David Avdysh-The Master and Margarita

“The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov), choreography by David Avdysh, 2003.”



In the ballet, The Master and Margarita, we can see a full-scale representation of the now recognized, very important work of Russian literature by choreographer David Avdysh. The novel was published in the United States by the Mikhail Bulgakov estate, 1965, (it was started in 1931 and the second draft was completed in 1936)

In 2003 the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre premiered this new work, which was severely criticized by the press. It is difficult to find any videos of it in its entirety, but I have included one full version from the Kiev Ballet (2007) at the bottom of the post.

The controversial libretto was set to music by Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Hector Berlioz, Astor Piazzolla, Wojeiech Kilar, and other composers, including jazz. Choreography and staging are attributed to David Avdysh, set design is credited to Simon Pastukh (USA) and costume design by Galina Solovieva (USA). David Avdysh was let go by the Perm Ballet and now choreographs for ice skaters, and his counterparts are working in the U.S.

It was impossible to find a set list of the music, and no libretto, or other references. I was especially searching for interviews with the choreographer himself. A sound check proved that other bits and pieces of modern works were diced and spliced into the program, giving it a dark, and uncustomary feel for ballet; these sometimes severe musical style changes are at times inharmonious, even cacophonous-the sound did not always work choreographically.

Three performance are referenced here: the full-length and at least two others are by the Kiev, but there are also some mixed and unknown variations from Mr. Avdysh himself, from Perm, I believe). The complete version is uninterrupted and therefore preferable to watch, and in some other ways preferable because, while the technical aspects, skill of the ballet dancers in Perm is noticeable and perhaps more “classical ballet,” the Kieve version has exciting dancers, somewhat less “classical ballet” at times, but the feel of the work comes through more passionately. I think the Perm excerpts are important for comparisons, but are edited down into trailer by Mr. Avdysh; their importance is therefore critical to understanding the differences in the actual productions, nuances and skill of different dancers, and differences of emotional treatment and differences by the dancers themselves-above all, this is what Mr. Avdysh wanted to “share” and I think that is also significant.

Hella’s dance shows very clearly how this interpretation varied, possibly to the choreographer’s detriment. I include it fully because I feel (for reasons) it is the best of the three, and because it allows you to see three versions of that piece, and also the version of the trailer which includes the original version of Woland’s entrance-you can compare them. The solo/pas by Margarita and The Master are also represented repeatedly, with different dancers and although they are edited versions, it is still possible to see how dancers and companies treat a work, not just this work, and why it is important to see the performance, possibly many times, in order to truly critique a work on stage. It is only an idea, but if we are denied the opportunity to see these adaptations, then no final analysis, for the purpose of ballet, can really be made, and that is more or less the situation with this ballet. You are unlikely to be able to see it performed for certain reasons, which actually have nothing to do with art, or ballet. The Perm dancers are perhaps more acceptable in the strict standards of Russian Ballet- it is a company (and school) known for producing dancers possessing a certain technical and artistic brilliance, and I feel this adds a great deal to the choreography and its believability, but, at times, in reference to the characters,  the Kiev interpretation is also interesting. Not only is it provocative, daring,  such as is seen in Hella’s variation, as compared with other dancers who dance the role, the role of Margarita is also treated more naturally, with less emphasis on classical ballet posturing and posing, and the dancers are more normal looking. Any deformity of nature-croissant feet, hyper-extension of the legs, very high extensions (gymnastic), pat acting, are often considered rare and wonderful these days in classical ballet, but as this production shows, sacrificing those characteristics for a more natural appearance, following the music, expression, and acting serve the story-line and production values much better. This also a reason which I include these extra excerpts. You will see there is a fine line between expert classical ballet training, naturism, and the choreographer’s intent, and what and why we find believable what we do not, and why is is sometimes necessary to sacrifice for your art, particularly your pride. and vanity, and to other values. As it is impossible for viewers to really appreciate this work without having the benefit of actually seeing it, and due to the importance of the author, what he stands for, and the future, I am including this in a series which is pretty much interviews with other artists, and copies of interview i feel are good. But as this is important, let the choreographer’s work be the interview.

Margarita’s solo with the Master to the music “Oblivion” a jazz piece, is very beautiful as are her pas’ with Master, and this is conceived very well artistically, whereas other parts featuring one or both of them, are not-this may be a result of the editing-but take a look at the full version, and you will see that overall, i am correct. The Kiev version (2007) was done later than the Perm version (2003), and although they are completely different performances, the choreography is recognizably the same, and this speaks volumes in terms of any criticisms I, or any other people, may have, because the dancers clearly respected and felt pleased about performing this work, gave their all to it, and took up the gauntlet of interpreting the work, fitting it exactly (with no changes) to their dancers, come what may, and the music is apparently identical. This strict following of the choreographer’s intent in a rival production tells us how seriously the exact performance of this choreographer’s work was to them, to the company which produced it, and leads one to believe, that like Petipa’s works, this is an important work for them and for reasons, will last-whether we like it or we don’t. In other words what they think of it is really  more important than what we think of it. It is also ‘ballet’ and it is a new work (relatively), and it adds to that stalled list of new full-scale works which dancers, companies, and other choreographers are aware of when it comes to making artistic decisions and taking steps forward to offering new works. It may, I hope, become a classic. it is an excellent start.

I think there is a backlash against Bulgakov, and for many reasons, some people would  prefer he not be remembered, mostly for political reasons. But, by the Russian people, and readers of his works worldwide, Bulgakov’s works are memorials, classics, as well as evocative of a sort of Russian character, which occurs again and again in their arts, most notably, for me, in ballet and in writing. Bulgakov was also a successful playwright, before his power to express himself was closeted and castrated. His soul, which was first attributed to Pushkin’s work, or “Russian Soul,” comes through once again here, and is very visible in certain parts of the ballet itself. It is said that it is perhaps most readily obvious, in Ballet, but also is apparent in music frequently, and this I believe makes the sharing or availability of it through the visual arts very important, as it sparks new interest in his works. It is one of the many terms coined in popular usage of Pushkin’s, and is used specifically in ballet, and well before “soul” music or any other kind of soul was referred to, and everything dancers there do that is different and ‘a secret.” It is that particular shade, or accent, or feeling that a dancer puts into a movement, a step, a variation, or the whole ballet, and it is to do with life, breathing, feeling and emotion, and affects everything. It is the heartbeat and essence of dance that you take away with you from a ballet, and it is emotion and the commonality in dance which causes you to move when other’s do, stand up in your seat, and be a part of it. That too, is here.

There is this great form of dramatic expression possible in dance-and it ties in nicely, in this adaptation, and is visible in the dancers themselves and it is clear when this is not apparent as well. It is this, which the Russians can bring to this interpretation, should pervade it and becomes what the rest of us equate as great ballet. It would move us incredibly if it were here, but it is not here in these productions all the time.

What the critics may be referring to in their supposed ‘bad reviews’ may be their not liking any negative reference to Russian culture, politics, or history mentioned in their ballets any longer, but I think some of it could have to do with the critique of the production and all its elements as well. There is little of a political nature to offend anyone here and that is one reason I think it is not entirely successful-that is not present here!

But, perhaps it was just enough to get adaptations on television, banned in the Ukraine, and for no reason, really, other than it reminds people of something they do not want to see right now. This does not stop Russian people from reading the book, however-nothing ever does, and it is more cconntroversial for other reasons. I was lucky to find suffienct, though not numerous, examples for you.

The ballet is billed as a “ballet-phantasmagoria in two acts”. I think ballet is enough, as anything outlandish is called something else to give it stature, and it does not need additional description to cover its bad points. The book was not a phantasmagoria-it was satire-and to perhaps to a catastrophic degree the ballet community, censors, and critics (probably) have not all read the book, or did not know what a satire is, and did not seem to have direction. Or just maybe, it had to be something else, it was not to be presented as desired, and is subsequently not what it should have been, what it deserved to be-what Bulgakov, or we, deserve to see or hear, but it is what it is. Not seeing a ballet in person is criminal to me, and so any review has to be based on the fact that I have not seen the original, so how can I truly criticize it at all, or compliment it? Not truly, I can’t. That’s unfair, too.

David Avdyshevich Avdysh was born in Zhitomir Ukraine in 1952, and is a recognized choreographer who graduated from the State Choreographic School in Kiev in 1970. He added to his pedagogy by also attending the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory in Leningrad, graduating in 1980 most likely with an additional MFA or equivalent. It is said after choreography created for Petrushkaby (Igor Stravinsky) in Leningrad, he was not favored there and for about 25 years he would have no recognition. He worked freelance in St. Petersburg and elsewhere until he became choreographer for the Tchaikovsky Academic Opera and ballet Theatre in Perm in 2002. His tenure was sensationalized due to The Master and Margarita, and as well several other notable reworkings of older classics.

As I can imagine, and if you watch the entire ballet, for reasons you can probably then well-imagine, his Russian critics soured his career aspects by a wilfully malicious undercutting of his talents in complete ignorance of the definite positive aspects of his vision and the choreography. Can you say “jealous”? Well, they can and they do in art forms in Russia. There is no worse enemy of a ballet cchoreographer than another ballet choreographer, or a dancer of a dancer.

They also probably did not mention any salient aspects of his interpretation, which are, in fact, numerous, especially compared with other contemporary ballets and rival premieres (which were so bad they did not even release the video of them), and which undoubtedly exhibit far less passion than this, were danced by truly less capable dancers (and actors) than these are, so perhaps negative comparisons could be made-if there were any-but there are not ANY comparisons possible.

The fact is, if it rankles the tights of the powers that be, it can’t be what it is, or even appears to be, and if it cannot be those things, for whatever reasons-it is not worth watching? Well, had we said that before now, we would be far less rich in what we have been able to get our hands and eyes and ears on and that is something, so we are wise to read what we can of it, and appreciate it for what it attempts, because nothing is going to get any better than this, probably.

