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© Ismene Brown 1992-2022


28 APR 13

A key issue claimed to be at the heart of the enmity between stricken Bolshoi Ballet director Sergei Filin and dancers, including his alleged attacker Pavel Dmitrichenko and his rival Nikolai Tsiskaridze, is a system of payments and favouritism in the Bolshoi.

Coincidentally a similar dispute has been going on in the Mariinsky Ballet up in St Petersburg, where the lovely ballerina Daria Pavlenko has led a campaign to update the system of payments and working practices some of which were installed in the Soviet era (see her page on Mariinsky site).

She has emerged as a leader in the dancers’ union, in the absence of the official chairman, and has become a bête noire for Mariinsky chief Valery Gergiev, who has accused her of being driven by personal grievances over a decrease in her performances to make general complaints that he is not inclined to recognise.

In a long and detailed interview in December with the St Petersburg Theatrical Journal, Pavlenko spelled out just how desperate the earning power of a Mariinsky corps de ballet member is. A similar system operates at the Bolshoi.

Corps dancers are paid a skeletal salary of some £300 a month, and must rely on performance bonuses according to a scale for different numbers and ballets - to be a Swan in Swan Lake is worth £62, for instance. If a dancer isn’t cast, they get no bonus and must exist on the bare salary.

Pavlenko argues that such a system ensures that favouritism has been unfairly rewarding for some dancers, and penalised others - while senior dancers no longer help younger ones in roles in case they lose their own performances. She adds that sometimes dancers’ performance bonuses are cut even before they step on stage - she guesses that it is due to not allocating enough money beforehand to pay all the corps de ballet the set rate.

In this atmosphere, she claims, dancers look at performances simply from the point of view of what they will earn, and the old spirit of collective artistic endeavour has disappeared from the Mariinsky. She adds that she fears for the decline taking place into the Mariinsky, as young dancers look elsewhere for better conditions.

Gergiev disparages ballerina

Pavlenko’s frank interview got her into serious hot water with Gergiev a few days later, who downplayed the dancers’ complaints and said they had never been officially raised. Gergiev also made disparaging remarks about the ballerina: "Ten years ago Pavlenko was among the names that glorified the Mariinsky Theatre. Today it is harder to say that with such confidence. Maybe she is unhappy about being employed less by comparison with those past years," he said.

The conductor - renowned for global multi-tasking (he is the LSO chief conductor too) - is carrying the can for the new Mariinsky 2 Theatre, which opens officially next Thursday.

It is estimated to have cost $730million, and has been lambasted as an inferior substitute for the stylish original design proposed by French architect Dominique Perrault. The director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrowsky, recently slammed Gergiev for having poor taste and caving in to public opinion.

Last month the Mariinsky Ballet, for the first time, held open auditions to recruit dancers. It’s said that the new two-theatre set-up requires an expansion of the dancer roll. However the exodus of top Mariinsky dancers in recent years (such as Leonid Sarafanov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Mikhail Lobukhin and Denis Matvienko) is being cited by critics who see evidence of a worrying decline in the legendary company under the current leadership of Gergiev and Fateyev.

Here is a translation of Pavlenko’s interview, which brings a wealth of perspective not only to current Mariinsky ills - that apparently remain unresolved - but to the Bolshoi dispute as well.

How much is a Swangirl worth to you?

St Petersburg Theatrical Journal, 1 December 2012, by Marianna Dimant

Representatives of the Mariinsky ballet company (of the primary trade union organization) have sent a letter addressed to the Minister of Culture, making a whole series of claims about the ballet leadership, and asking for the ministry to "carry out inspections of the theatre's financial and economic activities." The Mariinsky Theatre responded with a press release in which all the claims were declared invalid, but, nevertheless, agreed to "discuss any problems with the ballet employees." Gergiev himself favoured the release with his comments. The ministry has remained silent so far. Taking advantage of the pause, we talked to the Mariinsky's prima ballerina Daria Pavlenko.

