(Originally published in Boston Magazine, July 1996)
It’s a few weeks before Nutcracker and all through the Boston Ballet building on Clarendon Street, dancers are leaping and prancing and pirouetting to Tchaikovsky‘s lovely melodies, repeated over and over on pianos pushed to the far corners of the rooms.
In one of the sunlit, pink-floored, mirror-walled rehearsal studios, Larissa Ponomarenko leans against the barre, gazing out the big arched window at the picturesque old brick buildings next door, waiting to rehearse for her role as the Snow Queen. The music begins, and she walks across the floor, her white tutu skirt fluttering like a white bird’s wings; she lifts herself up on her toes as if smoothly shifting gears in an elegant foreign sports car; and starts to dance. Ballet is all artifice; nobody moves like that in ordinary life. But the 26-year-old rising star of the Boston Ballet makes even the Snow Queen’s dazzling, delicate swirls seem easy and natural. Between rehearsals, we sit and talk.
From a distance, Larissa Ponomarkenko seems fragile, ethereal. But up close, you can see the muscles in her slender limbs, her graceful neck, her flexible spine. The years of dedication and discipline are sculpted onto her slender frame.
She comes from Odessa, in the Ukraine. At the age of 10, she was sent to Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) to study at the Vaganova Ballet. “It was hard for my Mom to let me go,” she sighs. After eight years of study, she returned to the Ukraine and joined the Donetsk Ballet Company, where she met another dancer, Viktor Plotnikov. “We danced together there . . . ,” she says with a sweet, wistful smile, her voice trailing off. They were married in 1992 and came to the Boston Ballet as principal dancers for the 1993-94 season.
Last spring, in The Sleeping Beauty, Larissa danced Aurora as a fairy-tale princess—exquisite as a tiny china doll, twirling around on an old-fashioned wind-up music box. This fall, in the Rum and Coca-Cola number in Paul Taylor‘s Company B, she was a thoroughly modern minx, driving the boys mad as she lifted up her skirt in a curving, mincing tease of a dance, tormenting them with her indifference as they rolled and writhed on the floor. She smiles.
Her ability to modulate her dancing so completely is part of what makes her so perfect as Tatiana, in Onegin; her character is an innocent, romantic young girl who is transformed by love and suffering into an “inaccessible goddess.” The ballet was inspired by “Yevgeny Onegin,” a poem written in 1831 by Alexander Pushkin. She says,
“I love Pushkin. I love poetry. I’ve read the poem a hundred times but I’m going to read it again.”
Pushkin’s poem, which was translated into English by Vladimir Nabokov in 1964, tells the story of Onegin, a bored, moody, melancholy, aristocrat with a “sharp, chilled mind,” and Tatiana, a poetic, pensive country girl who falls in love with him. He rejects her innocent love and she is heartbroken. Soon afterward, Onegin kills his best friend in a frivolous duel and goes into exile. Three years later, at a ball in Moscow in a palace on the banks of the Neva River, he encounters a dazzlingly elegant woman, the wife of a high-ranking general:
the inaccessible goddess of the luxurious, queenly Neva.”
It is Tatiana. Onegin now falls in love with her, but it is too late; and she tells him that she has given her hand to another. “To him I shall be faithful all my life.” Larissa sighs:
“When I read his poetry, I think of a nightingale. When you read it aloud, it’s so light, it sounds like a love song. But at the same time it’s so strong in describing things, and feelings, and relationships between people, and all the nuances and details of Russian life, and the spirit of the people, and the passion of the people.”
She says she feels a strong sense of identification with Tatiana. “She loves to dream, and I also love to dream,” says Larissa. “She loves to read French romances, and I love romances.” And they both loved the winter, too.
Nutcracker music wafting from one of the rehearsal studios reminds us that she’ll soon be dancing the Snow Queen, in a flurry of snowflakes, to the singing of angelic voices. When I ask her how she prepares for such a role, she closes her eyes, leans back, and conjures up images in a dreamy voice, as if imagining herself into the role right in front of me.
“There’s no story. All I have to imagine in a nice, beautiful forest, a forest of magic, and I am the queen of the magic in that forest, and I’m trying to show the magic and the grace and the beauty of nature in the winter.”
The Snow Queen opens her eyes and smiles.
“I love water, I love the sea and the ocean,” she sighs,
“We go out to the ocean, just to hear waves coming to the shore. So beautiful. Like another style of music.”
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com