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Where the Road Leads

Days away from presenting and performing in her own company’s first full-length ballet, Alina Cojocaru is at the height of her powers. And what powers they are. Since performing as a globally lauded principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, and guest principal at Hamburg Ballet, Cojocaru has worked as a freelance dancer, launched her own production company, ACWorkroom, and directed international galas. She has also been embarking on an interpretation of one of cinema’s most celebrated films, Federico Fellini’s 1954 La Strada.

 

Alina Cojocaru with choreographer Natália Horečná in rehearsal for “La Strada.” Photograph by Vincent Klueger

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Cojocaru’s interest in the film was sparked when John Neumeier suggested she watch it as research for his 2011 ballet “Liliom,” in which she was dancing. The seed of an idea was sown, in large part because of the ballerina’s desire to portray the film’s heroine, Gelsomina. In a first-time collaboration with Slovakian choreographer Natália Horečná, Cojocaru and her fellow dancers (in a cast of 11) will premiere the work at Sadler’s Wells (January 25-28). Former La Scala principal Mick Zeni will dance the role of Zampanò, and Johan Kobborg, Cojocaru’s husband and former dance partner turned choreographer-director, Il Matto.

Meeting after rehearsals at Sadler’s Wells, I spoke to Cojocaru about creating the ballet and her reflections on her journey as a dancer, artist and now producer. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Alina Cojocaru and Marc Jubete in rehearsal for “La Strada.” Photograph by Vincent Klueger

You first envisaged a production of “La Strada” several years ago. How has your vision of the ballet and your working process evolved from then to now?

Every day something evolves. As you came in to the studio, you saw me talking to Natália.  Today I was realising how many options I have for different physicalities, depending on who I am dancing with, whether it is Zampanò, ll Matto or the Angels. I could easily think, “I should do this, because this is who I am and this is my story.” But by focusing on how I respond to who is in front of me, to who is touching me, I can react and move differently. For example, I am more cautious and loving with Zampanò, and with Il Matto, it’s “I want come with you.” With the Angels, I’m thinking, “Take me somewhere. Make me feel the world through my soul and my heart.” Reviewing the steps we’ve set, Natália and I were discussing how I can apply this. 

You’re using a sort of inner prompt, an inner dialogue. Have you always taken this approach in your much-admired characterisations?

The need for a reason to express something has always been there. But the understanding of how to do this definitely came later. At first, there was an intuition, following something that felt right; a picture of who I wanted to be as an artist. The understanding came when I was 27 and had an injury. I watched a lot of ballet, and saw that what I had believed had a certain impact on an audience didn’t necessarily have the effect I thought. I started questioning: What else did I think was good and actually didn’t come across as strongly as I had imagined? 

Do you think if you hadn't had that pause due to your injury, it may have taken longer to gain that insight? 

It’s possible, yes. But then I was very lost. If I couldn't trust my instinct to deliver something, what could I rely on? It made me think more deeply. Why did this work or not work? Was it the timing in the delivery of a step that was too slow or too fast? But then, of course, it becomes a process of analysing too much. We have to let the movement be alive in the moment.

When did you first come across Natália Horečná’s work? 

I was looking hard for a choreographer for “La Strada” and someone mentioned her name. I started researching her work and loved what I saw. Theatrically, I was moved—it seemed fresh. Then I watched an interview of her speaking and knew, for me, she was the perfect inspiration for Gelsomina, because of her kindness, generosity and openness. When we got in the studio, I had the confirmation that our connection was just right.  

Was there a certain quality of movement that you both wanted to bring to the ballet? 

We explored this. Natália works mainly in flat shoes but I feel more at home on pointe—the spirit of the dancing becomes freer and lighter. But I wanted to counterbalance this and also find the grounded-ness of dancing in flats, when it’s easier to grip the floor. The two qualities give a point of difference to the movement.

Alina Cojocaru with choreographer Natália Horečná in rehearsal for “La Strada.” Photograph by Vincent Klueger

How did you go about casting the ballet? 

My main aim was to use freelance dancers. It’s easier to tour when you don’t have to get permission to hire people from other companies and you’re freer to plan work. I already knew some dancers who I loved watching, and so I asked them if they’d like to join us. Some said, yes; some, no; some were busy. It’s hard when you find someone you think is perfect for a role, and then they can't come, and you don’t want to let them go. But then life teaches you: See it another way; try another dancer. When everything lands, you think, “Yes, this is where we are supposed to be now.” The cast are all people I am curious to talk to and could enjoy spending time with out of the studio. That's important for me in a work environment and for putting a group together. 

Also, of course, I spoke to Natália about dancers. In the beginning, I didn't know her vision, especially for the group performers. We had the soloists, but I asked her if she wanted the other dancers to be more senior or younger; to be light on their feet or more grounded? We kept searching until we had the right cast. 

How has your approach to portraying Gelsomina developed over rehearsals? In the film, I am always struck by her resilience and great strength; and, in the very beginning, her joy at the prospect of being an artist, someone with a purpose. 

I don't think Gelsomina knows her purpose, but she knows that one exists. I think she dies not knowing her purpose. The fact that we see Zampanò so remorseful and guilty at the end makes me think that her purpose was to open his heart. The next time he finds someone to love, he may know how to love. This is what I find amazing about this ballet. One day you live with an idea, then the next you come and explore another. They can all work, because they are all based on human emotions and needs, for connection, for purpose.

