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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Day in the Life of a Bolshoi Dancer, and Mother

The curtain goes up. Music fills the grand auditorium of the Bolshoi Theater. A slender, fresh-faced, 25-year-old woman bursting with energy and humor takes the stage. For the next two hours, Mariana Ryzhkina amazes the audience with complicated jumps and pirouettes. She and her partner, Alexander Vetrov, perform a ballet unlike anything the Bolshoi regulars can remember: a romantic and funny "The Taming of the Shrew."


The curtain falls. Her simple dressing room is flooded with flowers. Looking slightly tired but happily confident with her performance, Ryzhkina receives greetings and congratulations from friends and strangers. She is the star, and she is pleased with it. Rightly so. This is what every dancer dreams of. So did she.


From her enrollment in the Moscow State Academy of Dance at the age of 9, Ryzhkina has danced nearly every day of her life, relentlessly honing a natural talent in Russia's most elite dancing schools. Now, seven years after joining the Bolshoi at age 18, she is in the pantheon of the world's dancers. "Heaven on points," are the words Jane Bourne, a British specialist in dance notation, uses to describe Ryzhkina's accomplished technique and innate talent.


Over the years, she has become one of the Bolshoi's leading dancers, performing principal roles: Masha in the "Nutcracker," Shyrin in "Legend of Love" and Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing."


Despite Ryzhkina's life-long devotion to her emotionally and physically demanding art, she has created simultaneously another world that means just as much to her. The day after the premiere, Ryzhkina was back at home in the two-bedroom, central Moscow apartment building she shares with her husband, Boris Yefimov, and their 4-year-old son, Klim.


On a recent day, Ryzhkina gets up at about 9:45 a.m. and rushes around, making breakfast for the family. "What do I eat?" she asked rhetorically during a recent interview in her spacious, Bolshoi-built apartment. "A cup of tea with whatever is in the fridge." Contrary to the legends of self- starvation surrounding ballerinas, Ryzhkina said, "I like to eat, and I eat a lot."


Some 45 minutes after waking up and fixing breakfast, Ryzhkina is behind the wheel of her late-model Nissan sedan, making the 10-minute drive to the Bolshoi. The working day of any dancer starts with class. Class is essential, especially when soloists in the Bolshoi -- or almost any theater in the world -- perform only four or five times a month on average. It is an hour-long session of exercises divided into three parts: training by the bar, then similar training without the bar in the middle of the mirror-lined rehearsing hall, and finally leaps and jumps. Each morning, there are several classes going on at once. As a soloist, Ryzhkina has her choice. She attends the men's soloist's class, where the exercises are typically more physical. Why the men's? "I just like it," she says. "There is no obvious reason."


By noon, her class is over. Ryzhkina puts on warm woolen leggings and a top to protect her overheated thin frame from draughts and to keep her muscles warm as long as possible for the rehearsals to follow. The routine of her working day continues as she walks along the endless, maze-like backstage corridors to get to the theater's simple and small canteen.


"Small double?" asks the woman behind the canteen counter as she spots Ryzhkina approaching.


"Coffee after class is something I can hardly live without," says Ryzhkina, sipping from the steaming cup on her way out, "especially after I have managed to force myself not to drink it first thing in the morning."


Back in the fourth-floor dressing room, she chats with friend and character dancer Svetlana Ivanova. Suddenly they do not look like dancers anymore -- just two young women pouring out their worries, joys and news. The topics are common: children, husbands, household matters.


In the dressing room, on stage and on tour, Ryzhkina is essentially leading the working life of dozens of leading ballerinas at the Bolshoi over the last decades. Despite the controversy surrounding the recent change in artistic directors, an uproar over the new contract system covering soloists and what some critics call a fall in the quality of the theater's productions, Ryzhkina says she remains intent solely on doing the job she has dreamed of since growing up in the Moscow neighborhood near the Three Railroad Stations, the daughter of a cardiologist and a conductor.


Aside from socializing, the dressing room is also the place on this day for Ryzhkina's daily ritual of preparing a new pair of "points," the shoes that are a crucial tool for any dancer.


The hard part of the point shoe on which a ballerina stands is made of glued layers of rough fabric made in the shape of a piglet's snout. Russian dancers call it pyatachok, the name for both a pig's snout and a Soviet five-kopek coin. A double- or occasionally triple-layered leather sole provides strength to support a dancer's full weight while en pointe. The soles are attached to soft pink satin upers with glue and tiny nails.


Though each pair is custom-made in a Bolshoi workshop , they are still not ready to wear. First of all, Ryzhkina must sew on special ribbons -- two on each shoe -- to hold the shoe tightly on her feet. Then she uses a hammer to soften up the part of the points that touch her foot. Finally, she takes needle and thread to get a perfect fit. One pair can take up to 30 minutes to complete. At a rate of two new pairs of shoes at every performance, customizing them is an activity Ryzhkina said she has to perform "almost every day" of her life.


That day's rehearsal is devoted to the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and a classical pas de deux to the music of Auber, both of which are to be performed at the end of the month when the Bolshoi goes on tour in Italy. The program is old hat for both Ryzhkina and her partner, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Nevertheless, they will rehearse it over and over again before the tour.


After the rehearsal, at about 5 p.m., she gets back in her Nissan and navigates rush-hour traffic back home. Klim rushes to meet her -- "Mama is back, Mama is back." She cooks dinner for the family. She cooks it herself.


Joking in her kitchen, Ryzhkina said her sweetest dream is to someday own a four-burner stove, rather than the portable model the family now has. Boris, himself a recently retired Bolshoi soloist dancer in his mid-40s, looks after Klim during the day and shops for food.


What some perhaps regard as the daily drudgery of family life is for Ryzhkina is a necessary antidote to the stage, the success, the flowers and tours.


"They give me a huge backup," said Ryzhkina, her son standing next to her. "If it weren't for them, God knows what would have happened to me."