A day in the life of a Prima Ballerina, Elza Leimane
Ballet has been performed in Latvia by the Latvian National Ballet Company, since the first performance in 1922. Latvia's Ballet is fast getting an excellent reputation around the world. Ballet stars like Milchail Barishnikov, Aleksandr Godunov and Maris Liepa have helped to take the Latvian ballet to the international stage.
Elza Leimane was born in 1984 and graduated from the Riga Choreography School in 2001. She has since won many competitions, performed on many world stages and is considered one of Latvia's greatest ballerinas.
Elza comes from a very talented family, her grandmother is famous Latvian actress Baiba Indriksone, who at the age of 75 is still performing at the National Theatre, her grandfather was a film director and her parents were both dancers at the Latvian National Ballet. For over ten years her father Aivars Leimanis has been the Artistic Director of Latvia's National Ballet.
Elza had difficulties at the start of her career with claims of nepotism and pressure to prove herself, but over the years on her own accord she has demonstrated just how talented a ballet dancer she is, with countless international and local awards and accolades. Dancers enter competitions till they reach the age of 26. Elza enters competitions not only to win but for the experience, inspiration and to meet other dancers from around the world.
Elza's companion for four years is also her dancing partner, Raimonds Martinovs. Raimonds and Elza both attended the same dance school and have since formed a strong bond both on and off stage. They first danced opposite one another in The Taming of the Shrew and are now almost always paired together. They are the perfect on stage couple, they look good together, dance in sync and are closely connected so acting comes naturally.
This season the 23 year old petite brunette is performing in several repertoires, many as the prima ballerina, including Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Kitri in Don Quixote, Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the classical ballerina in The Bright Stream, Gulnare in Le Corsaire and she is dancing the lead in Giselle. If dancing so many roles in one season seems unfathomable, there are more but it will be too exhausting to list them all.
All this for love, not money. When watching a ballet, ever wondered how much each and every dancer on the stage gets paid? You would be surprised how little. It is widely known that ballet dancers the world over get paid less than their counterparts the opera singers and five years ago a ballet dancer took home 80-100Ls a month. Thankfully this has somewhat improved.
"Raymond has a wonderful singing voice, his father is highly acclaimed opera singer Sergejs Martinovs, I often joke with him that he will have to switch careers and join the opera," says Elza.
Elza has a very hectic schedule and when she is working, has little time or energy to concentrate on anything but dancing. Her days are full of rehearsals and performances. She has danced many of the productions so many times that her feet know exactly what to do. "Some people are fast learners, but quickly forget. I am a slow learner but always remember. I like to always literally keep on my toes, I work better if I am always on the go, and I get stressed and nervous if I have too much time to think."
Her daily timetable is structured around the week's staged performances. This particular week Elza is performing: Friday night in a leading role in Les Gems, Maria's Dream, Saturday as one of the sisters in Cinderella and on Sunday night she stars as Giselle.
She trains six days a week and takes a well earned day of rest every Monday. We caught up with Elza on a typical performance day.
Wake up. Elza used to have to wake up at 8.00 but the Opera decided to start rehearsals later due to traffic problems. The performers were always late, often stuck in Riga's notoriously bad traffic. Elza rarely eats breakfast as it is easier to jump and leap on an empty stomach, unless she has an evening performance for which she must build up some energy. Elza used to go in a bit earlier, but Raymond, who needs less time to get ready, convinced Elza otherwise.
Of course Raymond is the Romeo to Elza's Juliet so they spend nights and most of their days together. They live together in a little house in Jurmala, choosing to live there as it is peaceful and quiet, with plenty of fresh air and Elza loves the beach. She sometimes wishes she lived in town during the winter for the convenience of quickly getting to and from rehearsals and performances. The couple head into town together; as they are both in the same productions their schedules are very similar.
Arrive at the National Opera House. Changes into her sports gear, stretches and warms up.
Daily ballet class. Elza has a regular class with her long time coach and one of the people Elza most values and respects, Modris Cers. Some of Modris favorite sayings are, "No-one can ever be too ready for a role" and "Before death you can not breathe enough!" Modris coaches both males and females so some days Elza is in a class with all females, other times she practices with the men. Some days she trains with her long time teacher Sarmite Jakse, who has taught her since she was twelve years old.