I think Gelsomina is searching, and her strength is making the choice to see the good in people, to be open and to have a purpose in the moment, For example, when she sows the tomato seeds. Everything is very immediate for her: In this moment, I have to make this child smile because he looks sad; or now I must play this trumpet as best I can. Somehow I think this makes her feel the pain Zampanò inflicts on her less. The pain disappears fast and so she moves on. But when she sees Il Matto killed, she cannot reason anymore. Her strength disappears. Her heart is broken, and when something is broken it can’t communicate any longer. Through movement and dance, and theatre, we can find these inner layers in a character and show their struggle. I’ve loved the process of exploring Gelsomina’s inner world.

Natália Horečná choreographing “La Strada.” Photograph by Vincent Klueger

What influence did Nino Rota’s music have on the choreography? You're using a mix of his film scores in your production. 

I listened to the suite that he composed for the 1966 ballet [choreographed by Mario Pistoni for La Scala], and thought, “I need more music. Perhaps we can use several of his compositions.” I asked Natália if she could work with this idea. She listened to a lot of Rota’s music to see if different pieces could work together dramatically. Music for film is very powerful and has many layers. It has made it easier to move from one point to another in the ballet, from the mundane to the spiritual. The music and Natália’s compilation really enables these transitions.  

How did you approach putting your design team together? What it an early decision to work with the former dancer now set designer Otto Bubeniček, who grew up in a circus family?

We didn't know Otto had grown up around the circus actually. I first met Otto as a dancer at Hamburg Ballet. It was Johan who introduced me to his design work. They had both been involved in Yuka Oishi’s “Rasputin” [with set design by Bubeniček] and Johan loved working with him. Otto’s sets are very adaptable and cleverly done. We asked him whether he would consider creating something for “La Strada,” something compact and uncomplicated because we want to tour the ballet. It’s been wonderful to work with him on our set and also the costumes. I think Otto has been excited to bring all the images and colours, and details he knows about circus life to the design. We’ve also been working with lighting designer Andrea Giretti from La Scala, who Natalia has collaborated with before and felt had the right sensitivity for this ballet. 

Have you enjoyed the role of producer in making “La Strada?” 

It’s been an intriguing journey for me, learning how to build a team that works well together. You make mistakes, of course, but if you can be open to change, when it's needed, or acknowledge an issue and say, “OK. How do we move forward? Do we need more help?”, it’s a fascinating process. 

You've spoken in the past about your love of telling stories through classical ballet. How can we bring these stories alive today and make them relevant for contemporary audiences? 

A few things need to happen. The person at the front of the studio has to know how to do this, and have the desire to do it. And the dancers have to be open enough to explore something new. Communication in dance comes from saying something, listening and then answering. Now, in my opinion, it’s often become too much about just saying and answering, saying and answering. The listening part has disappeared. When someone offers their hand in a dance, how do you respond to that hand? With passion? With hesitation? With excitement? With presence—“I’m here too.” I feel the nuance is often lost at the moment. A ballet may look stunning and the audience may enjoy the aesthetics, but you might not necessarily move or connect with a 17-year-old who's watching it. They may have seen someone turning on their head [in street dance], so someone balancing on pointe is not that special.  

I remember dancing "Don Quixote,” sometimes and we all laugh at ‘Papa’ [Don Lorenzo, Kitri’s father], because he's so silly. But he's a single father raising his daughter. That’s someone’s real life today. Before I get married [dancing the role of Kitri], I can say, “Papa, thank you. I'm sorry I gave you a hard time, but look, I turned out well. Thank you for this.” These moments are often missing today, I feel. You can dance a ballet, but are you living or telling the story from a more human perspective? “Don Q” is the least dramatic story ballet, but the one I’ve found hardest to dance because of those reasons. 

Johan Kobborg and Mick Zeni in rehearsal for “La Strada.” Photograph by Vincent Klueger

Have you ever considered choreographing yourself?

No, I don't think I'm a choreographer. I like to listen when I’m dancing, and I see emotions and ideas, not steps.

Which brings us back to “La Strada.” The ideas that the main characters embody are so powerful and multi-layered. Was this what hooked you?

Yes. During the pandemic, I would look at my little girls and see their innocence. It made me think about Zampanò. One day, he was like this, young and innocent. What happened in his life, from there to here, the character we see. How much was his fault? How much was society or his environment to blame? Knowing that he was once a child, how can I judge him? In this ballet, I want to connect with the part of him that is in all of us—our shared humanity. Strip away all the different things that happen to each of us in our lives, and the choices that we make, and our journey is the same. We begin in the same way and all finish by facing death.

On your journey as a dancer, what has your experience showed you?

I remember so well working with Johan on all the classics, and how I wanted to feel everything, feel the line. He would suggest many things, and I would say, “Yes, but I really need this.” And he would do everything that I needed. Now if I want to aim for something, I say, “I think I need this or that, but what if I don't need it? What would that lead to? Would I discover something new about the way I move? Would that give me more power by allowing me and my partner to do something else? 

I make smarter choices now, and that includes trusting my body. If I believe my body can do something, it will process that. My body thinks when I am asleep if I give it the right information. It’s intelligent. And I’ve worked with it for how many years now [laughs]? Again, it’s about a dialogue. This profession is too hard. If we don't find that thing that lights up our hearts and drives us to come into the studio every day, it can become frustrating and unfulfilling. It’s easy to put the power in the wrong place. What we need is knowledge about how to use the power that we all have; to ask, “How can I grow? How can I make this exciting for myself?” It’s wonderful to see a dancer on this journey.

Rachael Moloney


Rachael Moloney is a UK–based writer and editor covering the arts, dance, and design. She has studied ballet as well as modern and contemporary techniques, and has worked on and contributed to publications including Departures, the Financial Times, Sunday Times, Time Out, Vogue and Wallpaper*.

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