Interview With Magdalena Popa

Art critics acclaimed Magdalena Popa: "She is one of the most dazzling stars of the century." She was regarded as a goddess of this art. Her small body expressed grace, a sort of ritual noblesse. Born in Bucharest, she graduated from the High School of Choreography and then went to Leningrad to complete her studies at the Vaganova School. In 1959, as a student, she participated in the International Festival from Vienna, and later on she won the silver medal, and in 1965 the gold medal at the International Contest in Varna. With the Kirov Ballet, when she was only 16, she danced in Swan Lake, together with Constantin Satilov. Returning to Romania, she was instantly hired as prima ballerina of the Opera of Bucharest and along years she won the admiration of each major world stage, performing the major roles of classical ballet: "SwanLake", "Giselle", "The Nutcracker", "The Sleeping Beauty", "Don Quixote". The most prominent companies have invited her as a guest star: the London Festival Ballet, the Ballet of Monte Carlo, Ballet Theatre Contemporain de France, the Dallas Ballet, and the Jackson Ballet. In 1982 she settled in Canada, where in no time she became leading master of ballet at the Canadian National Theatre Ballet. "To say that Magdalena Popa is poetry itself may sound clichéd, and yet only few dancers create a similar impression. Her steps are endowed with a sovereign power emanating happiness. Her dance is made up of nymphean moves. Keep the name of this star in your mind, as she is one of the five or six great dancers of our time." Paul Boursier – Nouvelle litteraires, February 24, 1966 "It was a dream Giselle. In her performance, with the Ballet of Monte Carlo, Magdalena Popa has ignited enthusiasm among lovers of ballet. Her amazing appearance is unforgettable. Last year, at the International Festival from Paris she won the Prize for the Best Dancer in the role of Giselle." Paul Deila – Les Saisons de la Danse, April 26, 1968 "Madgalena Popa is brilliant and, happily, the Russian school met and matched with her romantic nature. This evening of the 'Stars' has conferred on us a new sense of fragility and sensitivity, due to Magdalena Popa's musically impeccable performance of 'The Death of the Swan'." The Daily Telegraph, 1971 "Magdalena Popa, with her regular performances with Amiens, proves to be a star with a huge potential. She's one of the best 'Giselles' I have ever seen. And now she has to face a new way of dancing, a very modern style. However, she seems to have preserved the same attributes in her expression, that religious piety which marks the greatest dancers, an extraordinary technical confidence, particularly in moves 'au ralenti', when it seems that her body becomes weightless." Paul Boursier – Nouvelles Litteraires, June 1970. June 1, 2002. Bucharest. Twenty years since she left the country, Magdalena Popa returns to her native country at the invitation of the President of Romania. "Welcome back, Magdalena. We are at the National Opera of Bucharest. Do memories haunt you?""Indeed, there are lots of memories haunting me, and it is normal to be this way considering that I spent 24 years here… a life-time.""How do you find it now?""For me this is the place where I was supposed to stay for good.""And why did you not?""Unfortunately, it was not my destiny. There were times when I could not do what I wished. Because of some very painful reasons I had to move on.""The development in dance is conditioned by the dancer's immersing himself in the task. Movement is the most important element of dance, in the same way as sound is for a symphony. Was it difficult for you to progress?""First of all I would mention that I had my own strong beliefs. I've always believed in family, in true art, in honor, in correctness, and in people, and these beliefs have paved my way. I have also believed in my country. And I have loved it a lot. Maybe because the way I was raised, or because I am the great-grand granddaughter of Axentie Severul who was a personality from Vallachia and I guess that in my veins there still is some revolutionary blood. You probably know about my struggles to elevate dance, and arts in general, to the highest possible level. I spoke publicly, I spoke with people, I did everything that was in my power in order to put art in the place it deserves, and I fought for this not only at the national level, but also at the international level with my appearances on foreign stages. And I haven't been the only one. I was considered an ambassador of our country, and always when I was the subject of a debate, Romania was also mentioned, and I was happy for this. I represented my country for 23 years, because when I was still a senior student in Leningrad I was designated to represent Romania at the International Festival from Vienna and I danced together with Gheorghe Cotovelea and I returned in Romania with a silver medal, although I was very young."When did dancing become a passion?""I took my first dance lessons with Elena Penescu-Liciu, mainly because my mother was a piano player and one of my grandparents used to play the violin. My family loved art, but I don't think they considered ballet as an option. One of my aunts noticed my desire to dance when listening to music. I instantly felt like moving; I distinctly