Olena Filipieva
by Olha Skorokhod
Short profile

Prima ballerina and head of the ballet troupe of the National Opera of Ukraine named after T. Shevchenko. Gold Medal of the International Competition of Ballet Dancers "Maya", 1994; silver medals at competitions of ballet dancers in Japan (Nagoya, 1996 and Tokyo, 1999).


I would like to start this interview as an inspiring conversation about the future. But since Kyiv is coming out of another lockdown, I’ll ask: how has ballet adapted to the restrictions and how has the strict quarantine affected your plans?

In the current situation, it is difficult to plan something. I can say one thing – the premiere of the new ballet "Dante" will definitely take place! As soon as we get the opportunity to fully rehearse, and as soon as our auditorium is full again, we can talk about specific dates.

During the first quarantine, we practiced at home. Everyone tried to find a place to train. My husband made a small ballet stage for me, and I practiced every day. In fact, it is very easy to get out of good physical shape. You can see that even in one day without training.

And most importantly, we all really miss the stage and the audience, and look forward to seeing you!

Less than a year ago, you headed the ballet troupe of the National Opera of Ukraine. How did you psychologically readjust to this important role from the position of a ballerina?

Earlier I tried to look at myself as a teacher-tutor. The previous head of the troupe, Aniko Rekhviashvili, trusted me to rehearse with the corps de ballet. Even then, such a combination seemed to me difficult, but very interesting.

I had a lot of doubts about whether to apply for this position. When Aniko Rekhviashvili was gone, everything started to take its course. Now it is difficult because I am trying to do everything right and pay attention to each ballerina because it happened that not everyone danced in every performance. Someone’s potential could not be realized because of this, but someone else, on the contrary, was cheating and hiding behind other people's backs. Believe me, it is very difficult to break what has already been established and at the same time not cause antagonism by doing that.

How personal is this? Is there envy? Because yesterday you danced like everyone else, and today you’re setting the course for all the ballets in the theatre.

There is also rejection because someone also ran for the post of the director, someone else considers him/herself a superstar, and a third person is afraid to abandon the usual image. Although, I do try to pay attention to everyone.

You once said that there was no friendship in ballet because of competition and envy.

I also said that every product had its consumer so every ballerina would find her audience. We are all very different! I always tell my students: do not criticize, but learn from each dancer to take the best from him/her. This is what my teachers and partners taught me at one time. Ballerinas and dancers who believe in “only me and no one else” do not advance in the development of mastery.

Ballet is not a sport; it is not intended to take a certain level. Ballet asks for individual perception. The gut cannot be hidden anywhere, and a person's life credo is always visible on the stage. For example, you cannot hide behind naive Giselle if you like to say harsh words.

What are you planning to change in the ballet part of the National Opera's work?

When I came to the theater in 1988, there was a distribution of leading dancers and soloists of the ballet who danced the pas de trois but who were given the opportunity to go solo. We have recently generalized everything, people from the corps de ballet have been placed in solo pieces. It is clear that everyone wants to dance solo, but not everyone can handle it. And if a girl or a boy danced solo once, then they no longer want to return to the corps de ballet. But the corps de ballet of our theater has always been considered strong, and it is important to preserve this.

So my challenge is to get the leading dancers to work and to keep the tradition going, so that everyone is in their place.

I also want to establish a tradition of having memorial evenings. We held a concert in memory of Aniko Yurievna. I would like to remember all our choreographers and dancers – after all, we have so many people to talk about! These are Varvara Potapova, Valery Kovtun, Veanir Kruglov, Nikolai Pryadchenko, and many other stars of our theater.

So such a reverent and in some ways a conservative attitude towards authority is necessary to make young people aware of the profession?

We used to go into the theater, and when we saw the ballet artists – and you could recognize them easily because of their ballet form – we would say hello to everyone, even a few times. We understood where we were, and it affected our attitudes for studies and profession.

It was once important for us to see all aspects of ballet – how the secondary ballerinas and the corps de ballet dance. Today I see at every performance who comes to watch it from backstage. There are a few students of the choreography school there. I am amazed by one boy who studies with my daughter in the class – he goes to every performance.

The division of artists into “People's”, “Honored” and those without title is perceived by many skeptically as the Soviet legacy, which, firstly, is subjective, and therefore does not determine skill, and secondly, many receive titles undeservedly. You pay attention to the title. Is this a mark for you to evaluate an artist? 

Many artists and ballerinas have earned the title for their work and dedication to the theater. We also have people who were unfairly given the title, and on stage it is immediately visible. The status did not give them either technique or skill.

