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"Petipa, Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Maya Plisetskaya and Ulanova - they're all society's destroyers, really? Well, excuse me!"
Makhar Vaziev, photo by Ivan Semirechensky
5 MARCH 17
Nearly a year into his leadership of the Bolshoi Ballet, Makhar Vaziev has confirmed that he is using CCTV to monitor dancers' rehearsals from his office. In a long interview with the populist paper Moskovsky Komsomolets, the successor to the acid-stricken Sergei Filin also reverses from an interview six months ago, by nailing the Bolshoi's artistic identity firmly to the oeuvre of Yuri Grigorovich, the company's longtime Soviet choreographer-director, just turned 90.
In last August's interview Vaziev had expressed his continuing interest in the great Petipa classical reconstructions undertaken at the Mariinsky and La Scala under his leadership, but the most important message from this interview is how firmly he quashes rumours of a change of culture away from Grigorovich's classical stagings that have dominated the Bolshoi for half a century.
It appears that in the struggle between the conservers and the developers, Vaziev - by temperament in the latter camp - has found himself forced into the former after all.
Previous Bolshoi Ballet artistic directors Sergei Filin (2011-6) and Alexei Ratmansky (2004-8) had both tried and failed to create a momentum to replace the Grigorovich stagings. It had looked as if the modernisers were winning, when Ratmansky was pencilled in to create a new Sleeping Beauty to mark the Bolshoi Theatre's 2011 reopening after its long renovation. In the event, Grigorovich was put in charge of the hugely luxurious production, and public loyalty to his brand has remained difficult to dislodge.
Ironically it was thanks to Makhar Vaziev that at La Scala in 2015 Ratmansky was able to show his vision of a Sleeping Beauty that returned to Petipa's original notation. This developed the achievements of the first recreation attempt at the Kirov in 1999, when Vaziev was in charge, and arguably it is for these stimulating new "period" productions that Vaziev has made his name in history. This interview is evidence that he has got the message for the moment that in Moscow he is the Bolshoi brand's servant, not the other way round.
The interview's docile tone is typical of the Q&A format favoured by Russian papers, and follows a common mindset of denying the previous legacy. It reads like either ignorance or spin-doctoring when the MK interviewer tells Vaziev approvingly that his fostering of younger dancers is in marked contrast to Filin, when you recall that it was Filin's fast-tracking of new talents such as Smirnova, Lantratov and Chudin that caused some of the bad blood against him.
It's a pity that the interviewer did not ask Vaziev about Filin's role these days in the Bolshoi, purportedly leading the development of young choreographers, a programme of core importance to future repertoire revitalization, and presumably requiring close integration with Vaziev's vision - which is not probed here at all.
But he does get Vaziev's confirmation that Filin's attacker Pavel Dmitrichenko is back at the Bolshoi hoping for roles, and - rather surprisingly - that the new director considers the criminal scandal to be none of his business.
However, one gets a glimpse of a warmer Vaziev when he points out the nonsensical consequences possible from Orthodox Church interventions over The Nutcracker, and he expresses passionate admiration for Italy and Nureyev. Here's my translation.
Bolshoi Ballet chief: "I've not come here just to put another tick on my CV"
Makharbek Vaziev has been at the head of the Bolshoi Ballet for 11 months now. Everyone remembers what a sensation it was when it was announced that the former ballet director at the Mariinsky and La Scala would come to the Bolshoi. No one had thought it could happen, since Vaziev had turned down the offer several times. Now, with almost a year gone since he took over, the first results are coming in.
The dancers are crowding around the door of his office, all wanting to see what's scheduled. To break through them to see Vaziev is not easy. Inside his office Makharbek Khasanovich switches channels from time to time, transmissions coming in from rehearsal studios or from the auditorium.
YASHENKOV: I wanted to ask you, is it true what's going around social media, that alongside the traditional methods of overseeing artists' work, you are using another, which is to watch rehearsals by video from your office? Though actually that question's redundant since I can see for myself that you do.
VAZIEV: Before you arrived I spoke with Mikhail Lavrovsky to say while I'd be talking with you I would simultaneously watch on the screen. Right now, see, Misha Kryuchkov is rehearsing. And if I see something that raises some problem or other, I'll pick up the phone and say, "Kindly repeat that and do it like this, or whatever." That's nothing new, quite a normal process. It's a different matter if it makes people feel they're constantly being watched.
Yes, I am everywhere, all the time. And it's not that I'm authoritarian - I think I'm the most peaceable of people. But if I'm working on something, then I try to control everything just so as to be able to plan properly and deal with issues in good time, so as to ensure the growth and development of the company.