Marianna Dimant: Daria Vladimirovna, are you the chairman of the primary union for the ballet section?

Daria Pavlenko: I am just a union member. Our chairman is Dmitri Pykhachov, but currently he is on unpaid leave, so we are working with the dancer Valery Konkov.

The letter that the ballet section union sent to the Minister of Culture was signed by three people. Why did you now have it approved at a general meeting of the ballet company?

Because this letter was about issues that do not require a mustering of the troupe - we were pointing out the existing breaches of the theatre's labour code. That is, it is an indisputable fact. To call a meeting about whether the labour regulations are needed in the theatre seems to me pointless. They are not just  needed - they are obligatory.

‘A country that no longer exists’

In the press release put out by the Mariinsky Theatre, it said that such rules exist.

Yes, I know what they wrote in the press release. The rules they speak of were drawn up in 1986. They are 25 years old - these rules were made in a country that no longer exists. We think it is time to correct them. The chairman of the theatre's trade union showed us the rule book - there's no signature on it. Rules must be approved, both by the theatre management and by the union leaders.  Without signatures they are not valid.

Have you tried to discuss this with your directors?

Of course. To begin with, we discussed it with the ballet administration. They said, "Yes, yes, we'd like to have the rules sorted." And we sent a formal request to Valery Gergiev's deputy Y A Schwarzopf. Some issues have been broached, but to none of them have we had a response.

When did this happen?

This happened in May. After that, we talked with Valery Abisalovich [Gergiev]. He said that in due course all these things would be dealt with.

He understood?

I realise very well that in his position it is very hard to make the time to sit down and deal with the problems of the ballet. But we simply have no choice. Since we have been asked to represent our section, we must do the job. Performers come to us with a variety of complaints - in connection with the working hours, or the lack of a weekend off (it so happened that we worked seven days a week for a month) - and we simply have to react.

And why do you have to react now? Did you not have a union before?

There was, but it was inert. We weren’t elected till April 2012. The problems have been accumulating gradually, and they’ve now reached boiling point, you might say - most of all because of the experimental payment of corps de ballet wages.

I want to emphasize that in general everything we're talking about concerns above all the corps de ballet. Soloists have the chance to discuss their own problems and they, of course, do tend to deal with them themselves, in the first instance. But the corps de ballet cannot defend themselves.

Paid for ‘doing nothing’

Has the system of grant payments changed? Was it different under [previous ballet director] Makhar Vaziev?

The grant that we have was installed in 2003. Under Vaziev it was fixed. That is, there was a certain part of the grant which did not depend on appearances on stage. That did not satisfy the ballet directorship, as a person might do nothing and be paid for doing nothing.

I remember that in one of his interviews Yuri Fateyev did say that the system needed to change.

Yes, and he did a lot to get the new system introduced. We are not against this system - we just want it to be corrected. A similar deal exists at the Bolshoi Theatre - part of the grant is left fixed, part is made up of bonuses. These reward people who work well and work more. While people who work poorly will sit on the fixed salary.

How can it be assessed who is "working poorly"? Does it mean "working less"? You can work less often but well - or you could be working a lot but poorly. Though it is possible you might work little and badly. Who should decide?

This is a very sensitive issue. Everybody knows that every leader has artists he likes better than others.

You agree that has always been so, and probably will always be so.

Yes, thus it was and will be. Not just in the ballet theatre but also in drama theatre too. There are some artists who can and want to work, but the director (or in our case, the director of the ballet) doesn't see them. That's why we want to make sure that those artists who, for various reasons, are not often on stage are somehow protected. Of course, our ballet bodies quickly wear out, and if at 20 years old everything was wonderful, at 35 it doesn't stay quite so wonderful. And you cease to please. But the person has a family, he has worn out his health working in this profession and to deprive him of a stable income is not entirely loyal.

Lose shape, lose money

They could tell you that they're not social security ...

They tell us that constantly.

You are in a ruthless profession: if you lose form, you should leave, do something else. That can probably also be said.

