Beloved Dancer Returns to Kazakhstan

By David Witherspoon, Edge

Kazakhstan’s most beloved ballerina of recent times has become a ballet teacher in London, thanks to her marriage to a Briton. But she did not forget a promise she made to her fans before heading to the U.K.

Before leaving Kazakhstan two years ago, Leila Alpieva said that she wanted to continue returning to the country’s cultural capital of Almaty to perform, and she’s made good on that vow. Last year, the internationally acclaimed dancer said she’d spent about six months of the 24 months of 2009 and 2010 in Almaty. Unless she changes her mind about continuing to return, both Kazakhs and the many foreigners who enjoy Almaty’s Abai Opera and Ballet Theater will get to see her perform for a while. The 37-year-old Alpieva hinted at one point that she wouldn’t mind dancing in London. “But it’s almost impossible at my age” to capture a leading role in a big company, she said. She did, however, dance with a troupe that took the “Nutcracker” to three cities in England in May of last year.

Alpieva, who was the Abai Theater’s prima bal - By David Witherspoonlerina from 2000 to 2009, had always planned on teaching. But she thought it would be in Kazakhstan instead of Britain. Then Martin Andersen entered her life. Andersen, who had visited Kazakhstan to see a brother working for a Kazakh-British joint venture, was smitten with the tiny, graceful dancer with the beautiful face. They began dating, he proposed to her on stage at a performance in India, and they were married in 2008.

Since they moved to Britain, she has been teaching at a Russian ballet school and a new ballet studio in London, and giving private lessons. Alpieva said she’s impressed with the fact that many middleaged and older British women have taken up ballet. While she sees girls as young as 4 dancing, she also sees grandmothers taking lessons.

Alpieva said she was happy to discover that Almaty’s ballet performances compared in quality with Royal Ballet stagings in London. Kazakhstan’s artists are every bit as good as those in London, she maintains. The difference is that the Royal Ballet has a bigger budget for its performances. That means more luscious costumes and more stunning sets, she said. Like any ballet star, Alpieva has enjoyed the glamour of her profession and the adoration of fans. But there have been many tough moments in her career, she said. Some of them came when she was a member of the Slovakian national ballet in the capital of Bratislava in 1996, 1997, 1999, and 2000. “This is a Slavic country, and audiences could not understand why the Giselle on their stage (the lead role in the production of the same name) had an Asian face,” Alpieva said. But she persevered, determined to win them over. Not only did the ballet-loving Slovaks embrace her, but she also became the company’s first ballerina.

To become a real ballet dancer, a person must devote his whole life to the profession.

Alpieva made a choice at 19 that assured her path to stardom would be more difficult than that of many ballerinas: She had a son with her first husband, a Kazakh. Most ballerinas don’t have children because the life of a dancer is too demanding to handle both the art and home life. There are long hours of practice and constant physical and psychological strain.

Alpieva’s mother Rosa helped the ballerina deal with the responsibilities of parenthood by taking care of her son Madi much of the time. Alpieva said her mother’s role in her success went far beyond helping with Madi, however. Her mother was the one who arranged for Alpieva to attend ballet school so she could follow her dream. Her mom also prepared meals that would keep her trim – a prerequisite for becoming a ballet star.

Another part of Alpieva’s success was excellent ballet training – a hallmark of the former Soviet Union. She graduated from the Seleznev Almaty Choreography School and the Zhurgenov State Institute of Theater and Arts, both in Almaty. Those institutions gave her the skills to capture medals in several international ballet competitions. In 1991, Alpieva took third place at the Rudolf Nureyev International Ballet Competition in Budapest. Three years later she won the Maya Plisetskaya First International Ballet Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. She came in third in Bulgaria’s Varna International Ballet Competition in 1996, before winning the Tarlan Award as the best performing artist in Kazakhstan in 2000, and the Galina Ulanova Prize as the best ballerina in the country in 2002. The Ulanova Prize is named for the internationally renowned Russian ballet star.

Alpieva said she was happy to discover that Almaty’s ballet performances compared in quality with Royal Ballet stagings in London.

Alpieva said the role for which she is most famous is Kitri from “Don Quixote.” Although she would love to have played Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” she said she’s satisfied with the roles she’s been given. “I don’t have a feeling of incompleteness,” she said. Alpieva cheered two years ago when Ramazan Bapov was named head of the Almaty Theater. Bapov, who held the title “People’s Artist of the Soviet Union,” was a choice that will well serve the ballet lovers in Almaty, she said. “He once rejected a proposal to work at the Bolshoi Theater (in Moscow),” she said. He’s also turned down an offer in the United States. “This is a courageous man” who, Alpieva said, has ambitious plans for the Almaty ballet.

When Alpieva’s mother died in 2009 of a liver problem, the ballerina was devastated. Her mother, she said, was “my compass,” the person who provided her with the direction in her life. Alpieva thought about giving up performing in Kazakhstan forever, but relatives persuaded her to continue dancing in her homeland as a tribute to her mom.

As good as ballet has been to Alpieva, she said she doesn’t want either of her sons – Madi, 15, or Marat, 2 – to take up the profession. “Ballet is a cruel art,” she said. “To become a real ballet dancer, a person must devote his whole life to the profession. Even if it takes a toll on his personal life.” In addition to the grueling physical demands, she said, “there is also immense psychological stress. If a performer does not go all out to become the character he is portraying, the audience will know it. Once you do immerse yourself into a character, however, you start bearing his pains — and I don’t want that to be my children’s destiny. I’m actually relieved that my oldest son has too big a body to enter a ballet school.”