Maria Mosina: The Journey of a Russian Dancer
Sergey Gordeev for Dancer Magazine (published in July 2005 issue)
Galina Stepanenko was breathtaking as she flew across the gigantic stage of the Kremlin Palace of Fine Arts in a series of glissades-en-tournant in in the 2nd Act of “La Fille Mal Gardee.” Surrounded by the members of the Bolshoi corps de ballet and the 11 year-old students from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, she took her usual bows at the end of the variation, when she heard applause coming from behind. One of the girls from the Academy, little Maria Mosina, was so swept by Stepanenko’s performance that she forgot she, too, was on stage and started clapping!
When the curtain went down, Masha quickly got over the embarrassment and contemplated her first professional performance. She did not know that in time she would become a professional ballerina like Stepanenko. She did not know that besides mastering and perfecting the lead roles in most of the classics she would become equally well versed in contemporary choreography, performing works by Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey. Nor did she know that she would become a Principal Dancer of a major American ballet company – and she certainly had no idea that after 10 years of performing professionally around the world she would return to her Alma Mater, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, to pursue graduate studies in Pedagogy. But she knew by the end of that performance that on stage she had found her home – and that she wanted to be a part of that magic world for the rest of her life.
As any girl “lucky” enough to be selected to the highly prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Maria learned early about the meaning of discipline in a dancer’s life. Living in the Academy’s dorms from 10 to 18 years of age, she saw her parents only twice a week – on Wednesdays for “Parents’ Day” and on Sundays, when she was allowed to go home. Busy with dance training, music classes, regular schooling, and rehearsals, she had no time for a normal childhood. Each evening she stood in line to use one of the two public phones in the dorm lobby to call her parents and tell them about her accomplishments. With the sleeping quarters, cafeterias, academic classes, dance teachers, counselors, and even a first-rate medical facility on premises complete with a dentist and an emergency room, her life was almost totally confined to the walls of the Academy.
The eight years at the Academy were fairly ordinary, as far as “ordinary” at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy goes: there were the first professional performances of “La Fille Mal Gardee,” “Coppelia,” “Don Quixote” and “The Sleeping Beauty” with the Bolshoi Ballet; there was the first love, the first triumphs and disappointments as a dancer and as a young woman. Upon graduation, however, her life took a sharp turn away from the ordinary. Instead of following the usual path of joining Bolshoi’s corps de ballet and waiting for several years to be noticed and maybe given a solo role or two, she was lucky enough to be hand-picked by Yuri Grigorovich with a different plan in mind.
Having symbolized Bolshoi Ballet for almost 30 years, in 1990 Yuri Grigorovich decided to create another Bolshoi troupe consisting of 50 talented graduates of the Academy with the purpose to create new works and to give young dancers a chance to choreograph on their peers. This could never be done with the enormous, over-200-member company of the strictly classical ballet-based Bolshoi Ballet. The newly created Bolshoi Theatre Grigorovich Ballet, however, was a perfect ground for him to explore and for its dancers to shine in principal roles at the very beginning of their careers. Such gems of contemporary ballet choreography as “Spartacus,” “Golden Age,” “Legend of Love,” “Ivan the Terrible,” and “Stone Flower” were created by Grigorovich at that time and toured all over the globe alongside his own versions of the well-known classics such as “Raymonda,” “Swan Lake,” “Nutcracker,” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
Mosina recalls performing the lead role of Rita in “Golden Age” in 1991: “This was my first year of working at the Bolshoi and my first full-length ballet. I was 19 and had the privilege to work directly with Grigorovich on preparing the part. I was portraying the life of a young woman struggling through the new economy of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The ballet showed hardship, political unrest, social stratification between the laborers and the bourgeoisie, and the decadent lifestyles of the elite. This was not your regular “Nutcracker:” besides neo-classical choreography it featured foxtrot, waltz, even tango! That was when I first realized that my artistic sensibilities were not limited to classical ballet. I remember people at the Bolshoi telling me then how impressed they were with my artistic range.”
Apparently, fellow artists at the Bolshoi were not the only people impressed with Mosina’s range of interpretation: in 1994 she was requested by the Queen of England to perform at the “Royal Variety Performance” Benefit at the Dominion Theatre in London. Mosina and her partner were the only two dancers representing the Bolshoi Ballet at the star-studded international Gala performance.