I would think the primary issue of its production is to do with the interpretation and the requirement that great art not be made into a work that tries to copy every nuance of the original, though we think we want that-no two lovers are alike-and wishing another one was like one before, will only ruin any chances of fully appreciating the new one. Comparisons are therefore of limited value. But, that is not it entirely, either, for there is the forced necessity of a time constrain and we are being treated to a mush edited version anyway, but what is not always working is what is kept, and what was denounced, or let go.


The critics seemed to feel (in their majority) that Mr. Avdysh should have used original music, and that could mean he had money for it, but I don’t think so, or he would be accused of embezzlement, too, and be under house arrest for not putting on a good enough show,  but he is not.

He might be unhappy with the sanctioning of his work afterward, etc., and artist’s work in general (or not), and of not having enough artistic freedom (he had enough to hang himself), or by the fact that he did not have another opportunity, so one should assume he offended someone. Maybe it was the public. If it had been banned for keeping to the story, I would understand-it is that it was most likely banned for flouting things which were not even in the story, or for too mnay things being included, or just a generally aesthetically displeasing things, and Bulgakov might have been offended by this as in “I never said any of those things,” but in fact, he might have-I am not an expert.

The criticism may have come too late, after the work premiered, and perhaps it was only the press that brought to people’s attention only negative opinions. Avdysh, like Bulgakov, does not seem to have been given the opportunity to do other ballets, and that is unfortunate, because he could make good ballets, possibly great ones. Perhaps it was very ambitious, but you know-think BIG. Ballets get re-worked all the time, and each time, and this one has a lot of positive elements, too, as I said. It’s like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, considering there hasn’t been as good a basis of a good ballet for nearly 100 years. I feel deprived. Ballet affcionados whould, too! Let us judge universally, for ourselves.

The costumes were liked by my daughter, and as well, the soldier women choreography, so I must be at odds, but in context, it is just the same as Bulgakov, living with the things he didn’t like, satirizing those, to reveal what was ultimately important, and the things that really mattered, and that if it were not for all things in life, good and bad, we probably would not truly appreciate what we come to love. He would have liked very much, I expect, that his story was made into a ballet, in Russia, in fact-he might just be rolling in his watery grave.

However, I believe Avdysh’ perceived failure still had far more merit in it, than other people’s prominent successes do (and I have seen them!), and his vision, while a bit different from what mine might be, is also unique to him, and each person subsequent person therefore, too.  It just goes to show you how much pressure there is put on people by media, and the press, politicos, and influencers, to like what they want you to, and to not like what you really do.

Some people have the ability to stand up for what they like and to state why, and other people are impotent, not minding going along with the status quo and having their decisions made for them. But, this is what Bulgakov was writing about, and it is ironic that a production of his work as a ballet, still reminds me (of the fuss) of exactly what he was writing about, even though they weren’t trying to.

What is key in Avdysh’s production is that in some ways he did evoke the novel, and especially, his understanding of the character’s importance to the ballet seems evident enough-it is there, mostly, but some characters could be worked on more. It is a big effort to undertake such a large-scale production and with a complex storyline, with many other facets to it, nearly impossible to be able to draw all those parallels with suitable emotion, but the love story comes through, Woland is palpable, the Biblical scenes are probably not what they could be, but again, the Russians haven’t had much experience with that for a long time. It is a formidable task for a genius, and David Avdysh did create a memorable and impressive work that stands (mostly ) on its own. I don’t see how anyone else could have fewer issues, that’s all.

I won’t recount all of the productions which have been attempted, but lists can be obtained.

What is difficult for Americans, and probably other non-Communist people, of that period, is just how oppressive a society can be to its own citizens and that only today is there a possibility of performing such a work, even of accepting the negative criticism, but openly airing an opinion, which is all a work is, after-all, and that both before and after its publication, nothing changed very much until now. This Russian ability to write everything between the lines is very much absent from this work, it is though it is taken at face value, and in this novel, there is more there-perhaps very little needed to be there at all, but there is much more than this ballet shows, and history, research, provenance, and records do show that Bulgakov was an extraordinary writer and craftsman, and sadly, none of this was present in the ballet. Relationships which were harder to discern in the novel may have been more pronounced and important, even painfully eloquent, because they were not stated in a straightforward manner, and one had to think, to guess, to stretch one’s imagination, and in the ballet, there is really no mystery left. This is sad, and perhaps is somehow still not apparent to the masses, even to the art world, but these things also still exist there, and though there has been a relaxing of these hidden memoirs and diaries, and this genre is essentially over, it is one of the most important aspects of that culture, and should be preserved well, and the only way to get a good adaptation is to let the Master’s of it, work openly on it, to improve it. Freedom is demonstrably absent in this approach to making art-and only by throwing many pies against the wall do we often get one hit.

As many of the novel’s real-life counterparts are now history, I will leave it to the reader to find and discover the relevance the story has for them. Suffice to say, that there are two stories (at least) going on here, and everything is drawn from life as it is, and what is deprived. Religion is absent and Woland comes to Moscow precisely because he is not resisted there-religion being the “opiate of the people” it has been banned as well, and this paves the way for all kinds of evil, but as well, some hysterical interludes, the ridiculous, and also horrible actions Stalin performed, and many, many provocations on the part of other artists, and writers, by whom Bulgakov was slighted, and ridicules, so of course his works were banned completely, as were the performances of them. The economy and housing situations are a part of the novel which also does not transpose well in this adaptation, but the underlying angst of writers who no longer write anything real or truthful, could at least be portrayed here somewhat better. In this way the ballet adaptation misses the point of it all, as well as the connections between freedom and creation and how without control of both, truth and beauty in art can be lost. The religious tie-ins, for a non-Russian, probably do not make any sense, but as long as there is a beginning of a ballet adaptation to work with, it is possible that a shorthand version of some of the events will become part of our culture, too, and that many other attempts will be made until there is a version hammered out which reminds one, if possible, of at least many of the things the novel does.

In such a ballet, there is no leading character, as there is not one in the book, but there are leading characters and they are, as the title goes, The Master and Margarita. Woland is the leading protagonist, but there are so many! How can a novel push its lead character’s appearance to so late an appearance in the novel? Well, there is the putting ahead matters of government, politics, and putting the affairs of people and there feelings at the bottom of the list-but this novel shows that they do exist, and that the feelings and lives, and opinions, of these people are still unchanged even under an oppressive regime. All of these things have to occur first to put the perspective of love, into place, for the magical things going on in private continue to do so, and so despite all of those other bad things, and they are very bad-the worst, love, creativity, and beauty, even hope, thrives. There are websites devoted to the subject of the story, if you haven’t read it, and I urge you to before watching the ballet, but it doesn’t really matter.

The Master-Role

The experiences of the writer and criticism of his works led to him writing a novel about a writer writing a novel about Pontius Pilate. It’s about the conflict experienced by Pontius Pilate and what makes him turn in favor of Jesus, and how he has to give him up anyway, though his gut feeling is to spare him. Basically, this is the crowd hysteria compared to someone who reasons, and also how wise people are doomed to do what is expected of them; they do what they must do to save themselves-this is how life goes. These sentiments are especially directed at critics with whom Bulgakov had dealings with, and the word ‘critic’ has a totally different connotation from the limited power of the critic here. So, the writer, The Master, is similarly attacked in the press, for his novel, and he writes a letter to the Soviet Government complaining. Bulgakov himself was the victim of over 300 individual appearances of denouncing his writing, mostly by other writers, who apparently used this as a tool to get rid of the competition. Consequently he could not get published. These malicious and pointed criticism of his work were the cause of his not being able to be published in Russia anymore. In addition to this, he had to gradually move from having his own house, to having a floor, then a few rooms, then a room, in the house, and the issues that occurred there with other, not so desirable or cooperative tenants, and he vented his life’s conditions into his writing, including his pets, etc. There’s a bit of poignancy, philosophy, satire, religious and factual underpinnings, and  a great love story, and the birth or creation of this great work. And there’s Margarita, and many other complex and interesting characters and activities, and they all have multiples meanings. How can you put that into a ballet? You don’t try to. You can’t. It’s hours and hours and hours long.

In Russia, they were putting writers and protestors (political criminals) into prisons, Gulags, and insane asylums, because they could hold them indefinitely without trial and try to change their mind (literally). In Stalin’s time (when this novel was written), millions and millions of people just disappeared, so in the novel, the writers just start “disappearing”, it is satire, as in “Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” In life there was not a lot of truth in the actions of authority figures, therefore, one aspect of the novel also reflects this intentional vagueness. This is not easy to accomplish in ballet where vague is mimed, but absent is just not there. The Master and other characters in the novel are very complex and often went through many revisions in his writing, but they are more human because of their many sources rather than one. Each is also imbued with personal or biographical attribute, making them even more complex.


Margarita Nikolaevna is the master’s lover and muse. She is in love with his novel and nurtures him in order to complete this cycle, which is like the one Mary Magdalena goes through with Jesus, she performs a necessary work of service, and she is combined with other aspects of The Holy Virgin, even though she is human. To him, she is both, and makes all this possible. Woland also is involved in the process of good, for without each other, neither would exist. She is reunited with The Master. Again, this character has multiple character attributes, but she is strong and realistically based on strong female characters in literature and history, particularly ballet history, but also literary, as well as genuine characteristics of his wife. Some of their real life experiences, such as their meeting at a ball curiously seem to be overlaid onto the action. Some historical references are alluded to regarding her, by other characters in the book.


