Saturday, 9 March 2019

Meet Maria Chugai of the Dutch National Ballet

Maria Chugai as Myrtha

Last November I witnessed a remarkable performance of Giselle by the Dutch National Ballet. I saw it not in Amsterdam but in Heerlen, a former mining town in the far southeast of the Netherlands that reminded me very much of Doncaster. I reviewed that show in Terpsichore (see Mooie 10 Nov 2018).

One of the dancers who had impressed me the most was Maria Chugai. She danced Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. I described her as “a formidable Myrtha, one of the most chilling but also one of the most elegant I have ever seen.” I had also admired her performance in The Sleeping Beauty a year earlier (see The Dutch National Ballet's "The Sleeping Beauty" - I have waited nearly 50 years for this show 20 Dec 2017). I interviewed Ms Chugai while I was in Amsterdam at the end of February.

I started our conversation by discussing that performance in Heerlen. In my review I wrote:
“Tonight's performance of Giselle by the Dutch National Ballet was indeed beautiful but it was also so much more. It was outstanding. It was one of the best performances of that ballet that I have ever seen and I have attended a lot of performances of Giselle in my 50 years of regular ballet going. I have seen some of the world's best dancers and many of the world's greatest companies. The rest of the audience was aware of something special for we rose to our feet at the curtain call as one and clapped until our palms were raw.”
I wondered whether she was aware that something very special had happened that night so I asked her what had been in her mind. She spoke of the exhilaration of being on centre stage as the orchestra struck up and of the sublimity of being as one with the music. 

While researching for this article, I found that she had said something very similar in The Best Ballet School in the World. That was a programme on the Vaganova Ballet Academy that had been made by the English language television service RT when Ms Chugai was a student of the academy.  She had featured in that programme because she was to dance the lead role in the Vaganova’s production of The Nutcracker. The recording refers to that role as “Princess Masha”. “Masha” is a hypocorism of Maria or Marie in Russian. There the character known as “Clara” in productions of The Nutcracker in English speaking countries is often called “Marie”.  Marie or Masha also dances the role that is performed by "the Sugar Plum Fairy" in British productions (see Clara grows up- Grigorovich Nutcracker transmitted directly from Moscow 21 Dec 2014). 

Ms Chugai’s mother appeared on the programme. She said that her daughter’s passion for ballet had been sparked by a performance of The Nutcracker that she saw when she was 4 years old. The child’s enthusiasm could not be contained. Her mother recalls how she was constantly dancing the role of Princess Masha. Ballet lessons followed, of course, and she made remarkable progress going on pointe when she was only 9.

Her father, a civil engineer, had hoped that his daughter might follow him into his profession. She would certainly have had the aptitude as she was good at all her subjects and not just dance. She must have been particularly good at modern languages. Her written and spoken English is faultless. Her Dutch is obviously good because a waitress answered her question about an item on the restaurant menu in Dutch. That is a compliment that the Dutch rarely pay to foreigners because they find it easier to converse in English than suffer our contortions of their tongue. Before she started English and Dutch she had studied French. Ms Chugai told me that she had impressed her teachers with a presentation in that language, I could not help musing on the elegance of the bridges, dams and other structures that she might have built had she become an engineer.

Her mother, on the other hand, dreamt of her studying at the Vaganova (the successor to the Imperial Ballet School about which Tamara Karsavina reminisced in Theatre Street) and dancing with the Kirov as the Mariinsky was called until 1992. There were books on ballet in her home as well as photos of stars of the Kirov and Mariinsky, the teachers of the Vaganova and their illustrious alumni which sustained that ambition. Her mother inspired her with that dream and encouraged her through her studies. When the opportunity arose for her to be assessed by the Vaganova, her mother accompanied her on the 1,100-mile journey from their home in Donetsk to St. Petersburg. The examination must have been difficult for both of them. Her mother was not allowed to watch the audition but had to sit in a waiting room. Then there was a long wait for a decision followed by an interview and medical. It was so stressful that she passed out at one point.

