Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

Today, a little more than a decade later, Konovalova has established herself as a star renowned for her technical and artistic skill in glorious Vienna, increasingly the cultural heartbeat of Europe — and, in the eyes of a growing number of ballet experts and aficionados, the Russian ballerina who the Bolshoi didn’t want is now in a remarkable turnaround staking her claim as heir to Plisetskaya’s legacy.

“Liudmilla is, in this way, like Maya Plisetskaya — guileless,” Cyntha Harvey, a retired principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, said in sizing up Konovalova with whom she has worked. “Plisetskaya showed us the humanity in her roles. This is something that Liudmilla is able to do. With her femininity and steely strength, she is able to show a warmth, a fire, a love of the dance…

“If she remains healthy there is no end to what she is capable of achieving.”

At the Plisetskaya gala, Konovalova danced the Black Swan pas de deux — “What Maya liked,” said the Plisetskaya protégé partnered with Canadian Matthew Golding, a principal dancer of The Royal Ballet, with whom she has often danced in the past.

So steep a climb from such humble beginning — it is a story that could have been written and choreographed for a classic ballet in Moscow or New York.

Ultimately, in what has been fairy tale-like for Liudmila, the Bolshoi Ballet may have unwittingly done Konovalova a favor when it passed her over for a coveted place in the dance company, according to retired Bolshoi Ballet star and producer Andris Liepa.

“I congratulated her with the fact that she did not go to the Bolshoi Theater,” Liepa said recently in recounting her story. “And even joked. I told her: ‘It is necessary to find the person who, at the last moment decided not to take Luda to the Bolshoi Theater. And give him a big bouquet of flowers.’ Luda was very surprised. But I told her: ‘If you came to the Bolshoi Theater, you might not have the opportunity to dance and evolve. Many who get there… remain until late (in their careers) in the corps de ballet.”

Konovalova’s rise to stardom, though, was not immediate after the Premio Roma competition. Born in Moscow, she also had faced long odds of making anything of herself in life. She never knew her father. Her single mom led her into ballet and encouraged her daughter’s dreams, even if she could not support the two of them in post-Soviet Union Russia. At the age of 14, Liudmila went to live in a shelter for neglected, abused and homeless youth. Two years later, her mother took her own life.

Although her delicate demeanor may not suggest it, she grew up quickly and put tragedy behind her.

“First, it was long ago,” she said, showing little emotion. “Second it is a fact of my life. It is not sad. It is like it is… Well, but also because of support of my mother I became a ballerina. In the beginning she really did all for me.”

Two future balleriinas, Liudmila Konovalova and Polina Seminola, taking class as children in Moscow.
Two future ballerinas, Liudmila Konovalova and Polina Semionova, taking ballet class as children in Moscow 1n 1995. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

In her childhood, Konovalova took private ballet classes under a former Bolshoi star and with Polina Semionova, another young Russian who is currently a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. 

“Everyone always mentioned I had a great possibility for ballet,” said Konovalova, remembering that time. “Well, I know, have to be thankful to God (that) I have soft legs with the nice feet, nice lines, plus (good) balance, extension. But believe me, the more possibility you have, the more you have to work on it.”

From the age of 10, Konovalova trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, but she had problems in the rigorous school, as much with her instructors as with fellow students. Then there was, by her own admission, her own strong, stubborn personality and a brash teenage rebelliousness.

“I was always kind of strange girl,” she said of her time at the Bolshoi Academy. So much so that at one point, she was dismissed from the school but re-admitted in one of the few times in the history of the academy.

Konovalova was re-instated after her mother asked for a second chance for her daughter and with the intervention of two of her teachers, although there was little improvement in her standing.

“I was not the best one, almost never,” Konovalova said. “I knew that what everybody was talking, (that) I had a very good possibility and lines, but I was not coordinated.”

Konovalova blames her lack of confidence at the time on rarely getting a chance to dance in shows, plus dealing with her own insecurities.

“I thought I am ugly and almost never smiled because once I heard I have too big teeth,” she said. “Then I heard my breasts is too big, then I am too tall… So I was full of complex(es).”

Not surprisingly perhaps, Konovalova was passed over for a much-coveted place in the Bolshoi’s company. It wasn’t like she was banished to Siberia, but she wound up with the Russian State Ballet, an experience she laments “wasn’t a great time for me.” She moved on to the Berlin State Ballet after winning the Premio Roma, but her career seemed to stall.

However, Plisetskaya continued to watch over her.