Woland is a stranger and we conclude, the Devil, but he is in the world and can be encountered, and some good may even come of it, if you play your cards right, but, he really directs all the action of the book, with another, non-visible voice, but in Russia, God is not apparent, at that time. He is a walking contradiction, unreliable, and equally unpredictable. If something is suspicious in Russia, you cannot mention outrageous or unbelievable phenomena, or they will put you in the asylum, which they do to the Master and Homeless.

The antics of Woland and his retinue are well-portrayed in the ballet, and this ‘activity’ causes what is most akin to the Queen’s Tea Party in Alice and Wonderland times 7. After this performance, and a ‘real’ one, they head back to the netherworld on horses which cannot be accounted for in a stage performance.

The other characters in the novel can be divided into those in the parts concerning the novel about which the Master is writing and the sympathetic characters to Woland (unsympathetic to Bulgakov)

Koroviev/Fagot- the choirmaster, interpreter, speaker.

Behemoth-the cat (violent)

Azazello- the messenger, scout, arbiter

Abaddon – background character, neutral

Hella-female woman demon, servant, possibly a vampire

More characters are introduced at the ball, and mostly they are all corpses. All are guilty of some damnable action. Many of these characters have real-life counterparts in history and their are representations of both political and artistic types of the day. CLues are given to their identity. The characters are:

Koroviev/Fago-Chairman of the Tenant’s Association

Johann Strauss


Monsieur Jacques

Agnes Sorel

Earl Robert

Amy Robsart

Signora Tofana

Teofania di Palermo

Teofania di Adamo

Giulia Tofana

The marquise

Madam Minkin

The emperor Rudolf

The Moscow dressmaker

Marienhof and Sergey Alexandrovich Yesenin



Maliuta Skuratov

Genrich Grigoryevitch Yagoda

Pavel Pavlovich Bulanov



Biblical Characters

Aphranius-the head of Pilate’s guards

Dysmus and Gestas-two criminals whom Jesus is executed with

Judas of Kiriath-the betrayer

Joseph the Kaifa-the high priest of the Jews

Matthew Levi-one of the 12 disciples of Jesus

Pontius Pilate-the procurator of Judea

Yeshua Ha-Nozri-Jesus of Nazareth

Other Biblical characters-Roles

Bar-Rabban-another criminal who is released, forcing the execution of Jesus as “three” must die

Niza-a spy, seductress, or prostitute

Pilate’s wife

Ratslayer-Guard of Pilate

Why Moscow?

In much the same way we analyze the characters in the ballet and look for similarities to the novel, its scenery and references to historic places, locales, and architecture or monuments must be commented upon as well. Moscow is a very different city from St. Petersburg, a market bazaar in the middle east, or America, and requires some references in conjunction with the action to make the ballet work. The ideas may be very complicated and surreal, multi-layered and fractured, but it is set against a city, abstract and full of surprises, but nevertheless permanent (or so it would seem) and realistic; the drama and the feelings it conveys form a central feature of the story and it is more apparent what their importance is exactly when they so obviously have failed to have been accounted for at all. It is as though the life in the novel is less than expressed due to the lack of enough references by the choreographer.

The stone steps of the Moscow River at the former Cathedral site (Christ the Savior) where Ivan swims in the water, is the only significant reference to the city in the ballet’s scenery design and these steps also figure in the scenes of the biblical story, too, where they somehow seem more effective.   The last Supper is referenced, and a table-this is done pretty well in a painterly way, and reminds one of the Da Vinci painting in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy. This is also the first major instance of two-point perspective, which could also be an added point of interest in the libretto. There is no reference to Pushkin or Gogol in the ballet whatsoever, or to the Iron Statue, or other literary references which the novel is specifically about. The Pashkov house isn’t referenced at all or any other great beautiful monument. The places mentioned in the novel are all famous, or have become so, and people do want familiar references to be made in ballet as well as to be reminded of some positive aspects of their culture. It is a long ballet (over 2 hours) and one has to wonder what is really being said in all that time.

No Patriarch’s Pond, Herzen House (Griboedov), Spaso mansion, hospital, swimming pool, or residences indicate by sets, exist, which would serve to isolate some of the action into interiors, or well-known places. There is no realistic lighting, trees, or other points of association, as reminders of humanity, and these reference points are so lacking in this ballet that the action is confused. There is also a lack of humor, or maudlin humor, which is worse. That depicted is not what I pictured reading the novel and not what any person reading the novel in that period of time might have experienced. There are not even any references to tangible aspects of literary life, motifs, or signs. There is practically not even the allusion to writing, a studio, or  creation of art at all-not even a desk-and no food.

There is no hope of freedom expressed in the ballet-one just gets the feeling that these characters are trapped in a glass snowglobe and not going anywhere. It is not satirical and ballet may only reference satire, such as in Don Quixote, but it is done successfully, with grace, and with humor, as well as fantasy, without being dark or depressing. When you are confronted with dead people, for instance, how can you readily tell them apart from the living? What is normal? The head is significant, as well as are other elements of the story, which without, it not only does not have the impact it would if even slightly reminiscent of the original, it is not original at all in itself, but like every other dark, and gloomy, perverse, copy of otherwise light ballets, which we can see readily in the works of other choreographers, such as Matthew Bourne.

Bulgakov’s novel is very entertaining. He was fired, but he was not put in jail. Aerosmith does not like to sing classic hits all the time, but that is their bread and butter-give the audience what they want. If the audience wants a ballet of the sort that the book implies, it can be done, but apparently not with the team chosen, or perhaps maybe not in Russia or the Ukraine, right now.

Ballet, as a rule, although some of the music has vocalizations and overall has an exotic feel to it. There is plenty of opportunity for mime in this adaptation, only it isn’t done. I think several aspects of the production are not working. For one, any great work deserves its own music. The fact that the music supplied is neither music inspired from the work itself, and there are many successful examples, or music that was written for the performance of ballet and for the story specifically, by a composer for ballet music, makes a huge difference in the production value. Instead, dark and exotic ubiquitous works are used, even jazz, and do not fit the text or reflect Russia under Stalin at all. Since it is not music written to fit the choreography, or even ballet, it seems strange in parts, that it is done as a ballet at all, as it is set music which is already famous and recognizable as accompanying certain kinds of dance. to which choreography can easily be arranged that is not ballet.

Some actual references, such as paper and money, seem trite when they are repeated without any significant change of presentation. Rather than being a ballet written against oppression, it is oppressive. It’s wit and dark humor are lost, the redeeming aspects of the novel are replaced by self-interested and “showy” dancers, who have no ballet choreography done for them, and there are an overwhelming number of male characters, or corp members who do not seem to serve much purpose-more like WIll Rogers Follies meets the Follies Berger, who seem removed from the mood and acting of the performance, or really have no investment in the story itself, or acting ability, and this does not work well with the plotline and is a distinct disappointment.

The choice of such a dark variant of the theme does not match what I visualized reading the book. These things exist in real life and that is what makes them so surreal, and in fact there is a strong emphasis on light by the author. There is a positive side to the story, a religious theme aside from the Pontius Pilate story, a matter-of-fact dark side, a horrible one, and many other references to conditions in the soviet union in the 1930’s, humor and wit, as well as the surreal, magical, and supernatural, and there are references to sex, and prostitutes, horror, but not other things-I don’t think. It is the choreographer’s intent which is also being judged-not just the author’s. But, any of these sub-texts might be implied strongly, or argued, and all are not expected to be in the ballet, just the number of things that fit or work and which are true to the text. There are deaths. This is not necessarily a children’s ballet, but technically, either was The Nutcracker.

Due to the modern approach taken by the Perm Theater and David Avdysh, the sparseness is deliberate. The Kremlin appears in one scene, a stairwell in others, a tarpaulin is used to create the dark abyss, ropes to suggest trees and other things, smoke and fog to create clouds/mist, and just a few props or furniture, such as currency, a notice/letter to associate events, rather than places.

One big cage-like construction is used to represent the asylum where Ivan is kept, and most of these types of props are not stationery, but are moved on and off, by the many corps members in the ballet, who also act as gladiators, guards, soldiers, and the masses. I think that a tram-car/train would have been a better-fitting industrialization remnant to indicate the period. The costumes were all created, specifically for the production, by the great costume designer Anna Solovieva, and the aerial lifts, and crucified Jesus, and some symbolic items such as the park bench, Woland’s cane, the whips, were apparently deemed more suggestive of the atmosphere and proceedings of the novel, than trying to recreate the scenery of Moscow or Palestine, exactly. or other descriptions in the novel.

Overall this is an important ballet and I feel that it needs to be done well and promoted as adaptations of the book should be to an honest and artistic degree. It does lend some visualization, or alternative views to the characterizations of the central characters, but little to the rest as they are impossible with the lack of information to identify completely, and sometimes there is too much going on, on-stage, and the choreography is not always that good, but in other parts it is pretty good, but it could be better, and especially the arrangement and flow of the scenes, definition between acts, and of course cutting and reworking of some scenes, changing of choreography to make it better. You cannot change the music, choreography, and everything else and call it the same ballet. It needs a lot of work, but it should not be abandoned.



Alicia Alonso: Cuba’s first lady of ballet – BBC News

In 1959, Prima ballerina Alicia Alonso founded the Cuban National Ballet following Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Source: Alicia Alonso: Cuba’s first lady of ballet – BBC News

David Howard

via An Interview with Master Dance Teacher David Howard.

Keenan Kampa

Here is an interview with a ballet dancer, who takes the adage seriously, “actions speak louder than words.” It also exhibits her real belief in others’ abilities to dance if they can only be taught. It shows she is really willing to give her time to make this possible. A glimmer, and a faint hope can turn an idea into an exciting and real opportunity to change some lives if the persistence to make that happen one way or the other rallies.

