When the curtain rises Friday night on Innovation, the highly-anticipated program of new work commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada, the forward-leaning choreography won't be the only attention-grabber.
Dancing in two of the four pieces will be Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina, making her debut with the National Ballet as a principal guest artist. The 34-year-old native of Moscow will be dancing as part of an ensemble, only occasionally spotlighted in pas de deux. But her first public appearance with the Toronto-based company is attracting widespread attention, adding a frisson of excitement to Innovation's program.
"Lunkina is a huge get for the company," says Jennifer Stahl, editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine in New York. "It's a real infusion of international star power."
Lunkina made headlines in January when she announced that, after 15 years as one of the Bolshoi's top-ranking artists, she was leaving the troubled ballet company for Canada. The National Ballet was quick to embrace the acclaimed ballerina, granting her a chance to continue her brilliant career here.
"I am not ready to surrender," says Lunkina through a translator in Toronto. "I love to dance. I'm crazy about dancing. I feel there's still a lot I can do."
The National Ballet offered her a season-long contract in August after having allowed her to take company classes throughout last winter and spring, a professional courtesy often extended to visiting dancers.
Anyone who watched her do her exercises could see that Lunkina was a cut above. Lunkina is a dancer who embodies the Romantic ideal of appearing lighter than air while simultaneously being strong as steel. For many in the dance community the question was not would the National hire her, but when. "A dancer of her calibre brings new energy to a company and to an audience," says Vanessa Harwood, a former principal dancer with the National.
Lunkina has already served as muse to some of the biggest names in ballet today, among them Britain's Wayne McGregor and the Russian Alexei Ratmansky, a former director of the Bolshoi who is now artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre in New York.
Today, her fine-boned but powerfully expressive body is inspiring Canadian choreographers, especially now that Lunkina has become a permanent resident of Canada.
"She is like no other dancer I've ever worked with before," exclaims Robert Binet, the 22-year-old, Toronto-born choreographer whose new work, Unearth, set to an original score by Owen Pallett, includes Lunkina as part of a 14-member ensemble. "She has the most incredible physical facility, and it really just blows your mind."
When she was 18, Lunkina became the youngest ballerina in the history of the Bolshoi to dance the eponymous lead in Giselle. Trained at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography, where her coach was the late, great Soviet ballerina Ekaterina Maximova, Lunkina went on to become a star dancer not just in Russia but in France, where the late Roland Petit also created ballets which celebrated her lithe frame.
Piotr Stanczyk, who will partner Lunkina in the Binet work, was initially intimidated by her pedigree when he was asked to dance with her in the bravura pas de deux from Don Quixote at a National Ballet fundraiser in June.
"I mean, she's a Bolshoi ballerina," he says. "For anyone to become a principal dancer at the Bolshoi is a big accomplishment in their life. I wasn't sure I would be up to it. But she ended up being the nicest, the sweetest person I have ever met."
Fellow principal dancer Guillaume Côté will partner Lunkina in a new James Kudelka ballet. "She can balance emotion and meaning in a way that is truly special to watch," says Côté, who is also one of the choreographers featured on the Innovation program.
Lunkina's performances with the National will continue for the remainder of the season, with star turns in The Nutcracker followed by Swan Lake in the new year.
Her contract expires in March, and for now it is uncertain if she will become a full-fledged member of the company. But Lunkina is crossing her toes.
"The National Ballet of Canada is my family now," she says.
Innovation is at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto from Nov. 22 to 28.