Touring the world with Grigorovich’s company provided Mosina with endless moments of inspiration. Working with the likes of Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Natalia Bessmertnova, Yuri Vladimirov, Mikhail Lavrovsky, and Ludmila Semenyaka and seeing them perform made a huge impact on her as a dancer. “They helped us, coached us, gave us corrections and advised us on role interpretation… it was an extraordinary growth experience.”
However, the harsh reality of the crumbling Russian economy of the 1990s brought this short-lived dream to an end. The atmosphere at the Bolshoi was that of confusion and stagnation: Grigorovich began losing interest in the life of the Theatre and was within months of being fired, dancers were leaving the company due to lack of pay and artistic stimulation, and ballet in general was falling apart in the post-communist Russia. And so, after the 1994-95 season tour, Mosina and her then-fiancé (now husband) Andrei Plekhanov decided to leave the Bolshoi Theatre Grigorovich Ballet and try their luck in America.
Looking for new artistic challenges in America proved to be a challenge in itself. Used to the high standards of the Bolshoi and unfamiliar with the audition process in the U.S., Andrei and Maria traveled from “Nutcrackers” to school recitals, from Galas to guest performances with companies like Fernando Bujones’ Miami Ballet, to John Clifford’s ill-fated Los Angeles Classical ballet – until in the fall of 1995 Martin Fredmann of Colorado Ballet decided to take a chance on Mosina – and it turned out to be one of his best hiring decisions ever made.
The rest, as they say, is history. That same year, Colorado Ballet presented a program of Balanchine repertoire, which included “Apollo,” “Rubies,” and “Theme and Variations.” Mosina was cast in principal roles in all three ballets and at once proved herself to be one of the most versatile Russian ballerinas performing today. “There was a general belief that Russian ballerinas could not master Balanchine choreography because of being so rooted in Russian classical technique. For me it was easy – and interesting, in the sense that my career in America started with adaptation to a distinctly American style. I really found myself in Balanchine choreography!” In 1997, Mosina also found herself on the cover of Dance Magazine.
The next challenge – the choreography of Martha Graham – was not such an easy accomplishment. “I got it through blood, sweat and tears,” says Mosina of the 1998 Colorado Ballet production of “Appalachian Springs,” “Because it was such a radically different way to move and express my emotions from everything I have ever known – from placement of the legs to muscle and skeletal positioning and movement.” Yet the end result was a brilliant performance – as was the case with Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” Alvin Ailey’s “The River” at the Ailey company’s celebration of Masazumi Chaya’s 30th Anniversary in New York, and numerous works by contemporary choreographers such as Donald McKayle, Martin Fredmann, Stanton Welch, Christopher Wheeldon, Peter Pucci, Michael Pink, Toru Shimazaki, Sergei Kozadaev, and Konstantin Uralsky.
Never one to rest on her laurels, in 2002 Mosina set her sights on yet another challenge: a five-year master’s degree program in methodology and pedagogy at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (now called the Moscow State Academy of Choreography). Studying by correspondence over two-dozen subjects ranging from classical ballet theory to art history, psychology, philosophy and law, she hopes to use her knowledge and professional experience to coach professional artists in the future.
When asked about advice for young dancers who are just starting their dance careers, Mosina smiles knowingly and says that the best advice for any dancer is to work as hard as you can – 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time. “That is what makes you look professional – your desire to be on stage and the effort you put into it.” And by effort she does not mean the familiar admonitions like “never mark in class” or “be there” the entire time during class or rehearsal – that is a given. For Mosina, who next year will celebrate her 15th season of dancing professionally, the important thing is to infuse the life outside of the studio with dance, as well.
“We all lead parallel lives: one life as an artist and another – as a regular person. So make sure your ‘ordinary’ life prepares you for your life on stage. Study your emotions, observe people around you; learn from that. If you are preparing a role, read about the time period of the ballet, study the characters and the cultural norms of the society. Read books, go to museums, look at paintings; try to live like you would if you were in the circumstances suggested by the ballet; finally, see other people’s interpretation of those characters. That will dramatically inform your performance and will make you look different from anyone else on stage. Finally, never forget why you are dancing: I remember our first lesson at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, when our teacher told us that our purpose as dancers is to bring joy and happiness to people around us. It still is the reason why I dance. And I would advise all dancers to remember this purpose of theirs as dancers and human beings.”
This sounds like good advice for all of us – on stage or off.