Her desire seems simple. I think it comes from someone helping you, reach a certain pinnacle, and you wanting to give back-carry that torch. I doubt there are many interviews like this one in the world of ballet, or that the ones that do exist are as innocent and heartfelt, as this one obviously is. That is why I feel it is important. It shows another aspect of the dancing chain, that dancers and ballet are not one-sided.

I admire Keenan for trying to help people to overcome issues and obstacles in their lives, teach discipline, strengthen and empower them with physical or other disabilities. Dance is also a language to communicate dreams, hopes, and to express emotions and thoughts, without which we might otherwise might feel powerless to express in conventional forms of communication.

I had an autistic friend when I was a child. He really was more sensitive, more attentive to you, more focused. He reached right into your soul-directly, sometimes too intensely, and he held you accountable, forced you to be real with him. He could do all of the things he wanted to physically, without filters, and completely express himself, though not as well verbally, but people generally didn’t listen to him. This frustrated him, as you would be frustrated if someone wasn’t listening to you. He was speaking.

I have known other serious (non-autistic) artists who were able to communicate through their instrument more effectively than with words, especially in music-it is very nearly the same idea.  If ballet and dance are perceived more as languages, and art, and less sport, people would get it.

Perhaps this is an aspect of Keenan that will bring her, and those she helps,  tangible rewards! It seems Ms. Kampa’s thinking is in the long range, very astute! Reblogged from Ballet’s Best Photographs for posterity.

▶ Tamara Karsavina On Dancing in ‘Giselle’ with Vaslav Nijinsky in Paris in 1910



▶ Tamara Karsavina On Dancing in ‘Giselle’ with Vaslav Nijinsky in Paris in 1910 – YouTube.

John Neumeier

ballet Sylvia foto angela sterling


Reposted from:  Gerard Mosterd Interview/John Neumeier/danspubliek

John Neumeier in the Netherlands
Part 1: Introduction and history of the ballet Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane

by Gerard Mosterd

Sylvia, ou La Nymphe de Diane was the first classical ballet to premiere in 1876 in the newly built Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera. Louis Merante’s choreography was based on a complex pastoral poem of the Renaissance. Ariosto and Torquato Tasso’s text tells the tale of the shepherd Aminta’s love for the nymph Sylvia. She initially upholds her duty as a companion of the goddess Diana but the god of love Eros finally melts her heart, and the ballet ends in the original and subsequent versions with a happy ending. A radically new production by the renowned choreographer John Neumeier which was commissioned in 1997 by the Paris Opera gives it a tragic end.

Neumeier belongs to a generation of legendary dancer-choreographers who have been able to develop with the Stuttgart Ballet which since the sixties has been a prominent ballet company and world famous for its unique repertoire of classic and contemporary narrative ballets. It was led by the South African choreographer John Cranko who died tragically young, and his successor Glen Tetley who has been active in the Netherlands as well. The Stuttgart Ballet brought forth many choreographers who have played a decisive role in European dance theater circles in the last three decades of the 20th century. To name a few alongside John Neumeier: Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Pierre Wyss, and Uwe Scholz. Neumeier, like Cranko is a strong storyteller and creator of literary-inspired, full-length productions such as La Dame aux Camelias and A Street Car Named Desire. He has now led the Hamburg Ballet for 38 years and is director of the Hamburg State Opera Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet School. He has an extensive repertoire and is responsible for the discovery and development of remarkable dance talents.

Neumeier is known for his sensitive, lyrical, modern pas de deux, and there are more than enough in Sylvia. Occasionally we see in it an absurd twist of humor such as we know from his contemporary Mats Ek. The dances are expertly made, guided by the romantic melodies of Leo Delibes. While Neumeier’s Sylvia builds on the tradition of classical ballet its narrative style is abstract in comparison to all previous versions of the ballet Sylvia. These include that of Sir Frederick Ashton which was created for Margot Fonteyn and is one of the most successful. Ashton opted for the Arcadian and idyllic love story with elements of mime, Neumeier created a more contemporary version by combining a drastically simplified libretto with a tight staging. No old-fashioned landscapes, shepherds, satyrs and bacchanalia but a minimalist design by the Greek designer, Yannis Kokkos.

Neumeier’s movement idiom can be described as late 20th century, neoclassical expressionism. The use of academic positions, jumps and turns are passionately combined with influences from jazz and modern dance. Swinging legs, flexed feet, contracting hips and spines betray a transition phase in the history of Western, academic theatrical dance. Part of a process in which the body of the ballet dancer will eventually loosen the straitjacket that the rules of classical ballet’s geometrical system prescribed.

Sylvia is a historic ballet and delves into history as a stimulus for new developments. Thus, this ballet is the reason why Diaghilev left the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet in able to introduce the Russian Ballet to Western Europe. The result was a renewed worldwide interest and impetus to dance with the legendary ‘Ballet Russes’. The first version of Sylvia broke with the romantic spirit and ethereal image of women by imagining her as a valiant, virile rider with bow and arrow.

The innovative music by Leo Delibes – Tchaikovsky was at the time, jealous – is one of the best ballet scores in history and many renowned choreographers have been encouraged to create a new choreography to it. Almost all of them struggled with the complicated story. The music is packed with highly danceable melodies and picturesque moods as well as the unusual use of epic Wagnerian leitmotifs.

john neumeier foto holger badekow

Interview Special

John Neumeier in The Netherlands

(photo © Holger Badekow)
Interview with John Neumeier (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 24 februari 1942) by Gerard Mosterd, at the Dutch National Ballet.

Nearly the whole world has seen and applauded ballets by John Neumeier. But we hardly ever see your work in the Netherlands. This is the first time you are letting a Dutch company perform your work. Have you ever performed here with The Hamburg Ballet?

‘We were here years ago with my company as a guest in The Amsterdam Music Theatre, performing my Saint Matthew Passion. I remember that because I was dancing in it myself, but I can’t remember what the second piece was.’

I remember you as a dancer from when I was learning the role of Hortensio in Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, with London Festival Ballet. I had to pick up the steps from two old videos – one in which Jirí Kylián was dancing Hortensio and the other in which you danced the role.

‘Yes, I was first cast for that role when Cranko created it. Stuttgart was my first company. I was dancing there before Jirí arrived. I saw Cranko’s work when I was a student in the United States.’

To what extent has your choreographic career been influenced by the great storyteller Cranko?

‘I don’t think John Cranko was the greatest influence on my own choreographic work. I’d say he created narrative ballets along fairly direct and simple lines. I was fortunate enough to be with Stuttgart Ballet during its most creative period and left the company in November 1969. In my search for what dance means to me, I have been mainly influenced by American musical films.’

And the classic question: how did you originally come into contact with dance?

‘I don’t know – I can’t answer that one. It was something very instinctive for me, as nobody from my family had links to dance. In Milwaukee, where I lived, there wasn’t much dance. There was no important dance academy, no major theatre and no company at all. There were just two guest companies that sometimes performed twice a year: American Ballet Theatre and the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. During my ballet training, I was studying at the university of Milwaukee, which also had a theatre. I took ballet classes in Chicago, 145 kilometers away, and created my first ballet and musicals for the university theatre before I came over to Europe.’

Sylvia is a historic ballet, about which there is plenty of interesting information. What prompted you to make a new version of it?

‘It was definitely the music by Delibes that convinced me to create a new version of Sylvia. I knew the music from my Royal Ballet School period, when I danced In Ashton’s version myself. So I was already familiar with this wonderful piece of music. When I was asked at a press conference whether I could imagine making a new version of the full-length Coppélia, I immediately said no, but suddenly got the idea that Sylvia might be a possibility. Brigitte Lefèvre from the Paris Opera then contacted me straight away and said, “We’d like you to come and make a new version of Sylvia for us.” I made the commitment on the basis of the music, but then I had to start working with the libretto, which turned out to be more problematic than I’d imagined. I had previously created a work for the Paris Opera.’

How did you transform Ariosto and Tasso’s complex libretto, and what is the essence of your version?

‘If you’re dealing with the dramatic structure of a ballet and it’s based on literature, I think it’s always important to go as far back to the source as possible, because we don’t dance the words themselves but ‘why’ the words were written. What is the motivation and what are the active verbs behind the words? I went back to Torquato Tasso. The libretto used for the first version is so complicated and absurd that I used very little of it. When you read Tasso, there is a sensuality in that pastoral play that is similar to the music in a way. And from there on it was important to me to create a collection of characters in whom I could believe, and whose motives I could defend and say yes – such a person could really exist. Sylvia, for example, is a clear case of a girl obsessed with ambition, which we can easily understand in the dance world and the world of athletics. We have this fixation about being the best, so that we can become immersed in our work to the extent that we give up everything else.

And then we have Aminta, who I see as a sort of Charlie Chaplin; a kind of character who’s both sincere and humble and effaces himself to the point that he can’t break through Sylvia’s ambition. And then the manipulative character of Diana, who’s so absurd that she’s important. In the original version, she only appeared for one and a half minutes at the end of the piece in a tableau. I knew it was important for us to understand the relationship of Sylvia the ‘athlete’ with her mistress. So I’ve given it a Shakespearean dimension; the fact that she isn’t what she says she is. Because we know from mythology that she had a secret lover: Endymion. And so we understand that this person who lays down the law is a human being at the same time, with human, fallible qualities.

And then there are the characters Orion and Amor. Amor is necessary as a personification of the idea of love. He comes to earth to seduce Sylvia and help her discover her sensuality. By finding these characters that shaped my storyline, I arrived at a different structure to the original libretto. The next step was to find a balance with the music which, as I said, formed my main inspiration for the piece. We know that it was a very advanced score for its time. The audience was not very enthusiastic about it, because they considered it too symphonic. Except for Tchaikovsky, who thought it was so brilliant that he found it difficult to finish his own Swan Lake. I took out some sections of the music and emphasized others. And I added some sections from another ballet by Delibes, La Source, for the character of Diana, as Diana didn’t have any music in the original piece. I then realized that from a choreographic viewpoint I wanted to withstand the 19th-century idea of ballet vocabulary. I wanted a new physical interpretation of the music, and not a parody of it.’

