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Real-life pas de deux: When ballet dancers fall in love

Interview with Galina Grigoryan-Mihaylova and Arman Grigoryan

Falling in love is a magical experience. But it can also be complicated, particularly if you're both leading dancers in the Zurich Ballet Company. But that's what Galina Grigoryan-Mihaylova and Arman Grigoryan did and this is their story.

Interview BY CONOR SHILLING, photos by Gregory Batardon and Molly zaidman, ballet zurich, april 23, 2021

Bulgarian-born Galina joined the Zurich Ballet in 1999, becoming First Soloist in 2007. She appeared in numerous classics and new ballets choreographed by Heinz Spoerli and works by Forsythe, Kylián and Balanchine. She started ballet dancing at 10 years-old after seeing a ballerina on TV as a small child and saying to her mother 'I want to be like her'. Conversely, her husband Arman was born into a ballet family - both his parents were professional dancers. He started dancing aged nine and began his 15-year professional career in Tel-Aviv at just 16-years-old. He spent 13 years in the Zurich Ballet and went to Berlin for a further year in 2015-16. Arman picked up many awards during his career, including a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, the Jury Award at the Nagoya International Dance Competition in Japan and the Prize of the Heinz Spoerli Foundation in 2008. 

The couple are still based in Zurich and these days, they juggle their time between looking after their two young daughters and teaching the next generation of dancers. We caught up with them recently to find out more about how they fell in love, the highs and lows of being a professional dancer and how they are coping with the transition from performer to teacher... 

Tell us more about your story, how did you get together and fall in love?

Galina: I first saw Arman on a tape when he was around 15, before he came to Zurich. Of course I didn't fall in love at that moment, but I thought 'Wow, this person has something special'. I met him later when he joined the company, we were friends for a very long time, for more than ten years. I think at that time I needed a person who would not just listen and agree with me. I needed a person who would communicate with me. One evening, we were having drinks as friends – he was explaining, listening, talking back to me. I couldn't believe there was actually a guy who could talk and not just be quiet. I thought 'wow, that's amazing' and this is what made me fall in love with him. The way I can have a real conversation with him about anything. We got married in July 2014. One year later, our first daughter arrived and three years later, we had our second daughter.

Arman: Of course, you need the love and attraction, but for me it was more important that I knew we could build something on top of that. This is what I saw in her, the fact I could spend the rest of my life with her. I need to know that this person is 'the' person. Our strong friendship before helped to take things to another level.

I grew up in a ballet family, so when I started to learn it was 24/7. My parents would talk about their performance, then talk about my performance and then I'd have a day of studies.

Arman Grigoryan, Professional Ballet Dancer

What is it like to be in a couple in a ballet company?

Arman: It was very fun. It was beautiful. But we went through a lot of waves. Because we were more open with each other, it made it easier to have disagreements. There was a moment when we decided that every time we come out of the theatre, we would leave that world there. Sometimes you come out of work with a mood and continue in the same way. Then the whole day you feel the tension. So it was a beautiful thing for us to say work is there and whenever we finish, we come out to another place entirely. I grew up in a ballet family, so when I started to learn it was 24/7. My parents would talk about their performance, then talk about my performance and then I'd have a day of studies. It was great for me at that point, but we knew it wouldn't be good for our relationship.

Galina: Sometimes we would disagree when we danced. I would be like 'you're not doing this correctly' or 'you're not holding me the right way'. You get used to talking about ballet a lot at home and it's not good if it's too much.

Did being in a relationship with another dancer make it easier to meet the demands of being a professional?

Arman: When it comes to the physical work, you have to be on top of it. If we did have arguments, it wasn't during the technical time because it's not professional. Sometimes you will finish a part and you say to each other 'oh, but you did that wrong' or 'you can do this better'. Also, you can hurt one another - it goes both ways. You think 'if I do a tiny movement wrong, it could mean the end of her career'. You have to be on the highest conscious level and make sure nothing affects the professional level. 

What were some challenges you faced during your professional career?

Galina: Every day is a challenge to stand up, go to work, be good and satisfy yourself. All the performances are hard, it's a big challenge to enjoy it, dance well, to improve, to prove yourself. And it never stops. There was never an ending to this feeling, it's always challenging to be a ballet dancer. There is no perfection. You're looking for it, but you're always going to find something that you can do better.

Arman: If you start at the bottom of a company as a group dancer in the backline of a big production, you have to take a step further and then another step further. Every year had its own challenges to improve and become better. Going from a group dancer, to a soloist and then principle - it's always a challenge to progress. To stay in the company and keep progressing was one of the main challenges throughout my career. The recovery from my second surgery was the biggest challenge as it could have been the end of my career. To overcome the injury and understand how to actually continue enjoying dancing and get back to the same level had me in a dark place. It was hard to overcome, but luckily it happened in the end. 

It had its ups and downs. There was drama, emotions, everything and lots of change every year.

Arman Grigoryan, Professional Ballet Dancer

How was your overall experience of the Zurich Ballet Company?

Galina: We worked with around 50 dancers from all over the world – it was like one big family. There was drama here and there, but also lots of jokes. There was a lot of travelling and we met so many friends and colleagues who we still keep in touch with. It's amazing to keep in touch with these people – we have so many memories.