Elza goes back to her changing room and relaxes. She prepares her pointe shoes, which is an involved process of molding and manipulating the shoes, snipping, sewing, painting and gluing to get the shoes to an optimum performance condition. Elza goes off to Raymond's dressing room to get something to eat. Usually something light like a banana. Dancers neither eat nor drink much whilst practicing and performing.
Rehearsal for Giselle with the principal dancers. Today it is Elza who plays Giselle, Raymond as her lover Prince Albert. Andris Pudans, who plays Hilarion, completes the love triangle as the jealous man vying for Giselle's affection. The opera house has two ballet studios where rehearsals take place. A ballet is only rehearsed once on stage with all the cast. The principals rehearse together in one studio while minor characters rehearse in the other studio.
This is also when coaches teach their pupils the classical rules and details involved in a certain repertoire. This March Elza is performing as Kitri in Don Quixote for the first time since 2005. She has performed the ballet five times but last year had leg surgery. In Don Quixote there is the famous 32 fouttes, where the ballerina, often exhausted as it is in the 3rd act, spins 32 times on one foot. Modris knows Elza's potential and is improving the complicated dance move with more complex twists, arm movements and double turns. Elza is confident and able at rehearsals but nervous about her leg in the up and coming performance. This ballet is very dear and important to her. When she was a young girl the first tutu she ever wanted was the red one from Don Quixote.
Stretch, warm down, shower and get ready to head home to rest. Some days Elza gets her legs massaged by one of the opera's in-house masseuses, but as this is a performance day, the couple head home to Jurmala.
At home the couple will eat a lunch high in carbohydrates, pasta drizzled with olive oil and grilled chicken, to give them energy for the night's performance. Ideally, Elza will sleep for two hours.
Get up, get ready and head back to the opera house
Elza does her own make-up and gets her hair done by the in house stylists.
Elza changes into her costume and tights, relaxes, stretches and checks her pointe shoes.
Performance of Giselle, a ballet in two acts.
The ballet is about a peasant girl with a weak heart and a passion for dancing, who becomes engaged to a man she believes to be a peasant. Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart when she discovers from Hilarion, the village gamekeeper, who is desperately in love with Giselle, that her youthful lover 'Loys' is in reality Prince Albert, and engaged to another. In the second act the scene shifts to a forest haunted by the spirits of young women who died before their wedding days and spend eternity dancing from midnight to dawn, killing any man who happens to wander in their way. Myrtha, the Queen of the spirits, summons Giselle from her grave in order to initiate her into the community. A miserable Albert comes to pay his respects at Giselle's grave, but with Giselle's intervention, his life is saved and Giselle rests in peace.
Although Elza prefers to dance with Raymond, dancing in the same performance means that whilst she is not on stage she watches him nervously behind the scenes.
The ballet finishes and the audience is rapt and moved by the performance and applaud loudly.
If the ballet were a premiere the ballet company will put on an after show party. If it is one of the dancers' premieres they themselves would put on drinks and snacks in their own dressing room. Tonight Elza showers, changes and leaves her dressing room tidy. She leaves behind all her flowers in her room as she is not going home straight away. Tonight Elza, Raymond, Raymond's mother, father and brother, Andrejs, who all came to watch the show, head off to the restaurant Koferis where Andrej's girlfriend Iveta is a cook. Their families often come to watch their performances. They chat about the performance and how it went and Elza welcomes constructive criticism and values the opinions of friends and family.
The couple head off home. After a performance Elza is too pumped and emotional to sleep. They watch a taped copy of the night's performance, looking out for any errors and discuss areas of improvement. Elza might now eat something.
Elza finally begins to tire and goes to sleep, as tomorrow is Monday and her only day off, she looks forward to a day of complete relaxation and rest.
Elza and Raymond have been invited to join the production of The Merry Widow in Cape Town, South Africa this April and May. If Elza decides to go she will make her understudies very happy indeed.
Elza and Raymond recently posed for a charitable project, "Underwater Photo Ballet." Photographer Sergey Kondrashin captures the couple underwater performing ballet routines. All proceeds from the album went towards the purchase of an annesthetic machine for Riga University Children's Hospital intensive therapy department. Elza, Raymond and Sergey will travel to Dubai next month to promote the album at a special launch. Details about the album can be found at www.photoballet.com
By Larisa Medene