I happened to read online that the process of working with the Paris Opera to set Sylvia wasn’t easy for you. Why was that?

‘It is never easy to create for a company other than your own. I had my own company for a while which consists of people who know how I work. Dialogue is essential during the creation. The first time working together with the Paris Opera about ten years before Sylvia was much harder. The company was not yet as used to and comfortable with choreographers outside of their company. The creation process of Sylvia with the Paris Opera wasn’t easy because I was working on something that is a specific historical part of their tradition, while I approached it with a different way of working and a different vocabulary of movement. The original cast that I was working with was highly cooperative. Manuel Legris and Monique Loudières, Nicholas Le Riche, Elisabeth Platel, José Martinez were all fantastic. Working with a large group is always more difficult. Sylvia is part of the repertoire of the Opera and is often restaged because it forms part of the history of their tradition and at the same time opens new perspectives.’

Delibes, inspired by his contemporary, Wagner, used ‘leitmotivs’ with which he introduced, recurring themes into the structured music. Have you particularly taken that into consideration for your choreography?

‘I appreciate the influence of Wagner in the score of Delibes. The original description of the forest scene is absurd. The music however is very clear. I constructed based on the music of the forest, what I would call the ‘spirit of the forest’. No real creatures but the spirit. The associated language of movement returns where the ‘leitmotiv’ is repeated later in the piece, such as in the scene where Sylvia finds herself in the realm of the senses. We see her repeat the movements from the forest scene. The same with Amor when he returns to earth, he imitates the movements of the shepherds because he himself at this moment changes into a shepherd. The surprising thing is that Delibes wrote the adagio for the last pas de deux which is a summary of the relationship between the main characters and we know that this moment is traditionally the climax, the happy end of the classical ballet. I felt that this should be the same here, except that I felt it was harder to achieve: the fairy-tale of two unifying souls. To me this music has the same depth as the famous adagio pas de deux from Swan Lake. I thought that these two should meet each other but only 35 or 40 years later.’

How did you like working with Dutch National Ballet? Did you know this company previously?

‘At the time I had invited Rudi van Dantzig together with the Dutch National Ballet to perform in one of my festivals in Hamburg and we had several soloists from DNB at one of our galas. But I had not seen the company for a long time which is strange because Hamburg and Amsterdam aren’t located very far from each other. But when you work non-stop and intensively you haven’t much time to spend some place else. It was a very enjoyable experience to work with DNB. It was Ted Brandsen’s choice to add this piece to their repertoire. I think it was a perfect choice because of the familiarity of the dancers with the work of Hans van Manen and of Rudi van Dantzig, who actually make more abstract works. But in this ballet, as I explained to the dancers, the emotion ultimately comes from the movement, so a company being so focused on movement theatre fits to my mind perfectly with this piece. The dancers of DNB were very interested and pleasant to work with. They gave themselves fully during our working time together. All three casts are very interesting in their individual interpretation of this work. The process was very intensive and profound.’

March 2011

About the interviewer:

Gerard Mosterd is a theatre producer, cultural entrepreneur, choreographer, teacher and writer. He danced as a soloist with the English National Ballet and with several international ballet companies. After his dancing career he focused as a choreographer on producing contemporary dance performances based on Eurasian themes, staged annually at Dutch theatres and theatres in South-East Asia. With his agency Kantor Pos Gerard Mosterd brings cutting edge dance productions from Asia to Europe and vice versa. In August an Indonesian version of Stravinsky’s L´Histoire du Soldat, choreographed by Gerard Mosterd will tour the island of Java with a live orchestra and star dancers Miroto, Eko Supriyanto and Sri Qadariatin. For more information see: www.kantorpos.nl or www.gerardmosterd.com.

Reposted from http://www.danspubliek.nl/interview%20JN%20english.htm

Lauren Cuthbertson, Rupert Pennefather and Mara Galeazzi

Ballet: the secret lives of dancers

By Richard Johnson 3:26PM BST 29 Jun 2009

Richard Johnson/The Secret Lives of Dancers/The Telegraph

They were once the toast of society. But modern-day corps de ballet endure punishing working hours, crippling injuries, terrible pay and little job security. Then why do it? Richard Johnson spent a day with the Royal Ballet’s finest to find out .

Pennefather is on the balcony of the Royal Ballet building, looking down onto the piazza of Covent Garden. He’s in for morning class. It’s like they say – miss class for one day, you notice; miss class for two days, your colleagues notice; miss class for three days, your audience notices. That’s all hypothetical since the New York City Ballet announced that, because of the economic climate, they were laying off dancers. These days, nobody misses class. Not any more.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. And nor was Pennefather. ‘When I first joined the Royal Ballet,’ he says, ‘I was 18. And going out a lot. I would come in for class and wouldn’t be able to remember what I was doing – I wouldn’t even be able to lift the girls.’ As he speaks, he watches the rest of the dancers inside – stretching, intently. ‘But I grew up quickly. I had to, because life in the Royal Ballet is so competitive.’

Without question, the Royal Ballet is one of the top three companies in the world. Pennefather knows that he is lucky to work there. Although the beauty and mystique that surround the art often make it easy to forget, that’s just what ballet dancing is: a job. A tough and often thankless one. Even if you make it to the top, you’ll still be faced with short-term contracts and early redundancy.

Since the death of Rudolf Nureyev, there have been no ‘superstars’ in ballet. He was about so much more than the dance, which is why he went on to become one of the most photographed men of the 20th century. Born to an impoverished family in Russia, he ultimately died on his private island purchased with the millions he made during his dance career. That was in 1993, but he remains an inspiration to this day.

In T-shirt, tights and canvas shoes, Pennefather has the timeless quality of a Nureyev. ‘Funny that,’ he says with a smile. ‘Because our outfits have all changed. Way back, tights were made of heavy woven material and weren’t stretchy at all. You used to end up with terribly baggy knees. And I tried on a pair of ballet shoes from the olden days and they were really thick leather with a lot of material inside. When I pointed my foot, I thought, “My God, how did people dance in these?”‘

In readiness for class, he’s had breakfast. I imagined a cup of green tea. A natural yogurt maybe. But he had actually stopped off at his local café for an ‘R Pennefather’ – two fried eggs, two hash browns, two rashers of bacon and a side of baked beans. ‘I have to be careful because I’ve got a very high metabolism,’ he says. ‘And if I don’t eat, I go really skinny and weak. The girls are at risk if you’re not strong enough. You really can’t go dropping a girl.’

Pennefather didn’t get where he is today by doing that. It’s one of the reasons that he’s risen to principal so quickly – his reliability. ‘Also,’ he says, ‘certain ballerinas have given me the opportunity to work with them.’ Which sounds like a tip – if you want to get on, charm your principals. ‘I don’t really want to say that,’ Pennefather says, with a smile. ‘But some dancers in the company, I would say, have figured that out. That’s all I’m saying…’

Lauren Cuthbertson is one of the principals that Pennefather has charmed. With a BMI of 18.5, she doesn’t take a lot of lifting. ‘My body might be slender,’ she says ‘but it’s not too slender. Not too sinewy. I’m not too too, which seems to be the fashion these days. Everything has gone way beyond what is normal.’ There’s no fat on her. She looks down at her flat chest. ‘But I’ve noticed some girls recently and I’ve gone, “When did they start teaching how to grow those?”‘ The dancers are pretty and thin, or handsome and thin. And they all look so young. Dancers for the corps de ballet are most attractive to company directors in their late teens or early twenties. It’s a life of pressure, as they try to carve out a career before injuries, and age, cut it short. But to look at them all now, you wouldn’t know it. They look wonderfully happy.

Some are studying choreographers’ notations. The notations are a ballet’s steps, written down on a musical stave – a balletic score, in effect. Each line of the notations represents a different part of the body, and abstract symbols show how each part moves during the dance. As any dancer will tell you, in their darker moments, the choreographer is the real star of ballet – the dancers are just the ones who dictate how brightly that star shines.

‘As a dancer,’ Pennefather says, ‘there is only so much you can change. Johann choreographed La Sylphide, for instance, and had worked out, visually, exactly what everyone was doing. It was all thought out in his head. You don’t want to change it. Technically, if you’re on a pirouette, you can carry on turning as long as you’re in time with the music – there’s no set rule – but it doesn’t really happen like that. It’s your performance, but it’s someone else’s production.’

The dancers are very huggy and kissy. And in such an intimate job, it’s inevitable that relationships happen. Most, though, look elsewhere – even if it’s not very far. Mara Galeazzi married a Royal Ballet stage technician. ‘He always says to me, “You have so many beautiful men around you all day, with perfect, toned bodies. Why do you choose me?” He is very big, and strong, but I say to him, “That’s the beauty of it – I see so much perfection every day.'”

As the ballerinas file into class, it’s clear that a lot of perfection is down to genetics. You’re either born with a small head, a long neck, a shortened torso – or you’re not. Galeazzi, who has been one of the principals since 2003, was one of the lucky ones. ‘Actually,’ she says, ‘I was never really elastic enough. You get to a certain level, and you just can’t go any further. So you find your own way.’

Finding out the limits of what is possible can be painful. The ideal ballerina has toes that point outwards. The ‘turnout’ is the cornerstone of classical ballet. It begins at the hip and moves down to the knee, the tibia, the ankle and the foot. But if the leg isn’t turned out naturally, it can be done by stretching, which can take its toll. From the number of straps and supports, it’s clear that every dancer nurses some sort of injury.

