Liudmila Konovalova: The New Maya

Andris Liepa said he also saw a special connection.

“I think it was no accident that Maya asked me to invite Luda to her special evening,” he said. “I know that Maya and Rodion very warmly and lovingly treated Liudmila. And always we talked about what she will dance at a concert. Maya asked to (have) Luda dance the black Swan pas de deux from ‘Swan Lake.’ It was the favorite part of Maya.

“Everything in this life is not accidental. Maya passed away on 2nd of May 2015. But we were able to discuss with her gala ‘Ave Maya’ at the London Coliseum. So even now I remember how she insisted: ‘Luda Konovalov must also participate in my party in London!'”

Konovalova drew close to Plisetskaya in those final years, speaking by phone with her often as they discussed her dancing and her career.

“Do I think she looked upon me like the daughter she never had?” said Konovalova, repeating a question put to her. “I do not know…

Liudmila Konovalova takes a backstage break while performing The Nutcracker, the Vienna Ballet's staging of Rudolf Nureyev's production that has been telecast regularly in the U.S. (Copyright Luidmila Konovalova, 2016)
Liudmila Konovalova takes a backstage break while performing The Nutcracker, the Vienna Ballet’s staging of Rudolf Nureyev’s production that has been telecast often in the U.S. in recent Christmas seasons. (Courtesy of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“She was always interested in my career. She was worried when it did not went so well in Berlin — it was up and down there — and she was the one always push(ing) me to not give up and to change something because it is no time to sit and wait.

“She told me once, when I had nothing to dance in Berlin for a while, ‘Liudochka, you have to dance. You must dance, wherever, even on the table — but dance!’”

“She was the one suggesting me to Andris Liepa. She told him, ‘You have to take this girl.’ Later on he told me: ‘You know, I never saw you, never heard (of you). And was a bit afraid to put someone who I do not know at all into event, but Maya said, and I knew if she says, I have to!”

Liepa, whose father Maris Liepa was one of the greatest Bolshoi ballet dancers and performed with Plisetskaya, directed the March 6 London tribute, which was originally to have been dedicated to her 90th birthday.

“She was an idol for me, like for many others,” said Konovalova. “And, of course, I adored her, but not just (for her) dancing. I adored her behavior, her character, which many people (were) criticizing, but for me it is great when the person is straight and say what she thinks and also stays behind her words! This is really rare in our time.”

And like her role model Plisetskaya, Konovalova has come to be known among her fans for her fluidity of movement and expressive acting. To that, Konovalova has brought her own distinctive high extensions, her line long and broad, sweeping movements, electrifying stage presence and jumps displaying modern day feminine power.

“When I fly,” said Konovalova, “sometimes I think on the stage you can ‘fly away’ from your problems and be yourself in a way sometimes you cannot be in life, and feel or be some one you cannot be in life.”

Konovalova has impressed audiences in performing major virtuosic roles, particularly the special emphasis from her long, supple arms  — and increasingly acclaimed for her interpretation of “Swan Lake” and the Black Swan, giving these swan characters the dark passion reminiscent of Plisetskaya: “As graceful and shy she seems to be as Odette,” wrote critic von Florian Krenstetter of Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest newspaper, “she presents herself just as seductive in the role of Odile.”

Liudmila Konovalova listens to her idol and mentor Maya Plisetskaya go over her ballet choreography. (Courtesey of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)
Liudmila Konovalova listens to her idol and mentor Maya Plisetskaya go over her ballet choreography. (Courtesey of Liudmila Konovalova, © Copyright 2016.)

“If one considers her physicality, she is more naturally endowed than Maya Plisetskaya,” said Cynthia Harvey, “but she doesn’t take advantage of this to sacrifice her gifts to superficial stratagem. Considering Liuda’s shapes, the curve of her arch, the flexibility, her proportions-one notices that she has great strength.

“In this, she is very much like Maya Plisetskaya, and so she is able to dance a huge variety of roles ranging from sweet to feisty, earthly to ethereal.”

Certainly, at least, Konovalova seems to symbolize the dramatic changes that have taken place in Russian society of the post-Soviet years, when ballet is no longer a tool of Cold War cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as it was during Plisetskaya’s time as a world-revered star.

Konovalova’s emergence is also a crack on the traditional grasp that Russia’s two major dance companies, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets, have held in determining the country’s national ballet stars.

“It was my dream to dance for her celebration, and it was because Maya wanted me there,” said Konovalova, who at Plisetskaya’s 85th birthday galas in Moscow and Paris in 2010 was the only Russian ballerina not from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets.

“Everything in this life is providential,” said Liepa. “And the fact that Maya drew attention to (this) talented young ballet dancer is not an accident. Maya was a genius… and a true artist. Fate called Maya Plisetskaya to introduce Luda in the creative orbit.”

Still in her first year in Vienna at that time, Konovalova knew that the eyes of her contemporaries from Russia and of all ballet stars at the event, especially at the Paris celebration, would be on her, the outsider… the “girl from nowhere.”

“So, imagine how I felt. Very scared,” she said. “And I guess Maya saw that. I had to do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ pas de deux in the first part and, of course, Black Swan in the second. Maya came after the first part on stage in the break not reacting on any cameras straight to me, and told me not a lot, but something that changed (me) completely all inside.

“She told me, ‘You know, do not try to dance for them. Do it for you and for me!’ She told me that ‘The more you try to attract the public, the less it will be. They will be attracted by you when you will be attractive by what you are doing.’

Plisetskaya then took a chair in the second wing behind the stage, watching and offering moral support from there, Konovalova recalled.

“It was my best performance!” she said, barely able to contain herself even years later. “The technical things worked out like never before. I could (even) do something that was never working before! I danced for her, and it was exactly what I needed in this moment! It helped me that I could see her and feel (that) she is there!

“After (the show) people came up, even who know me, and said, ‘What was with you today! You did amazing! We never saw you like that!’

“But that was Maya!”

Tony Castro is  a Los Angeles-based journalist and author of seven books, including the biography of Ernest Hemingway, Looking for Hemingway.  He is currently working on a biography of Maya Plisetskaya, tentatively titled Maya: A Ballerina Legend and Her Legacy.

© Copyright 2016