Prima ballerina How motherhood helped Viktoria Tereshkina’s career
As she prepares to dazzle London, ballerina Viktoria Tereshkina tells Mark Monahan how motherhood has helped her career
According to Mariinsky principal Viktoria Tereshkina, she has a quirk of nature to thank for her successful career. “I’m a very lucky ballerina,” she says. “Because I get to perform in a really wide range of almost all works. And this is thanks partly to my height. I’m not tall, I’m not small – so I fit in anywhere.” The 5ft 7in dancer (which is, in fact, above average for a female dancer) is being ridiculously modest. If her stature plays any sort of part in her casting, it’s a very minor one. The overriding reason that the Mariinsky high command puts Tereshkina on stage so often is, quite simply, that she is one of the most dazzling dancers in the world.
A flawless (and flawlessly proportioned) technician and meticulous exponent of the classical purity that is the St Petersburg troupe’s hallmark, she is also an artist of exceptional breadth, depth and power. What’s more, she is blessed with that most elusive but invaluable quality: glamour. When the Mariinsky visited Covent Garden in 2009, she perfectly captured Balanchine’s grand neoclassical style in Symphony in C. During its most recent stay there, in 2014, her Juliet left not a dry eye in the house.
And when the company returns to the Royal Opera House next week for a three-week sojourn, the 34-year-old is, again, going to be very much to the fore; the slate includes four full-length ballets – Don Quixote, Swan Lake, La Bayadère and Alexei Ratmansky’s 2011 Tolstoy adaptation Anna Karenina – as well as one mixed programme, and Tereshkina has a lead role in every one.
What, I wonder, does it mean to her to be arguably the biggest star in the revered Mariinsky, the company that produced such all-time greats as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Anna Pavlova and Ulyana Lopatkina. “When you first come to the Mariinsky Theatre,” she says, speaking through an interpreter, “you dream of being a star, and you go, step by step, towards that. And then, if you succeed, it’s first and foremost a great responsibility.
“Even if I don’t feel well and I know that it might hurt me slightly to do a performance, I always try to do it because I know the audience have bought their tickets, and these tickets can be expensive. And sometimes people buy tickets on my name, so it’s a responsibility, especially to them.”
When I visit St Petersburg in May, Tereshkina has never looked better. Performing opposite Philipp Stepin in Balanchine’s Tarentella, she unleashes a fusillade of classical brilliance. Her fouettés are lightning fast but also perfectly etched, her jump high and expansive, her control and musicality total.
Tereshkina admits that she owes much of her strength to her formative years in Krasnoyarsk, the picturesque Siberian city of her birth. “My father was a gymnastics teacher,” she says, “and he had a very high rank in the profession – we call them ‘master of sports’. And my mother was involved in ‘artistic’ gymnastics – so, from four until 10 years old, I too did rhythmic and ribbon gymnastics,” she says.
What made her want to quit gymnastics for ballet, especially given that she was starting to win prizes in the former? “I didn’t want to change anything,” she says, “but my parents said that, even compared with a ballet dancer, the life of a gymnast is short – nowadays, they finish at the age of 16, unfortunately. So we all thought, OK, so let’s try. And when I went to ballet school [in Krasnoyarsk], it turned out that every girl I knew who did gymnastics had done the same thing, and made that move.”
Taking part in a competition in St Petersburg at the age of 16, Tereshkina caught the eye of the distinguished dancer-turned-teacher Igor Belsky. That led to a place first at the hallowed Vaganova academy, and then, in 2001, in the Mariinsky corps. Four years later, she was promoted to soloist and, in 2009, she reached the top rank of principal.
During her 16 years in the company – now under the so-called “acting” directorship of Yuri Fateyev (even though he has been there since 2008) – what changes, I wonder, has she noticed? She reflects for a second. “With my generation,” she says, “when we were joining the Mariinsky theatre, it was a dream for us, and we wouldn’t think about the ‘terms and conditions’ of being accepted into the company. But nowadays, people are more practical and think more about the salary and benefits. When a talented, promising dancer is being offered different things from different companies, then there is this comparison – ‘Oh, I can get more from here than from there.’
“I understand that life is becoming more expensive than before,” she continues, “and it’s not that easy to buy an apartment. So, of course, if a dancer is being offered such benefits, then this would be the criteria for choosing the company. But it makes me sad, because the spiritual thing is lost.”
One thinks inevitably back to the stellar young Bolshoi couple Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, lured in 2011 away from that celebrated Moscow company – their ideal home, artistically speaking – to the second-tier Mikhailovsky in St Petersburg, with the reported promise of greater pay and a wellappointed flat back in Moscow.
And, in fact, the Bolshoi itself has tried several times to pinch Tereshkina from the Mariinsky, never mind that the great Moscow company’s calling card is a far bigger, more flamboyant performance style than that of its famously refined St Petersburg rival. The ballerina admits she was tempted, mainly because her husband, Artem Shpilevsky, was a soloist with the Bolshoi but, in the end, she decided that her heart was with the Mariinsky. Since then, Shpilevsky has quit ballet and carved out a successful career in business, and the couple have started a family.
Tereshkina says her daughter, Milada, aged four, has inspired a new ease to her approach to dancing. “It’s very important not to be too obsessed with ballet,” she says. “Before Milada was born I would even stop myself from going for a walk, thinking my legs would be tired and tense and that this would affect my performance – I was concentrating too much on delivering the highest possible standard. But when my daughter was born, life became how it should be. Family was more important, and life became more balanced.”
Does she think, then, that motherhood has somehow made her a better artist? “It’s not up to me to judge the quality of my dancing,” she says, “but, of course, I changed. I’m always saying to the younger ladies in the company, please, please have babies! Don’t stop yourself from having a family. Because if you have a baby, your mind will be really relaxed – you’ll just let things go. The girls are prone to thinking, ‘Oh, before a performance I shouldn’t leave my dressing room or lie on the bed in a certain position, otherwise the performance will go wrong’. Have a baby, and you worry only about the important, practical things.”
Ballet dancers – knowing first-hand just how tough their profession is
– can be ambivalent at best about their offspring following in their footsteps. What, I wonder, would Tereshkina’s reaction be if young Milada begs her for a tutu? “She already has one!” replies Tereshkina.
One should really have guessed – but what, then, are Tereshkina Snr’s feelings about the ballet line perhaps continuing? “First,” she says, “we will put her into gymnastics” – aha! – “and we will try. She is interested in it.” Milada is, however, pretty much the only ballet fan on the planet to be less than bowled over by her illustrious mother. “Today,” says Tereshkina, “she asked me, ‘Mum, lift up your leg.’ Then she looked critically at me and said, ‘You’re doing it worse than me!’”
The Mariinsky Ballet is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from July 24-Aug 12. Details and tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk/mariinsky
‘I would stop myself from going for a walk, thinking that this would affect my performance’
Strike a pose: Tereshkina’s performance in one of the title roles in Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden in 2014 left not a dry eye in the house