What condition is the troupe in today? You announced possible personnel changes just due to the fact that not everyone has given their best.

Now the troupe, thank God, is in good shape, everyone works flawlessly and without slacking off. Before the implementation of the contract system, there was an illusion that you could be with the troupe forever without really trying. And now they wonder if their contract will be extended. This is influenced by the physical form of the ballerina, artistry, discipline and a responsible attitude towards rehearsals and performances.

You surpassed the typical ballet retirement age a long time ago, while keeping in shape well. From this point of view, do people envy you?

Honestly, I feel extreme envy. Moreover, there’s a rumor going on between the ballerinas that I get paid for going on stage, and it has a backdrop of strong jealousy. My first question, when I applied to the competition for the head of the troupe, was this, “Can I dance for the soul at the same time?” It’s very hard to quit dancing right away. And, thanks to the management, they allowed me. I am not asking a penny for this.

I never considered myself the best, but many gnaw at the fact that I still dance. I refused those parts that are difficult for me to dance because of my age – “La Bayadere”, “Swan Lake”, “Don Quixote”. I still have a very small number of performances in my repertoire – "The Greek Zorba", "The Master and Margarita", "Carmen Suites", "Scheherazade". Sometimes I can play the part of Kylyna in "Forest Song". Where I can dance well, I go on stage. Today I am more interested in dramatic roles. In the play "Julius Caesar" there is a small role of a widow who lost her son in the war. The dance lasts literally four minutes, but emotionally it is very important for me. To convey the suffering of a mother is not only choreography. Therefore, there are no small roles, it is important to present each character.

Why do not all ballerinas manage to keep in shape for a long time?

The answer is banal: it's really hard. It wasn’t for nothing that earlier ballerinas retired at 38 years old. There is pressure, childbirth, the accumulation of all health problems. Our achilles, backs and necks hurt. I try to smooth out such things on stage with emotionality, with more fluid movements. Therefore, I have narrowed down the list of performances in which I can look worthy. And I always wear flats, I can only wear heels in the evening when I watch a performance in the box. And in the afternoon, I actually run around the theater from rehearsal to rehearsal; I can't sit still. Even in jeans I can show the students some lifts.

How important is diet in this process and how long do ballerinas have to stick to it?

In your youth, when the body was being formed, you had to limit yourself. And now the weight has already formed, so in principle, I can afford to eat everything. Even though I always have been jealous of girls who can eat pastries and not gain weight. After all, I must admit, sometimes I want fragrant pastries, especially if we are on tour, for example, in France with its traditional desserts.

There are days when there is simply no time to eat. Then my husband just brings a salad to the hall. It is clear that we ruin our stomachs, but there is no other way. Against this background, the pressure is very high, and you also need to guide the troupe emotionally. We rehearse almost constantly before premieres. On the day of the show, I am at work from 9 am to 10 pm. There are girls who, when there is little work, go on a strict diet. Just a lesson and a rehearsal is not enough to keep yourself in shape.

Pain, toes rubbed from pointe, and grueling workouts are the flip side of ballet. Are girls trained for making such a sacrifice from childhood, that is, from school?

In childhood, of course, they do not teach this from elementary school. But it is impossible to teach dancers to get used to this pain because every day when you put on a pointe shoe, pain begins. Even experienced ballerinas who have danced all their lives, if they go on vacation, then they are forced to start everything again from scratch. You put on pointe shoes, and your toes start to hurt like crazy. We all come up with inserts for pointe shoes, but not all of us seal our toes. I seal each toe with a medical plaster, otherwise, I will completely destroy them in the blood.

The tutu also creates, not much pain, but discomfort?

The tutu is made individually for each ballerina, each dancer needs to clamp it differently, so that they are comfortable. Everyone squeezes the waist to narrow it and vice versa to expand it in the chest. A new one can press and cut into the skin, but after the first rehearsals, when it gets wet, the discomfort disappears. On the other hand, if you have made yourself a new tutu, then the tutu will carry you all by itself – this is the same if you buy a fresh rose. Therefore, I cannot say that they get tired of the tutu.

Can a ballerina influence the selection of a costume and a look in general?

I always say to the girls who are dancing the piece for the first time: go to the master costume-maker, think about what kind of decoration you will have on your head. Experienced ballerinas think over everything to the smallest detail. Ballet life is an ongoing creative process. I keep thinking about what kind of leotards and earrings I will wear, but on the contrary, I must not forget to take off my rings. Sometimes I think over a hairstyle for a performance, and sometimes I trust the makeup artist, and together we create an image.

