Dance Alina Cojocaru brings international flair to QB’s The Sleeping Beauty
Ballet’s acclaimed ‘pocket Venus’ is in Brisbane to dance Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. By Sharon Verghis
‘Ialways look for the drama in everything.” Alina Cojocaru’s bold declaration of her dance philosophy is rendered in the whispery, singsong cadences of a little girl; she is so softly spoken that I’m forced to ask her to speak up. A resigned chuckle travels down the phone line. “I’m so sorry. I’m always being asked to do that.”
It’s late evening in London and Review has caught the prima ballerina during a rare 24hour window of downtime in her busy international schedule: the night before, she danced the role of Solveig in John Neumeier’s Peer Gynt for Hamburg Ballett in Germany; the next day she would perform in Romeo and Juliet with the English National Ballet in Bristol before boarding a flight to Brisbane for three guest appearances in Queensland Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty and then boomeranging back across the hemispheres to Hamburg again for Neumeier’s
Liliom, his celebrated bespoke ballet for her. If she’s feeling strained by the workload, it’s not evident. At 32, Cojocaru still resembles an artless schoolgirl (standing at 157cm and 40kg, she’s been described as a “pocket Venus”) but her fragility is deceptive. There is a vein of steely strength in everything from her perfectionism in the studio to her ability to fill huge spaces with her wraith’s body, to the decisions she makes in managing her personal brand: this includes, among other things, shocking the dance world by defecting from the mighty Royal Ballet two years ago. Why? “Well, I wanted to see what was above the ceiling,” she says calmly in that tiny child’s voice.
Applauding her gutsy performance as Kitri in Don Quixote, The New York Times’ dance critic Alistair Macaulay once remarked, almost as if surprised, that “she’s not the waif she often seems”.
The doll-like dancer, hailed as one of the greatest of her generation, has been confounding expectations since she first slipped on a pair of pointe shoes.
Her formidable drive propelled her from a workingclass childhood in communist Romania to Kiev and then on to Covent Garden, where, at the Royal Ballet, she learned every step of Ashton’s Symphonic
Variations in just three days after the lead dancer was injured, practising in her tiny flat in London with ankle weights. In 2008, she fought back from a potentially career-ending neck injury in rehearsal to rebuild a lauded career as principal at the Royal Ballet.
This week, Cojocaru, now principal dancer at the English National Ballet, flew into Brisbane for the first of three guest appearances in The
Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet. She will dance the role of Aurora opposite principal Chi Cao; with her rock-solid balances — on show in the infamous Rose Adagio — lyricism and storytelling flair, she’s regarded as one of international ballet’s most compelling Auroras.
It’s a happy coup for Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet, who says Cojocaru (in Brisbane courtesy of the Queensland government’s Super Star Fund) is “one of the best dancers in the world. Her artistry and technique is flawless, her character portrayal beautiful, her lines pure and movements fluid.”
On her part, Cojocaru, who guest-starred with fiance Johan Kobborg in the Australian Ballet’s Manon last year, is happy to have finally pinned down a time in her tight schedule to reprise one her favourite roles with the smaller state company: she’s impressed with Li’s ambitions for QB, and “it makes you wish to do everything to make it happen”.
The youngest daughter of a grocer and seamstress, Cojocaru was born in Bucharest on May 27, 1981. As a child she excelled in gymnastics before switching to ballet, where her precocious talent was quickly spotted. She was picked for a student exchange at the Kiev Ballet School, boarding a train for the 27-hour journey at age nine: it was 1990, a year after the revolution in Romania, and “we were one of the first children in Romania to have passports and be able to leave the country”. Did she feel homesick? She pauses: “It was hard, I think, for my parents but being so young, it was much easier to adapt.”
In this cloistered environment, she did classes without ever seeing a full performance; she says her teachers’ praise was all that motivated her until watching a performance of Giselle finally lit the performing fires. Her talent fuelled a meteoric rise. In 1998, a scholarship from the Prix de Lausanne enabled her to attend the Royal Ballet School in London for six months. She was offered a contract at the company but chose to return to the Kiev Ballet, where she took up the position as principal aged 17. But spurred by a desire to learn more, she returned to the Royal Ballet, joining the corps de ballet in 1999. Cojocaru wouldn’t remain in the wings for long: her rise at Covent Garden sprang from that classic ballet fairytale of the understudy shooting to sudden stardom after replacing an injured star.
This came when she stepped on stage on February 29, 2000 in Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic
Variations, created for Margot Fonteyn. A critic at the time said that “at interval, the Royal
Alina Cojocaru, below, and dancing in the
English National Ballet’s Le Corsaire in