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October 2008

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U. Lopatkina Interview

HOW DO I LOOK? The Kirov's Uliana Lopatkina on her transformation

It's hard to remember when I first wanted to be a ballerina. My mum loaded me with extra-curricular activities from the age of about four, and I don't remember having any free time as a child. The story goes that I had been left alone in the flat, and when my mother came home from work she discovered that I had somehow worked out how to use the record player, had put on some classical music, and was dancing round the room in some of her clothes. That was when she decided it was worth taking me down to the ballet studio. But she took me to music lessons too. As a small child I was bandy-legged and quite fat, so I hardly think she had thoughts of a ballet career for me at that stage.

Circumstances overtook me. At the age of nine my mother sent me to St Petersburg to attend the Vaganova school [the vocational ballet school that feeds into the Kirov Ballet], and all I remember is that I liked it. I was still chubby then, with very fat cheeks, but once at the school I fell quite seriously ill, and had to have antibiotic injections. That's when I lost the weight. Just the cheeks remained.

I've never had the usual problems of dieting as a dancer. Ever since that time I've been able to eat enormous amounts - even of typical Russian food - and stay thin. I'm 5ft 9in now. And my feet are about size 8. But for most of my time at ballet school I was average height. Then at the age of 15 I put on 8cm in two months. And for my last three years at the Vaganova I was seen as outstandingly tall. But it didn't occur to me it would be a problem. Even when I entered the company, I never imagined I'd be a soloist. There were so many basic technical problems to overcome, I just took each day as it came. I now know many of those problems were to do with my height.

Luckily - there's an big element of luck in this business - one teacher in the company was able to spot my potential and identify why I found things hard. She's half my size, so she couldn't possibly have had the same difficulties. She was simply a brilliant, intuitive teacher. And in the end it was the way she taught me to use these long legs and long arms that got me noticed.
The quality in me people describe - they say I look as if I have no bones - didn't happen by chance. It's something I worked and worked at.

Recently I've had trouble with my hair, which is why I had it cut short. Obviously my body can't cope with the physical pressure I'm under, and my hair got weak and thin. When I do classical ballets like Swan Lake they fix me up with a whole system of hairpieces and pins. Maybe people expect a Russian ballerina to be terribly glamorous off stage. But though I am interested in good clothes, I'm much more interested in feeling comfortable with myself. So mostly I wear simple things, usually black. One problem is that I don't have time to shop. Even when I spend a lot of time on tour in capital cities, I can't go walking on hard pavements when there's a performance in the evening. Another problem is that shops don't have my size - the sleeves are ridiculously short. In any case I'm very aware that cultivating the inner person is more important than worrying about image. I don't wear jewellery. The only thing I always have tucked inside my collar is a cross on a chain that was given to me when I was confirmed. It's not even expensive metal.

I think it would be wrong to want to change anything about the way I look. Though it would be nice to be able to go into a shop and buy ballet shoes anywhere in the world. I get through two pairs a night, and have them specially made because of my foot size. But doing that means I can also have them made slightly differently for different ballets. There can be nuances in a shoe that help in performance. Only subtle, of course, but it helps.