You know how we love stories of determination, hard work and passion. Well we hope you will enjoy Sarah Kora Dayanova’s story as much as we did. Sarah won no less than 3 prizes at the Prix de Lausanne and is currently a Sujet at Paris Opera Ballet. In this touching and inspiring interview, she reflects on her journey and how she got where she is today.
Sarah Kora Dayanova - La Bayadre, Nikita (R.Noureev)
Hi Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. We’d love to know more about your passion for ballet. Where does it come from?
SKD: When I was little, I was constantly twirling around whether I was in the street or at home. I spent hours trying wacky hairstyles and dressing up.
With my mother being a painter, I’ve always grown up with arts. She made me take body expression classes from the age of 2. I liked it and decided to continue down this path. That’s how I came to dance, because of the artistic nature of my family and also because of my best friend who was starting classical ballet at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève when I was 5 years old.
So tell us, what is it in particular that you love about ballet?
SKD: I would say it’s the constant search of the perfectly controlled movement, a daily search to shape your body to the image you want to portray.
There is also the notion of heritage, knowing where we’re coming from and moving forward with this classical past. It remains something I take pride in, a challenge and a mission. It’s also about the feelings we can transmit, the lightness and elegance of a dance movement worked to appear natural and graceful. Above all, I love the strength that is given to the interpretation of a role, the personal impact of the laid bare emotions we want to share with the public, our partner and ourselves.
I constantly question and challenge myself to go the extra mile. I’m always pushing myself to keep my dancing in constant evolution. I express myself through this art and I feel free on stage.
You started studying dance at the age of 5 at the Conservatoire de Music of Geneve with Gilbert Mayer. What do you remember of this part of your training?
SKD: My first memory of the Conservatoire is from my induction year. I spent this first year mostly behind a door as I lacked discipline and was often distracted, which annoyed my classmates. I was very upset about it but I took the opportunity to let my naughty child improvisations run wild behind this firmly closed door!
My journey hasn’t been easy. I was younger than the other girls in my class and was criticized for it. Luckily Gilbert Mayer, who was coming now and then to the school, quickly asked me if I’d be interested in private lessons. That’s when it started to get more serious for me.
It must have been wonderful to get private lessons with Mr Mayer. What is the best piece of advice he gave you?
SKD: The day before the Concours International de Danse de Genève in 1997, Gilbert Mayer told me "Kora, you have everything to win". This phrase demonstrated the trust he had in me. I won the Gold Medal that day and the Prix spécial Jeune Espoir Pierre Sandoz.
Sarah Kora Dayanova
You were taking piano and drama classes on the side weren’t you? Did you already know by then that you wanted to be in this industry?
SKD: Theatre and music were already a part of my family environment and I think they were a good complement to my dancing. I actually really enjoyed doing theatre. It felt like a real way to express myself but dance was always what I wanted to do.
When I was 8 years old, I went on a trip to Paris and as we were passing in front of the Palais Garnier, I stopped and said “Mommy, one day I will be a dancer of the Opera, that’s what I want!” And here I am...
In 1998 you joined the Ecole de Danse de l’Opera. Tell us more about this part of your training?
SKD: The Ecole de danse de l'Opéra de Paris was a crucial yet ambiguous step in my progression that I desired so much .
I had been noticed by the founder of the Prix de Lausanne, Elvire Braunschweig, when I was 13 years old in Geneve. She was surprised that I hadn’t been sent to the l'Ecole de danse de l'Opéra by the Conservatoire. She called Claude Bessy that evening to get me a private audition. Two days later, I was at the barre an this legendary school for an audition in the 3rd division.
I was eventually accepted as a paying student but as the audition dates were over, I couldn’t join a regular course of studies.
It was two years or intense work with a different rhythm, a completely different style of dance and a lot of strict behavior.
It didn’t work out and I eventually resigned due to some pressures but nothing could stop me as I still had only one idea in my head - to dance with the Ballet de l’Opera.
Sarah Kora Dayanova
You mentioned briefly the Prix de Lausanne. You did brilliantly well there in this competition, as well as in many others. What have you learned from competing?
SKD: The competitions helped me set myself goals. I was on my own, without supervision, so I had to set myself objectives throughout the year.
Noëlla Pontois took me under her wing; she took a risk with me and gave me private lessons every day to prepare me. Later on, I met Dominique Khalfouni and Monique Loudières with whom I’ve spent intense moments working. I am extremely grateful to have learned from these exceptional and amazingly generous ballerinas and all round perfect performers.
I have to say I don’t see contests as competitions but more as an opportunity to dance on stage and show my work. It was thrilling for me to show what I could do and push myself to my limits. My most dangerous competitor in a contest is myself!
Although you do not see competitions as such, do you have any tips on how to stay calm or manage this kind of situation?
SKD: I think the most important thing is to fix yourself a goal and give yourself the means to achieve it... it’s by falling that you learn how to walk. Failure is part of competitions and learning how to manage it can be twice as beneficial.
Thank you. Failure is indeed part of the process and a good learning experience. Of all the competitions and prizes you’ve won, which one was the most important to you and why?
SKD: Without any doubt, I’d say the Prix de Lausanne. I remember looking at it curious and dumbfounded. I never imagined I would one day participate to the Concours and let alone win 3 prizes there in 2001.
