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Raising the barre: Another side to the world of 'Black Swan'


Ballet dancer Lyudmila Titova is unimpressed by Natalie Portman's award-winning efforts.

“I saw this movie but, with great respect to the director and the talent and beauty of Natalie Portman, I have never in my experience seen these kind of ballet dancers.” It's the sort of dismissive putdown only a Russian can pull off, but when Titova reveals the hard grind that's gone into making her one of Russia's finest blossoming talents, it has to be said that the 25-year-old's experience makes ‘Black Swan’ look like child's play.

Born in Moscow in 1987, Titova's early interest in dance displayed itself in a more contemporary way than the pirouettes and ronds de jambes of ballet.

“I watched a lot of foreign TV for pop music,” she explains. “I was always moving, but my favourite artist was Michael Jackson. One day, when I was five years old, my mum came into the room and found me dancing along. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I'm Michael Jackson!' “Soon after that, she signed me up for ballet lessons at school.”

Her classes were one day a week for oneand- a-half hours. She was fascinated by her teacher, Tatiana Stepanova, a tall, slender woman with bright clothes and fashionable jewellery who had been a former soloist with the Bolshoi Theatre. Likening her to a “second mother”, Titova put in hours of extra practice, desperate to impress her. She says: “I was ready to stretch day and night, just to get what my teacher demanded.

“After three years, she told my mother that I should try to enter the Academy of Dance. It was the happiest moment of my life; I had already become completely immersed in the world of dance and it was the only thing I wanted to do.” Getting into the Academy involved a gruelling three-day examination of dance and medical tests. Out of 105 applicants from around the world, Titova was one of seven girls chosen.

For eight years, she trained nine hours a day. But as she lived in Moscow she stayed at home, something she feels gave her a psychological advantage over the other boarders. While some students who graduated decided to leave the stage and go to university or start families, Titova turned professional, joining the Moscow Ballet company where she started in the corps de ballet before moving on to soloist roles in ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Giselle’.

Darren Aronofsky's ‘Black Swan’ painted a bleak picture of the corps de ballet, portraying the troupe as nothing more than a seething mass of competitive dancers willing to grand jeté over each other in a bid to secure a leading role. Titova insists the reality is much less cutthroat. “The corps de ballet spends a lot more time rehearsing than the soloist, but it's actually very fun and interesting. Even now, I like to return to the corps from time to time instead of being a lead. What keeps me focused, besides the audience, is my responsibility to my fellow dancers.

“To me, it is not a competitive environment because I have no bigger competitor than myself, my best rival is myself.” While in rehearsal for a show, Titova trains six hours a day, perfecting scenes, stretching and doing physio. Her diet consists predominantly of fish, cottage cheese and citrus fruits and, because she tours six months a year — in recent years, gracing stages across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America — there is little time for meeting boyfriends.

But she has no regrets. “I don't feel I've sacrificed anything. My parents gave up some things to buy me ballet clothes — my tuition was free — and I'm grateful for that. But for me, there is nothing I would rather do. I didn't enjoy parties as a child because I was quite serious and thoughtful. “As for junk food, I can eat it if I want because I have no problems with my figure, but why bother? It's not helpful or good for anyone. I would rather avoid sauces, spices, fatty food and fizzy drinks because they are bad for your health.” Pay is a closely guarded secret in the ballet world, lest other principals get jealous, and certainly Titova isn't for divulging her earnings.

She says: “A genuine ballet dancer never thinks about profit. This is not a business, it's an art and when you're an artist you are there for the audience.” Pressed, she adds: “My fees quite satisfy my needs.” Russia has a rich history of ballet. Ireland's own prima ballerina Monica Loughman was educated at the Perm State Ballet and wrote about the gruelling training she went through. Titova is an advocate of hard work, believing that it is only through hard labour and struggle that greatness is achieved.

She says: “I thank my lucky stars to have gone through such a great school of endurance, patience and attention. Before you go on stage in the pretty costumes, you have to pass eight years of endless work on your body, but to become an artist that is what you must love; you must have patience, self-criticism and determination.”

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She swims and walks to relax but takes just one week off a year. “After that, I miss my job.” She admits she's obsessed by her career, but doesn't believe that to be a bad thing. If you are not obsessed by what you do, you don't get the results you want,” she replies simply. This week, Irish audiences will see that dedication come to fruition when Titova takes to stages across the county dancing the lead in Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, ‘The Nutcracker’.

The production, involving 32 dancers and 80 dazzling handmade costumes, has already wowed audiences around the world with its magical tale, where toy dolls come to life on the stroke of midnight and a handsome nutcracker prince leads a young girl through the Kingdom of Sweets. Titova performs the Arabian dance opposite male lead Alexander Smoliyaninov.

She displays a lithe, feather-light athleticism that makes it easy to see why her current art director Anatoly Emelianov picked her for the role and why her previous director, Victor Smirnov-Golovanov saw fit to make her one of his youngest leads, casting her as the stepmother in ‘Cinderella’ when she was just 19 — an unimaginable feat for such a young dancer.

Charmingly, Titova is loath to sing her own praises. “I don't think that what I do is a major achievement because you can be good at any job if you work hard,” she says. “The only difference with my job is that ballet dancers are in the spotlight.” If she wasn't performing, she would have been an economist because she was “very good at maths in school”. But Titova hasn't yet considered a life after dancing. Margot Fonteyn, one of the most famous ballerinas, danced into her 60s, but it's more usual for professionals to hang up their pumps in their 30s.

“I can't make any predictions,” says Titova. “Touch wood I have never had any serious injuries and I am very careful with my legs, but the future is in God's hands.” She adds: “I have only one dream: to dance every role in such a way that I can bring it to the hearts of my audience and leave a light footprint on their souls.”

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