I don't wish to answer for the previous leadership. Now we have got a large number of performers, very different from each other, with different gifts. And I believe that you should give everyone a chance. And when someone comes and asks to look at a certain role, I always say yes. And I follow certain principles. First, who knows, he might surprise you. Of course, you could say, well, what sort of artistic directors does not know the potential of his performers? What nonsense! But I will go on taking this line, and it isn't nonsense! I will give people a chance. A person prepares some role or other and wants to show it to me in the rehearsal studio, why should I say no? This is just what interests me!
So when, for instance, Misha Kryuchkov tells me, "I'd like to show you Evil Genius or Nutcracker" - of course, let's do it! I went along, I watched, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought, this really isn't bad. He's a capable person and a hard worker. You see, when you watch performers who give 100 percent of themselves, they live for it - the desire rises inside you to help them along. I gave him the chance even in London, and he handled it remarkably well, he got cheers! I was really amazed how convincing he was as the Evil Genius. Misha showed me the Prince in Nutcracker - and technically, again, I was happily surprised. So I'll work with him. Same as with others.
When I came here, every day I would walk through the studios and watch. And even before the start of a show at 7, with 15 minutes to go I would run into the rehearsal room to watch somebody, and in the interval I'd go back because they were waiting for me, I'd say, "OK enough, this has got to be put right!" And I've been doing that twice a month on Sundays. It's a real pleasure when suddenly a performer reveals what noone had suspected they could do, and no one had anticipated from them.
Moscow v Petersburg
Actually it isn't that they represent the Petersburg school. Is there a difference between Petersburg and Moscow? I don't think so, it's been invented. These schools and styles differ only in accents. Take the arms, let's say. From morning to night here I'm constantly working on them. I ask, "How were you taught? And why don't you do this?" They don't pay enough attention to it. We are creating a problem artificially.
I'll tell you a great story. We recently performed Raymonda on the main stage, and Yuri Grigorovich came to the orchestra rehearsal. We sat together and obviously I was asking him endless questions. And he said to me about Raymonda, "Look, the grand pas - that's Petersburg. That's why for all those numbers that are Petipa's choreography I chose people from Petersburg." And I know that at the time he invited Naima Baltacheyeva* and her brother Takhir Baltacheyev in.
* MY NOTE: Baltacheyeva (1915-84) danced at the Kirov (Mariinsky) 1935-56, and coached there 1952-78.
We have five Raymondas now at the Bolshoi, all dancing it differently. So I asked, why is that? And one coach tells me, "Ulanova showed it to me." Another says, "Semyonova showed it to me." So I say to them, "Then here's my question. When Yuri Nikolayevich staged his Raymonda with two great ballerinas, Ulanova and Semyonova, as coaches, both of them pupils of the great Vaganova, why didn't he ask them to show it? Why invite the Baltacheyevs?" So now we do it this way, that way and another way. When the great Maya Plisetskaya danced it, let's be honest, who would tell her, "Maya Mikhailovna, you're not dancing the actual text!"
Petipa v Grigorovich
Let's start with what people have said - rumours apparently spread on ballet forums on the internet - that I'm intending to remove five Grigorovich productions from the repertoire next season. You know, every theatre has its own history and its own identity. If we're talking about Petipa, we're primarily talking about the Mariinsky Theatre. Practically all Petipa's works were created there. Here the Bolshoi has its own repertoire. The classical repertoire is done here in Grigorovich's versions. So I can tell you absolutely for sure, that I have no such plans. What utter nonsense!
And let's put certain things in their place. Petipa's Raymonda, as staged by Sergei Vikharev at Milan, should go on at the Mariinsky. At the Bolshoi Raymonda goes on in Grigorovich's production. Petipa is the greatest of choreographers, and of course we will mark his 200th anniversary, of course we will do him honour. But I repeat, his home is at the Mariinsky.
I can answer that. It will return. Pierre Lacotte is a remarkable professional, a great connoisseur of classical dance. I have the greatest respect for him. In my time at the Mariinsky, we did Ondine with him.
I repeat, the Bolshoi Ballet has its own identity and repertoire. And if we look back at history, we must understand that it's because of that history that we revive certain specific ballets. Above all, we must be aware whether doing so contradicts the work we're doing now. And I think that the Bolshoi Theatre can manage different versions. We have two versions of Giselle, for instance, Grigorovich's and Vasiliev's. One is done on the Main Stage, the other on the New Stage. It is amazing even to have the possibility.
Italy v Russia
I had no fears of that sort. You know, two weeks ago I read that over in comfortable Italy a guy had chucked acid over a girl. Anything can happen anywhere, and to link this specially to the Bolshoi doesn't seem right to me. Don't forget, I was born here, and spent most of my life in Petersburg. I graduated from the Vaganova Academy, I danced at the Mariinsky.