Sometimes ballerinas make their own costumes individually. I also have a lot of costumes and ballet tutus made with my money from fabrics I bought. Many, as a designer, I created myself.

By the way, all our girls are craftswomen; they make crowns and tiaras for themselves. It would be sad for me if we had the same thing as abroad – there they are given everything: crowns, tights, and costumes. But it seems to me that, on the contrary, it is interesting when each ballerina comes out with some punch line of her own. I'm glad we are allowed to do such individual little things.

Are there times when two dancers don't want to dance with each other? What is your tactic in such situations?

This is an everyday situation – they had a fight or something happened in a couple. I resolve
the conflict, I understand who can dance with whom. At the same time, respect is important, because ballerinas are of different shapes, and it is up to the partner to lift her. I ask the guys, "Can I suggest that you dance with this ballerina?" Naturally, I choose according to height, that is, I will never put a tall girl and a short guy in a performance. For the leading soloists, I select all the characters of the ballet as well.

It's good that so far there are tall men in the theater because now the dance school and academy graduate very few boys. In the first year, where my daughter is studying, there are only four boys (in my time there were 10, which is also not a lot). It is not a fact that they will all dance well and come to us as soloists, and it is not a fact that they will be able to lift well... And ballerinas are capricious, they need to be sure that their partner is strong and good at duet dancing.

Have you had any cases when a dance with some partner did not work out?

There’s never been a time when I gave up a partner or when I was abandoned. If there’s a misunderstanding, then in such cases I say to the ballerinas, “Imagine your beloved instead of your partner”. Then completely different energy appears during the performance. The ballerinas’ eyes begin to light up.

Since now you are not only a prima, but also a troupe leader, how do you successfully relate your leadership at work to your personal life? Your spouse is now officially working under your direction.

I have never felt our age difference. It seems to me that my husband, who is younger than me, is actually older. Vitaly helped me extend my stage life. We have been together for 8 years, and I thought that I would quietly leave the stage, but he gave me strength. We have rehearsals every day in the small ballet hall. I work with him as a tutor and as a ballerina, trying to make him better both technically and as an actor. Ballerinas have praised him as a very good partner. In his turn, he is also strict with me, like a tutor.

Sometimes I hear people wonder how we can be together almost all the time. And the fact is that sometimes we don't see each other all day while being in the same theater. He is in rehearsals, but I go about my duties and rehearse with the soloists and the corps de ballet. At home, the creative life continues because you cannot leave the theater and forget about ballet. We review and discuss videos from rehearsals, think over images in subsequent performances and make plans for the future.

It is not generally known that the stage of the National Opera is sloping. Such a project was made in order to improve the visual picture. How quickly does a dancer adapt to this, and how typical is it?

I saw a similar one, but only with a lesser inclination, at the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg and at the theater in the Spanish city of Murcia. The smaller the scene, the more the slope is felt. We still have a big stage, but in Murcia it is smaller, and there you can really feel the sloping.

It is impossible to get used to our Kyiv slope even after years. After a vacation or a break, you can feel it even more. Everyone who came to us on tour was afraid at first and did not immediately catch the feeling. But such a scene is beautifully viewed from the audience, especially from the central box. It is difficult to climb the hill, but when jumping downstage, jumps seem higher, and this is very beautiful.
Ukrainian theaters have a more classical repertoire than the conventional West. However, neoclassicism like "Bolero" and "Carmen" is successfully running here, and the modern ballets of other troupes in Kyiv are always sold out.

Don't you limit the viewer in this way, by focusing on the classics?

We have a diverse repertoire in our theater. There may be a lack of modernity, but we will gradually fill it. Our audience is probably not yet ready for the modern choreography that is going on all over the world. It often cannot be called ballet – there is running, screaming – and I do not tolerate all of this. We invited several modern collectives, but came to the conclusion that the visual perception for our audience should still correspond to the (classical) ballet form. With the premiere of Dante, we are starting to move in this direction. This is neoclassicism.

Our repertoire is interesting to any audience. In the West, one performance can take a week. For example, “Giselle” is on for a whole week, then there is a break, and they are preparing for “Swan Lake”, also for a week. I'm not sure if that's right.

This is also done for reasons of economy, so as not to change the scenery, and it is also assumed that the dancers will have perfected this performance by the end of this week.