Pennefather, for instance, is wearing a belt to help his back. And Galeazzi still has a toe fracture that she first sustained as a young dancer. It’s difficult not to feel those injuries in class (every day of the week except Sunday) however much glucosamine and calcium you take. ‘Your knees are stretched beyond their limit, your legs are over your head and your back is always bent,’ Galeazzi says. ‘I don’t think it’s a very natural way to train.’

Cuthbertson has trouble with her left foot – a sprain next to her second metatarsal. ‘Every time I go on pointe, it opens up the sprain. It just never gets any better,’ she says. ‘There’s not much blood supply there to let it heal. I’ve found that acupuncture has helped, because it’s meant to stimulate the blood flow. But, to be honest, rest is the only thing.’

The physiotherapist is in today. One former Royal Ballet physio, who came from the world of rugby and rowing, said that the dancers were ‘as hard as nails’. The chiropodist is due at 2pm. For the male dancers, the jumping and lifting puts strain on their feet, so they get bad ankles. For the female dancers, it’s all corns and bunions – the inevitable result of going on pointe. When dancing on pointe, a dancer’s entire body weight ends up on the very ends of the toes, potentially causing clawed feet, broken bones and bleeding during a performance. It’s worst when the company is doing Swan Lake. With its endless pas de bourrées – running tiptoe on the spot – it always brings the chiropodist a lot of new business.

The dancers spend the class studying every aspect and angle of themselves in the mirrors. ‘It’s a visual art,’ Pennefather says, ‘so we’re always aware of how we look. It’s not vanity. Although there are some people who are vain. Who build up, not for strength, but for appearance. I’ve never done that. You should only do what’s necessary. But you do want to look right in the part.’

The dancer Gelsey Kirkland actually felt compelled to go one stage further and had plastic surgery to improve her onstage ‘line’. She had her earlobes trimmed and her nose reduced, and silicone implants in her lips and breasts. In her tell-all autobiography, Dancing on My Grave, Kirkland details her struggles with cocaine, eating disorders, and a choreographer who made her pop amphetamines while issuing dictates like ‘must see the bones’. The dancer Heidi Guenther – who died in 1997 as a direct result of an eating disorder – was an exceptional case, yet to talk to young dancers working today, anorexia and bulimia are as much of a problem as they ever were.

It’s all about creating ‘perfection’ at every level. It was even suggested that Cuthbertson change her name because it wasn’t perfectly glamorous. She refused. ‘They said, “Try using your brother’s middle name.” My brother is Aaron Matthew Cuthbertson and Lauren Matthews sounded like a magician’s assistant. So they said, “Use your mum’s maiden name.” She’s Lewis. My middle name is Louise so I would have been Lauren Louise Lewis. Too showbiz if I’m honest.’

The 75-minute class is followed by six hours of rehearsal – often without a break. And the dancers can be rehearsing four different works in a day. ‘Maybe one involves a tutu,’ Cuthbertson says, ‘one involves a sylphlike big skirt, one is all hot pants kicking your booty around, and one is with a fan – they’re all completely different. That’s one of the things about the Royal Ballet – the mass of repertoire we have now is growing. And we have to do all of it. But that’s what I love most.’

It’s tempting to think that ballet hasn’t changed since it was formalised in the courts of 16th- and 17th-century France. But it is evolving – slowly. Galeazzi is rehearsing The Firebird, written by Stravinsky in 1910. ‘Back then, the dancers had less elasticity,’ she says. ‘Less curved feet. And less turnout in the legs. But they were amazing artists. Now I reckon dancers think more about technique.’

These days, there is certainly more science. The dancers do Gyrotonic, an exercise system that uses specially designed wooden machines with rotational discs and weighted pulleys to strengthen their muscles with flowing, circular movements. Gyrotonic looks like pilates but is more like yoga in its origin and breathing techniques. And their bodies are monitored throughout, by computer.

‘Sports scientists are getting interested in how we train,’ says Cuthbertson, ‘and how we fire certain muscles. In the olden days, if someone was injured they would just go away and, when they felt better, come back. Now, because of the science, we know what we’re going to achieve by rehabbing properly after an injury. But when we’re on stage, we don’t care if we’re firing some muscle or not. We just want to move people.’

Which is where the acting comes in. When everything else is about technique, it’s easy to forget about the acting. ‘You spend years and years at school,’ Cuthbertson says, ‘trying to make your best frappe, or your développé to the left a bit higher, or your arabesque a bit more extensive. Suddenly you join the company and the first thing is you’re acting. You’re not being this ballerina you trained for. You are pretending to be a peasant, a whore or a gipsy.’

Cuthbertson came up through the Royal Ballet system, and started boarding at White Lodge – the Royal Ballet school in Richmond Park – at the age of 11. She had no idea how hard the training would be. ‘Every class – pushing your body,’ she says. ‘I had never hurt in ballet before. But you learn. Your stamina gets better. And you become a better machine.’

She didn’t feel robbed of a childhood. ‘I was happy as Larry. I still messed around like a kid. I was always up after lights out. I had so much fun because I was quite rebellious. Whereas other girls missed out because they were always nervous about doing something wrong. I just did something wrong, and got it out of my system. At the age of 13 I was told that, if I just cruised, I wouldn’t make it. That stuck. And I realised then that ballet was what I wanted to do.’

Pennefather danced because his sister danced. And he loved it. But when he went to a mixed school in Maidenhead, things turned nasty. ‘Boys at that age don’t really understand about ballet,’ he says. ‘They think it’s feminine. They call you names. And it’s not great. I know one boy who had his shins completely kicked in because he did ballet. It can be terrible. I did nearly give up at one point – everyone got to me – but my parents helped me through it.’ And he’s so glad they did.

But all too soon it’s over. Galeazzi, at the age of 34, is considering her future. Ironic really because, she says, ‘right now I feel I’ve got real control of the stage’. She still wants to have a family, although returning to ballet after a family isn’t out of the question. Darcey Bussell did it. And when she came back they said she was better than ever. She had realised there was life outside ballet. But that’s what happens to dancers – as their emotional maturity increases, their physical ability decreases.

Even though Pennefather and Cuthbertson are young and very successful, the thought of retirement hangs over them all the time. ‘I’m 24 and I’ve only got another 12 years to 15 years max. And then it will all be over. And I bet I’ll feel then like I feel now.’ A lot of older dancers go into teaching. But Pennefather thinks he’ll fancy a change by then. A film-directing course maybe. Cuthbertson wants to be a fashion buyer for a store, or a milliner. Galeazzi wants to go back to composing music. Whatever they decide, it’s unlikely they will have much of a pension to fall back on.

Some principals at the Royal Ballet negotiate salaries for themselves – some appoint an agent. ‘When I started out,’ Pennefather says, ‘I was on £1,100 a month. Now they start on something like £1,500 a month.’ As dancers move from first artist to soloist to first soloist to principal, they get a rise. But the biggest rise is from principal to highly paid media darling.

Nureyev was the wealthiest man in ballet, with an estate, estimated in Vanity Fair, at $80 million. Other estimates were noticeably less, at between $15 million and $25 million. But there are reports as late as 1977, the heyday of the ‘dance boom’, when the Kirov émigrés were making up to $10,000 a performance, that Nureyev still demanded cash payments on occasion and still got them. Sylvie Guillem made thousands for every show she did in Japan. But there’s only one Sylvie Guillem.

And, these days, it seems society only has room for one Sylvie Guillem. During the golden age, of course, the great ballerinas were the toast of all society. ‘I do sometimes wish I was in on the Ballet Russes,’ Cuthbertson says. ‘On that train with Diaghilev. When ballet was fashionable and pioneering and something that people looked up to. Nowadays, to a lot of people, it’s something that belongs in a museum.’

Reposted from :  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/5686154/Ballet-the-secret-lives-of-dancers.html

Maria Alexandrova

maria alexandrova

Reblogged from: Katherine Kanter/Maria Alexandrova/Dansomanie

Maria Alexandrova is one of the Bolchoï’s most gifted individuals. After her triumphs at Paris in The Bright Stream and The Pharaoh’s Daughter in January 2004, she was appointed principal, and now dances the lead in most of the great classical repertory. In May 2005, as she was about to make her début as Odile/Odette, Maria Alexandrova granted Dansomanie a lengthy interview. Many thanks to her, and to our Russian friends who made this exceptional event possible.Maria Alexandrova, Principal au Bolchoï

  1. I. Training


How did you come to take an interest in the ballet?

It’s so common a tale ! People came round to select children for gymnastics lessons at our kindergarten. They told us it was artistic gymnastics. But my mother looked into it, and found out that in fact it was sportive gymnastics, and she put her foot down. It was No! So she took me to the dance workshop known as “Kalinka”.

There were many such workshops at Moscow, and “Kalinka” belonged to a House of Culture. They were amateurs. I have no idea who financed it, whether it was the Culture Ministry or some public body. In any event, it was financed by the State.

We performed in the Tchaikovsky auditorium. It was often done so in the USSR. I was tiny, only four, and they told me to come back in six months. I cried so much they remembered me when I came back six months later, and so they let me join. I attended “Kalinka” for many years, more or less until I joined the Theatre School. I loved dancing, and took part in every one of the group’s performances. Mum says that I threw myself into it. Like all little girls, I loved the costumes. One day, I saw a television programme on the Vaganova School. I realised that one could actually study dancing. I recall suddenly realising that this was what I wanted. I was a tiny school child at the time, and “Kalinka” was just a hobby. But it was then I knew that one could learn how to dance seriously, just as one learns an academic subject. I told my parents, very firmly, that I intended to enter the Vaganova. School. I was only eight. .

So it was a personal and not a family decision?

It was strictly personal. My family had nothing whatsoever to do with classical dance, nor could anyone help me prepare the entrance exam or later, with my training.