And I've not come here just to put another tick on the CV - Mariinsky, La Scala, Bolshoi. That interests me least of all. When I began working at La Scala, it was hard. Generally speaking, I succeeded in fostering the sort of system that gave results, in my view. And yet I always felt dissatisfied, in art terms, because I did not have the chances and resources available at the Bolshoi or Mariinsky theatres. This is, above all, the primary reason why I came back.
Though I did relate very warmly to Italy, I love it very much. It's a country that accepted me when I decided to leave the position of ballet director at the Mariinsky, and gave me a great deal. And I'm eternally grateful to Italy. I won't hide that it would be a huge pleasure for me and my wife (Olga Chenchikova, former Mariinsky prima ballerina) to have the chance to go back there.
Church v ballet
Firstly, I would like to say that, of course, it's a very dangerous situation when the Church interferes in art and lays down some verdict or other. Let's remember that our emperors, who supported and cultivated ballet, were deeply religious people. And this question was never brought up because our arts is one of suspension.
And to bring evangelists to our artform seems to me to be rather dangerous. In effect that would be saying in subtext that the art of ballet could destroy our society. Beginning with Petipa? And Anna Pavlova, and Nijinsky, and Diaghilev, and Maya Plisetskaya and Ulanova - they're all society's destroyers, really? Well, excuse me. As they say, hello, they're in the building! It all seems to me very strange, to say the least. Sorry to say, maybe they've lost it!
Of course I've seen him. Pavel made an appeal to me. We had talks. He's been to see me here, in the office. Which of itself he found fairly amazing in the first place. Obviously he thought that he'd never be let back into the theatre.
I don't make any judgment of what happened in the past. It was not my affair. I was working in another country at the time. The man was sentenced and served it out, and then returned. I treat him like any normal erson. He appealed to me, whether there was a chance to get back into the theatre. I said, "There's no question of that at the moment. If you want to show something, that's another matter." "Yes, I want to!" "They're saying you're working to get in shape?" "That's my dream."
He worked here for many years, and someone thinks we should just tell him, "No, get into shape somewhere else, and then come back and we'll look at you"? I thought we took the rational way. I was impressed by the intensity and desire that he shows in his work, and considering the scale of the break there's been, you look on with total amazement. He's panting, working like an ox. About the prospects for a return one can only talk on the same basis as all, that he'd have the same chances and rights as everyone else.
Yes, absolutely. I don't want to say what the timescale is for its introduction, but I do think it is a huge incentive.
About two months ago I was arguing about this with with Stéphane Lissner, the Paris Opera chief, and Aurélie Dupont. I think they have too many étoiles and the rank is losing its cachet. Aurélie explained that in Paris if there aren't étoiles dancing the leading roles the audience is poorer. I replied, "Well then, call all of them étoiles and the public will come." Of course as far as the public is concerned, the word means something, but it seems to me that in Paris there is an excessive number.
Form v content
Everything combined. Both form and content. All these components in reality have value, yet it's not always the case. There are certain matters of taste. For me it's obvious that in purely classical dance, especially in the ballets of Petipa and Balanchine, the dancer's form has enormous significance. And that, pardon me, is the basis of classical dance: turned-out first position, turned-out feet, steps, proportions. That's how it is.
Nureyev didn't have such long legs but he had long arms and brilliant feet - and from that came his form. We need to understand that in classical dancer there are endpoints, hands, feet. And it is rare to find someone who can dance with their hands. While the feet complete the line. And that is of paramount importance.
These aren't my requirements, they are the requirements of classical dance. And either we obey them or we don't. Otherwise these ballets simply expose you - all your inadequacies are on show.
Sadly, within the theatre world you often find performers' ambitions get out of hand. Let's not imagine that in the sunset of a stage career one can go on dancing the ballets you did 15 years ago. Everyone has a different physicality and different physical gifts. This is a fact for even the greatest. You know Baryshnikov danced his last Don Q at the age of 33?
But that was Nureyev! Nureyev was a man who was prepared on principle to overturn the whole Western world. It's no secret that it was on his ideas that many Western schools began to reconstruct their methods. But he was an exception. He was a great man, who lived for art and burned in his art.
I caught him when I was at the Mariinsky and he came to dance La Sylphide with Zhanna Ayupova. Obviously he was no longer at the zenith of his performing career, but I will never forget when the curtain opened how he sat in that big chair. I simply can't recall ever seeing such beauty! Another thing, though his legs were worn out, he came on with an injured foot. But that wasn't important. What was important was that on the stage you saw this man of such huge scale.
You see, what is it, what's that special talent that makes the greatest performers seize your attention? It's when they come on stage and you realise how small the stage is! I feel the humblest respect for performers who take hold of the stage so dazzlingly.