Alina Cojocaru In Conversation with Daniel Pratt

9th January 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Alina Cojocaru to the evening’s conversation. A former Principal with both the Royal and English National Ballets, Alina is now a permanent guest artist with Hamburg Ballet. An outstanding ballerina, Alina will be appearing in her own production of La Strada at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre at the end of January.  Susan also welcomed Daniel Pratt who would lead the conversation. Daniel is a British dancer who trained at the Central School of Ballet and is now both a prolific dance writer and a first soloist with Sarasota Ballet.

Daniel opened the conversation by saying that it was a privilege to talk with Alina who needed absolutely no introduction to lovers of ballet. However, he wanted to start at the beginning and asked what had sparked her interest in dance? Born in Bucharest, and as a young child participating in gymnastics, Alina explained that she had abundant energy and it was suggested that she also explore ballet. She knew nothing of dance and had never seen a ballet; nevertheless, she joined a local ballet school. At about the age of nine she auditioned and was accepted at the Romanian State Ballet School. 

What then followed was a student exchange with the Kiev (now Kyiv) Ballet School where she was offered a place to train. Acceptance of the place in Kyiv involved a huge family decision; it was a long way from home and communication was so much more limited than it would be today. She would see her parents maybe just once a year. However, once in Kyiv she completely fell in love with ballet. In particular, Alina praised her first teacher for being passionate, caring, and absolutely dedicated to encouraging the very best from her students. And at last she was able to see her first ballet - Don Quixote.

Daniel made the point that she had fallen in love with dance without even seeing it on stage, commenting that this showed how fond Alina had become of the artform itself. She thought for a moment and then agreed; she enjoyed rehearsal and studio time just as much as the actual performance of a work. ‘I’ve never thought of it that way before’ she said, ‘but it’s true’.

While in Kyiv Alina entered the Prix de Lausanne, subsequently winning a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. Asked to comment on the difference between that and her previous school in the Ukraine she replied that London and Kyiv are two very different cities, but went on to say that the working environment was very similar. Once you were in a ballet studio, wherever in the world you happened to be, you knew how it operated and what was expected. She learned English, and also noted the range of countries from which her fellow students originated. She had wonderful memories of her time at the Royal Ballet School even though, remarkably, she was only there for some six months because she was then invited to return to Kyiv as a principal dancer in that ballet company. 

On learning of this invitation, Sir Anthony Dowell told her that she would be offered a contract with the Royal Ballet. That created a considerable dilemma; should she stay with the prestigious Royal Ballet, albeit as a junior dancer, or return to Kyiv where she would have considerably greater status. ‘A small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond’. In the end Kyiv won out; she had been so impressed with the teachers there and very much wanted to work with them again in order to grow as a dancer. Once there she felt she was in good hands, performing a number of major roles the first of which was Kitri in Don Quixote, which she danced at just sixteen – notably, of course, the first full ballet she had seen, and on the very same stage!

After her first year in Kyiv Alina was anxious to try to discover what further new experiences she might be able to look forward to in the following season. However, she was told that it would be much the same, which disappointed her; she always wanted to try something new. Accordingly she then started serious discussions with her teacher, who said she had always known that Alina would not stay with the company for ever.  She had not expected Alina to want to move on so quickly, but suggested a move back to the Royal Ballet might be acceptable. Alina also had good memories of seeing the range and quality of the work of the Royal Ballet while attending the School, and decided to re-apply. Following an audition, she was offered a contract as a corps member which she decided to accept. 

Daniel asked Alina what it had been like, going from principal roles in Kyiv to the corps in London. Being in the corps de ballet is very stressful, she said. If, as a soloist, you mess up you are the only individual involved. It might not even be noticed. As a member of the corps, however, you are part of a team. Make an error and it may impact on the whole team. What for Alina exacerbated that concern was the fact that as a relatively short dancer she would inevitably be placed towards the front of the stage, where mistakes could become more obvious. And the corps was continually moving from one ballet to another within the repertoire, with somewhat limited time to perfect routines. Alina was certainly happier dancing solos!

She had not been back with the Royal Ballet very long before Wendy Ellis and Bruce Sansom invited her to a rehearsal of Ashton’s Symphonic Variations. They asked her to learn as much of the ballet as she could, telling her that the first stage call was the next day with the show the following week. She learned at least half of the ballet at that rehearsal and when she went home tried hard to learn the rest of the steps from a video tape. When she demonstrated on stage that she could dance the entire role it was agreed that she should dance in the premiere. 

In this rather unexpected situation Alina realised that all she could do was to work to the best of her ability. And in this respect, of course, her experience of dancing solos in Kyiv was of tremendous assistance. Symphonic Variations, she felt, really set the trajectory for her career with the Royal Ballet. She was promoted to Soloist after her first season, and then to Principal at the early age of nineteen.