I still think that there should be an elementary gratitude for the fact that a person gave himself to the theatre for 15-20 years.

Well, fine, but who still has to decide whether a person is in shape, whether he should go on stage? Do you have some collective body endowed with these powers? Is there an overall artistic council?

At the moment, all decisions are made by two people - the acting ballet director Yuri Fateyev and his deputy Tatyana Bessarabova. The theatre's press release stated that these questions were decided taking into account the views of teachers and repetiteurs. In fact, this is not so. Any actual occasion when the "consilium" was gathered for management and teacher-repetiteurs to discuss something, as I remember has occurred only a few times.

For example, in the case of the fate of ballet soloist Elena Sheshina. For that Yuri Valerievich [Fateyev] called teachers and coaches together to discuss her dismissal (in the end, he still did so as he saw fit). What we would like is that it's affirmed that once a year the committee would be convened, attended by some independent representatives - in order to achieve a balanced and maximally independent solutions.

Price-list for roles

We started talking about grants - what are the earnings of corps de ballet artists?

Well, first of all, the salary is between 10 and 18 thousand (£206-372), if I'm not mistaken. But the share of the grant depends on who is individually involved. If this is an artist who the leaders value, he then gets paid at the base rate.

What is the base rate?

The base rate is that part of the grant which is paid for performing this or that role in the current repertoire. Well, it's like a price list. Each role - from the smallest to the largest, even "walking" - has its value. The waltz in Swan Lake is one price, while the role of the swans another. Swans, shall we say, are “priced” at 3000 rubles (£62), that is, it's their base rate. But if the performer does not fully satisfy the director, a certain percentage is deducted from this base rate, and she will receive 2000 or 1500. If a girl does well in all acts and the directorship likes her, she gets one amount. If they don't like her, she gets another.

Is there some kind of official document in which the rules for changing wages are set down?

Any document like that doesn't exist - we've talked about it, too. The normative act it's set down that the grant pays for employment. That is, if a person goes on stage he gets his money according to the base rates. It's written that money can be deducted only after consultation with teachers and coaches, and after appropriate orders. Not one of those we interviewed was told the reasons why money had been withheld from them. Moreover, sometimes the money is withdrawn even before going on stage - that is, the artist has not even appeared and has not screwed up, but he has already been docked 20 percent.

Why? Can this somehow be explained?

Well, this is a tricky subject… No, it is not explained. I think - and maybe I'm wrong - that it happens because there was not enough money for everyone. There is a set amount of the grant for the whole theatre in general and for the ballet in particular. This amount is set at a constant level and it cannot be changed. See: in Swan Lake there are 32 Swans, and if everyone gets 3,000 rubles, for example, there might not be enough money for all of them. And so they began to take off a percentage.

I am amazed - why is it impossible to reconsider this system? To make it so that it doesn't hurt the artists - I mean, they don't even explain why they have deducted the money. The reason might be anything - you're too tall, or you didn't pull your knee up all the way (a knee that, for example, has had an operation), and so on. It's all strange and subjective. We told Fateev that this system was not thought through. Of course, we're not talking about making them pay everyone the same. But pay according to categories, but don't humiliate people by removing a percentage.

Afraid to stand up and speak

Does the company support this?

I think so - the majority of the company supports us unofficially, but of course they are very afraid to stand up and say something directly: "If I say this, they'll take me off the tours, they'll take me out of performances and they'll leave me on the skeleton salary."

In responding to your letter Valery Gergiev said that "what agitates the performers, especially young ones, is connected with the fact that they must have somewhere to live. And even the most generous salaries do not give favourable prospects either in the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi Theatres, or in orchestras, where young musicians can't earn enough to get the money for an apartment for a year or two."

I don't quite understand his response. The fact is that in our letter, we didn't write about flats, and we weren't only writing about money. We wrote about quality. Yes, good work should be well paid. But when a person is forced to think about how much he will earn this month, there's no time for creativity. The atmosphere in the theatre has changed a lot - experienced artist don't want to help their younger colleagues, so as not to lose the chance to get on stage once again themselves. I mentioned this to Yuri Valerievich, and he said to me: "Dasha, it always has been like this."

