a ballet he’s been dreaming of doing for many years, which is Liliom, and I was crying because I knew the play, actually Johan had introduced me to the music and the play a few years earlier and I remember searching for the dvd of Carousel in old places where you could find dvds because it wasn’t available online.
“And when John mentioned it to me I was so excited and then came the challenge of making it happen,” she said. Luckily, she was not at the time busy at the Royal so she could be with John to rehearse for two months, and then go back and forth for the performances.
“ It’s very interesting because all things happen at the right time. I think if he had wanted to do Liliom six years before, maybe I wasn’t ready. Who knows? And when we did get it together it just felt right as though everything was aligned.”
Having completed all her research about the play, watched all the movies and listened to all the music, Alina then put it all to one side so as to get Neumeier’s guidance and insights into how he wanted to tell the story. “I remember thinking ‘how can he do the last scene with heaven and the stars, it’s so unrealistic?’ But of course John does, he has such an amazing imagination, such an amazing way of putting it into ballet; it works and the creative process for me is absolutely magical.” She described it as guidance without pressure. “He just tells the story and then you discover, you find it, you develop it and he guides you.”
She added that, whereas some dancers who became teachers or coaches forgot how it felt to be a dancer, this was not the case with Neumeier. He maintained a connection with his dancers, respected them and knew what they needed. Having danced the Lady of the Camelias for him she felt she could stop dancing at that point, because what else could happen? Then another creation would come along, in this case The Glass Menagerie, and, said Alina, it was filled with even more discoveries and magic.
Mike said that Liliom was about love surviving death, it was basically the same scenario as Giselle. Alina agreed. “Yes, it’s that unconditional love when you meet someone, you see someone and you are with someone and you know that it’s eternal. I know that feeling.”
Then Mike turned to the subject of the Romanian National Ballet where Johan had been artistic director for two years following his departure from the Royal. Management tensions had led both to his resignation and also Alina withdrawing from performing there. “It must have been really painful to see the situation in Bucharest, the political situation there when Johan was director,” commented Mike. He added; “I was there and I saw a lot of that nonsense going on. That must have been painful for you as a Romanian artist and for your partner Johan who was doing an amazing job there.”
Alina said the work that Johan was doing with the company was tremendous. She was living out of a suitcase and flying there at weekends to spend time with him, she was getting involved with coaching there and found it a wonderful experience. Concerning the management tensions she said: “What is most interesting and fascinating is the power of the media. If it is fake or not fake news, if it’s untrue it didn’t matter, people believe what they are told. What sometimes was hurtful was the fact that people don’t even try to know the truth.” There was also a political dimension to the arguments and ministers and even the country’s prime minister got involved. She described the political dimension to the events as “shocking.”
“We went along with the journey as far as we could and we were asked many times ‘why don’t you just leave?’ … But Johan had invested so much of himself in it. He created so many wonderful things there that you can’t just leave that behind because everything that was there was made for the benefit of the dancers.” Prior to his arrival the dancers had only two teachers their entire career, but once Johan took over they had guest teachers and a new repertoire. “There were great things and you have to fight to protect it, it’s what you’ve put your soul and heart into, you can’t just leave.”
But eventually, reluctantly, they both departed from the company. “I will never forget,” said Alina, “the last day I was there in the theatre. I left the building and there was a lady with a microphone and camera and she said ‘can you please tell us what really happened’ and I recognised the lady because she was there on Day One and I said ‘I already told you what happened. Truth does not change, you chose not to show it on the tape. I cannot repeat myself.’ She put the microphone down and she said ‘I’m sorry.’
Then Alina added: “There were press who were forced to go in one political way. Then it felt overwhelming but now, seeing what is happening in the world, I am not surprised of how arts is valued. I don’t want to get political but with the arts I’m not surprised now that we’re on our own to survive.”
Mike said: “The problem is that opera houses can be more about power than about art and where you have a situation where politics becomes more important than art in an opera house, then you know there’s going to be trouble.” He recalled that Alina had been doing a great deal of work, including fundraising galas, with Hospice Of Hope; a charity providing hospice care for terminally ill adults and children. This led him onto his next question. “Of course, now you are a mother with a beautiful child, Thalia, and you’re about to have another baby.” Is it, he asked, a boy or a girl?
“It’s another girl,” said Alina, “ Girl power in our house!” The baby is due towards the end of December.
Mike wanted to know if Alina’s view of dancing had changed since she first became a mother, adding that in the Mariinsky it was quite normal for ballerinas to have three children during their dancing careers while this was less the case in Western Europe and even more unusual in America. “Some dancers come back better after having children,” he said. “The focus is now different. It’s not just the career when there’s a young life to nurture. Your landscape changes a little bit, doesn’t it?”