It was while she was with the Royal Ballet that she came to know and admire the work of John Neumeier, director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. For some time she and John tried to get together but it never seemed to be possible. However, eventually they managed to arrange that she took part in one of his ballets being presented by the Royal Danish Ballet and that was the start of their close collaboration.

In 2011 she was invited by John to take the part of Julie in Liliom, a new ballet he was creating. She was already familiar with and loved the story, and schedules were consulted to ensure that she could be spared from London. While rehearsing the part, he suggested that she watch La Strada, a 1954 Fellini film, and she believed this had given her a much deeper insight into live and love; an opportunity to probe deeper emotions. And, of course, La Strada was later to inspire her to produce her own show. From that point she became a regular guest artist with the Hamburg company.

Along the way Alina met up and danced with Danish principal dancer Johan Kobborg. Their partnership began when she had to cover at short notice in Romeo and Juliet. As a couple they connected immediately and went on to become what has been called an ‘iconic partnership’, dancing many major roles together. Their relationship blossomed both on and off the stage, and they now have two daughters.

Alina danced with the Royal Ballet for several years, but in 2013 decided that she should leave the company in order to seek new experiences. She joined English National Ballet under what was then the new leadership of Tamara Rojo. Alina expressed surprise that when she joined her new company she knew very few of the dancers, although ‘neighbours’ in London she simply hadn’t had the chance to see their shows. Nevertheless, she was impressed by the company; the dancers were very special and there was a buzz of energy between them. The focus was on working as a team and there was tremendous mutual respect between individuals.

At this time she was spending about half of her working life dancing with the Hamburg Ballet. Travelling between the two companies was not always easy, but the experience was exciting. English National Ballet provided an essentially classical repertoire – and    she loved the studio in which they rehearsed – while in Hamburg under John Neumeier there was a more eclectic mixture of work. Returning to her ‘big fish’ analogy, she now felt that she was able to swim in two different ponds at the same time!

Daniel then turned to La Strada, which Alina is to present at Sadlers Wells Theatre at the end of January. As well as commissioning the show, she will take a principal dancing role. The choreography is by Natalia Horecná who, Alina says, has tremendous vision and generosity. She enables the dancers to discover new shapes and different artforms through motion and emotion. Every dancer is different, and Natalia allows each to explore what they can do with movement, and to grow into their roles. Alina says that when she trusts a choreographer completely she can throw herself totally into a role.

In La Strada Alina will play the part of the young girl Gelsomina – child-like, a bit of a dreamer, and somewhat like Julie in Liliom. She is quick to forgive (unlike me, noted Alina!). She had to try to mould those characteristics within her own physicality; fortunately both she and the choreographer were aiming for the same sort of interpretation, which was great. 

A video clip of La Strada in rehearsal was then shown.

Daniel went on to ask Alina about something quite different – her experience as a mother.  How, if at all, had that changed her dance career? Challenging, said Alina. At work, in rehearsal and in the studio, you know what is coming next, what tomorrow will bring. Raising a child is different. What is relevant and works today may not work tomorrow. Children develop and change so rapidly. You figure it all out and believe you know what to do, by which time the child has grown and moved on so that you never feel totally in control. It keeps Alina on her toes and she loves it! 

Conversation and communication were so important, she said. For instance, she tries to share with her daughters whatever she can about her work; in return, they can often ask questions which force her to think more deeply about a role. Daniel agreed that children can certainly help you to be curious, which was definitely positive.

Moving then to the pandemic, Alina confessed that initially it was heavenly. She could do nothing without feeling guilty because every activity – classes, rehearsals, performances – was suspended for the time being. In due course, however, this turned to uncertainty and then frustration because nothing was happening and she wanted to continue being an artist. It was during this period that ideas for La Strada began to crystallise. She realised that over time she had experienced many different styles of teaching and coaching, some good, some less so. She reckoned that she could try to emulate the best of these and take on these roles herself. 

And so what for the future? This new production will be a test for her; if it proves successful she has other ideas which she would like to pursue. Nothing is set in stone; she will wait and see. Was there a particular role she still yearned to play? After a great deal of thought she replied that there were no specific parts she wanted to play, rather that she would see what developed and then try to ensure that she made the most of every role she was offered.

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, said that it had been so interesting to listen to Alina talking with such enthusiasm about her attitudes to her fantastic career and also to parenthood. Susan then thanked both her and Daniel most sincerely for giving their time to take part in such an interesting conversation.

Written by Trevor Rothwell, and approved by Alina Cojocaru and Daniel Pratt

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