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Interview | Alexandra Kochis

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Alexandra Kochis is a principal dancer with PBT and will be performing as Giselle, opening October 26.  She was kind enough to grant me an interview and I am so grateful she did.  Wow, her answers blew me away.  Thanks Alexandra!  You’re awesome!

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Hi Alexandra and thanks so much for doing this interview!  I’m such a big fan.  I loved you in last year’s Coppelia.  You brought such energy and fun and feistyness to the role.  Your interpretation was incredible.  How are you going about crafting your character for Giselle, one of the ballet world’s most demanding roles for a principal dancer?

And thank you for the accolades, I’m flattered.  I’m glad you enjoyed Coppelia last year.  It was a ton of fun to perform.  And, while Giselle is sort of a complete 180 degrees character wise from the role of Swanhilda, I am really enjoying sinking my teeth into the meaty role.

As far as how I’ve been going about preparing for Giselle I have to say that I have been doing a lot more video research than I normally do – studying the countless choices and nuances of expression and timing that others have made to flesh out their character.  And, as you said, there are a plethora of incredible interpretations out there to learn from.
Some amazing ballet dancers have done the role of Giselle, such as Anna Pavlova, Margot Fonteyn, Natalie Makarova, Sylvie Guillem, and Gelsey Kirkland.  Those are some perfect pointe shoes to fill!  (God, I’m so corny sometimes!)  But I do wonder:

a. Does Giselle’s performance history make you nervous to step into the role?  That perhaps invevitably, your performance will be compared?

b. Have you watched any of those versions of the performance, and if so, did it inspire your interpretation at all? 

While it is a bit intimidating thinking that I will be in such heady company, one thing that our ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkassky (an incredible Giselle herself in her day) said to us on the day Giselle rehearsals began comes back to me all the time.  She said that the ballet opens and you really don’t know who these people are, Albrecht and Giselle.  As you watch, you realize that they have probably met before now but how and when no one knows.

There is no back story provided to the audience so you must create one for yourself.  Who is Giselle?  Is she really a bit crazy or just incredibly naive and sheltered?  Does Albrecht really love Giselle or is he just toying with her for amusement?  And the more I thought about this back story the more questions I came up with.  I think that is what makes the role so rich and moving – the nearly infinite number of choices you have for the way you choose to shade the character.  Once I realized that no two Giselles will ever be exactly the same, the less I felt like I was trying to live up to some form of perfection.  You just have to find a Giselle that is honest and makes sense to you.

Did anything surprise you about this character as you explored her?

Something that did surprise me a bit about the character was how completely the composition of the ballet and the music really does inform the emotion.  I found that I didn’t have to try that hard to elicit the emotions I was hoping to as the ballet itself almost MADE me live them.  The hard work comes in distilling the essence, so to speak, of each emotion and then refining each movement to better convey these feelings to a large house.

Giselle is a war horse of a ballet but so dynamic.  There’s truly something for everyone: love, jealousy, revenge, madness, romance, drama!  Is there an aspect of the performance that you particularly relish?

One thing that I do love about the ballet Giselle is that, while it is a tragedy, it also has the aspect of forgiveness to it.  There are many stories of “the star-crossed lovers” that have become indelible favorites ingrained in our popular culture over the centuries – of course Romeo and Juliet is the classic pairing, West Side Story and Gone with the Wind are two more modern takes.  They are all stories of two people who, though they love each other, can never be together.  Giselle is like these classic stories in that way  but it is different in that, in Giselle, she has the chance to forgive Albrecht.  Though the audience is left teary-eyed at the end of the ballet because this love will never come to fruition, there is also that sense of hope for she has given him redemption.

There are some incredible scenes in Giselle, notably the “mad scene”.  It’s a lush acting job, but the ballet also demands incredible technique.  What are some things you did to really train yourself for this high caliber role?

I am so glad that I have been given the opportunity to dance this role since the dramatic side of ballet and telling a story has always been one of my favorite things about dancing.  I also feel like the second act of Giselle poses an incredible challenge technically for the ballerina because the style is so unique and very different from your normal classroom technique that you work on most of the time.  The romantic style of soft, lilting, elongated lines and slightly back-phrased musicality is indicative of the time period in which Giselle premiered and is what makes it possible to create the otherworldly tone of the second act that is so transporting.

