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' My attitude to the Bolshoi will never change. It’s my home and my temple'
29 OCT 15
Naturally, reporters hotfooted it to Nikolai Tsiskaridze for his reaction to the appointment of Filin's successor as ballet director Makhar Vaziev this week. It was a job that for long Tsiskaridze himself stated his own ambitions for before he was dismissed from the Bolshoi two years ago.
Since then he has controversially been installed as Rector at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, a job supposedly decided by elections within the Academy, but which he claims in a long interview here with the populist journalism site Sobesednik that he had accepted well before he left the Bolshoi, thus some 18 months before the 'vote'.
(Shades of the FIFA Russia World Cup 'elections', which Sepp Blatter has now said were window-dressing for an already fixed decision.)
If this report of Tsiskaridze's words is accurate, it raises a question about the basis for dating his five-year contract at the Vaganova from late 2014 elections that on his own reported say-so here were meaningless, rather than dated from the pre-2013 agreement he is reported here as saying he had already made with the Academy's masters.
It would also imply that the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky had already agreed that Tsiskaridze would take the prestigious position of Vaganova Rector before Tsiskaridze was dismissed by then Bolshoi chief Anatoly Iksanov in June 2013. His timeline does seem somewhat embellished with rationalising in hindsight.
He also discusses the Bolshoi acid attack on his rival Sergei Filin, his belief that Filin's attacker Pavel Dmitrichenko is still innocent, his job at the Vaganova Academy, and his views on the Bolshoi Theatre today (he describes it as 'half-dead').
After it I have appended a short interview supposedly with a health journalist, in which he has a ready answer for those who speculate that he no longer has a 26 inch waist.
'The fish rots from the head'
It’s been two years that the Bolshoi ballet star Nikolai Tsiskaridze has been working as Rector of the Vaganova Academy of Ballet in St Petersburg. But his “love” (whether in quotes or not) for his old Bolshoi home doesn’t wane a jot: he still enjoys passing caustic comment on his remaining colleagues, just as he used to. And the fact that the country’s leading theatre will not comment on his comments only seems to encourage him.
SOBESEDNIK: Your appointment two years ago to the position of Rector of the Vaganova Academy came as a surprise to many people.
TSISKARIDZE: Not to me. I had refused this position for a long time - everything in good time. Of course I foresaw the difficulties, the opposition. There were people who desperately didn’t want me in the academy. They plotted away, people who were fighting to keep hold of their nice, warm seats.
But maybe it was just honest - don't you take that into account? To be brilliant on stage and to run the Academy effectively are quite different things.
I spent a year as acting Rector in the academy. Afterwards there were elections, and the team voted for me. In other theatres - and I’m talking about lyric theatres, as I believe it’s more complicated in the drama theatres - elections are held for the director or artistic director, actual leaders who barely scrape through. But people voted for me here by a very large margin. Because they’d seen the results of my work during the year, that I was literally day and night in the academy. I admit that after the announcement of the vote I felt sad. I though, now I really haven’t the right to make a single mistake, people believe in me so much.
Have you discovered anything new about yourself from sitting in that seat?
When I was a performer I surmised that the fish rots from the head, just from one man, the leader of the theatre - he’s the sole culprit for everything. Now I know it’s 100 percent true. Any problems are down to the chief’s defects. Even if , please excuse me, it’s the toilets that are broken - whoever heads the theatre is to blame. And if people are walking out of productions halfway through, whoever heads the theatre is to blame. It’s not important whether it’s a theatre, a factory, a school… How the chairs are arranged, the wall decorations, whatever the performers wear on stage, an discipline is like - this is all dictated by one man. In the academy it’s the Rector, in a theatre it’s the director.
Did you fire many people?
I didn’t fire a single person. I'd decided, what sort of leader would I be if I couldn’t work with the people who were there? If I didn’t like something, obviously it had to be put right, but not by throwing people out and breaking things.
A few people left of their own accord - that’s a different thing. They were in the management. Not one working teacher quit the academy. Initially of course they were concerned that 'Tsiskaridze would throw them out and bring in his own people'. They got threatened by people who left, people who cranked up plots in the corridors, people who didn’t want me to be appointed.