remember that I was still a little girl and music moved me, it gave me a particular impulse. I used to improvise at my own wish. I always had this fantastic propensity. I was a good friend of Cristina Hamel and her parents, and one day we paid them a visit. I remember we were listening to Rachmaninov. I had no idea that it was a piece of Rachmaninov, but I started to move and dance… My aunt said then: 'Don't you see she is talented? Why don't you send her to take dance lessons?' So my mother introduced me to Elena Penescu-Liciu and with her I started my first dancing lessons."At that time, the private schools were for many children the entrance door to the High School of Choreography. This way, one could find real masters such as Floria Capsali, Anton Romanovski, previous stars.""I can still remember my lessons with maestro Anton Romanovski. He prepared me for the High School where afterwards I also had Lulu Ross and Gelu Matei as instructors.""This was in your first years in high school?""Yes, in the first years. Before me there had been two years: the first with Amato Checiulescu, Ileana Iliescu, then another one and then it was us, with Sergiu Ştefanski, Elena Dacian, Rodica Simion, Luminiţa Dumitrescu among my colleagues. We were all together and one day Mihai Gabovici, maestro at the Ballet of St. Petersburg came to put on stage The Red Poppy and came to the school to see the students. He selected a group of 5 girls and a boy. I was one of them. All of them went to Leningrad except me, because my parents were afraid for me. I continued my studies in Bucharest and one year later Olga Lepesinskaia came to dance in Bucharest in The Red Poppy. Gabovici asked her to persuade my parents to let me go to Leningrad. When Lepesinskaia came she found me in Mrs. Lulu Ross' class. At that time Ester Maghiar Gonda was the school director, and she too tried to convince my parents to let me go. Indeed, after a while, my father was eventually convinced – he thought of the fact that I was thin and weak, that I used to catch a cold so easily... My father graduated at the Sorbonne and didn't like the simple thought of me being away from the rest of the family. After long debates, in 1955, I left for Leningrad.""And you remained there for 6 years. At that time the School of Leningrad was the most important school of classical ballet, a real star launcher for the greatest world stages. Is there any difference between our school, from Bucharest and the School of Leningrad?""Yes, there is a major difference. There, a student can learn an enormous amount of knowledge and it turns out a person extremely well trained in terms of culture. Dance with all its possible styles: pas de deux, character, historical, the history of ballet, and the history of music. I was taught to play the piano, the history of theatre, the history of arts. I learnt all of them there.""May I ask you an indiscreet question: had you stayed in Bucharest, you would have turned into one of the greatest ballerinas of the century anymore?""I do not have an answer for this question. All I can say is that the School of Leningrad gave me a great foundation. It is the Vaganova style. This is what makes this style so particular; it teaches you to coordinate perfectly your head, your arms, and the expression of your legs and the body as a whole. Of course, it matters a lot the way you adjust yourself to this technique. Because there are many who graduate this academy… Certainly, I could have found a good school in Romania, too, but I doubt they attained this degree of refinement and I would say they rather lacked these extraordinary means for teaching you how to act, to perform. What matters is not only to master the technique and to have a prompt, but mechanical response to the choreographer; you have to deeply understand the role you perform and what it stands for, both intellectually and in terms of musicality. You have to put at stake your sensitivity and to take the dancer to a higher lever of perception, and only then to turn your body into 'an instrument' through which you can communicate with people and make the audience perceive this mixture of work, ideas, passion and everything else.""As regards the dance companies, lately, at least in Europe, there can be noticed a higher degree of technicality to the prejudice of interpretation. Do you have more consideration for technique or interpretation?""I am a member of the international juries for all the dance competitions in the world. I became a member when I was in the country and I continued to be even after I settled in Canada where there are also important representatives of this art who are acknowledged all over the world, and all of us have reached to the same conclusion: interpretation comes first. Technique should be regarded as the language of dance. In order to be able to speak we use the language, we create words and establish the grammar, but what we say by means of words is interpretation, and essentially this is dance. Therefore, words are translated in dance as technique. But without interpretation, technique is quite unworthy.""Let's take for instance SwanLake. Would this performance be more lovable in 2002 without these references?""Created more than a century ago, the story of this performance, no matter how one tries to adjust it in a more