My mum talked to Nadejda Nesterova, my teacher at Kalinka, who had studied at the Vaganova School and had danced in the Stanislavski Theatre troupe. Nadejda Nesterova told Mum that I was the only child in her group to whom she might have suggested a stage career. But for my part, I had no sense of being special, I simply wanted to learn how to dance.

Finally, Mum decided to enter me for the exam, but at the last minute, she worried. She said we had no relations in the dance world, and that I’d find it hard to get ahead. I said that I’d stop my ears to all such talk, and that I was sure to be accepted, no matter what. At the end of the day, my family did support me: my mother liked classical dance, and was not opposed to her daughter’s becoming an opera pupil. And that is how it all began!

At the age of nine, I joined the preparatory class, and after one year, in 1988, the Theatre School. About a fortnight elapses between the end of exams, and the date the results are made public. During that fortnight, I’d left for a pioneers camp on holiday. I constantly nagged the camp’s director to let me telephone Moscow from his office, claiming that I was expecting important results; so everyone knew what was going on. Today, I realise that I had no real hardships, neither when it came to being accepted into the School, nor to move up from one form to the next. As each year ended, there were exams to pass into the next form; at the end of the first and fifth years, there was an extra exam at the end of the first semester.

What are the requirements to enter the Theatre School, now called the Academy, at Moscow?

There are three steps. The first is a medical exam, where many children are rejected. The doctors look at the children’s heart, breathing, eyes, ears, spine, arches, etc. Then they check to see whether the children’s morphology is suited to the classical dance, which means flexibility, the position of the legs, turnout and extension. At the third stage, if the child has already had dance training, he shows what he can do, otherwise, the examiners see whether he has a sense of rhythm. They play a tune, and we clap in time to the beat. When I took the exam to join the preparatory class, I had only passed the rhythm test. But at the end of the next year, I could already dance the polka!

Tell us about your teachers.

I’ve worked with several teachers, and feel gratitude towards them all. Apart from the preparatory class, that is not mandatory, studies at the Moscow School take eight years: five years for the middle forms (the School), and the three last years for the higher forms (Academy). My teachers were outstanding. The first three years I worked with Ludmila Alexeevna Kolenchenko. She was very demanding, and we were scared of her.

She taught us to respect our future vocation: it begins with a sense of discipline and self-respect. We were children, but she drew our attention to the fact that we were to take up a serious and difficult trade, that calls for great commitment, and that we would have to work hard if we were to achieve anything. She taught us to respect ourselves and our colleagues in the trade.

We were brought up in an environment of rather stern discipline. When I think back on it now, I understand that although it was hard, and sometimes even harsh on the children, it bore fruit. We learnt, for example, never to judge the other pupils’ performance on stage. Analysing performances was done during a personal interview between pupil and teacher, to avoid public remarks. We discussed what had gone well, and what had failed to come off. The discussion never took place before onlookers. I cannot exactly recall precisely, but I do know that we discussed on public performances or the exams in a tight circle of friends, and certainly never in public.

Ludmila Kolenchenko focussed essentially on the legs and feet, which was good training for us. Then we changed teacher. During my first two years at the School, and my first year at the Academy, I studied with Larissa Valentinovka Dobrjan. She was concerned that we become young ladies; we were between 13 and 15 at the time. She brought in the torso, the arms, the hands. She stressed the feminine beings that we were about to become. She taught us how to make the public sit up and take notice, not only on account of our technique, but also by our stage deportment, and the way we held ourselves.

The last two years’ study were with Sofia Nikolaïevna Golovkina who was the head of the Academy. She had been a renowned dancer with the Bolchoï, as Nikiya, Raymonda, Kitri, Swanilda, Aurore and Odette-Odile and in the main roles of Soviet ballets such as The Flames of Paris, The Red Poppy and The Fountain of Bakhtchissaraï. One reads that what made the difference in her case, was temperament, the impetuous rhythm of her dance and her great virtuosity. I learnt a great deal from her. Sofia Golovkina turned us into actresses, she showed us what it means to have a presence, to hold the stage, rather than playing the pretty puppet who tells her public: «look at the tricks I can do with my arms and legs». That is not enough; “one must be in command of one’s own self. When you take the stage, you must forget everything. On stage, you are unique, the public sees you alone.”

Everything our professors sought to give, I’ve taken it into myself, and that has helped to make the dancer Masha Alexandrova as she is today. And she’s not bad, I think! I recall everything they taught me, I admire those people, and I am grateful to them.

Did you have an idol amongst the dancers when you were a pupil?

No, I never had an idol whom I wanted to be like. Even as a child, I looked to something personal. Which is not to say that we didn’t worship the dancers of that day, they were Gods to us. They were already part of the Theatre, while we were merely at the School; the Bolchoï Theatre was our Mount Olympus.

It wasn’t until I came to the Theatre to take my final exams that I learnt that there was a canteen. Before then, when I’d performed on stage as a student, I’d make a beeline straight down the path from our dressing room to the stage, nor would I have dared to disturb the artists or pester them. They were Gods to us! Of course Galina Ulanova and Marina Semenova stood on a pedestal. They were living legends, and when one happened across them in the Theatre, one froze. I never saw Semenova on stage, but when I met her in the corridors, I was terrified. Marina Semenova always froze my blood. Children are very sensitive – and perhaps I was especially sensitive! – to what they imagine to be stern. That is what I felt before Semenova. When I saw her close up for the first time in the Theatre (I was dancing in the première of Grigorievich’s Bayadère and Semenova was coaching Galina Stepanenko as Nikiya, I slunk about in corners, trying to be invisible and hoping she wouldn’t notice my presence.

Later, once I’d joined the company, I realised that my childhood fears did indeed correspond to reality. Semenova has great energy, and she is very authoritarian, a strong and very brillant personality, a woman of iron determination. And when we began to discuss, and I looked at her photos, I felt admiration for her. I studied with her.

My encounter with Galina Ulanova occurred more or less at the same time. In truth, I rarely saw her. I never feared her, but I wouldn’t have dared to disturb her all the same. She was very gentle, and I did not wish to ruffle her calm. Such personalities are a mountain inside themselves, and one recognises that straightaway. They are huge cliffs, so solid that nothing can shake them.

Did you too intend to reach such pinnacles?

I believe that all human beings have it within them to ascend to such heights. But the opportunity to do so, perhaps, is not readily available to all. When one comes across such persons, they wake in one the desire to find within oneself such strength. Not in the sense of climbing a peak; no, it’s not that. I’ve never wanted to be Number One, but I have always wanted to excel. As I see it, those are two very different things.

To be the first, is to be a hero for a day, while the next moment someone else takes one’s place. To excel, has to do with duration; it is a long-term process. From my childhood days, I couldn’t imagine my future life without the Bolchoï, I never thought of working anywhere else. But never did I imagine that I would reign over this stage. Everything that has happened, has been dictated by love, a very great love.

What are the key aspects in the training of a classical dancer?

When I was a child, the emphasis was essentially on artistic expression. From the outset, the demand was « whether you can shew something other than technique»? That is how they explained what is meant by expressivity in the dance. It is something peculiar to the Russian dancers. Even where technique has been somewhat lacking, Russian dancers have always had something that draws the eye to the body and the face. What the legs do is not always gone into in depth. Of course one could place more stress on expressivity through legwork. In classical dance, one must properly coordinate the legs with the torso, the back, the arms. I believe that coordination is of the essence. But something is lacking… Through expression, through one’s soul, one can make up for certain flaws, whereas the other way round is harder: technique alone will never convey in an instant the lightness, the enthusiasm and then, in the next instant, sadness.

One cannot enrich an idea with technique. Only the spiritual qualities that one has within allow one to reveal sentiment, to shew a human being on stage, rather than a mere machine. It is hard to explain how such a result is achieved, as everything is important: the eyes, ears, smile, arms, even the little finger, and the way one carries the head. A gesture may be ever so tiny, but one will nevertheless sense it from the fourth balcony. One can hold one’s head in such and such a way, to shew pride, or to shew sadness. It’s like the speaking voice, where the words may remain the same, but intonation accentuates or intensifies emotion.

In Russia, what role does music education play in the training of dancers?

We all took music lessons at the School, where our education revolved revolving around three main poles:
– general schooling, which means learning everything one would study at the Lower and Upper schools;
– specific ballet training,
– music, and, in my case, piano. The programme was not as rigorous as in Music Conservatories, but we did study hard. That being said, since leaving School eight years ago, I’ve not touched the piano, which doesn’t mean that I think music education should be neglected. But I must admit that I was never pleased with the sounds that I produced on that magnificent instrument, and one does feel that it deserves rather more!

Did you take part in Bolchoï performances whilst you were studying? Does the School present shows on the Bolchoï stage?

I took part in La Bayadère, and I’ll never forget it – I was one of the little girls in the Manou dances. We attended most of the rehearsals, and the dress rehearsal too, and we saw all the artists. The rehearsals lasted almost a month. The Theatre is quite another world from the School, and at the time, it seemed so far-off and inaccessible. That was in 1991. I was 14. Before that, we had danced on the Bolchoï stage, but only in School performances, which was not the same.

School performances are often given at the Bolchoï, the end-of-year performance is mandatory, and in addition, there are four more shows during the School Year (there were used to be even more). I took part in all the School shows, except for one year when I was rehearsing a pas de deux entitled The Storks. Throughout that year, I felt somehow uneasy. And the next year, when I returned to the stage for a School show, I suddenly realised that was it – I had missed being on stage!

At the end of your studies, you won a gold medal at the Moscow competition, did’nt you?.

I finished my studies in 1996, but the Examination Committee and Rector asked me to stay one further year at the school to prepare the Paris Competition for January 1997 and Mocow for the following summer. At the end of the day, no-one was sent to Paris.

