Career Transition With Maria Seletskaja

Conductor-in-Residence, The National Ballet of Canada

Photo by M.-H. Buckley

Maria Seletskaja is an Estonian conductor, previously a ballet dancer. Her career began in 2003 when she started working as a dancer for the Estonian National Opera ballet troupe. During her fifteen seasons of a solo ballet career, Maria danced in several large European ballet companies and performed on almost every continent in the world.

In parallel with ballet, Maria studied music. The desire to learn orchestral conducting has naturally developed from piano studies. As a culmination of ten years of studies (privately and at the Berklee College of Music), came an offer to become a substitute conductor of the Stuttgart Ballet in 2017-2019. Maria conducted her first ballets "La Fille mal gardée" and "Mayerling" during the Stuttgart years.

In the 2019/20 season, Maria received an invitation as a substitute conductor for the National Ballet of Canada. A few months later, Maria was appointed their conductor-in-residence.

In January 2021, Maria began obtaining a master's degree in orchestral conducting at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. In the future, she will continue to cooperate with the Canadian National Ballet, as well as conducting debuts in several ballet troupes.

We asked Maria to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo by D. Kornfeld

As a child, you excelled in almost every endeavor ranging from rhythmic gymnastics to the piano. What made you decide to pursue ballet exclusively?

Maria Seletskaja: My path in classical ballet has started by chance. Maybe it was the will of God! I was not particularly interested in becoming a ballerina. I had been dancing at an after-school dance group and enjoyed the rehearsals and performances, but my dream was to become an astronaut and fly to the ISS (back then, it was still “Mir” circling the Earth!)

And so it happened that our family friend’s daughter had successfully passed the selection to Tallinn Ballet School, and I overheard an excited conversation about that topic. One day later, I came to my mother and put her in front of the fact that we are going to the ballet school, too (I probably did not like the fact that it was not me in the spotlight, but the accepted girl). “The exams had finished, but there will be an extra selection made right before the start of the academic year” — the school answered my mother’s call — “you can come and give it a try," they said.

After the summer had passed, I reminded my mother that we had an exam to do. And off we went to the capital, 220 km away from home. I had been accepted to the school. And believe it or not, the family friend’s daughter got rejected at the very last moment because the medical exam showed she had something in the anatomy of her feet that was not compatible with classical ballet.

So I didn’t care, but got accepted, while the poor girl had her dreams ruined! Needless to say, the interfamilial friendship had ended on the spot, and I heard that that poor girl cannot stand to even hear my name…

After training in Estonia, and at seventeen, you decided to apply for the Vaganova Prix. What prompted you to apply to the competition?

Maria: The answer is simple and short: After graduating from Tallinn Ballet School, I did not feel ready to start at a professional company. So I got the idea to try to get into Vaganova Academy. I was advised to audition by participating in the Vaganova Prix competition, which also included Agrippina Vaganova’s class in the first round. After having successfully made it into the finals, I was also given a scholarship for the one-year studies at the Academy.

Can you describe the events that followed after being invited to compete?

Photo by M.-H. Buckley

Maria: Oh, it was a unique experience, really! I had arrived at the competition 2-3 days late. I had no idea that all the participants would be there earlier to learn A.Vaganova’s class before the beginning of the first round! By the time I got there, which was one day before the first round, every girl had learned each combination and had a place at the barre and center assigned.

I was desperately trying to learn one of the trickiest classes I have ever taken, but it was impossible because the exercises were simply being run through, without explanations! Plus, I had no space to place myself between the girls, who were all pleasantly fighting for their places under the sun.

I was in shock and believed that my competition was over! One kind soul had helped me learn some exercises in a dorm room, where we all slept. And the next day, I dove into the deep waters. I cannot recall a SINGLE moment of that first round. I was so shocked! :)

To my surprise, I had been selected to continue in the competition. After giving me the initial shake, things got easier, and I started enjoying the experience immensely. I found it quite cute and amusing to see most competitors’ teachers guarding every step and giving corrections from the wings during the performance. I was on my own and had a lot of time to observe others. Looking back, I realize that it was the first step towards growing up.

Another turning point in your life came upon graduating and not immediately being accepted into the Mariinsky Theatre. All you had to do was schedule a visit with the artistic director to secure your placement, but you decided to walk in another direction. Why was that?

Maria: I believe that it is an insider matter, which ought not to be talked about. But what I may say is that after having successfully passed all professional state exams at the Academy, I could have been accepted into the Mariinsky Ballet company, but for one reason or another, the director did not approach me to make the invitation.

It was a dream — to dance at the Mariinsky, but I knew I would not go for a talk with the director. He had already talked with those he wanted in the company. I didn’t want to beg for a position. So I decided to go my way. What an audacity! :)

Courage and fearlessness are themes that run throughout your career, such as when you risked it to audition for the Staatsballett Berlin. It seems like when you decide something, one door closes, but another opens?

Maria: Exactly! Unfortunately, too often, I forget this simple truth of life and cling onto something that has outlived itself in my life’s context, instead of letting it go and thus, making room for something new!