modern fashion, has a happy ending and I think this is the reason that makes it so lasting. It is a love story that can move the earth, and love is the key. If people love each other, if each of us feels love for the other, there wouldn't be so many disasters that we see too frequently. The idea of the story is exceptional and this performance is still alive due to the numerous interpretations one can attach to it.""Today I watched you in the room rehearsing with the group of swans from the second act. I confess that I was astonished. I saw you in one of the corners putting on your toe-dancing shoes and your tutu. The same ritual experienced in this room for almost 20 years. Your body was getting prepared, first with slow motions, to start a new adventure together with the young ballerinas with whom, believe me, you blended. So let me ask you, why don't you dance anymore?""I have always been a realistic woman and my credo was to reach the highest possible level of expression in dance. This was my permanent wish that basically was refused me. I cannot claim that I have reached perfection, because I do not believe such a thing exists. But I have always been driven by the wish to mold my dance, to make it as impressive as possible. And so I return to my life drama. I was at the climax of my career, of maturity. Due to my experience, I was acknowledged all over the world, so I could have continued my career for several years. But this dream vanished with a blow that affected me morally and hurt my soul: from the very country I would have least expected it to come. I could have settled abroad when I was 25 and I was awarded the prize in Paris. I was awarded 'The Gold Star' prize for the best international interpretation at the International Festival of Paris, where the greatest companies competed: Bejart, Kirov, and the Romanians. I didn't even realize whom I was competing against. I interpreted 'Giselle'. Sergiu Ştefanski was my partner. Then I danced with Amato Checiulescu, my husband. I also danced a modern piece. I performed the role with a beauty that was given to me by a divine grace or, maybe, I don't know, my parents. However at that moment I didn't realize much of what was going on. We returned to the country and somebody called me from the Ministry of Culture telling me that I had to go back to Paris in order to get my prize. Think of Makarova who came with the company from Kirov and interpreted the same role. She won the Media Prize. This doesn't mean she wasn't my friend. We had been colleagues in Leningrad.""This is precisely what I noticed when recently read your resume: that you were colleague with Nureyev and Makarova. An important detail, I would say, that I missed up to now.""Indeed, they were one year elder than me. Rudolf Nureyev and I – Rudi as we called him – lived in the same boarding school. You would always see him dancing, pirouetting in the corridors. Natalia didn't stay at the boarding school, but we were colleagues. Along years we met each other in various circumstances. But you see, hadn't I had the principles my parents taught me, I could have fled at that moment. Every time I recall all these memories I feel like crying. Please, excuse me. Let's go further.""Somehow I understand your sorrow, but it's been more than 20 years that you have represented Romania, all over the world, even in a different way. You are an exceptional teacher, and the best proof of this is your career built within the National Ballet of Toronto. You have molded generations of dancers for 20 years.""It is true I am the leading maestra of ballet in the foremost ballet company in Canada, the National Ballet of Toronto, and indeed I molded several generations since I took this job. Certainly, I also adjusted the style presented by the company in the way I considered best for the art of dancing, and this way I became very popular, but I still have my regrets. I have never danced in Canada. And it's painful for I couldn't build my new profession, which I consider as a natural course of my career, from the previous one, which conferred me so much satisfaction. I presented myself as a new person, a new artist, a maestro of ballet who, of course, is respected, but I always think that it would have been even better if they had known me as a ballerina first. It's a completely different thing when you see a ballerina dancing on the stage. The live performance has a special value. It is fantastic to be admired by the audience. It is like a dream, which breaks once the ballerina leaves the stage. The art of dancing is particularly ephemeral: you can record a performance, but its greatness cannot be grasped on film, but only lived simultaneously with the process of creation that takes place on the stage. It is a kind of magic.""You knew Nureyev. What kind of person was he?""I've met him quite often since I started to travel all over the world to represent Romania. We once danced together in the gala organized by Prince Rainier and Grace de Monaco at Monte Carlo, and Rudi danced with Carla Fracci La Sylphide and I danced with Juan Giulliano, 'Etoile' of the Paris Opera, in La Fantaisie du Gentilhomme; it was just the four of us in that gala. After the reception, Rudi invited me to his place and gave me a photo, which I still have, with a dedication in which he says that he dreams of dancing with me. It is the first time that I make this statement officially, because it is not in my nature to advertise myself. I didn't have a manager, a business manager. After I was awarded 'The Gold Star' in Paris, the doors were always open for me.""In fact, this title is similar to the Oscar in cinema. 