But, you know, that’s another question again. Lawyers and economists - they’re everywhere from Moscow to the moon, there’s a surplus of them, loads. But the pool of ballet coaches who are competent and professional is extremely small. I talked about it at the academy at the first staff meeting. I said, “If you will tell me now the names of people I can replace you with, I’ll think about it, and maybe, I’ll replace you.” I saw the amusement on the workers' faces, there was a gasp at my joke, realising they were all valued by the academy and could go on working without feeling worried. And we do go on working.
'I sincerely sympathise with Sergei'
Do you think the Bolshoi Theatre will lose very much with the departure of Sergei Filin from the position of artistic director?
I don't think there’s anything left to lose. Though I do sincerely sympathise with Sergei. There he is with no profession. He is not a teacher, nor a balletmaster or coach, nor a choreographer or stager. As for what sort of leader he was, each person can judge for himself. The scandal two years ago didn’t do his image any good, the whole theatre management came very badly out of the situation.
But a while after the scandal the director was replaced - Vladimir Urin instead of Anatoly Iksanov. Has the change of personnel been of benefit to the theatre, do you think?
Practically nothing's changed. Maybe a few less scandals. But the results on stage haven't improved. The same old ill-tuned sounds that used to come out of the orchestra pit are coming out now. No great opera artists have appeared. The premieres are no more interesting than each other. From the artistic point of view nothing's changed. Unfortunately.
You hear more and more often that ballet is dying at the Bolshoi.
Ballet will never die as a classical art. And Russia is prized for its classical ballet, which was actually born and developed in our country. It was and always will be in demand, because it is beautiful. Vladimir Vasiliev said this very true thing: “The Bolshoi Theatre is doomed to succeed.” And that's true. This theatre is a sacred place in Moscow’s cultural life. A landmark. Practically everyone who comes to the capital, tourists, foreigners - for them it’s absolutely obligatory to try to go to the Bolshoi. All the tickets are sold, months ahead. So it’s not difficult to work out!
Just watch, when the lights go up at the end of a show, how many audience members are left. The fact is, we’re seeing half-empty auditoriums. Last year a friend of mine took her children to the New Year Nutcracker. Now, I appeared in that ballet 21 seasons in a row; three years as the French doll and 18 as the leading man. It’s two years since I last appeared in it.
So, my acquaintance took a photo of the auditorium in the middle of Act 2 of Nutcracker. In the past the hall was always full, packed out. And I saw in her photo half-empty stalls. There were no tickets to be had anywhere, it was sold out. But people are leaving halfway through the show because it just isn’t holding their interest. And why not? Because it’s not good quality.
I often get calls from friends and friends of friends, saying, “please recommend what I should see at the Bolshoi”, and I say, “If you want to go, go to anything you want. But don’t complain to me about it.” Yes, sure, there are some great performers, but very few of them.
'I don't believe the story of Pavel's guilt'
When the scandal broke out - I'm talking about the attack on Filin - some people tried to accuse you of being behind the crime.
Those who threw my my name around had their own agendas. I know one of them, not a very talented dancer, who gave an interview against me, who denounced me, said vile stuff, for his pains he got the title of Honoured Artist. His dancing certainly wasn’t good enough. It doesn’t mean anything to me, I just laugh.
For the dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko it was definitely no laughing matter, as he was found guilty by a court and given five and a half years in a hard labour penal colony.
I worked a lot with Pasha on stage, and he was in my class for almost a year, when he’d just jointed the theatre. He always treated me with respect. And you know, I said in court and was ready to repeat it: if they’d told me that Pasha'd had a fight and smashed someone’s skull I might believe it - he’s a strong and quick-tempered lad. But what happened there, what he was accused of - I just did not believe the story of his guilt, and I don’t believe it now.
You mean our justice system was wrong about the conviction? I mean, they did the investigation and Pavel pretty much admitted his complicity.
The whole story looks very murky to me.
Do you think Pavel will return to the ballet profession?
Sadly, it’s not worth deluding yourself. Pasha knows this like nobody else, I think. Ballet is a daily workout. Even half a year or a year’s break is too long in ballet. It's far too long a break.