This contest is an excellent stepping stone for young dancers. We were supervised on an artistic level but also on a medical and nutritional level - two sides of our profession that shouldn’t be neglected.
I’ve also kept great souvenirs of the Concours and am still in touch with some of the winners.
Before integrating the Corps de Ballet de l’Opera, you were Quadrille there for two seasons. Tell us about it.
SKD: Despite having a temporary contract, it felt somehow that I was still a part of the Opera. However, these two years felt like they were never going to end. I was the substitute of the substitutes... I was chomping at the bit but I made the most out of it by working hard with determination, sometimes late and on my own in the studio. I wanted a permanent contract.
Sarah Kora Dayanova
You must have been ecstatic then when you eventually joined the Corps de Ballet!
SKD: Yes it was a dream come true and the culmination of many years of hard work. It also meant that I was going to be able to go through the internal promotion system to hopefully be promoted and climb the ladder of the corps de ballet de l'Opéra.
I loved that we have the unique opportunity to work with prestigious ballet masters such as Laurent Hilaire (associé à la Direction de la Danse) and Clotilde Vayer and have access to a varied classical Répertoire, numerous incredibly beautiful productions by Rudolf Noureev - also the contemporary creations of current choreographers because of the active presence of our director Brigitte Lefèvre.
What’s a typical day like for you at the Ballet?
SKD: It is possible to progress within a particular niche. All of the teachers that follow me, like Laurent Novis, are specialists. I’ve got the incredible opportunity to prepare for my competitions with Danseur Etoile Nicolas Le Riche whom I’ve admired for years and whom I would love to dance with one day. This would be the highest honour for me!
During the afternoon, we’ve got two or three set of rehearsals lasting from 1.30 to 2.30pm. When we have a show in the evening, we get to finish at 4 o’clock to allow us to get ready.
What kinds of productions do you like dancing the most?
SKD: Rudolf Noureev’s rich productions. He used to say “every step must be sprayed with your blood". I consider that being a dancer at the Opéra de Paris you’ve got to maintain and respect this Reportoire by dancing it like in 2012 and by keeping it alive.
R. Noureev’s productions require a lot of work for the corps de ballet. It’s as much research and work as for a soloist role; this gives our corps de ballet a unique strength. Remaining in the group whilst getting closer to yourself is something that we are learning to do and a commitment to the dual polarity and especially in these productions.
I’ve felt strong emotions while dancing W. Forsythe’s ballets that some people have called ‘Billy The Speed’. I’ve been selected to dance a demi soloist role in ‘Artifact Suite’ by Anne Teresa de Keersmeaker and most recently in ‘Rain’. I felt taken by this rebellious dance enriched by a European expressiveness and a minimalist American rigor.
I love the ballets by Serge Lifar, Ballet master and choreographer for 26 years at the Opera de Paris and a ‘prodigal father’. Being able to let people discover Suite en Blanc and its’ academic purity, aesthetical reform and this style lesson is always a real pleasure and a pride.
So far, what has been your favourite role to dance and why?
SKD: I’ve loved dancing the role of Gamzatti in ‘La Bayadère’ by R. Noureev - the first title role I danced in March/April last year at the Opéra Bastille.
I got injured 6 days before the premiere of the production while rehearsing on stage. 3 days before the show, I still couldn’t put my foot on the floor. I did everything I could to get back to dance. I had been waiting for this moment for so long that there was no way I was going to let it go. My “Solor” Stéphane Bullion, who is also Danseur Etoile and whom I get along very well with, supported me and I eventually managed to dance on stage.
I also danced soloist roles in 2007 in ‘la Reine des Dryades’ and as the 1ere Demoiselle d'honneur in ‘Don Quichotte’ by R. Noureev. Such great memories!
Sarah Kora Dayanova - La Bayadre, Nikita (R.Noureev)
I suppose there are still several other roles you haven’t danced yet and would love to interpret. Can you name a few?
SKD: Oh yes! I want to dance to interpret a role and let myself being consumed by it. It’s impossible for me to name them all but I would say Juliette (‘Roméo et Juliette’), Nikiya (‘La Bayadère’), Giselle, Kitri (‘Don Quichotte’), Cendrillon, Marguerite (John Neumeier’s ‘Dame aux Camélias’), Raymonda, Manon (‘l'Histoire de Manon’), Garance (‘Les enfants du Paradis’ as choreographed by José Martinez), l'Ombre (‘les Mirages Serge Lifar’)... a range of artistic interpretations sometimes dramatic or nuanced.
What about next season? Are you looking forward to dancing any ballets or roles in particular?
SKD: We don’t know yet which productions we will be in but I’m really hoping to dance in ‘Don Quichotte’ and of course I would love to discover the character Kitri. It requires a technical virtuosity I’m at ease with and also a lively interpretation.
I would also love to dance in the ballet ‘les Enfants du Paradis’ by José Martinez, with whom we will be touring with in Japan. I’ve already danced the role of a ballerina in this production but I would love to dance Garance.
We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you! Do you have a last piece of advice for our readers?
SKD: For dance to become your profession you need passion, mental and physical strengths as well as a lot of determination. You’ve got to devote yourself to dance and your career entirely otherwise it’s not worth it.
You can learn the job but the inspiration always has to be received. Nothing can be taken for granted. It’s a fragile art you have to perfect without spoiling it.
A huge thank you to Sarah for this interview.