Happily, for her fans, Ms Chugai was accepted into the Vaganova. She spoke about her first few weeks in St Petersburg. The intense cold of her first winter in the city had been a shock. Donetsk, not far from the Black Sea, has relatively mild winters. St Petersburg is on the same latitude as Shetland but without the benefit of the Gulf stream. Her mother had to stay with her in rented lodgings in St Petersburg for the remainder of the first term because a place could not be found for her in the academy’s boarding house until the Christmas holidays. The RT programme showed the room that she shared with three other girls, the refectory where they took their meals, the studios in which they attended class and rehearsed their show, the language lab where she had acquired her excellent English with a group of girls from an English class practising Jingle Bells.

Whenever I interview a dancer I ask about inspirations and influences at ballet school. Ms Chugai singled out Altynai Asylmuratova who became Artistic Director of the Vaganova. She had spotted the young Maria Chugai’s potential and cast her as Princess Masha a year before her graduation when she was only 17. She continued to mentor Ms Chugai after she had left the Vaganova. The teacher drew Ms Chugai’s attention to the Dutch National Ballet commending the quality of its productions, dancers and management, It was on the strength of that commendation that Ms Chugai applied to join the Dutch National Ballet. Other instructors who had inspired her included Olga Iskanderova-Baltacheeva, Alisa Strogaya and Liudmyla Kovaleva who had also taught Diana Vishneva. Despite the harsh winters and some difficulty in making friends when she first joined the course, Ms Chugai describes her days at the Vaganova as a “most bright and happy time.”

Ms Chugai graduated from the Vaganova with top marks and full honours. She was immediately accepted into the Mariinsky. She distinguished herself in international competitions winning the second prize in the Junior Group of the Talin International Ballet Competition in 2000 and coming joint second in the Vaganova Prix in St Petersburg in 2006. The jury for the Vaganova Prix (headed by Natalia Makarova) did not award a first prize that year so Ms Chugai and the other second prize winner were the best in the competition. Ms Chugai regards her performance in the Vaganova Prix as one of her career highlights.

When I asked her about others she referred me to her YouTube channel. One of the reasons why this feature has taken so long to appear is that there are some gorgeous clips in that channel and I have watched them all, some several times. They include a recording of an earlier performance as Myrtha, an extract from her graduation performance and my personal favourite, the second shade from La Bayadȅre. I love that dance and actually tried to learn it once (see La Bayadère Intensive Day 1: There's Life in the Old Girl Yet 16 Aug 2016).

We talked about the future. I asked her about choreographers whom she admires and with whom she would like to work. Intriguingly, they include Crystal Pite. Imagine what they could accomplish together. I discovered that Ms Chugai has a talent for choreography. She has already created a delightful, lyrical work for three dancers to Debussy’s Clair de Lune which she presented to the Dutch National Ballet’s New Moves programme in 2016. I look forward to more of her work.   For the longer term, she is training for a graduate qualification as a ballet mistress from the Vaganova Academy. She already does some teaching. Rather cheekily I invited her to give a masterclass in Manchester. Amazingly, she said “yes”.

I had a very pleasant trip to Amsterdam. I was there primarily to speak at a patent lawyers’ conference which I thoroughly enjoyed and I also saw David Dawson’s Requiem by the Dutch National Ballet. Unquestionably, the highlight of my visit was my interview with Maria Chugai. I learned a lot from her about ballet in general and the Vaganova Academy, the Mariinsky and Russian ballet in particular. This year I intend to see Theatre Street for myself. I enjoy the company of dancers and have met many over the years but few (if any) have been as affable or as personable as Maria Chugai.

1 comment:

  1. I do hope you get to visit Theatre Street. I watched a fairly low resolution version of the documentary of the same name on Youtube. Interestingly, NHK have produced an excellent 2 part contemporary documentary on the Vaganova whoch is also on Youtube but at mych better quality.