Alina confirmed that this was the case. “What was very interesting for me to discover is that during the first pregnancy things are so focussed on being in control of this body, on making things happen physically. I dance. I practice it to be as beautiful as I can. Then suddenly this little thing is growing and I have nothing to do with it. You begin a different awareness of nature and new trust.”
Returning to dancing after the birth she would say to herself: “I didn’t suddenly feel I had to repeat ten times, five times was enough! And I became a lot more in tune with listening to my body, without constantly feeling about what I used to do.” Previously her attitude had been to repeat everything over. To be good on stage one had to do a move in the studio three times in a row. Now, her attitude was, “well actually, no!” She had performed roles so many times in the past she just had to get them back into her body. “ And that kind of trust became a lot more helpful.” Also, she said, she became much more time-efficient and felt it was not necessary to do so many exercise workouts before and after class, before and after rehearsals. She concentrated now on what would be most effective in the time she had. “Suddenly my routine for preparation became much more intense but focussed. And I realise I get more done.”
She recalled: “When I had a performance of Swan Lake and I had been up all night (here she mimed nursing the baby) and I was feeling very tired and I just said to myself – I start talking to myself, I’m not crazy - but I just started saying ‘Well, you can do this in your sleep. You have done rehearsals where you are so tired and you’ve still done great rehearsals. All you have to do is take one step at a time and I say I’m so proud of you. You’re so amazing to be here today and, guess what, people are coming to see you and they just want to see a swan, so what swan can you be today? Can you be maybe a more grounded swan, a more sorrowful swan, what quality would your swan be able to give to the audience today?’ And that for me is the key.”
Alina said what motivates her is touching people so she talks to herself in a way that she knows will inspire her. “I say ‘I’ve never done Swan Lake in this state. How exciting!’ And before you know, it was a fantastic show. Just go out there and enjoy yourself and I realised fast how much pressure I would put myself under going on stage.” But now she had added a new level of enjoyment with the knowledge of what was important and this had boosted her self-confidence.
Mike said he believed emotional energy was different to physical energy and many dancers burned too much energy on stage and this was why they were sometimes unmusical “because,” he said, “energy doesn’t equate to artistry. It doesn’t equate to emotional energy”. Great artists did not kill themselves physically. He recalled that Gailene Stock had once said to him that she thought Margot had not been a great dancer. “I said you’re confusing a great dancer with performing tricks” and he went on to describe a Russian ballerina called Tatiana Pauli who did triple fouettés on everything. “She just spun like a top .. but of course most people haven’t heard of Tatiana Pauli; an amazing technical dancer but it’s not the same as being a great dancer.”
Alina said she was in complete agreement. “When I was 27 I had my neck injury,” she remembered, “ and for the first time I was off for a long time and I started watching ballet and seeing some of my colleagues performing things that I would have done too and I thought they would have been great, but somehow, from the audience, it didn’t come across that way,” and she started to consider what really categorised something as a good performance. “ I don’t get a mark for it and there are hundreds of different opinions and it’s really hard to honestly know for myself. A colleague or a teacher might make a comment after a show and that might be either negative or positive.” But now she began to think what was it important for her to achieve with the performance?
She gave an example. “One day I had a performance where I came off thinking it was not so good and my teacher said; ‘I was very moved by it tonight.’ But I categorised that as a very bad performance. And then I had another performance the other way round and I just realised that by doing this kind of systematic way of trying to find what’s important for me, my top priority is to move people, to deliver something that is moving. It has a message, honesty, there’s a truth to it and it’s real. Therefore I realised that the very performance I categorised as a bad show was actually the opposite ”
And when she worked with a different partner, which could be challenging, her main goal was to really connect with that person so as to create a chemistry with someone she might know very little about, may only have just met, but the aim was to deliver something that was believable as a couple. With other ballets the emphasis might be “I really want to get this step that I’ve really struggled with for so long”. But whatever the challenge the top priority was to move people, to touch them.
“From nine years old, some even younger, we are constantly in an environment where we are told what is good and what is bad. In time we grow but I don’t think we necessarily translate that into individual desires. We’re still in that frame of what other people tell us is good or bad. We can so easily get influenced by other peoples’ opinions if we don’t really know what our main value is.”
Mike then said a fellow critic had once asked him ‘why do you always bang on about musicality when you’re reviewing?’ This had made him incredulous. “It’s dancing! Of course you’ve got to talk about musicality, it’s dancing, it’s not athletics!”
He then turned back to Alina’s career. “You danced Juliet to Sergei (Polunin)’s Romeo in Verona choreographed by Johan and that was a great success,” he said, and added; “There are still plans to bring it to the Albert Hall. I think it would be wonderful for London to see.” He asked Alina how she found working with Sergei as a colleague, given people’s general opinion based on what he called the media version of Sergei that was poles apart from the real person.
“It was very interesting to be part of Johan’s production,” she answered, “part of his vision of the ballet and when Sergei said, ‘ok let’s do this for my company and produce it’, the way he did it came together in a really focussed way."
