Alina Cojocaru tells Ismene Brown why she has left the Royal Ballet after 13 years to join the rival ENB
I’m not apologising – I’m trying to find a reasonable way of explaining unhappy times, of which there have been too many.” The Royal Ballet’s scintillating star Alina Cojocaru is explaining why she has jumped ship to the rival English National Ballet. It’s a shock move, which means that on Thursday, instead of the regal red-and-gold curtains of Covent Garden, it will be the municipal drapes of Milton Keynes Theatre that open on the global star’s next performance.
In June, Covent Garden saw Cojocaru bid farewell with her fiancé and Royal Ballet partner, the great Johan Kobborg, in an unforgettably harrowing performance of the Kenneth MacMillan drama-ballet Mayerling. They had announced their resignation only days before, to considerable surprise and, a month later, they withdrew injured from their final scheduled show, Swan Lake, on tour in Japan.
A week after that, another bombshell: Cojocaru was not moving to one of the world companies that so often begged her guest performances, but crossing London to Britain’s cash strapped, doughty touring company, ENB.
I meet Cojocaru – at 32 still a childlike scrap – after a rehearsal in Kensington for ENB’s big new production of Le Corsaire. It means “The Pirate” – a neat coincidence, considering that ENB’s artistic director, Tamara Rojo (another former Royal Ballet star), has just proved so bold a pirate, raiding the gilded flagship company and carrying off their pearl.
The deal was done and dusted last spring between the two women, who to the world have long appeared cool rivals for Covent Garden’s number one ballerina position.
“Contrary to what people think, I have had a quite nice relationship with Tamara,” says Cojocaru, “and I find her to be a very direct and very honest person.”
Her voice is tiny and delicate, still with its Romanian accent. “I always feel Tamara has been a driven, passionate artist and young lady, in her achievements and in her growth and development. The Royal Ballet suffered by her leaving. And from our talks in the past, I knew that doors here would be open.”
Doors at Covent Garden, by contrast, were being closed to her. She has become known for injury cancellations, but it looked worse, she says, because for years director Monica Mason had been reducing her performances. The tipping point came in 2011 when Mason told Cojocaru her style was no longer “Royal Ballet style” and she did not want her as Aurora in the autumn run of The Sleeping Beauty. Cojocaru is considered an exemplar of the role anywhere else in the world.
“Look,” she says, “if my director calls me and says, ‘I don’t want you as Aurora because your interpretation doesn’t suit my production’, how could I respond to that? All I could say was, ‘What is wrong? Could you have come to tell me so I can work on it?’ But the decision had been made already for me not to dance.”
She took advantage of the gap to go to Hamburg Ballet, whose choreographer John Neumeier put her in his Lady of the Camellias, then created a new ballet for her, Liliom, which won her most of 2012’s international accolades.
But she is annoyed that it was allowed to seem that she was pulling sickies in London while dancing abroad. In fact, she says, she had been keeping herself busy. And, crucially, an injury does not affect every role. This lay at the heart of the final Swan Lake cancellation. While she and 41-year-old Kobborg could train specifically through his six-month back injury for Mayerling, which entails complicated lifting and sparing pointework, in a classic like Swan Lake jumps and steps are required that may be impossible with a spasming back or foot.
“In Japan I was changing the choreography so much because of my foot that it was no longer Swan Lake,” she says. “It was our last show with the Royal Ballet, it was so special to us, I really wanted to say farewell at my expected standard. But I wasn’t able even to do a full class. There comes a point where it is not realistic.”
She accepts that the rift with the Royal Ballet may take a long time to heal. “But after 13 years of giving everything you have, you must either be happy to just do your job and go home – or go forward, find another place. I had to leave.”
Paradoxically, considering the comparative budgets of the Royal Ballet and ENB, she found the poorer company more vibrant. Rojo’s bristling energy at ENB appealed, her coaches and her repertoire, the swashbuckling 19th-century rarity Le Corsaire and creations next year by Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and (the Royal Ballet’s) Liam Scarlett. All tempted Cojocaru. She will be partnered by Vadim Muntagirov, just 23 but already a marquee star. “He’s so young!” she giggles.
She has 14 ENB performances in the next three months. Did Rojo give her an easy schedule to accommodate her two other favourite companies, Hamburg Ballet and American Ballet Theatre?
“Actually, I have more shows here than at the Royal. I left the Royal Ballet because I wanted to find a home, where I could come into the studio and feel happy. I’ve been with Johan for 11 years, and when you put work into a relationship and you wake up every morning happy and in love, that’s what life should be. I wanted my work also to be a relationship that’s growing.”
Cojocaru’s soft-spoken strictures follow a long line of frustrated departures from the Royal Ballet by its great stars – as she points out. “Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri, Viviana Durante – wonderful, wonderful artists when I joined. One by one they left.”
In a sense, it’s fate that the great ones will outgrow their company berths. It may happen to Cojocaru at ENB, too. She and Kobborg will continue to dance as a guest couple, but the age gap between them is now critical. “Every show I dance with Johan is special, because when we met I was only starting to become an artist and he was at his peak. Now I’m there, and I want to give him the best of him I can.
“I do have great memories of some wonderful dancers at the Royal Ballet, performing on that stage with an amazing audience. I loved working with Alexei Ratmansky [in 24 Preludes], and I will be always grateful for all the good experiences – and even for the terrible ones, for all the lies and truths told to me or about me. They all made me learn about who I am and what I treasure.”
How will she deal with touring Britain’s motley stages, rather than cushy WC2? To many of the ENB’s regional public she is a name only. “I do get people writing to me saying, I’m looking forward to seeing you at last. I guess I have a lot to live up to. It’s a privilege, really.”