- Ballerina Oxana Karnovich on ballet and Sri Lanka
By Naveed Rozais
The world of ballet is innately mysterious to us, from the graceful poses that look so difficult to maintain, to the world of professional ballet and all that entails. This week, The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with Russian School of Ballet and Dancing guest examiner and former professional ballet dancer Oxana Karnovich for a chat on what the world of ballet is really like, and how the Russian School of Ballet and Dancing is training its students in this prolific form of dance.
A modern ballet legend
Karnovich is one of Russia’s foremost ballet dancers and her credentials are staggering: she has a PhD in Art and History and is the Head of Department of the State Theatre Museum’s ‘Museum-Apartment of G.S Ulanova,’ an Associate Professor of the Moscow State Institute of Music’s Department of Vocal Art and Opera Training, and a Senior Lecturer of the Moscow State Academy of Arts’ Department of Choreography and Ballet Studies.
Having performed since 1982, Karnovich has performed with the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet, the State Theatre of Classical Ballet, the Imperial Russian Ballet, and as a troupe member has travelled and performed all around the world. She currently teaches the discipline ‘Samples of the Classical Heritage and Ballet Repertoire’ at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography.
Karnovich shared with Brunch that as a young child, she had been more interested in gymnastics, but her mother’s stories about the ballerinas of the legendary Bolshoi Theatre – Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, got her interested in ballet: “I would never have imagined then that I would one day be the Head of Department of the Museum-Apartment of Galina Ulanova, and now the Museum-Apartment of Maya Plisetskaya as well,” she said. “But when I saw the ballet school, the walls with the frescoes of ballerinas in their tutus and so many children dreaming of passing the qualifying rounds (800 people came from all over Kazakhstan!), I realised that I needed to compete.”
Ballet is primarily a French form of dance, with Louis XIV playing a huge role in popularising ballet, and even performing ballet himself. Russian ballet was an art form enjoyed only by the elite, and until the Russian Revolution in 1917, was extremely exclusive, with even dancers being those from affluent and noble backgrounds.
Russian ballet became famous when the ballet legends Sergei Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova toured 40 countries (including, incidentally, India and Sri Lanka), and through the Ballet Russes, introduced Russian ballet to Paris. Following the revolution and the dismantlement of Russia’s nobility, ballet became more accessible to the general public, and is now one of the most famous forms of ballet.
The intricacies of ballet
However, ballet is a very competitive and taxing art form. For Karnovich though, the perception of ballet versus the reality was always something she was aware of.
“We were taught from childhood that the path will be long, difficult, full of tears and challenges to overcome,” she explained, adding, “We were also told that you can achieve success instead of feeling sorry for yourself. There is no limit to perfection in ballet. Even the greatest ballerinas like Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya were rarely satisfied with themselves and their performances.
“Ballet is a momentary art – for the here and now; it exists at the moment of performance. The performance ends and analysis begins – what is necessary to improve, and there is always something to improve. Galina Ulanova once practised a single gesture for five hours a day to be able to create an image that was invisible to the viewer but conveyed the correct emotion.”
By and large, the physical intensiveness of ballet means that dancers can only perform professionally for so long, and Karnovich shared that the age of retirement for ballet dancers in Russia was typically age 38 (retired dancers are eligible to receive pensions on retirement), and this was mainly because past that age, it becomes more difficult physically to be able to train at the level that ballet troupes require.
“However, this doesn’t mean dancers stop at age 38. Many go on to become teachers themselves, and some continue to dance. Maya Plisetskaya, for example, continued to dance on stage till she was 73, and then trained others until her death in 2015,” Karnovich noted.
Ballet in Sri Lanka
Chandi Aluvihare, Founding Committee Member of the Russian School of Ballet and Dancing, which is under the Russian House in Colombo, also spoke with Brunch about Karnovich’s visit to Sri Lanka, where she would be one of the lead examiners at this year’s annual examination of the current batch of students. Aluvihare noted that these examinations not only recognised the work and potential of Sri Lankan ballerinas but also paved the way for new students to join the Russian School of Ballet for the year 2022/2023.
“The school is at present looking forward to expanding the classes in order to give more opportunities to a larger number of students who are on the waiting list aspiring to learn ballet. Annual concerts are organised and held in grand style and are attended by a large number of proud parents, well-wishers, and lovers of ballet. In keeping with its standards, the Russian School of Ballet arranges annual examinations which are conducted under the patronage of Karnovich,” Aluvihare shared.
Aluvihare also explained that while the majority of those who pursued ballet in Sri Lanka did so as a hobby, there were those who pursued the craft full-time. Currently, the school has over a few hundred students learning classical ballet under the guidance of Galina Pleshakova, the Founder, who is ably assisted by Samantha Samararathne, Niluka Madurawala, Radisha Bodiyabadu – a group of assistant teachers, and Kavishka Prematilake, Shenaalie Dias, Samindi De Silva, and Vichara Udawatte, who hold the distinction of being past students of the school.
“In Sri Lanka, in order for small children to be able to join this beautiful form of art, you need to start at the Russian Cultural Centre,” Karnovich said, noting, “If parents want it to become a profession though, they need to enter special State choreographic academies, the curriculum of which includes not only classical dance but also special disciplines like folk dance, modern acting, music, and general education. Ballet is highly competitive. Many are engaged in ballet, and few get to ballet’s Mount Olympus. But this is an art form that gives the audience beauty and harmony.”