“It felt we had a very intense time to prepare it and what was really wonderful, when you have that intention, and that energy and that input – and Johan’s version of what he wanted to create was so clear and so unique - and when you’re part of this I wanted just to bring the best part of myself to the table and Sergei did the same.”
It was, she said, wonderful to see his passion and his care for the dancers and the environment. They had rehearsed for two to three weeks in Belgrade and then brought it to the stage in Verona. “For me it was a dream on many levels because our little daughter would be with us.” Class would not start before 11 or 11.30 so she could spend time with little Thalia, have a good warm up before class, then there was rehearsal and notes and an evening with her family and gym work after that. That was ideal, “because I could be a mum, be with my family and be part of something so unique, working with Sergei, working with Johan.” She described the show as a little bit overwhelming as they did not have time for a stage call. “But it was a wonderful experience and I very much look forward to doing it again.”
She added that this was in fact Sergei’s first Romeo, which surprised Mike. He went on to comment that Verona was not like a normal theatre, holding some 16,000 people and having no proscenium.
He then turned to questions from the audience and the first questioner wanted to know the difference between dancing a traditional Giselle and Akram Khan’s version. Wasn’t there despair in the Khan version?
Alina did not share the view that it was despairing to her role. This she said was as a result of her learning the role but also through an experience during one performance at the London Coliseum. “At the end of Act I we all heard, when Giselle was revealed as dead, a huge scream in the auditorium and I thought someone was unwell and in the intermission I asked ‘in everyone ok?’ And they said ‘we don’t know, someone just screamed’ and that made me think what someone must feel in an auditorium to scream like that. What loss must that person have felt in their life to be able just to express that pain during the performance? Some people laughed about it but I was the opposite. I hoped they would stay for the 2nd part of the show because they needed to see the forgiveness part, they needed to see that whatever happened to (Giselle) that she is fine on the other side.”
Although there was despair in the setting of the story there was camaraderie and leadership and unity among the people who had struggled together in hardship. Khan’s Giselle brought light to the people and in Act II she forgives Albrecht and wishes the best for him. “When you come to the point in your life when you can’t be with the person you love and you have no grudge against them, you want them to be well but you can’t be with them, the only option is to sacrifice everything you are for the other being, like,” she said to Mike, “you saw in my eyes when I spoke of Johan, my Giselle has that in my eyes and has seen it in Albrecht’s eyes at some point in the ballet. It’s such a peaceful ending for me instead of a despairing one!”
Another question was how Alina decided to become a ballerina? She explained she was doing gymnastics when she was little which is what most children did at the time when Romania was a Communist country. When she decided to stop the gymnastics a family friend said she should take up ballet instead, adding “you cannot waste your energy breaking the sofa in your house.” So she joined a ballet class – which people said was easier than gymnastics!
Having done an audition for the Romanian National Ballet School she then went away on holiday in the countryside to stay with her grandparents and her parents back home received a call to say there was another audition the following day to join a group of students who would go on an exchange to Kiev. Her father drove to collect her and take her back home for that audition which she passed, and off to Kiev she would go.
“I think we were among the very first children to have a passport in Romania,” she explained. “We were waiting for the passports, it was two months later and the school had started and I remember being at the railway station and there’s a person coming with a suitcase and that’s our passports to go to Kiev. Then we sit on a train for 27 hours.”
She recalls saying goodbye to her parents and being excited but then realising that, as a second child, she had never been alone before, always being with her sister or mother and father. “So, in Kiev the beginning of my journey felt quite lonely, I found a notebook from when I was a child and in it I say ‘60 days to Christmas, 60 days and I go home, 60 days to holidays'!"
She also remembers that she had been at the Kiev ballet school - where she remembers her teachers with fondness - for some two months before actually going to see a ballet for the first time. “I’d never seen a performance of a ballet, my parents had never seen a ballet!”
The woman who acted as translator for the young students – as none of them spoke Russian - recalled that during the intermission in the ballet performance they had lost Alina and searched all over the Kiev Opera House for her only to find her at the front of the stalls “saying one day I’m going to do that really good.” The ballet they had been taken to see was Don Quixote and that was the first leading role that she would later perform on that very stage.
The conversation came to an end at this point and, in thanking Alina and Mike, Susan Dalgetty Ezra referred to the great rapport between the two of them. “It’s been like sitting round the dinner table talking with friends,” she said and hoped Alina could come back another time to speak to us.
“We’ve learned so much and come to know the woman behind the dancer that we’ve loved to watch in so many roles,” said Susan. “I know Alina says her goal is to move us. Well, she has on so many evenings and in so many different settings. I look forward to many more nights with my hanky out and my heart in my mouth.”
Written by Phillip Cooper and edited/approved by Alina Cojocaru and Mike Dixon