THE PRIMA: Masha Ilieva studied and graduated at what was then known as Leningrad Ballet School in 1981, an experience she describes as a vital professional grounding and indispensable character-building. She still feels it’s her natural home because ballet in Saint Petersburg (as it is now called) is unsurpassed.
She is a laureate of the international ballet competition in Varna. Later, she was selected by Yuri Grigorovich for his masterful production of the Nutcracker in 1988. Memorable interpretations of Odette-odylia, Juliet, Aurora, Margaritta Gautier and others followed. Having established herself as a prima, amid fierce competition from ballerinas of different generations, she emerged as an astute administrator, becoming the director of the Sofia House for Opera and Ballet and also a dedicated teacher who set up her own ballet school for children aged between three and 10.
I met Masha Ilieva, the National Opera and Ballet’s prima ballerina, at a bistro opposite the Opera House, a hangout popular with artists. When Ilieva arrived, her mobile rang continuously. She apologised and switched it off. She had just returned from a rehearsal of children’s ballet The Flowers of Little Ida, due for its premiere two days later in a chamber hall of the opera.
Ilieva related how difficult it was to open her private ballet school at the House of Culture, opposite Zaimov Park. Ilieva started with eight girls, growing to 16 by the end of the year. Then she realised that there was no teaching manual for very young children. All manuals were for youngsters older than 10. So in 2000 she herself compiled some exercises to suit the little ones. Following a master’s in ballet teaching, the academy invited her to teach a course of ballet classical heritage and pedagogics. This she has now been doing for nine years.
Ilieva has also published two well-illustrated children’s books to compensate for the lack of teaching materials. After defending her doctorate, she published her dissertation in a book, publishing more than 1000 copies.
Ilieva’s rise to prima ballerina has nevertheless been far from smooth. Given her graduation from the prestigious Leningrad Ballet School, her first days at Sofia’s National Opera and Ballet must have augured well. Yet she claims that her return from Russia proved "a painful and bumpy ride".
"When I came back, I was the youngest. There were great primas like Bogoeva, Koldamova and Krasteva. I was never sent to ballet competitions because there was a group of older graduates from Leningrad. And when we were finally sent to Moscow, it was a complete failure from the first round. Then I won the competition in Dobrich. This really encouraged me and boosted my sense of competitiveness. A year later, in 1986, I won second prize at the international ballet competition in Varna."
Later, when Yuri Grigorovich came to Sofia, he handpicked her for the role of the Nutcracker - not only on account of her extraordinary technique but also for her powerful stage presence.
When can you expect to become a prima?
"It all depends," says Ilieva. "Sometimes they make you a prima after a brilliant performance in a cameo role like Giselle or Carmen. But I had to do all the major roles before I achieved that hallowed status. And, most of all, I had to give them my own unique touch. I’ve always preferred the dramatic and heroic strain in the character of my heroine."
And yet Ilieva’s versatility is amazing; she touched the audience’s heart with her reincarnation of Giselle, Marie and Sylfida. With her, it’s not a question of mere technical perfection; she "immerses" herself fully into the heroine’s character, bringing out nuances and offering a fresh approach to a celebrated artistic creation.
In theatrical circles, Ilieva is known as the "bad girl" of Bulgarian ballet because of her straightforward and tough approach. She fights for what she believes in and she’s not afraid of those who pull the strings.
Hypocrisy and sycophancy, which thrive backstage, are alien to her. And when she chooses to stand her ground professionally she’s a doughty, tireless fighter who can make life difficult for yes-merchants. Succeeding when you have such integrity is not always easy.
"The truly sublime moment for me comes when I dance and truly merge with the music," she says. Yet behind her exquisite beauty and dedication, there’s plenty of blood, sweat and tears as well as sacrifice and resilience. Ilieva proved it during her marathon tour abroad, to Germany, Switzerland and Austria, when Le Corps de Ballet covered no less than 12 500km. And she had to dance in Swan Lake on seven successive nights. And even today, after her elegant benefice farewell in La Sylphide, she never stops serving her art, this time as a pedagogue.
Ilieva tells me of a student of hers, a young girl who became ill with cancer but who wanted to dance to the very end of her life. Ever since, the dancers from Ilieva’s school have given annual charity concerts for child cancer victims. The hostel, next to the ward in Tsaritsa Yoanna Hospital, is fully equipped by the Angelia foundation in memory of the young dancer who died. Like the fairy from La Sylphide, Ilieva brings all kinds of presents for the sick children: Computer games, toy cars and cuddly toys.
All in all, she well deserves her name of "Sylphide with a heart".