As you climbed to soloist at the Staatsballett Berlin, more principal roles were to follow, but you decided to resign after this. Unlike most dancers who would relish the bait of more opportunities, what drove you to this difficult decision?

Maria: I was immature at that time and did not know how to digest well all the changes that were coming my way. And so it happened that I started to want more than I could deliver with quality. It wasn’t a good thing at all.

One day I realized that I didn’t like the person I saw reflecting in the mirror. And the knowledge; that something has to change came instantly. This kind of behavioral pattern can be traced throughout my entire life. I might be pulling time, doubting, not being able to make up my mind, but then something clicks, and I am making a life-changing decision in a split second, and there is no return, no regret. Grief—yes, but no regrets. I tend to believe that everything that happens, happens for the best.

From Berlin, you moved to Zurich, then the Royal Ballet of Flanders, and along the way, you reconnected with your love for music. Can you share more about that journey?

Photo by M.-H. Buckley

Maria: My love for music had always been there; thus there was no reconnection but rather a process of development of a clear new vector in my life.

I have been playing piano during all of my ballet years. I was always fascinated by music, carried away and soothed by it at all times. When I was dreaming about dancing a certain role, I would dream about dancing TO THAT WONDERFUL music. Music would always help me survive physically demanding roles as well.

I found a certain freedom in learning to play pieces that I danced to on the piano. There was a time when I was so blown away by the music of P.I.Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto nr. 2 that we danced to in G. Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial. I didn’t find a better thing to do but to learn the entire piece on the piano. Looking back, I can’t help but shake my head— how crazy was I?

I knew that it wasn’t possible to become a pianist. Frankly, I didn’t want it, either. But what was fascinating me more and more was the mystery created by a conductor in the pit. At the Staatsoper Berlin, I was blessed to have the possibility to observe some great maestros at work—the orchestra rehearsal hall was on the same floor as the ballet. I don’t know when exactly, but one day I knew: that THAT IS IT.

It took many years to figure out how and what to study and then attempt to do it, but the spark ignited back in 2006-07, while I wasn’t even planning to leave Berlin!

At what point did you realize that transitioning into a conductor would be a viable path for you, and what steps came next?

Maria: I was “walking blindly” until my first conducting course in 2015. Before that I was studying to have a theoretical base in music and gathering advice from various professionals, reading lots of profile literature.

I didn’t know what to expect from that first conducting course. The night before going there, I got a panic attack and nearly canceled the whole adventure!

“You are crazy, Maria; who do you think you are?”—I thought. Thankfully, the rational side raised its hand. “You have paid all that money; you might as well just try it out. If it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll at least know. But you will have tried”.

The next day I stepped on the rostrum, not having a slight idea about what to do. But I knew instantly that this is what I want to do till the last heartbeat.

The realization that I could be MAKING it came years later after having conducted my first performance for the Stuttgart Ballet. My very dear friend from Berlin times, Maria-Helena Buckley, came to see the show. Afterward, she said: “You are a CONDUCTOR, Maria, do you understand it?” And it has hit me: “It is actually happening. I am not a dancer anymore.”

How important was it to have mentors during this transition stage?

Maria: Mentors' role can hardly be underestimated, as well as friends', right? I have always been blessed with the right advice, coming from the right person at the right time. That is what also made me think that I had, perhaps, chosen a correct path for myself.

Photo by K. Kikkas

An opportunity to conduct with Stuttgart Ballet then opened up. What was that experience like; how did that lead to your eventual departure from dance?

Maria: James Tuggle, the MD of Stuttgart Ballet at the time, is my dear mentor and a guardian angel. It will be hard to make up for the favor he did by trusting me and giving me a ticket into the conducting profession.

The two seasons in Stuttgart have been wonderful and intense, to put it mildly. I continued dancing in Antwerpen and had to travel back-and-forth between Germany and Belgium countless times.

In Stuttgart, I would take company class in the morning and then proceed with my duties as a cover conductor in the rehearsals that followed. At the end of the day, when dancers would leave, I could rehearse for my upcoming shows and galas.

It was also a weird period: the detachment from the ballet world started to form within me; I would have less and less connection with colleagues because more and more of my time would be on getting the musical business done. I understand that one cannot keep all the ties with the world one is slowly leaving; I imagine that my ballet colleagues couldn’t look at me in the same way, either. I was “them” but “not them."

The gap has only grown by now, and currently, there is only a very narrow circle of ballet friends that I keep connected with.

Photo by K. Kikkas

As The National Ballet of Canada's Conductor-in-Residence, what's next in store for Maria Seletskaja?

Maria: Ah, I so much wish I had a looking glass and knew the answer! Before the covid crisis hit, I had lots of contracts and plans. Until now, every single job has been canceled, and the situation is frightening.

I am very happy to have started my Master's studies at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre; there can't be a better time for self-growth than now. However, even though I am busier than ever thanks to the studies and single mom’s duties, I keep praying for the improvement of the situation and getting back to work.

I cannot wait to return to Toronto to continue the wonderful working relationship that we have created last season, as well as to see what else God has planned for me.