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Bonnie Rosenstock
Ballet Candids
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For Valentina Kozlova, Anniversaries Postponed But the Dance Goes On

by Bonnie Rosenstock
April 23, 2020
New York, NY
This year marks the 10th Anniversary of the prestigious Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, which was slated to take place from March 16-19, 2020 at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Nearly 130 dancers from around the world were eagerly looking forward to competing for medals, contracts with dance companies or scholarships to dance schools and summer programs. Ms. Kozlova, a former Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer was also commemorating the 40th Anniversary of her defection from the former Soviet Union with her then husband Leonid Kozlov, also a principal.

At the March 19 Gala, Valentina and Leonid, who lives in Aruba with his family, were to be reunited onstage to perform a new dance they created and present a video montage of their memorable roles. Also to perform were such former VKIBC medalists as Brooklyn Mack, now with the English National Ballet, Clement Guillaume, now with the Columbia Ballet in South Carolina, and Justin Valentine, recipient of a one-year scholarship to the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg.

But then, two days before the competition, the world changed and everything shut down.

At our agreed-to time, Sunday, April 12, I called Ms. Kozlova to discuss the cancellation of the event. But she was unreachable. We touched base the next day. Turns out she was busy cleaning her dance studio, VKDC 509 The Studio (Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory) near Norwalk, Ct., and didn’t have her phone turned on. Just another normal corona virus activity. “We are doing serious cleaning because even the cleaners don’t come anymore,” she said.

Ms. Kozlova was staying at her apartment near her studio because she can’t return to her New York City residence, about an hour away. Normally, she divides her time between the two places.

The Moscow-born Ms. Kozlova founded VKDC in 2003 after a successful dance career, most notably as a principal dancer with fellow Russian George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet from 1983-1995. She also danced on Broadway, on TV, in film and worked as a model.

At VKDC Ms. Kozlova teaches classical Vaganova Method, but a little more modernized. “It’s faster now because I worked with Balanchine and NYCB and other neoclassical choreographers who developed faster techniques. If you want to be versatile and have a career, not just five years, you have to go through Vaganova training, plus neoclassical and contemporary,” she said.

“It’s precisely right starting from your neck, chin, eyes, position of head, eyelashes and every finger. It’s what we were taught,” she said. She added, “I see some young dancers shining in competition and then fall down because emotionally they are not prepared from the brutal training in Russia. Like life itself.” Ms. Kozlova entered the Bolshoi Ballet School at age 9, joined the company in 1973 at age 16 and became a principal two years later.

For years people were urging her to create a competition, but she had no time or interest. “There were little competitions here and there, and some major competitions were created,” she recalled. “I was shocked how very little was asked of you to get the gold. I knew if I were to create a competition, it would be on the model of Russian classical training with contemporary as well because now you have to do that.” After two hip replacements, she made it happen.
The applicants are given a list of solos and pas de deux to choose from. She has performed all of the classical, but not the contemporary. “But I love them,” she said. She added compulsory solos from Serge Lifar’s Suite En Blanc (1943) for men and women in the senior divisions (ages 18-21, 22-26), which she had danced. “I love his choreography, which is kind of forgotten. We opened the door, and now he’s everywhere around the world,” she said.

In order to be considered for the competition, applicants must submit videos or have been seen by Ms. Kozlova in person; she visits semi-finals in South America, Mexico and Europe. She doesn’t have to judge in Korea because she knows the school. “They have great dancers, 100 percent Vaganova and are absolutely superb in contemporary,” she said.

The competition judges are big names, including directors of companies, many of whom she knew and danced with in Russia. The judging is strictly by the book. “We do not have any monkey business going on behind the scenes,” she stated. Ms. Kozlova is not a judge at this point. “I only get involved to squeeze out of the judges’ prizes, scholarships and company contracts.”

Forty years ago, in 1979, while in Los Angeles on tour with the Bolshoi, Valentina and Leonid defected. “We basically did more or less everything that was in the Bolshoi repertoire,” she explained. “Being in the Bolshoi, we traveled a lot and saw other companies. As an artist you feel you need to explore.”
She continued, “You don’t defect not being a principal dancer and favorite of your director. It’s a hard world to succeed, so I knew I could make it. I had a splendid international career. It says a lot because Balanchine didn’t take people from the outside.”

Now it’s different in Russia, she noted. “They can have a great career in Russia, dance here and go back. But in 1979, if we succeeded in the Bolshoi and succeeded in Los Angeles, we knew we could succeed here and we did.”

In 1991, with glasnost, Ms. Kozlova returned to perform at the Kremlin with a Balanchine repertoire. “It was bittersweet, emotionally hard,” she admitted, “but we danced very well.” She returned again the following year to perform the premiere of a solo created for her by American choreographer Margo Sappington.

The two milestone anniversaries have been rescheduled for March 2021, “if no more horrible surprises happen,” she said. Many of this year’s disappointed competitors will return, while some will have already been invited to join companies, and there will be some new hopefuls.

Ms. Kozlova’s motto is “Preserving the Past, Discovering the Future.” “The future is contemporary dance and the past is the classical and neoclassical, and that’s what we do.”

For more information about Ms. Kozlova’s dance school, online classes for kids and the annual competition, go to vkibc.org.
Daniela Maarraoui (USA)

Daniela Maarraoui (USA)

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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