Probably. But because of this, there is no variety of repertoire, and this is not good for the viewer. In small towns in Germany or France, there are 20 people in one troupe in theaters. We have more than 150. Yes, it is harder for us to work when ballets are on every other day. Imagine how the troupe should be prepared in order to put on performances that are different even in style every other day: today "Le Corsaire", the day after tomorrow "Swan Lake", then "Don Quixote"! And don't forget that there are operas in the theater on days when there are no ballet performances. And ballet scenes in operas are always met with great interest by the audience.

The idea is popular that since there is a lot of modernity in the West, the classics are
appreciated there when they come on tour, for example, the troupe of the Kyiv Opera. Is that true?

Yes, the troupe is also appreciated in Japan. They know "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty", and The "Nutcracker". Once we brought "Raymonda", the Japanese audience came to the performance only for the sake of their favorite performers. Or if three different theaters with Swan Lake come on tour at the same time, the Japanese public will go every day to different versions of the same ballet.
When we were on tour in France, we also showed "Swan Lake". In Canada, tastes are different; there we showed "Cinderella", "La Bayadere" and "The Wedding of Figaro". In Greece it was "The Snow Queen". We are also planning to take the "Snow Queen" to Japan.

Maya Plisetskaya gave you her diamond ring, and this gave the media and critics a reason to call you her successor. How symbolic are such signs in ballet?

It’s not about the ring! I try not to talk about it. I don’t know where it came from, that I’m the successor of Maya Mikhailovna. For me, her attitude, communication and everything that she did for me was important. In every interview, she talked about me and Alexei Ratmansky –
two dancers from Kyiv (Ratmansky then left) – how individual and talented we are.
I won a gold medal at the “Maya” international ballet competition in St. Petersburg. After the competition, we had obligatory performances in Paris and Moscow. Plisetskaya told me when we met, "Elena, I really liked the way you bowed." That is, the bow was a continuation of the performance. I remained in character and did not think how to quickly escape from the stage. I was very flattered that Maya Mikhailovna recommended me as a talented ballerina to famous partners, and thanks to her I danced with many ballet stars. I really appreciate that she invited me to all her galas.

When the Japanese were making a film about Plisetskaya in an old castle in the city of Trakai, I was invited to dance "Carmen Suite", and I had the opportunity to rehearse with her. I am proud of this. I learned from her attitude towards my students. I have a record on which she makes comments to me one after another – head, shoulder, mood ... What is most valuable, when after the performance she came up and said, “Elena, you have corrected all my wishes. If we had one more rehearsal, it would be just great." Likewise, I am proud when I see my students make corrections that I suggest.

After the performances, we had this family thing that I never dreamed of. The three of us had dinner: Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin, Maya Mikhailovna and me. Plisetskaya wrote in her books how difficult it was for her in the theater during Soviet times. Everyone knows that her parents were repressed, and then she was forbidden to dance at the Bolshoi Theater. But Maya Mikhailovna, with her character, was able to achieve everything. Plisetskaya is an example of how life and challenges force you to be a strong person, while maintaining inner sincerity. Of course, I did not experience repressions and prohibitions, but all the same, in this regard, I felt a certain similarity to her.
I cried a lot when I started dancing in the theater because I was a rather timid child. The theater changed me, forced me to clench my teeth, to go further and not pay attention to conversations, injuries, or constant pain. By the way, in this sense, I can compare ballet with sports.

Since your daughter is studying at a choreography school, I can assume that she decided to follow in her mother's footsteps ... Are you preparing her for the sacrifices that you yourself made?

We had struggled since her childhood. The child danced; I discouraged her from going to ballet school, "Look how Mom comes after the performance and can't even talk due to exhaustion." I'm not one of those parents who shouts that my child is brilliant. On the contrary, I am demanding of my daughter. I remind her that every evening she needs to do some crunches and stretches. It seems to me that modern choreography is closer to Lisa.

Have you managed to teach your students to respond to comments in the same way you react yourself: with gratitude and without criticism?

Even when I was just a teacher, not an artistic director, some artists reacted very nervously to my remarks. Now, of course, they listen to me, but for some reason some ballerinas think that I want to offend them. This is not my principle! I’ve been studying myself all my life. I still go to the small ballet hall, film myself, and criticize. Our profession is impossible without criticism. If you like your dancing videos, and if you cannot criticize yourself, then this is a path without development. You need to be able to look for both positive and weak sides in yourself – only then there will be creative growth.


Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova

Short profile

Prima ballerina and head of the ballet troupe of the National Opera of Ukraine named after T. Shevchenko. Gold Medal of the International Competition of Ballet Dancers "Maya", 1994; silver medals at competitions of ballet dancers in Japan (Nagoya, 1996 and Tokyo, 1999).