This Wayward Girl Konovalova / 2015-11-18

This Wayward Girl Konovalova

Liudmila Konovalova, prima ballerina of the Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett), has been a charming Sleeping Beauty, a noble Princess of Swans and her fiery dark opposite, and today she is a wayward mischievous farm girl Lise in the Vain Precaution. Revival of the popular romantic ballet has become a true premiere for the ballerina. Being a professional, she has been working hard to master Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography. 

For the first time she is not a princess. Now her dance has to depict a real life: to rebel against her mother, who puts her in hands of a wealthy, yet dim-witted fiancé, to rest in a haystack with her beloved, to feel free and happy all day long.  

And Liudmila Konovalova is up to it. She is a poorly guarded girl Lise, keeping an eye on whom was a vain precaution. She ruins her mother’s plans for an arranged marriage, leaving clumsy Alain under the rain and running away with the farm worker Colas. They are caught red-handed, yet Lise’s mother will accidentally unite her with Colas. She locks Lise in her room, where Colas is hiding. It is still a question whether this mistake could have been rectified in time. Poet Denis Diderot was somewhat incoherent when describing this awkward situation: “A girl and her affectionate lover were just… there and ready…Nothing else to say. It is clear.”

Diderot once described a scene where an angry mother scolded her daughter in the street leading her to tears, and the girl’s lover used this chance to escape. “Reprimand” was painted by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin in 1789, and in a few months dancer and ballet master Jean Dauberval incorporated this scene in his ballet staged at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. This was on July 1, 1789, but Colas, Lise, her strict mother (this role was danced by a man dressed as a woman), and thick-headed Alain didn’t die. The Ballet of the Straw (which was the original title) has lived through times. Fanny Elssler is still dancing. Almost 6 decades after the premiere, the world famous Viennese ballerina danced the role of wayward Lise in St. Petersburg and created a pas de deux, which was used by the Viennese ballet master Frederick Ashton (died in 1988) in his elegant production of the Vain Precaution. Fanny Elssler’s pas de deux and teasing Pas de ruban (Ribbon dance) are just a few highlights of this version of the classic ballet, representing real people on stage, and not some fairytale characters. 

In an intricate duet Lise and Colas play with a pink silk ribbon entwining one another in turn as if playing a string game. Everyone knows it. Some girls play it in a schoolyard, for others it is a ritual: a string is looped over hands, and by passing the string back and forth a new string figure is made. In England this game is called a cat’s cradle, and on Easter Island kaikai game is used to tell stories. On stage Lise and Colas use a sparkling ribbon as a frivolous net for sweet surrender. Liudmila Konovalova believes it is a serious scene. “It must look easy and free, but it is difficult. We entwine each other with the ribbon, but we must not get caught in the net.”

This light comedy is easy to understand even for children. It happens in the farmstead. A rooster walks proudly accompanied by his hens, crops are brought here. Then suddenly a thunderstorm breaks out, and two runaways get soaked to the skin. This is a family ballet. 

Dancer of the principal role certainly knows the entire story. “I always do that. I need to understand who I am and what I am to represent. Ashton’s production premiered in 1960. I must learn his style and work hard. He loves wide sweeping moves, they are more intense. You cannot just turn your head. It must be a precise focused movement. It emanates energy and this way we can adequately convey our feelings and emotions.” It is obvious in her dance with Masayu Kimoto, whom she refuses with mortified face, her hand and leg movements demonstrating rejection. Konovalova adds with a smile: “We get along just fine. It is not about Robert or Masayu; it is about my feelings to Colas and Alain.” Liudmila’s colleagues, males and females alike, say that she is on good terms with everyone. When she dances with first-timers, she inconspicuously looks after them. But she is not forgiving when it comes to her. She keeps practicing non-stop beyond the time of rehearsals. Does she want to be the best? “No, I am not that ambitious… But I must know my limits and I want to enjoy myself when dancing. I don’t need stress while on stage. After all the hard work practicing, I want to feel freedom and elation when dancing. And this can be achieved only when you don’t have to think about your step or holding your back straight. You have to overcome your weaknesses. Ballet is not a sport. No one can be the best. It is what your audience loves and it has various preferences.”

And audience loves Konovalova. She can whirl on and on in pirouettes, often making a double tour. As if cast of concrete, she stands on her toe straight as a candle. “That’s the way I do it. I keep a straight line to keep balance. My body is good at it, but still practice is necessary. Even if your body is tuned for this, you won’t be able to stand and dance right away.” And Liudmila learned to endure: “It often seems to me I cannot go on anymore. But then thanks to choreography and to audience’s support I don’t give up. I just keep dancing until the end of the variation.” Then she curtseys to the sound of thunderous applause.  Her brilliant eyes and smooth movements, which have become even smoother during 5 years on the Viennese stage, make her a star. “Pure grace, beauty and elegance”, “Real prima ballerina”, - that’s what critics say about Liudmila Konovalova. There’s a but though. “I love what I do, but real life off stage is important too. I love it and I need it for inspiration. I need real emotions for them to look authentic in my dancing.”

“I certainly like the applause, but this is not my purpose.  I get my share of applause now for dancing the role of Kitri in Don Quixote, and this is great. But I also enjoy dancing roles in ballets, which do not get such an enthusiastic response. It would be boring to dance only classic ballets”. The Ashton’s Poorly Guarded Girl (also known under a bold German title Trickery and Love) is a sort of a challenge.  

Swedish ballet dancer Malin Thoors was present at the rehearsal in Vienna. She observes timid movements of young girls learning to dance with a critical eye. Other dancers already know every move, imprinted in their muscles and bones. This performance has been in the repertoire since 1986, and there was only a short break in this coquetry and games on stage. Back then Konovalova stood on her unsteady childlike legs and had no idea about dizzying thrill of a precise spin. 

In September Liudmila Konovalova visited her birth city Moscow to take part in the Kremlin Festival. She danced her famous 32 Odile’s fouettes from the Swan Lake in the Kremlin Palace. Is she homesick? She shakes her head: “No, I have found my home here. I don’t want to return, but I like to visit. And not only Moscow, but also Bordeaux, Rome, Tokyo and Ufa. I love to go there as a visitor, but my home is Vienna.” The only thing that’s missing is an Austrian passport.