Do you communicate with Angelina Vorontsova, whom the press to this day calls the 'femme fatale': the rumour got dug in that Dmitrichenko stood up for her honour when the artistic director insulted her.
People who don’t know Pavel or Angelina personally have no right to discuss their relationship, they’re drawing all the wrong conclusions. Yes, they were together, but at the time of the scandal they’d already separated. Now they’ve each got their own lives. I hear that Pavel got married a year ago. Angelina will soon be getting married. It’s more than two years since all this horror.
Did the episode break her?
She’s a brilliant ballerina and a gifted person - she proved this recently with an amazing performance (in the premiere of Le Corsaire). But it’s a fact that people tried to ruin her life. Who? Plotters inside the ballet world, I’ll only say that, no names.
'I had already been offered the position of Rector, and agreed'
And how do you look back, all this time later, on the way hundreds of people went onto the square to demand the management to 'take Tsiskaridze back'?
The event certainly was unique, the first time in the theatrical world when the audience went onto the streets to defend an artist. It means I did something right in my profession, and I do still. It goes without saying that I’m very grateful to those who decided to take action to resist monstrous injustice. I was not intending to return, I wouldn’t dance principal roles any more. I’d already decided this a while before all this story.
And my decision was not connected with any kind of scandal. I had already been offered the post of Rector and I had already agreed to it.
And you had told your fans goodbye…
Things are what they are. The human body’s opportunities aren’t unlimited, and the ballet period is short. After the rise and the peak, you start to decline. It’s a law of nature in our business. I already realised that when I was 20. If I hadn’t understood it, probably I wouldn’t be talking to you know, I’d be sitting in a psychiatric hospital. I’ve seen more than a few examples of ballet people losing their minds because their career ended, and with it, as they thought, their lives ended too. I didn’t want to turn out like that.
Some time ago I pledged to my teacher - it was on 5 June 1992 - that in 21 years I would leave the theatre. In 2011 I told the theatre management and the then Minister of Culture. On 5 June 2013 after the show I said to my make-up artist, “It’s done!” I did not announced it publicly because why do a performance? If that scandal hadn’t broken out I would have gone quietly. Those people who went to meetings to defend me didn’t know my decision. But I am very grateful to these people, I stress that again. It’s probably the great possible tribute to my service to the Bolshoi Theatre.
Do you remember when you first felt you were famous?
When I was a very young man, I was on the metro. And I heard a man say to another: “You have to go to the Bolshoi and see this Georgian, there’s a very interesting Georgian who’s turned up.” They obviously didn’t know what I looked like, I hadn’t been on TV yet. But I heard what they said about me. They said to each other: “He’s a phenomenon. We don’t know what’s good or bad, but we have to see the Georgian.” Then they said, “Tell Masha, Dasha and Aunt Natasha, they really have to go.” My fame began with word of mouth, but popular advertising is the most effective in Russia.
Could you write a book about the Bolshoi Theatre?
Here I agree with Faina Ranevskaya. When she was asked to write her memoirs, she said: "No, I won't do it because it would turn into a book of complaints and suggestions." Of course I could tell plenty of stories, name names, secrets, passwords. But I don’t want to wash dirty linen in public, it’s a poor way to spend one's time.
Theatregoers in Mosocw are gathering signatures to get a monument erected to Maya Plisetskaya, So far the authorities have been making excuses, they’re saying by law it has to wait 10 years after someone’s died. What do you think about it?
Maya Mikhailovna, of course, was a very deserving person, and she should have a monument. Unfortunately in our country it isn’t always the case that enough honour is done to the memory of these who contributed to our cultural history. Do you know any Prokofiev Street in Moscow? Or Rimsky-Korsakov Boulevard? Or Shostakovich Prospect? There isn’t. Unfortunately.
'Time will put everything in its proper place'
Nikolai, be honest - do you still long to be back in the Bolshoi?