Arman: I made my career there. It was an amazing experience from day one to the last day. We travelled so much, met many nationalities, worked with many choreographers and danced different choreographies in so many performances. I see myself as an amazingly lucky person. To be part of the company, which was at such a high level, was incredible – I wouldn't change it for anything. It had its ups and downs. There was drama, emotions, everything and lots of change every year. 

How did you manage the physical demands of being a professional ballet dancer?

Galina: I had three fractures, never any operations. The one on the side of my foot was the most difficult. It took me a very long time to recover. I was struggling mentally and I knew I couldn't recover faster if my thoughts were in a bad place. I think the passion for ballet makes you feel and do strange things.

Arman: Recovering from injuries was difficult. You have to take it day by day. After my first surgery, for one and a half years my knee would still get swollen and inflamed. I would have to take painkillers and work with a physio to prepare for the performance and then it would take another week to get it ready again. After that, I couldn't take the pain any more. I was told I needed another surgery or in two years, I may not have been able to walk on that leg. When I had the second surgery, I realised I had to let go mentally. The life of a dancer is short and you know you want to make the best of it, so every injury makes you feel that. In the Russian-based school I attended in Armenia, when we were about 14, the teachers said if there is one day you wake up and you don't have pain, it means you’re dead. They were preparing us for a lot of pain. It's true and I still feel it after years. You know pain, accidents and injuries are part of being a ballet dancer.

When you want something, you can be successful with your power of doing and giving it to the audience.

Galina Grigoryan-Mihaylova, Professional Ballet Dancer

What is the most important quality of a principal dancer in a ballet company?

Galina: You need a strong brain! You need to understand how to work in a team. You get your experience, you become better. You want to be somebody and with all this together, your work improves by itself. In that time, it's right there. When you want something, you can be successful with your power of doing and giving it to the audience.

Arman: If you are fully committed and you have the passion, you will always get a chance to be a principal dancer. It is a title, you can't ignore that. A principal has to be a role model for the younger dancers, the one they look up to. When I was young, I looked at the principals and thought 'I want to be like this guy' or 'I want to do what she can do'. When you become a principal, you have to take the responsibility. You want to take the opportunity, but you also have to give back. 

What was your favourite ballet to dance to?

Arman: I've seen my parents perform Giselle. I never thought about it before, but when I performed it, it was also my last performance in Zurich. I danced it with Galina, but also with our daughter as she was pregnant at the time. I knew my 13 years of performing on this stage was coming to an end and being able to dance with my wife and child to something my parents had performed over and over was very special.

Galina: There were three of us dancing, I will never forget it! I was thinking 'just hold me, don't let me go'! 

If you could change one thing about your professional ballet career, what would it be?

Galina: I would not change anything. There was only one wish - Heinz Spoerli's Romeo and Juliet. When it was performed, I was too young. I wish I could have danced that. When it was well performed by the dancers, it was incredible!

Arman: There is nothing I would change, except for to avoid my injuries. But I'm happy with how it turned out. I had one wish to perform Petite Mort by Jiri Kylián but I missed both chances to perform it. The first time, I was too young and then when I went to Berlin, it was already being performed there. I would have really enjoyed that.

Being on the stage – you forget everything. You forget you have pain, you forget if you're hungry.

Galina Grigoryan-Mihaylova, Professional Ballet Dancer

What is the most rewarding thing about being a professional ballet dancer?

Galina: Being on the stage – you forget everything. You forget you have pain, you forget if you're hungry. You hear the music and you're in another world and that's it, that's everything. You always get this feeling that you're somewhere else, your way of dancing is the only thing that matters in that moment.

Arman: To add to that, people clapping after you finish, that makes it better! I've experienced some stages being cold with no feeling – so big, so empty. You have to fill this space with your emotions and energy – that's when you enter another world.

You've both taught ballet in recent years, what advice would you give to young dancers or those just starting out?

Galina: To young dancers who would like to be professional in the future, I would say don't give up - I don't think that's an option in ballet. It takes day by day precision. It's not magic, you can't just click and it happens. It takes time, you need to be calm and patient. For non-professionals, ballet is great to pick up as a workout. It teaches you how to stand, about posture, the way your back works. It's hard for breathing and your muscles and you need high levels of concentration, but it's one of the most fulfilling things someone can do in their day. It helps you get away from your daily routines. It gives you a lot of energy.

Arman: Take risks, be brave and every day you leave the studio, leave with a smile.

To go down the professional path, they have to have the gift, the talent, the physical qualities to go to the highest level.

Arman Grigoryan, Professional Ballet Dancer

Will you be encouraging your children to take up ballet?

Galina: One part of us feels yes, we would love them to. The other says no, it's really hard, a short career which is very demanding and painful. Ballet dancers are masochists - we love the pain, but why?! However, it's an amazing passion. If they do it and they love it, we won't stop them. I don't know if we will push them to do it, though. There is a gene here, for sure – they love dancing already.

Arman: We will introduce them to the art form as it's a great thing. You learn musicality, movement and how the body works. To go down the professional path, they have to have the gift, the talent, the physical qualities to go to the highest level. Plus, you have to have the passion. It's a lot of if, if, if, so who knows what the future holds? 

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