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' The director of the ballet answers for everything, including repertoire. I have already suffered from being limited when I was head of the Mariinsky ballet'
26 OCT 15
This morning the white smoke finally went up over Moscow's Theatre Square. Former Mariinsky Ballet leader Makhar Vaziev was named as the next Bolshoi Ballet director, succeeding Sergei Filin next March. Here's the interview he gave leading critic Tatiana Kuznetsova just before the news was announced, which gives first indications that the so-called scaling down of Filin's job to a glorified manager is not so likely to become a reality, and which suggests a generally optimistic prospect emerging from what has been an exceedingly disquieting period.
Vaziev has signed a five-year contract, so will survive even if general director Vladimir Urin is replaced by the Culture Minister when his own contract comes up in 2018. This indicates that Vaziev intends to be as autonomous a ballet director as he has become used to at La Scala for the past seven years since his long, frustrating tenure under Valery Gergiev's heel at the Mariinsky. The implication is that whoever Urin's replacement is, Vaziev would have established green lines around his role at the head of the ballet.
Great questions from Kuznetsova - and overall an impression that Vaziev is a clever choice by Urin. The appointment satisfies both the Bolshoi conservatives' need for a director with a credibly conventional profile and suitable leadership CV to command the dancers' compliance, and the pressure for an acceptable conductor of renovation and refreshment.
Vaziev says he will wind down his La Scala responsibilities in a three or four-month transition period between the two theatres, which coincidentally would mean leaving the embattled Filin more space to complete his own final season and consider how to respond to Urin's stated request that he move on to head the Bolshoi's much needed choreography development.
It does not appear here that Vaziev's tastes are seismically different from Filin's. His stated favouring of Alexei Ratmansky, Balanchine and William Forsythe injects a note of reality to counter the high-pitched xenophobia of some Russians about 'foreign' choreography.
Even more particularly, Vaziev's stated support of the 'restorations' of 19th-century classical ballets, including Swan Lake, which Ratmansky has restaged in a very important event for La Scala next June, will delight many Western ballet-lovers who feared that the fantastic but short-lived 'authentic' Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère productions at the (then) Kirov of 15 years ago were simply a flash in the pan.
(If you're interested in that subject, here are two articles I did on The Arts Desk, interviews with the Kirov's restorer Sergei Vikharev and with Mikhail Messerer about problems with the original Swan Lake.)
Here's a translation of Kuznetsova's interview with Vaziev published today in Kommersant.
'It is a painful moment'
Today the Bolshoi Theatre held a briefing at which general director Vladimir Urin named the new director of the ballet company. He will be Makharbek Vaziev, former head of the Mariinsky Ballet and the current director of the La Scala Ballet of Milan. Before the briefing [Kommersant's ballet critic] Tatiana Kuznetsova questioned Vaziev questioned about the reasons for his move to Moscow, about future plans and other details of the appointment.
KUZNETSOVA: You are the actual director of the La Scala Ballet, and the company is flourishing under your leadership, the Italians love you and respect you. And yet you are moving to Moscow. Did the Bolshoi general director make you an offer you could not refuse?
VAZIEV: It was a simple offer to try to work together at the Bolshoi. The chief attraction for me is this amazing opportunity, this amazing company. You know, for people who came out of the bowels of the Mariinsky or Bolshoi theatres, no matter how life goes on to develop, either abroad or inside our country, they can't pass over these chances. I’m not going to hide that I’ve had other offers.
In 2011 the then Bolshoi chief Anatoly Iksanov called on you to lead the ballet company, and he even publicly named you. But literally on the very eve of the appointment you decided not to come to Moscow.
It just turned out that way. At the time it seemed to me that I had to see through what I’d started at La Scala. Today I think that I’ve accomplished the main jobs I wanted to in Milan.
Your contract with La Scala ends next year then?
No, much later. But there is no penalty clause attached. I have talked about my leaving with Alexander Pereira (general manager and artistic director of La Scala), and we intend to handle it all reasonable. But it is a painful moment, it’s true.
So they are not releasing you.
I am grateful to La Scala, which taught me a great deal and has allowed me to do so many interesting things. And that’s why I think after seven years I can come to some understanding. I must also finish a series of projects at La Scala, which means basically the whole season, during which time we can find my replacement. I think that for three or four months in 2016 I’ll work both here and there - I’ve discussed it with Vladimir Urin, and I’m happy to say that we have found a common language.