Every time I stepped over the threshold of the Bolshoi Theatre (and I went several times just as an ordinary spectator), I was convinced that I’d never leave it. It was my space, my stage, my home. I said this many times in interviews: there are many former general directors, former artistic directors, even former Rectors. But to be a principal dancer or ballerina, this is accepted as being forever.
Another thing, the Bolshoi Theatre management doesn’t want to see me, to put it mildly. You want to hear something funny? Two years ago I appeared on stage at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in the ballet, La Fille mal gardée, and people had specially come to Moscow from other cities and other countries 'to see Tsiskaridze'. This very ballet is also in the Bolshoi repertoire. But for two years the new director had not thought to ask me to dance in it, not even once. This would have been at the very least a decent proof of his liberality and democracy, and at the most a sign of esteem for a true artist at the Bolshoi.
Another example. For 18 seasons I danced The Nutcracker on 31 December, which is my birthday. I closed the year and I opened the year. 2 January is Yuri Grigorovich’s birthday. I always danced on the master’s birthday. And I was in Petersburg on 2 January 2014, Grigorovich’s birthday. And on that very date fell the 500th performance of Grigorovich’s production on the Bolshoi stage. I had danced 101 of those 500 performances! But… there was a celebration, honouring this event in the Bolshoi Theatre. There were articles, PR, people came in, all and sundry. But no one wrote about the artist who danced a fifth of all those performances. I took it with great good humour, because I know the history of art and the history of our national theatre. And I’m sure that time will set everything in its proper place.
'At last I can eat what I want'
PRO HEALTH: Is your waist size still 66cm [26inches] as before?
TSISKARIDZE: Oh, it’s no longer 66cm, thank God. Now I can eat whatever I want I’m so happy about that. When they started chasing after me saying, “See how much he’s grown,” I didn’t answer. What does it mean - “grown”? Suits fit me just as they did 20 years ago. It’s another thing that a young man of 20 and a man of 40, even if he’s thin, don’t look exactly the same. Even if he has the same measurements, the effect of gravity doesn’t change.
I remember you told me once before that you would eat eclairs after fried potatoes.
That’s what I was eating until I was 33. But then I'd eat nothing in the evenings. Now I try to keep in shape so that my clothes size will stay the same. I have many lovely things that have had to be thrown away. But nothing bothers me any more. I was never worried how I looked in real life, the main thing was what I achieved on stage. But now the main thing for me is that the children can see change happening, what they’re wearing, the fact they don’t sit on cold floors, that there are carpets down everywhere.
I read a very fine phrase: it’s not about educating children, you should first educate yourself. When you tell a child, “Don’t smoke”, but you yourself don’t take the fag out of your mouth, your words are worthless. So recently I’ve been much concerned with reeducating myself.
Today you perform only character, cameo roles. Why did you stop doing major roles?
I've said for a long time that I'd never be an old prince. It’s tragic when you see some uncle in his forties running around pretending to be a young man. He does the movements but his run isn’t a young man’s any more. I stopped deliberately when I was at my peak. I would always watch The Dying Swan and think, “What class! You just go from one corner to another doing pas de bourrées. I wish I could have such a simple role.” And now there is: the Faun [in Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun], for example. (laughs).
Your pupils’ recent performance in the Kremlin was a triumph. When you took up your work as Rector in the academy, did you believe that you could have such success?
Absolutely, I was sure of it. I know how I work. And besides, I saw the material with which I was lucky enough to get. This performance was a joint enterprise between me and all the teaching staff. We worked all year round for it. The depth of repertoire that we showed this year has never and nowhere else been found. We did the first act of Sleeping Beauty - this is all ours, Petipa. Then the choreography of an exceptional graduate of the academy, George Balanchine, to Glazunov’s music, the Raymonda Variations. No one dances Balanchine’s ballets in schools anywhere. There have been different bits of it, but to do the whole ballet - no.
We showed the graduation performance at the Mariinsky Theatre three times and it was a grand success. I was so happy that an overflowing hall, the 6000 seat Kremlin Palace of Congresses, gave a 20-minute standing ovation to our academy students.
'I'm a Muscovite and always will be'
For your work you spend a large part of your time in St Petersburg. Do you feel you are becoming a Petersburger?
