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Magdalena Popa: Celebrating 40 Years of Artistic Excellence
by Caroline Dickie
June 16, 2022

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Photo by Sian Richards.

From the outside, life as a classical ballet dancer might appear to unfold primarily on stage, in the dazzle of live performances. But dancers spend much of their professional lives behind the scenes, working with trusted coaches, teachers and colleagues to refine their craft. Understandably, dancers will go to great lengths to find a coach who can take them to the next level, a reward they liken to “striking gold.”

Principal Artistic Coach Magdalena Popa has been artistic “gold” for generations of elite dancers of The National Ballet of Canada, with whom she has formed lifelong relationships. Former Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson has called her a company “treasure” and countless others praise her intuition, attention to detail and rich performance experience as invaluable qualities of her coaching. Popa retires from the full-time artistic staff this month after 40 years with the National Ballet, though she will remain on as Artistic Advisor.

“Magdalena’s love and passion for this art form are inspiring,” says Hope Muir, Joan and Jerry Lozinski Artistic Director. “She has had an indelible impact on the company and has played an instrumental role in how our artists tell stories on stage. She will always be part of the National Ballet family and I look forward to opportunities to invite her back to coach our Principal Dancers in many of the roles she knows so well, continuing the tradition of care and excellence that she brings to the studio.”

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Magdalena Popa in Giselle.

Born in Romania, Popa was an internationally celebrated Prima Ballerina, hailed by the French newspaper L’Humanité as “one of the great stars of our time.” A contemporary of Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, she performed nearly every role in the classical repertoire with such companies as the Opera of Bucharest, the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, London Festival Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. She was also a top performer at prestigious ballet competitions, including the Festival de Champs-Élysées in Paris, where she was awarded the Gold Star in 1965, considered the equivalent of an Academy Award in dance. Popa received Romania’s highest honour, the Order of the Star of Romania, in 2002.

Popa fled a repressive regime in Romania, leaving her career behind and joining the National Ballet as Ballet Mistress in 1982. She became Principal Ballet Mistress in 1984 and was appointed Principal Artistic Coach in 2005. She also sits on international juries for ballet competitions and has staged and produced ballets around the world, including the Kingdom of the Shades from Act III of La Bayadere and Les Sylphides for the National Ballet.

“Magdalena has been a guiding light for me and many other dancers through our careers,” says Principal Dancer Heather Ogden. “I remember when I first had the opportunity to work with her, I was so inspired by her beauty and grace but also the incredible knowledge about structure she brought to the studio. She has taught me many invaluable lessons about how to approach a role, how to be an artist and how to be mentally strong on stage and in life.”

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Magdalena Popa in rehearsal with Artists of the National Ballet.

Popa describes her coaching philosophy in terms of “constructing a piece of art,” as she guides dancers toward the highest expression of themselves as artists. She says, “What matters is not only to master the technique and have a prompt but mechanical response to the choreographer. You also need a deep understanding of the role you’re performing and what it stands for, both intellectually and in terms of musicality. You have to take dance to a higher level of perception and only then to turn your body into ‘an instrument’ through which you can communicate with people and make the audience perceive this mixture of work, ideas, passion and everything else.”

For the dancers of the National Ballet, Popa’s generosity, knowledge and commitment have left an indelible impression.

“Magdalena has become like family to me and I am forever grateful for her generosity and love,” says Ogden. “She helped teach me to be a ballerina, helped me recover from injuries, put me back together after two maternity leaves and rarely misses a show! I have beautiful memories of preparing many ballets together, including my first Swan Lake as a young ballerina, and it’s lovely to be able to prepare this new Swan Lake together and to enjoy the passion and care she puts into everything. I will miss her dearly and I’m happy she will still come back to continue offering her guidance to us all.”

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Magdalena Popa with Guillaume Côté, Greta Hodgkinson, Stephanie Hutchison, Xiao Nan Yu and Etienne Lavigne at the Karen Kain Celebration Gala. Photo by George Pimentel Photography.

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