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Ballerina-turned-conductor 'hungry' to take residency at National Ballet of Canada

Maria Seletskaja spent 15 years as a dancer with ballet companies across Europe. Now she is the conductor-in-residence for the National Ballet of Canada.

Maria Seletskaja started training as a conductor while dancing across Europe

Maria Seletskaja rehearses the score of Romeo and Juliet with the the National Ballet of Canada's orchestra. She is conductor-in-residence during the 2019/20 season and 2020/21 season. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Maria Seletskaja is used to having all eyes on her at the ballet. 

For 15 years, she danced on the international stage with companies like the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Staatsballett Berlin, Zürich Ballet and the Estonian National Ballet.

Now she's taking centre stage on the other side of the curtain — in the orchestra pit as conductor-in-residence for the National Ballet of Canada. Seletskaja will conduct select performances of Romeo and Juliet this month and Swan Lake and The Nutcracker later this year. 

"I'm hungry for [conducting]," said Seletskaja, 36, who is from Estonia.

"The appetite grows with eating and the more I do it, the more I feel I'm trapped in it. And this is definitely something I want to do until I die."

'Music has been my companion'

Seletskaja started musical training at age four and went on to study piano extensively. 

When she began ballet at 10, it became her priority, but her mother advised her to continue with the piano and she eventually picked up the violin from her sisters.  

"There was a piano at home and at ballet school, so whenever there was a moment I was playing and practising," said Seletskaja, a graduate of the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg.

"Music has been my companion since I can remember." 

Maria Seletskaja is conductor-in-residence where she will conduct select performances of Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and the Nutcracker 4:14

It was early in her ballet career when she recognized she aspired to become a conductor. 

Out loud and somewhat unexpectedly, she said she would give two years of her life to stand in front of an orchestra and "wave my hands" as a conductor. 

She was expecting the person she had just told, a violinist for the ballet orchestra, to laugh.

"He turned toward me and said, 'Why don't you become a conductor for ballet? You are a dancer and we all know you are playing piano here every day until midnight,'" she said.

At first, she dismissed it.

"For dancers, musicians are half-gods and conductors are a god," she explained. "You don't talk to a conductor, you don't object [to] a conductor, you don't approach a conductor."

But he had planted a seed. And so began the study of conducting. 

Mentorship under ballet conductors

Seletskaja started observing conductors carefully during rehearsals and eventually got the courage to talk to them.

"I would be wearing a tutu or a dress with pointe shoes and run to a conductor after performance. 'Oh Maestro, may I have five minutes?'" she said.

"I was just very lucky that absolutely every conductor who I had approached would always be very helpful." 

Maria Seletskaja had a 15-year dancing career with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Staatsballett Berlin, Zürich Ballet and the Estonian National Ballet. (Maria-Helena Buckley)

Eventually, she was given formal conducting lessons and formed a mentorship with celebrated conductors like Paul Connelly, James Tuggle, Paavo Järvi and Rodolfo Saglimbeni. Under their direction, she spent countless hours studying scores, instruments, and textbooks.

She also studied at the Berklee College of Music.

While under three years of intensive coaching under James Tuggle of the Stuttgart Ballet, Seletskaja was invited in 2017 to be his assistant, an unpaid position. 

One year later, she made her conducting debut at Stuttgart Ballet with La Fille mal gardée.

That same year, she took her final bow as a ballerina.

Conductor-in-residence

Seletskaja recognizes her path to becoming a conductor has been unconventional. She says she feels "lucky" to be on stage with a baton so early in her conducting career.

"Many young conductors would literally kill to conduct an orchestra at the level I get to conduct here," said Seletskaja. "So there is pressure, but I think we are settling in for good collaboration. I think there is trust from each side."

She notes conductors typically attend conservatory, something she plans to eventually pursue. 

But her unique journey and perspective as a dancer is exactly what caught the attention of David Briskin, music director and principal conductor for the National Ballet of Canada.

He was introduced to Seletskaja by her longtime friend Jurgita Dronina, a principal dancer at the National Ballet.

Over several video meetings, Briskin was impressed by her knowledge, music education, and work ethic. On top of that, she came with glowing references from her mentor and his friend, James Tuggle. 

"I thought, 'What is something that will help the company, but also, how can we help Maria?'" said Briskin. "I was fascinated by her story."

That's when he created the conductor-in-residence role, a two-year program where he is personally training Seletskaja and giving her opportunities to lead the orchestra. 

David Briskin, the National Ballet of Canada’s music director and principal conductor, created the conductor-in-residence post for Maria Seletskaja after hearing she had a promising career as a conductor. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"We're always learning. Music and dance. You are trying to bring the two together, but this has added a new perspective for me," said Briskin. "We're just really really pleased to have her with us and she's doing really really well."

Seletskaja notes while she's focused on the musicians at the podium, she will always be mindful of dancers too.

"I know how hard it is, what [the dancers] do up there, how painful it is," she said.

"And I know how much dancers depend on music; how well they can dance when the music is giving them the needed support. And how badly things can go when they are chasing the music or the music is dragging." 

 

About the Author

Sannah Choi is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Toronto. She started as a TV reporter in her hometown at CBC Ottawa and has since worked on shows like Power and Politics, Ottawa Morning, Here and Now, and Metro Morning. She enjoys exploring her neighbourhood in Toronto's west end with her husband and son.