Alina Cojocaru: “The method dancer of all time”

A ballerina at the peak of her career is blessed with many rewards, but there is one thing she can’t conjure up at will – a choreographer who wants to make ballets especially for her.

This was the missing link in the career of Alina Cojocaru, one of the world’s most acclaimed ballerinas. But then she discovered John Neumeier, the artistic director and choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. Two years ago, Cojocaru became his muse.

Neumeier describes her as “the method dancer of all time. She is really a choreographer’s dancer”.

And she says of him: “I cannot say ‘no’ to John. Anything he asks I’m pretty much available, even when it’s almost impossible. Any dancer should work with John. In my opinion it would change their lives. They would realise what ballet is about.”

For more than a decade the Romanian-born Cojocaru, 31, a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London, has danced all the major heritage roles. But in all that time, no choreographer has made a significant work just for her.


“Not really”, she says. “But to be honest, I’m sad that in such a great company like the Royal Ballet these things did not happen. It’s 11 years [as a Royal Ballet principal] and I would like to think of it as home. I’m sad I had to go outside my home company to experience this.”

For her performances as Julie in Neumeier’s ballet, Liliom, she was named best female dancer of 2012 in the international award the Prix Benois de la Danse. Reviewers described her “childlike vulnerability” in the role, her “technical purity combined with lightning-fast contrasts in texture”, and “the way her inner monologue colours every movement with seemingly spontaneous meaning”.

Cojocaru first worked with Neumeier two years ago in Copenhagen, when she was a guest artist at the Royal Danish Ballet, dancing the dual role of Titania and Hippolyta in one of his most popular ballets, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

She will reprise the roles in Australia from the end of this month as a guest artist with the Hamburg Ballet.

“I had always dreamed of working with John”, she says. Then came “the anticipation, the excitement, the fear. Will this be how I hope it will be?”

It was, and since then, Cojocaru danced first in his Lady of the Camellias and then in Liliom, a ballet that was “about me, being part of a creation in a story ballet, not just a contemporary ballet. Somehow you feel it is part of you, which it is, of course”.

So is Hamburg now her spiritual home? Yes, she says, but the nomadic life she shares with her fiancé, Royal Ballet principal Johan Kobborg, means she is unlikely to re-settle in Germany at this pivotal stage of her career.

“I would have to say that I’m very open right now to explore,” she says. That exploration means constant travelling from their London home to New York, Paris, Moscow, St Petersburg, Havana and a dozen other cities where they have danced as guest artists.

When we speak, Cojocaru is in Copenhagen, having danced with Kobborg at Skagen. The couple then flew to New York to dance with American Ballet Theatre and on to Tokyo to take part in a gala.

Cojocaru’s stage presence has been described as “radiant, sweet, and, at the same time, dignified”, but she also has a rare connection with her audience, bringing the intensity of her emotions to every role, in particular the tragic Giselle, who dies of a broken heart.

With Kobborg, she has danced in 25 productions of the ballet, but “I find something new every time, and every time I do it I think ‘why didn’t I know about this before?’

“I try to go on stage and be honest with myself. I can only rely on my feelings,” she continues. “My main aim is to share what I feel with my audience. When I go on stage I forgive myself if my show’s not perfect, but I don’t forgive myself if I did not become who I should be on stage.”

Her perfectionism and work ethic began early. Aged nine, she kissed her parents goodbye in Bucharest then travelled to the Ukraine, a journey of more than 900 kilometres. Selected to train at the ballet school in Kiev, Cojocaru, who spoke no Russian, spent more than six years there, returning to Bucharest only at Christmas and for summer holidays.

At the age of 15 she won a gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne, the most coveted prize in the world for pre-professional ballet dancers. That, in turn, was her entrée into the Royal Ballet School in London, and later the Royal Ballet.

In 2002, Cojocaru made her debut in Swan Lake during the Royal Ballet’s Sydney season. Her coach for the role of Odette/Odile was the former Russian ballerina, Natalia Makarova – known as Natasha – who is just as much a perfectionist as Cojocaru.

“What I love about Natasha is I can’t fool her. If I don’t do it right she sees it right away,” she says. “It’s wonderful to be able to actually trust your coach.”

At the Royal Ballet next February, Cojocaru will dance in a new ballet by Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, but is almost certain to work with Neumeier as well.

“What I love about working in Hamburg is the creative environment,’’ she says.

“Even working on ballets that have been created so many years ago, you can bring something to it, and feel like you’re still part of it, bringing ideas to the ballet.

“That’s nowhere to be found in London of course. You have the people in charge of the ballet trying to protect the choreography ?.?.?.?protecting it to keep it looking like it used to be.

“I do respect the choreographers [but] it’s a constant battle there to bring something to every ballet I perform, to bring something new into the old.”

It’s no secret that at 40, Kobborg is keen to take up an artistic directorship somewhere in the world. If that happened, would she settle permanently with him and dance mainly in that new country?

“Yes, because he would be an amazing director,”’ she says.

“It would be fascinating to see…I would love to go.”

The Hamburg Ballet’s season of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, from August 30 to September 5. During the run, Cojocaru will share the dual role of Titania and Hippolyta with two Hamburg Ballet principal dancers

This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review, on 18 August, 2012.

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Alina Cojocaru, courtesy Royal Ballet

Alina Cojocaru, The Sleeping Beauty, photo © Gene Schiavone