Alina Cojocaru: Leaping beauty

Ahead of the BBC's Tchaikovsky season, Royal Ballet principal Alina Cojocaru explores the demands and delights of dancing - and living - to the great Russian's classic works

When I am preparing for a role I always put the music of the ballet onto my iPod. It allows me, no matter where I am, to go through it or to go into a studio and work on it. I wouldn't say that I listen to Tchaikovsky too much at home though. It is quite nice to have a break and his ballet music would not be a CD I'd have in my collection to listen to at home. His operas, a piano concerto or a symphony, yes, but music from the ballets we're performing? Never! It is way too familiar and has too much of a connection with work to have it in my home. I have some Tchaikovsky on my iPod though - it holds thousands of songs so I shuffle through them as I warm up and I do like to do my warm-up to a little Tchaikovsky.

I began dancing when I was nine years old, and I suppose you could say that I grew up with Tchaikovsky. I didn't dream of becoming a ballerina but, nevertheless, I ended up in a Romanian ballet school. That year there was an audition for a student exchange between Romania and the Ukraine and I was among eight kids who ended up in Kiev.

Once you get into the ballet world, especially in Russia, most of the classics are set to Tchaikovsky's music. In class you dance to music played on the piano and, more often than not, it's Tchaikovsky. When we went to watch a ballet, especially back then, when there wasn't much influence from Europe, the repertoire was mainly The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

I've now danced all of Tchaikovsky's main ballets - Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake - and I enjoy them all. They are all very classical and are the most traditional and best-known ballets in the repertoire. They are also the most challenging because everybody knows what should happen and how they should look.

I particularly love The Nutcracker. We've just danced it, so it is fresh in my memory and I find the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux terribly uplifting - it's the most brilliant music for a classical pas de deux.

When I was at ballet school, I was involved in the company performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the Waltz of the Flowers [from The Nutcracker]. I have particularly strong memories of the Waltz of the Flowers, not of the performance itself, but of my first rehearsal with the company. I remember being quite small and my being one of the first leading couples. I was terrified of going wrong. I had to remember all the music, all the counts and all the members of the company that I had to dance through, making sure I was in all the right gaps. Looking back, I can clearly see the daylight coming through the window and the piano in the right-hand corner of the huge, raked studio in the national theatre of Kiev. I ended up dancing a girl's and then a boy's part. The next year we had to do the dance again and we didn't have enough boys so I did the same dance, wearing a hat this time.

Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty is a lovely role and the second role I ever danced. I was 16 and on tour in Japan. When you're young, you can go for a whole day without feeling tired but this is a challenging role - a marathon - and getting through Act One is the most difficult. I enjoy it, though, because I like challenges and I love to bring something new to these ballets. People come expecting to see a certain thing so I like to try and make it as if they're seeing the ballet for the first time, even if they have seen it hundreds of times before. I love finding nuances, I love finding connections with the people on stage and falling in love with my Prince. I suppose it is silly - a kiss, she wakes, she falls in love, they get married - but I like to find the drama in these happy ballets. In the vision scene I try to find a sad note in the way Aurora is trapped in her deep sleep. I add all these little details - one may see them or one may not, but at least it gives me something to think about and I'm not just dancing. I will always go back to the music. If you really, really listen to the music it is all there.

I danced Swan Lake very recently in Lisbon; it has grown on me and I love performing it more and more each time I do it. When you first do it, everybody tries to help you, telling you their own experiences, how scary it is and how much of a huge role it is. You go on stage with that fear, that weight on your back of all those ballerinas that have danced it before you and have made something of it. I don't think I have ever been so scared as when I heard those few notes before Odette walks on. I was taking three steps back instead of forward! Eventually you learn that no one really knows how a swan should dance. All the ballerinas who have made something of the role found their own way of doing it. I should never try to do what they did. Of course you have to do the steps but, in terms of the way you do them and the way a swan should be, there is no limit to your own imagination. Listening to Tchaikovsky's music when you dance Swan Lake, you follow the sadness and the happiness - it's all there. I find that the music particularly helps when the production has a sad ending. Many productions today have the happy ending, which is nice to perform of course, but every time you step on to the stage I think you can hear the tragedy in the notes.

In general, I like to do most of my work in the studio so that when I go on stage I can relax and enjoy it. Then you can listen to the music differently, pick out notes or different instruments in the orchestra, and go with those without necessarily planning it beforehand. I look forward to dancing the Tchaikovsky roles more and more. It's true that, sometimes, to satisfy yourself as a dancer you might prefer a little more human feeling which, with classical ballet, can be more difficult because it is more a question of technique. That's where the music can help and remind us of all the little dramas the classics have to offer.

As told to Alice Jones

'The Sleeping Beauty' is broadcast on BBC2, Saturday 27 January, as part of the Tchaikovsky Experience season. BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the complete works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky from 10-16 February www.bbc.co.uk/tchaikovsky. Alina Cojocaru will dance in Tchaikovsky's Theme and Variations at the Royal Opera House on 5 and 14 March (www.royalopera.org)

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