Working on this style has been especially challenging for me but, working with Marianna (Tcherkassky) on a daily basis has been incredibly inspirational and helpful.  She has an amazing natural grasp of the inner feelings that one must create for one’s self that will then translate to that outer ethereal quality that one hopes to create for the audience.  The idea of oppositional forces comes up over and over again – a sense of pulling back that allows you to move forward, resistance, counter balance, a weight into the floor that gives the illusion of weightlessness to a lifted limb, etc. and this is something that I have been trying to work on a lot in the rehearsal process.

In an interview with Style and Wisdom, you mentioned how much you enjoy Whole Foods’ Barre.  What’s the most important thing, nutritionally  that you do to maintain your incredible dancer’s body?  

As far as my theories on body maintenance go, I do think eating healthy, cross-training and hydration are all incredibly important to a dancer.  But I also think that one often overlooked aspect of staying healthy is getting enough rest – mentally and physically.  I have been fortunate to have had a long and relatively injury-free professional career thus far and I think that one thing that I have learned more and more over the years is that working smart is just as important as working hard.  Committing yourself to focus and putting in a slightly shorter amount of productive work is much more beneficial in the long run than bashing through hours on end of rehearsal with little thought behind it.  So, rest in that form as well as getting a good 8 hours of sleep most nights and finding ways on the weekend to rest and refresh my mind by doing things other than ballet are all ways I try to maintain a healthy body.

Okay, let’s switch gears a moment and talk about Pittsburgh.  You have a pretty strong web presence and you blog about things you like to do when you’re not dancing.  Do you still enjoy hiking and cooking and kayaking?  Found any new great restaurants?

I do still enjoy hiking, camping, kayaking and cooking.  Although as the ballet season gets busier I have less time to be able to do some of these things.  My husband and I do try and get outdoors and do at least one thing per weekend – whether it be a walk in Sewickley Heights Parkor a paddle or peddle around the lake at North Park.

Cooking is something we do on a daily basis regardless of our schedule as I find it relaxing and a good time to catch up with each other and share our thoughts on different roles or ballets we’ve been working on.  I also find that I feel better eating home cooked meals for the most part.  We do love getting out and sampling some gourmet cuisine on special occasions though and I have been dying to get to Salt of the Earth at some point but haven’t made it yet.  We had a favorite local restaurant called Vivo that used to be on Lincoln Ave in Bellevue and has since moved to Sewickley, re-opening with a whole new menu that we did check out for my birthday recently and it was great.  I would highly recommend their outdoor patio for once the weather gets warmer again and the roasted pork belly entree was unbelievable!

So give me a temperature reading: what’s the climate right now for Pittsburgh arts – specifically the dance scene?

I would say that the Pittsburgh dance scene right now is extremely diverse.  For a city the size of PittsburghI think it’s incredible the amount of dance one has access to and  I think it says a lot about the priorities of the residents here.  Pittsburgh has a long history of placing importance on the arts in our everyday lives and that legacy is being carried on today through the on going involvement and amazing generosity of it’s patrons. That being said, I would urge anyone who hasn’t gotten out to see a dance performance recently to do so.  In this economy of dwindling government and corporate support dance, more than ever, needs community support.  There is nothing like the experience of a live dance performance to touch your soul and refresh you spirit.

You’ve traveled all over the world as part of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater company.  You’ve performed in front of all sorts of audiences.  What do you find different or exciting about performing for a Pittsburgh audience?

I feel like Pittsburgh audiences are amazingly receptive.  Over my time with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre we have put on a myriad of productions running the gamut from classical story ballets to modern interpretations of the classics – from neo-classical works to contemporary world premiers.  At times I wondered if people would accept what PBT was trying to do to stretch the confines of what we all think of as “ballet”.  But the Pittsburgh audience has always risen to the occasion and I have immense respect for them continuously coming in with an open mind and holding quality as their only yard stick.

Finally, you’ve been a dancer for many years.  I’m sure you’ve done your share of auditoning!  What’s your best advice for doing a great audition?

As far as my advice for auditioning goes, I would just say be as prepared as you can be.  Be in good shape physically, be as familiar as you can be with the choreography or style at hand going into the audition, don’t be afraid to make mistakes – most directors, choreographers, etc. aren’t looking for perfection they are looking for the way a person works and how well they listen and apply instruction – and, perhaps most importantly, have confidence and know what qualities are unique to you as a dancer as everyone has something that only they can bring to the table.

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