'Le Figaro' used to consider you as 'one of the greatest ballerinas in the world'.""Yes, indeed, most newspapers wrote this. After having been awarded this prize, I had my first gala in Paris, on the Champs Elysées at the Paris Opera, where I danced with Cyril Atanasov in Swan Lake. Then I was invited by the 'Ballet Théâtre Contemporain'. When this company was established, as a sort of answer to Diaghilev's company, they gathered the best ballet dancers at that moment, the best choreographers, the best painters and sculptors and the best musicians. I danced on Ligeti and Xenakis. I met there George Skibine, who put on stage Le Soleil des Eaux for me. He was the one who invited me, for the first time, to United States, in Dallas, where I interpreted 'Giselle', an Anton Dolin production.""Together with the young, at that time, Ştefan Bănică, first ballet dancer at the Romanian Opera.""That's right. Then I had numerous appearances on the stage of the Bolshoi, but also at the Palace of Culture in Moscow, which has a huge stage with a width of 45 meters and a depth of 35 meters. Merely taking a curtain call is a marathon. From 1966 to 1970, besides my performances both in Paris and in Bucharest, I had to honor several other 'guest appearances' with other companies. At the 'London Ballet Festival' we received repeated applause for Swan Lake, directed by Jack Carter. Then I met Makarova in London, at the time she asked for political asylum in England, and she visited me in my dressing-room, in London. At that time Paris was my second home.""Eventually you took the same decision.""Not really. And this is a major difference between my other colleagues and myself. I never intended to leave the country. I don't know if there was anyone else in my position. I had built an international career, but every time I returned to Romania, and I honestly believed that things would always be that way. But one day I received a phone call. I was to leave for Italy soon. I was told I had to hand in my passport. For a moment I thought it was a joke or a mistake. And I did give them my passport. And then I was told that starting with that moment I would not be allowed to leave the country. I returned home I told Amato the whole story: we were supposed to go to Italy together and we wanted to take Ama with us– our little daughter is now 24 – who was only 4 at that time. I am happy and proud to say that I am a grandmother now. I was basically thrown out of the country, because my husband's brother had fled to Germany.""We are honored to have you here today. We are in the Studio Hall of the Romanian Opera. How do you find the place now?""The entrance to Opera… it is a feeling I can hardly describe to you at this moment. In fact, from the very moment I stepped onto the Romanian soil I have been overwhelmed by a profound emotion and I feel I am dreaming.""Do you consider Magdalena Popa coming back home, for good?""This is a delicate question. I would like to help and put all my knowledge to work in order to improve the quality of interpretation, of the dance that is presented to the audience and I am sure that the Romanian ballet dancers from the Romanian Opera are endowed with a huge potential for learning, but of course this supposes a tremendous effort. I wish everybody would believe in art. Our arts and culture should be promoted and acknowledged by the rest of the world, and in our turn we must keep alive what is Romanian in our values. And find the best way of presenting and representing them." "Our television keeps in its archives the images of Magdalena Popa. I have recently searched in our files and I must confess I was deeply touched to see you in those films.""It is extremely important for these performances to be recorded, as this is the only way to keep them in time. It is our memory. Nowadays I can no longer dance the way I used to. I wish I could, but this is life… My body, this instrument that is vital for any dancer, makes me realize that I am no longer what I used to be. If there are films recorded at that time, this is great for everybody, including me. But, most probably, they recorded only what they considered to be necessary. I never thought that, one day, I would feel sorry that there aren't more recordings. Some films, such as 'Carmen', in the choreography of maestro Oleg Danovski, which was shot with several video cameras, were destroyed. It is a pity. Such things cannot be recreated.""At least we can be happy we have you here, in Romania, at the invitation of the President of Romania. You will be awarded with an important prize, 'the Star of Romania'.""Yes, indeed, I am living a miracle. I believe in fate. I think that sooner or later the truth seeks the light and the entire harm that has been done vanished once the President of Romania sent me his invitation. I was deeply touched. One morning, when I was in Toronto, counselor Opaschi called me. I couldn't believe my ears. It is a great honor. My dream to see again Romania came true."

by Silvia Ciurescu