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The return of Berlin’s ballet princess

She's back! After a two-year absence, prima ballerina Polina Semionova is once again gracing our stages. Her titular turn in Giselle premieres December 11 at the Staatsoper.

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Photo by Yan Revazov

She’s back! The long-awaited return of Berlin’s star ballerina Polina Semionova

Her departure from the Berlin Staatsballett was sudden and unexplained. Now after a two-year absence the city’s adored prima ballerina Polina Semionova has returned, as unexpectedly as she left. Her return-performance last month was a sold-out affair at Tempodrom. Semionova centre stage, dancing the solo in Maurice Bejart’s iconic Bolero. Although Berliners tend to be an unexcitable and reserved bunch, Semionova’s performance had the crowd on their feet, clapping, stomping and cheering, swept up in the tsunami of affection. The beloved ballerina received enough roses to fill a Schrebergarten.

Berlin balletophiles are gaga about the 27-year-old for the obvious reasons: she’s a beautiful, world-class dancer with a modest graciousness that coincides with great talent. And – she is their baby.

Many of them would love to have a heart to heart with the diva about why she left Berlin and the Staatsballett. It’s rumoured there were problems with the former director of the company Vladimir Malakov, who ‘discovered’ Semionova in 2002, when she was 17 and still studying at the Bolshoi school in Moscow. Malakov saw her there by chance in class, and offered her a contract as principal dancer in Berlin on the spot. That’s the start of her real-life Cinderella story.

Semionova made her Berlin debut with a series of traditional crowd-pleasers like The Nutcracker and La Bayadère. The city was instantly smitten with its new baby ballerina, and dance enthusiasts followed her over the next decade as she transformed from a sweet teenager with a perfect physique and near-freakish natural talent into a technically stunning and infinitely elegant artist. As Malakhov’s dance partner, Semionova danced just about every major role in the modern classical repetoire there is: Giselle in Giselle, Manon in Manon, Carmen in Carmen.

While Berliners can be reserved to a fault, they embraced Polina with abandon: she taught them how by throwing herself, physically and emotionally, into each movement and moment. She was theirs – until she wasn’t. Ten years after her debut, with the abruptness of a flippant Bild headline, Polina was gone without an explanation, leaving only a trail of unanswered whys and wheres in her wake.   

In 2012 the Staatsballett Berlin released a press statement announcing their star principal dancer had left the company. No other information was provided. Shortly thereafter Semionova showed up in New York as a principal dancer on guest contract with the American Ballet Theatre. Since then, she has guested with various top-level classical companies across the globe – everywhere but Berlin, as Malakhov had banned her from the Berlin stage.

Semionova herself won’t reveal any details about her departure, saying only that while it was hard to leave, it was no longer possible to say. The artistic challenges of dancing with other companies have been thrilling, but when it comes to her private life, Semionova much prefers Berlin. “In New York I have no life, I just work. By 10 in the morning I am at the theatre and rehearse until 7 at night. We work really hard there. Maybe there’s a half-hour to eat a sandwich, maybe not. Then I fall into bed. There’s no time to enjoy the city. In Berlin the pace is more European. There’s more balance between work and private life.” With a conciliatory grin, she adds: “But at least in New York, I’m always in really great shape.”

Throughout her career, Semionova has been invited to guest with most of the heavy-weight classical companies: the English National Ballet, the Bolshoi and many others. Her current guest contracts keep her in transit between New York, the Bayersicher Staatsoper Munich and the Mikailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg. “I miss just being home in Berlin,” she says. “What I really love is to simply potter around, doing this and that, organising things. That is how I spend most of my time when I’m here, being like any other woman of the house, just feeling very homey.”    

And her family is here too. Semionova’s brother and husband are both dancers with the Staatsballett, and she considers the company her extended “theatre family”. The palpable adoration of the Berlin public – with many a pottering Berliner Hausfrau among them – adds to her feeling of being at home. “Berlin is a special place for me to perform. They saw me when I came here as a child. Okay, maybe 17 is not really a child, but I felt like a small girl who didn’t know anything about the world. And they saw me grow up on stage and develop as both a dancer, and as a woman.”

Fortunately for us, with Malakhov’s resignation last year and the company now under the artistic direction of choreographer Nacho Duato, Semionova is welcome at the Stattsballett once more – a development she’s celebrating with 10 guest performances over the 2014/15 season.

“Polina is a dream to work with. A ballet star who’s easygoing and uncomplicated – that’s not always the case,” says Duato. In addition to performing traditional, classical works like Swan Lake in Berlin, Semionova will dance the role of Juliet in Duato’s contemporary Romeo and Juliet, premiering next March.    

Duato has a vision for the company that he hopes Semionova will be a part of. “She brings the level of the company up with her artistry and work ethic. The rest of the dancers are very happy to have her around and are inspired by her.” For her part, Semionova says: “Yes, I hope I can be a part of it! It will be an honour for me. I wouldn’t like to be in a company that performs only a classical repertoire. I want to learn new things and continue learning new things.”

Despite her jet-setting lifestyle, Semionova has recently put down new roots in Berlin, creating a bond with the city’s State Ballet Academy. This move was instigated during her ban from the Berlin stage. “Between guesting, I always came home to Berlin. And since I wasn’t in the company I thought: what can I do when I am here? So I contacted the school and the director invited me to do some training and teach some variations. The students liked it and I liked it. So when I have free time, why not?”

It’s quite uncommon for a prima ballerina in the prime of her artistic life to donate her free time to kids, but this down-to-earth diva sees things from a different standpoint. “It is really interesting to share what I know. Teaching is not just giving information, it is finding a way to inspire. I look at these girls and I see myself as a student, like it was yesterday. When ballerinas from the Bolshoi Theater came to my school to show us variations, we were so happy!” Semionova’s eyes shine as she talks. “We were like sponges taking in everything about them: every word, every movement, how she does her hair, what she’s wearing, how she does her makeup… The Berlin students look at me the same way.”     

Her next performance in Berlin is on December 11, dancing the lead in Giselle. For anyone who is not yet a fan, it is an excellent opportunity to get infected with the ballet-bug – and meet Berlin’s star ballerina for yourself.