What did you have in mind?

Well, when a girl joins the theatre, it is difficult to learn, as we say, "the drill" with just one rehearsal. When I started, older ones never refused to help the younger ones. But now - this is happening.

Do you realize that you too could be accused of being preoccupied with your own position? In fact, Valery Gergiev has already made the point quite bluntly that you are actually concerned about your rare appearances on stage.

It's true, this is painful for me - I really do worry that I appear so little on stage. And I really do want to be there more often. But I can’t imagine my trade union activities would help me. (Pictured, Pavlenko in Belsky’s Leningrad Symphony: photo Mariinsky)

And I have never gone to Gergiev and I've never asked for a role. It would be uncomfortable. I do not know how to advertise myself, and I never dared do that. Though, it's true, I've thought about it a lot of times. I love my work - for me it's not just work, it is an absolutely essential part of my life. But what I'm doing right now does not relate to me personally in any way. Not once - since April - have I said a word about my personal problems. By the way, in October, I had eight performances - among them two first nights - and I am absolutely happy. Though it's true, I do not know what will happen tomorrow.

Young dancers don’t choose Mariinsky

What do you think led to the departure of several top artists to other companies?

Under Makhar Vaziev artists also left the company. This happens for different reasons. Something else worries me, though - that young artists, recent graduates of the Academy of Russian Ballet don't want to come to us.

Why is that - do you know the answer?

I think that we are once again tied to material matters. Last season the salary paid to young artists joining the company was 15,000 rubles (£310). That's it. Unfortunately, many people prefer other companies. When I graduated from the Academy, I couldn't believe they'd accepted me into the Mariinsky Theatre, it was such an enormous honour. But now dancers starting their career don't choose our theatre. Soon, it will affect the quality of the performances.

On the subject of quality - what do you think of the Concert Hall stage, on which, according to the press release, from the start of this season alone, there have been 11 ballet productions?

The Concert Hall isn't adapted for the ballet - maybe for this stage it would be necessary to put on something specific. There are no wings, no curtain, there can't be a set, there is a bad floor. We dance Act II of Giselle in the Concert Hall, for example, and, of course, we're not happy. We want to bring this production alive, to create a particular impression of the drama, and that's basically impossible - the audience is sitting practically on your head, and on your side and behind you, and the dancers feel very uncomfortable.

‘This is a cry for help’

Getting back to your letter, can I ask: what way do you see out of the current situation?

I would very much like to see them pay attention to our letter - without hysterics. That there isn't any "Oh, how dare they!" We think it is properly written, and we ask them to deal with what's going on. We are not asking to remove these and those people and put in others. Our goal is not war. We are asking for understanding. This is a cry for help - a lot has been lost, unfortunately. We want to try to get something back, not take revenge on anyone. It's not that. The fact is that there should be normal working conditions, and people need to come to the theatre to be creative, and not to think about why we got rested yet again, and so on. It seems to me that the primary thing for the administration is to take care that the atmosphere in a theatre is conducive to creative activity, and not get in the way of that.

You think that everything that we've been talking about has a direct bearing on the quality of performance?

Yes, I do think so. And when the audience come to the theatre and pay a lot of money for a ticket and get a show of dubious quality, for example, I feel ashamed.

But you must agree that it isn't directly related to money - there are also dancers who even if you paid them a million, they would not dance better ...

Nonetheless, in the Mariinsky Theatre you always used to go to see the performers, and now that is disappearing.

This is another topic ... Maybe they should just buy in stars?

No, I'm certain that it is necessary to grow your own. And we need to give people a chance, we must help them.

The original article in Russian:

Filin's attacker back in class at Bolshoi

The outsider who got inside the Bolshoi

Dmitrichenko paroled for good behaviour


'The bonus system rewards people who work more, and people who work less sit on the fixed salary. Every leader has favourites'

Ballerina Pavlenko speaks out for deprived corps