'For me Swan Lake may be the most important project of all'
La Scala will be staging a new version of Swan Lake by Ratmansky. Is this the project that you want to see through?
I can say more that that: for me this may be the most important project of all, in terms of creative inquiry. And indeed in general terms too. What I was still at the Mariinsky, after we did the Sleeping Beauty and Bayadère stagings, I often talked with Sergei Vikharev [the author of the historic reconstructions] about doing Swan Lake. I even put pressure on him, I said let’s try it. He got out of it some way or other.
That was exactly why it interested me. When a couple of years I discussed Swan Lake with Lesha (Ratmansky), we came to the conclusion that about half the ballet was recorded, the other half would have to be created. This was the project I must complete at La Scala. The premiere is on 30 June.
You are on excellent terms with Ratmansky, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, both as men as as creative artists. I suppose he has told you a great deal about the Bolshoi.
No, Alexei is a very proper guy - he never made any particular comments. Just said, “Maybe it’s good that you decided to go.”
Perhaps under you Ratmansky will make some new works for the Bolshoi, and not just restore his old productions?
Tatiana, you’re provoking me. I’m sorry, maybe I’m wrong, but the company has after all already launched the season, and has a current artistic director, and it’s not ethical to ask me about plans…
I was asking you about future prospects.
If we are talking about prospects... Of course, I would like Alexei to come to the Bolshoi Theatre. Obviously, yes. Of course, yes. But another thing is that I am not prepared to discuss it right now.
How many years will you have on your contract with the Bolshoi Theatre: three years or five, like those people you have to make your plans and aspirations with?
As far as we are talking about plans to get something done, then it’s for five years, from March 2016.
'The title change is simply a reflection of world practice'
When Urin abolished what in Russia we commonly understand of the position of artistic leader and brought in a post of ‘artistic director’, many people suggested that in fact this renaming suggests a limiting of the powers of the ballet’s artistic leader. What will be your chief remit in working with the company - is it to ensure the quality of productions rather than working on repertoire strategy? Have you talked with Urin about your powers and responsibilities?
I consider that the name change is simply a reflection of world practice. Look: at La Scala I am the ‘director of the ballet’; in the Paris Opera, there is also a 'director of the ballet', everywhere they are ‘directors’. The director of the ballet answers for everything, including repertoire. I have already suffered from being limited when I was head of the ballet company in the Mariinsky Theatre.
But you know that in the Bolshoi there is a department for ‘special projects’, which is directed by the general director’s wife, Irina Chernomurova. She did that very successfully in the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich- Danchenko Lyric Theatre when Urin was its chief. This department makes the selection of what the theatre stages in its new repertoire. Have you clarified who will have the final word?
I think that if Irina chooses something that seems out of place to me, it will go with my say-so. But by and large this is just being a bit provocative. Yes, there is a department for advance planning, projects are discussed together, as is the implementing of those projects. I don’t see any problem with it. In the press I read that Irina Chernomurova will virtually be running the Bolshoi Ballet. I thought this was pretty funny. But we have agreed that projects already planned before my arrival, and for which contracts have been signed, will go ahead and be completed.
You are the first Petersburger to lead the Bolshoi company in the post-Soviet period (in the USSR from the 1930s on the Bolshoi had Leningrad leaders). It’s no secret that there is historic rivalry between the two cities, differences concerning schooling, aesthetic, style, repertoire. Do you intend to reclaim the Bolshoi for St Petersburg, or will you be trying to adapt to local habits?
First one needs to understand and study the company. I think certain things will come about quite naturally because each of us carries the aesthetic with which he grew up. You are right, there’s always been competition between Petersburg and Moscow, but that’s healthy. It’s not like there is any other country who can be so proud of two such great companies as the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi.
Even if today you are not ready to talk about your plans for Moscow, then here’s a purely journalistic question. Who are your favorite choreographers, living or dead?
I'll start with the obvious - which, of course, Petipa still. I absolutely love and cherish his work. Petipa, Fokine, Balanchine... I could go on and on. As for the living, of course it has to be Forsythe, Ratmansky. And indeed plenty of others.
Makhar Vaziev, Bolshoi ballet director designate: [photo Petr Kassin/ Kommersant]