Real Life: How the Girl from Poverty Stricken Romania Became Ballet's Rising Star; at 19, Alina Cojocaru Is the Royal Ballet's Youngest Ever Principal Dancer. So It's Hard to Believe That as a Child She Had No Idea What Ballet Was. Jeffery Taylor Met Her

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffery Taylor

It was the stuff of Fifties girls' comics. Fragile ballerina from grim totalitarian regime beats humble background to be promoted on stage to principal dancer of The Royal Ballet while still panting from a breathtaking performance of Giselle - with the audience's cheers reverberating around the auditorium.

Fantasy material indeed. Yet it all happened earlier this year to Romanian dancer Alina Cojocaru who, at just 19, became the youngest principal the London company has ever created.

It was a moment jaded ballet critics could normally only dream about - a bona fide occasion to lurch into the street and shout: "A star is born!"

One wrote: "By the time Alina reached the second felt that history was watching over your shoulder. You sensed the ranks of great ballerinas who have previously performed the role jostling to make space for her. You felt that flukey thrill of being in exactly the right place at the right time."

When the curtain fell last April, Anthony Dowell, then artistic director of The Royal Ballet, rushed backstage to promote Alina on the spot. Still dazed by the audience's hugely emotional reaction, the news took a while to sink in.

"When Anthony came up to me and told me I just stared at him and said, `Sorry?' Then I saw everyone staring at me and I understood. I couldn't speak, it was a dream come true."

On closer inspection, most of Alina's life seems to have been played out with some celestial eye to the eventual movie rights.

She was born in the Romanian capital Bucharest in 1981 - a city deep in the grip of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He had plundered Romania's economy to build his pounds 20 million Palace Of The Revolution as a personal memorial while his country starved.

Alina's mother, Nina, worked long hours in a dress-making factory while pregnant with Alina, and her husband Gheorge ran his father's food shop - earning pounds 1,500 a year.

"When I was four we moved into a second-floor flat quite near the city centre so my Mum could walk to work."

It was in one of the grim concrete blocks nicknamed Brezhnev Towers after they were introduced into the Soviet bloc by the late Russian president. "We had the usual problems of being part of the Soviet-style state heating system. No matter how cold it got, the heating was never switched on until the first week of October. Times were hard for everyone in Romania, but Mum made all our clothes and Dad saw to it that we had enough to eat.

"Life changed for the worse after Ceausescu died. Mum had to leave the factory and help Dad in the shop.

Once when I was little, Mum made me a dress for a local festival, it was so beautiful and she saved up and covered it in real flowers. I've never forgotten that dress and the wonderful smell. But she was very upset she couldn't afford real flowers for my headdress."

Alina smiles at the memories of childhood another world away as we talk in the gilt and crimson opulence of London's Royal Opera House.

"I was a very lively little girl. I was always jumping and dancing around the flat and getting under Mum's feet. A family friend said ballet lessons would quieten me down.

"Because ballet is so unfamiliar in Romania, I had no idea what it was but I went to a local studio, the Rapsodia Romana, for some basic training. Every year the studio put pupils up for places the Kiev Ballet School in the Ukraine and a month later we were all locked in this huge gymnasium for the audition. …