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Ballet star Alina Cojocaru: ‘When people tell me I’m a natural, I just want to scream’

<span>Photograph: Vincent Klueger</span>
Photograph: Vincent Klueger

Alina Cojocaru is one of those dancers who seems to have been transported from another realm. Her diaphanous movements melt into the air. Whether the Romanian ballerina is playing a haunted, breakable Giselle, a helplessly-in-love Juliet, or a richly nuanced but feather-light Odette in Swan Lake, she dances on what feels like instinct, as if ballet is innate to her.

But when I say this, Cojocaru purses her lips and shakes her head admonishingly. “When everybody says: ‘Oh, you’re a natural at this, you were born with it,’ I just want to yell and scream, ‘No I wasn’t born like that! Nobody was born like that!’” She laughs, but she is dead serious. Dancing is toil. You can be one of the best ballerinas in the world, as Cojocaru is, but you can never stop putting in the hours.

Cojocaru tells me she struggled coming back to ballet after having her second child during the pandemic, and was ready to say goodbye to the discipline. “Then my sister said: ‘Alina, you’re trying to make everything work with two hours in the gym. You were always working at least 10 hours [a day] before you had kids,’” and Cojocaru realised there was no shortcut. She needs to do three hours of training a day before even starting a ballet class, she tells me, and five hours before a show. However senior you are as a dancer, you can’t delegate the physical work. To illustrate the point, when our video calls ends it’s 9pm in Xi’an, China, where Cojocaru is on tour, and she’s about to head into the gym.

Somehow my life in the studio and on stage becomes so much more real than outside

At 42, Cojocaru is at the age where many dancers have retired but she says her body feels “very good actually”, and her technique remains astonishing. But she is moving into a new phase of her career. After 14 years at the Royal Ballet – which she and her husband, the dancer Johan Kobborg, left suddenly and somewhat controversially in 2013 – and seven years at English National Ballet, she went freelance, performing across the world. She was awarded an honorary OBE this year and remains based in London with Kobborg and their two daughters (aged six and three).

But now she’s not only dancing but producing, too. Her first major ballet premieres in January, based on Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada. It’s the story of the eccentric, childlike Gelsomina, a girl bought from her impoverished family by a touring strongman, Zampanó, to be his assistant/wife, learning her craft as a Chaplinesque clown. They tour villages, scraping a living, while Zampanó is downright abusive to Gelsomina, who retains her naivety and simple loyalty to him, at least until Zampanó fatally lamps a rival circus performer and her world shatters. Cojocaru will be Gelsomina, with Kobborg as the clown Il Matto, and Italian dancer Mick Zeni as Zampanó. The choreography by Natália Horečná incorporates ballet and contemporary dance, with Nino Rota’s original film music in the soundtrack.

La Strada is hailed by some as Fellini’s masterpiece, although it’s difficult to watch now without screaming at the screen as Gelsomina passes up opportunities to escape Zampanó. It is certainly an exposé of life’s brutalities and the dynamics of abuse. But Cojocaru sees the wonder in Gelsomina’s character. “She’s just so pure,” she says. There’s a scene where Gelsomina finds tomato seeds and plants them, even though they’re only staying in the village overnight. “But she has to put them in the ground because they’ll grow and it’s the right thing to do. Someone, even if it’s not her, will benefit from it.” That selflessness moves Cojocaru.

At the end of the film, when Zampanó learns that Gelsomina has died, we see him collapsed, weeping on the beach. For Cojocaru, the audience discovers at the end what Gelsomina knew all along: that this damaged, lonely man does have a heart after all. “She sees the good, she sees the love,” says Cojocaru. “It’s such a childlike way of living – which I see with my girls. Before them, when it was raining, I took an umbrella. Now, we go out and jump in muddy puddles.”

Cojocaru has a little of the Gelsomina in her. A few years ago she spoke movingly at the National Dance awards about the role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty – a princess character some dancers find flimsy – and about how after becoming a mother she felt it was her job to “find the light” each day for her daughter, and that’s what she wanted to do with Aurora. It shows in her hopeful, luminous dancing, and her open-hearted personality.

This is a dancer who disappears into her characters, even in rehearsal. “Somehow my life in the studio and on stage becomes so much more real than outside.” She can’t bring herself to watch most of the news at the moment, but the theatre is a safe place to let go and be vulnerable. It’s the same for the audience. Cojocaru remembers dancing Akram Khan’s Giselle, and hearing someone yell out, pained, at the moment Giselle is revealed to be dead.

Cojocaru is certainly not divorced from what’s going on in the real world. Although born in Romania, she trained in Kyiv and when Russia’s invasion began, she was quick to organise a benefit performance for Ukraine (with fellow dancer Ivan Putrov). She still speaks to her teacher in Kyiv. “She’s alone in her entire building now,” says Cojocaru. “But they just go to work, they keep on, there are performances. They hear the sirens, go down to the shelter. It’s a world I don’t think we can imagine.” She tells me her teacher was always an impatient person who wouldn’t waste time chatting, but now every call lasts a long time. “And I just listen. And that’s the only way I feel I can help.”

Early on we are told how to dance, how we should think about dance. You’re rarely encouraged to ask, ‘What do I like?’

Artists who have stayed in Russia and not denounced the war are no longer being invited to perform in most of Europe. But Cojocaru meets them at galas in China. “I put on the glasses of Gelsomina,” she says. “And when I see someone, I see the dancer, I see the mother, and I speak to that. I don’t judge the passport. If I look at people in that way I’ll hopefully find the good.”

If you watch Cojocaru’s early interviews, when she was promoted to principal dancer at the age of just 20, she speaks in barely a whisper. But don’t mistake some of the wide-eyed characters she plays for the woman she is now. Dancers have a hidden steel, and Cojocaru has absolute certainty in herself as an artist. When she left the Royal Ballet, it was in part because her own artistic ideas did not match that of then-director Monica Mason.

“Very early on we are told how we should dance, how we should think about dance, how a production should look,” she says. “You’re always following someone else’s vision. But you’re rarely encouraged to ask, ‘What do I like, what is important for me?’” If you want to pursue your own growth, “it’s a challenge to find companies that are open and knowledgable enough to support that”, she says, in a very gentle dig at the Royal Ballet. “For me it was just not enough. When I felt I needed more, I had to take a step.”

She did however find inspiration with choreographer John Neumeier at Hamburg Ballet, where she remains a guest artist. And now Cojocaru pursues her freedom and is flying as an artist, but she’s still very much a student, she tells me. “I like to learn, and I try to be smart enough to relearn things I thought I already knew.” The challenge right now is how to balance an international dancing career, the pressures of producing a new ballet and parenting two children at the same time. She’s still working on that. “The moment I say I know what I’m doing,” she says, “it’s time to take the shoes off.”

La Strada is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 25 to 28 January.