I live in Moscow and I work in St Petersburg. I was born in Tbilisi, but grew up in Moscow. I'm a Muscovite by upbringing and mentality and always will be. For me home is the Frunzenskaya metro station. I can’t imagine life anywhere else.
I realised from when I was a child I'd never want to go anywhere else. I had so many offers! I was a very able child in the dance profession. But for me the Bolshoi Theatre and Moscow were the only things that mattered. I flew from one end of the world to another, if my schedule had a show in the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi. I never cancelled a single performance. And I was quite indifferent where I was flying from, whether New York or Tokyo.
A lot of people thought it was a great PR move when you became a judge on things like the Dancing with the Stars show…
What kind of PR are they talking about? Remember, in the past every Soyuzpechati kiosk used to sell postcards, posters, calendars with photos of all the Bolshoi stars? They were as popular as astronauts. Ballet and opera artists took part in programmes like The Morning Post, Kinopanorama, Musical Kiosk. It’s a bit strange that people would think they could do it but not us now!
Today there are a lot of performers who have their press agents who bend the ear of TV and radio stations to get them to invite them on. Never in my years of service in the Bolshoi did I call a single channel and say, “Invite me on.” Or “Why haven’t you asked me about this when you’re asking any Tom, Dick or Harry?” Unlike so many people around, my appearances on TV are always initiated by the programme makers. Take Dancing with the Stars. When they first did the show, they talked to me about taking part. I refused: I had signed contracts and it couldn’t work with their schedule. When they did the first Ice, they said to me: “Put down the days you’re available and we will go and talk to all the other jury members.”
Nikolai, many leading culture figures say that the younger generation nowadays was born with dollars in their eyes, whereas in Soviet times, it’s said, it was the idea of service, patriotism. In your view are today’s youth so different from your generation?
They are very different indeed, above all in the way they take in information and process it. You shouldn’t forget that now children can get such quick access to any sort of information that we would never have dreamed about. In order for anything to be explained to us, we had to run to a library and look up the book where it was printed. While all they need is to grab their computer and open up Wikipedia. That’s all it is. And this completely changes their life.
We would stand for hours at the entrance to get a pass - and two people from the whole school would be lucky. Just to see some performance or other. And then we’d tell all our friends. But they don’t have to go anywhere now - they just sit and watch YouTube all evening. It’s a colossal change in outlook on the world. And I think it’s for the best.
'It's a sign of your exclusiveness'
Nikolai, I can’t not ask you. Today you are the rector of the Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. And yet, be honest, doesn’t it hurt you how unpleasantly you exited from the Bolshoi?
Actually I'm very happy that it happened that way. If you take any great artist who stood for their theatrical era - one could go on listing them - Karpakova, Vishnevskaya, Svetlanov, Gorsky, Plisetskaya - you'll notice that all of them left the theatre like that. It’s a major sign of your exclusiveness when you were someone too out of the ordinary to fit the mould.
I am sure that history is cyclical. Much of what is going on now is practically word for word what Chaliapin was writing about in his memoirs. At the start of the 21st century it’s all the same stuff. He also talks about how a manager could never direct a company like the Bolshoi Theatre. A person who has learned to reduce debt with credit can’t have any influence in artistic policy.
Do tell, do you go to the Bolshoi Theatre as a spectator?
Of course, if there’s something interesting on. For example if Masha Gulegina is appearing. I know then the opera will be first-class. But sometimes who’s singing or what the orchestra sounds like will surprise me. I grew up in another Bolshoi Theatre, where everything was of the highest calibre.
I try not to pass judgement on what is happening at the Bolshoi. I achieved everything I strove for. I took an honourable path. Both Zakharova and Lopatkina also took the honourable path. They’re not just the number 1 artists.
But my attitude to the Bolshoi will never change. It’s my home and my temple. I swear to you, any man who went on stage in his street clothes I’d take by the scruff of the neck and throw him out. Because for me it’s a holy place.
Nikolai Tsiskaridze [photo: Victor Chernov / Russian Look]
Tsiskaridze 'took Rector job' before elections
Nikolai Tsiskaridze [photo: Victor Chernov / Russian Look]