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C California Style

First Position

by C California Style

At the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova turns out in spring finery.

When the curtain goes up for the second half of the San Francisco Ballet Opening Night Gala, Russian ballerina Maria Kochetkova is sprawled across an unmade bed. She’s dressed in a slip, and her hair is askew. Across from her at a desk sits Danish guest artist Johan Kobborg.

The two dancers launch into one of the late British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s most romantic pas de deux from the ballet Manon—the Bedroom Pas de Deux—in which Kochetkova’s character declares her love for Kobborg’s and has what is joked about among dancers, one of the longest makeout sessions in any stage production. Beyond that passionate kiss, though, what’s notable about the tiny Kochetkova is the way she moves: limpid, flowing from one step into the next, luxuriating in every développé, grande battement and gesture. She’s a consummate dancer who combines technical mastery with superb acting.

As we chat over coffee at Arlequin Cafe in Hayes Valley, it is obvious that there is much more to the Kochetkova myth than just her ability to execute a perfectly balanced pirouette or an arabesque arching toward the rafters. She sits in the corner, pecking at her cell phone, dressed in an acid-green boxy coat and wearing playful patterned black-and-white leggings. “Masha,” as she is known among friends, embodies the spirit of San Francisco: an artist/technophile, who also has a reputation for game-changing fashion.

As an artist, the 29-year-old finds herself in heavy rotation each dance season. This year she’s slated to perform in her idol Natalia Makarova’s La Bayadère, Wayne McGregor’s Borderlands, the up-and-coming Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Triology, Giselle and Christopher Wheeldon’s brand-new production of Cinderella. “He’s the reason I came to San Francisco, you know,” she says in her quiet, slightly breathless voice. In 2007, Wheeldon knew the company director, Helgi Tomasson, was looking for a diminutive ballerina, and at the same time, the Bolshoi-trained, Prix de Lausanne-winning Kochetkova was very interested in the S.F. Ballet’s blend of modern and traditional repertoire. She had been dancing in England first for the Royal and then with the English National Ballet for the past five years. Upon Wheeldon’s recommendation and an audition in San Francisco, Kochetkova was rewarded with a principal contract, and she decamped from London with her soon-to-be-husband, Edward King, not far behind. She was 23.

Nine months later the couple got hitched in Las Vegas. “We met at an illegal nightclub in London,” she says. “It was shut down later.” At the time she was partying with members of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and King was friends with one of the dressers at Covent Garden.

King perhaps gets some credit for another element of the Kochetkova persona: her social media prowess. Her husband is a classic art-techie: two years at Imperial College (the MIT of the U.K.) followed by a degree at Chelsea College of Arts, before entering the tech scene. He’s worked at various successful socially-focused companies such as MySpace, and just launched his own venture, isayu.com, which is a platform for building custom online communities. “He always wants me to help him figure out how things work,” Kochetkova says, and smiles. “He was the 24th user of Instagram.”

So the ballerina set up her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, becoming the first ballet dancer to actively use Twitter and growing her Instagram audience to 29,000 followers.

She enjoys demystifying the half-lit world of rehearsals, performances and projects through her photos. “Ballet is a bit of a private world. I use it more like a diary.”

Scroll her feed and you’ll find plentiful fodder for her reputation as a globe-trotting fashion trailblazer. One moment she’s in Taipei, another in London, then backstage at the opera house doing the splits. Either she’s in tights and a leotard, or wild polka dot pants with yellow accents and huge Harriet the Spy glasses. “I like mixing things that don’t necessarily match,” she says. “It gives me a certain satisfaction.”  When she first arrived in S.F., she sported mostly vintage clothes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, but that stopped after she realized that the fabric was simply too fragile. At a Halloween party last year she went as Lolita, complete with sailor stripes.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “it’s just my life.” And it’s essential to her that she continue to explore and evolve. “Ballet isn’t just about Swan Lake. And artists are not just dancers.” She’s working on a new ballet-influenced fashion line with a London designer; performing in a music video with the S.F. band The Cathedrals; heading to New York City to guest with the American Ballet Theatre; and recently filmed a three-minute dance video using the same technology that was used to create the blockbuster Gravity. “It’s important to be interested in other things besides dance,” she says. “Charisma can only get you so far. Once you are on stage, there is nothing you can hide. And if you are not a deep person, it shows.”

 

By Elizabeth Khuri Chandler.
Photographed by Abbey Drucker.
Fashion Editor: Samantha Traina.