As for Moscow, well three days before the School shows began, and a fortnight before the Moscow competition, by father died. Mlle. Golovkina suggested that I not take part in the competition. I had virtually collapsed when I learnt of my father’s death. But he had wanted me to take part, and to win, and I decided not to withdraw. I would lose a year, and I knew that I had to overcome my grief, or I might be broken, once and for all. My mother supported me in this.

Perhaps it was my self-respect and respect for our profession that dictated that decision. When my teachers and friends heard what I had decided to do, they were of various minds: «No-one insists that you must go ahead with it at all costs», said some, while others asserted the contrary. One of my teachers said: «Macha, I’m proud of you, and I know that your father would be». Yes, it was hard. I felt nothing but the loss, and no other emotion. I cannot recall anything of the first two rounds, it went by in a haze. I came to my wits only when I passed into the third round. I then realised that I’d been taking part in a competition, and that I was striving towards something. I began to take the measure of the world about me, and my place therein..

How did you react when you learnt that you’d won?

I waited until half-past midnight, when the results were announced. There are strange coincidences. I’d been walking about Moscow alongside two lads who’d taken the entrance exam to the School with me. We’d all three been admitted out of 90 candidates. Thereafter, we studied together in the same class. I met them after the third round, they hadn’t taken part. We walked about town, and then returned to the Theatre to learn of the results. I knew at that moment that one cycle in my existence had ended, a cycle begun and ended with those same two lads. And a new life opened.

When I learnt that I’d won, I felt neither joy nor enthusiasm. I had merely done what I was intended to do. I knew what was essential then – not to be the first, but to excel. That same obsession !


Is it not one and the same?

Not really. A competition is rather like a sporting match, where chance and circumstance play their role. A little like the theatre, when the roles are cast! It’s not always so wonderful to be first. At the competition, I was first, but it had not all been impeccable, nor had I succeeded in everything I’d attempted. One must first attempt to excel.


Was the outcome significant, in career terms?

I don’t think so. Had I really been, secretly as it were, so very proud of that medal, had I thought of it as an exploit, I should doubtless have « talked it up ». But I never did. Neither in the Theatre, nor in Management does anyone recall the medal, indeed, most people didn’t even know it had happened!


  1. II. My career with the Bolchoï


You joined the Bolchoï in late summer 1997?

Yes, in late August, as is the custom, we were presented when the entire troupe met. We arrived at the Theatre with Svetlana Lunkina and Alexandre Volchkov. When I saw the troupe, I realised that I was new to them, that everything I’d done before counted as nought, that I’d have to start from scratch. In their eyes, I was a little girl, who had to fight for the right to go down onto that stage. Perhaps I was too hard on myself then, in thinking that I had to make a clean slate of the past, and start from nothing. And that was precisely the moment that the Bolchoï Management changed. Those who had been awaiting the outcome of the Moscow competition left, and Alexandre Bogatyrev took over. My modest performance was of no interest ! I joined the corps de ballet, and started in Giselle, a peasant amongst all the other girls, holding a basket and plucking grapes. And a Willi, in the great ensemble, tightly-packed as herrings! But I took part in that only twice or thrice. I danced in the corps de ballet in Les Sylphides once, I did the Snowflake Waltz in the Nutcracker, and once, a dryad in Don Quixote’s Dream.


So you spent little time in the corps de ballet?

As I later found out, the maître de ballet had told Management that he could not place within the ensembles, as so much work would have been needed to bring the other girls up to that level. Officially, though, I remained in the corps de ballet for one year, and then for one further year, as coryphée. But the real situation was different. During that time, I danced in groups of two, three, four or six persons. And at the same time, I held soloist roles, for the first time in the autumn if 1997, where I danced the Queen of the Ball in Lavrovski’s Fantasy on the Casanova Theme. In November of that year, I was given my second soloist role, the so-called « jump » solo in the Grand pas of Don Quixote. That’s when my name first appeared on the Bolchoï posters. On December 27th, there was the première of Vassiliev’s new version of Giselle, where I danced Myrtha. The critics saluted Vassiliev’s audacity in picking very young dancers for his second cast: S.Lunkina (Giselle), N.Tsikaridzé (Albrecht) and myself as Myrtha. Since then, I’ve come to love the personage of Myrtha. They say I’m good in the role, and the performance was recorded on commercially-available video. During my first tours with the Bolchoï, I danced the Temperament Fairy in “Beauty”.


Who instructs your roles?

From my very first day in the Theatre, I’ve been working with Tatiana Nikolaevna Golikova, artist emeritus, who was herself the pupil of Elizabeta Gerdt, Sulamith Messerer and Marina Semenova. Tatiana Golikova was a renowned artist who held many roles at the Bolchoï: Odette-Odile , Kitri, Mahméné-Banou in the Legend of Love, Aegina in Spartacus, Liuska in The Golden Age, la child-queen in The Little Humpbacked Horse, the Fisherman’s Wife in Ondine, and so many others. I have also prepared some roles with Tatiana Terekhova and Nicolas Fadeechev.

Which ballets have marked your career to date?

Well, of course Myrtha. That was my first ballerina role, and it was during my first year at the Theatre. At the time, it was unusual, as artists in their first year were rarely given to interpret a role, one generally had to « sit it out » for three years.

Then there was the Third Movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, in March 1999, I was but twenty. No-one thought I could dance it, but my partner Nicolas Tsikaridzé, insisted. And until those performances ended at the Bolchoï, we were the only cast for that movement, although there were two casts for the other movements.

The following year, in February 2000, I danced my third role, the Empress in Eifman’s Red Hamlet, a heavy role. I imagine that Eifman, when the rehearsals began, hadn’t the slightest idea of who I was. I was 21, and Eifman was unfamiliar with our troupe. At the time, the Bolchoï Management was authoritarian, and I had simply been imposed on him for the role, I was young and had no choice.

But a fortnight before the première, another dancer arrived, and changed everything. I became second cast. We were praised, some even wrote that the second cast had been better than the first, which was new in our Theatre! But I wasn’t sorry – after all, the first cast had to be a dancer well-known to the choreographer and to the public. Eifman wanted two dress rehearsals and for the second cast, he invited the public and the press. The Russian Hamlet was given seven times, I danced five shows, and even some with the first cast. I did the Theatre a favour, as the dancer in the first cast had to take a contract elsewhere. Then the ballet went out of repertory. I liked dancing it though, and the public enjoyed it, it was sold out. The ballet was worthwhile and the choreography, new to me. It was a chance to put art before the acrobacy that he also wanted: I had to come down from a height of 4.5 metres, although I suffer from vertigo!

You suffer from vertigo, and you did that? 

Well, as I said in an earlier interview: «Imagine how I’d have jumped, had I not been terrified of heights?» Early on, with Eifman, I thought I’d fall. In the Russian Hamlet I had to walk myself through several stages. I understood that to avoid falling, one had to « dig one’s nails in » as it were. One had to figure it out, learn that if one has but a single second, one must do a single firm gesture, hold on and place one’s wrist securely.

And then I realised that for a lift to be beautiful, one mustn’t throw oneself at it, but rather make oneself familiar with the entire flow of movement, from beginning to end. I learnt a great deal by working on that ballet, and then the “memory of the body” came into play. I realised that the body could do certain movements that I’d never before thought of. And that in doing them I could, as though lightly, emerge from tight situations without anyone realising how hard it had been. For someone in the grip of so powerful a phobia as I’d had, that was a breakthrough.

And then?

After the Russian Hamlet, I was typecast as the tough-as-nails heroine. The gate to the classical repertory was slammed shut, in other words. I was given the “Rising Star” prize by the magazine « Ballet ». A month later, I danced Kitri in Don Quixote, and then, two months later, Ramzé in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, a role that got me a Golden Mask nomination.

Late in the year 2000, I danced Gamzatti in La Bayadère. But I was made to understand that things could not go on that way, that the tutu-repertoire was not for me, not my style. At best, I could expect to be given a variation or a second role, but no more.

It was odd – on the one hand, a brilliant rise – everyone said the young girl had qualities – while on the other, my wings were clipped. So, for two years I was given no major roles, just secondary figures, or the hero’s friend. And “my” ballets: Hamlet, Symphony in C, The Pharaoh’s Daughter, went out of repertory. Finally, I was given to dance Aegina in Spartacus, a single performance. I insisted on dancing with a provocative red wig, and shocked, let’s say, half of the balletomanes. But the other half were quite carried away. That single performance did make waves, in the newspapers, and in the seasonal press roundup.

Quite by accident, I was given two performances of La Sylphide; the Bolchoï was on tour, I was not, and had little to do. The role was my dream, because we were, after all, trained as classical dancers! Another yet went by. During those three years, I could have done much more. My life in the theatre allowed me to « taste » of every genre: a little classical dance, modern dance whether on pointe or barefoot, and character dance in heeled shoes. But it is only now that I’ve begun to dance the great classical repertory.

The Bright Stream, in the spring of 2003, was another major step forward, thanks to which I emerged from the shadows. It was well received by the public and by the critics, a great joy for me, and also, a turning of the tables, when the four domestic Golden mask awards were given to Alexeï Ratmanski the choreographer, to the dancers Sergueï Filin and Gennadi Yanin, and one for me.

Now let me admit that at first, I’d turned the role down. My plan was to prepare Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, but no partner had been found for me, so I could not dance it. So I had to agree to dance The Bright Stream.

For ages people tried to talk me into believing that it was a tailor-made role for me, while I retorted that Alexeï Ratmanski had tailor-made it for on himself: he’d walk into the studio with the choreography all worked out. We rehearsed for six weeks, but we got the basics down pat in a mere fortnight. Early on, we began to work on the stage, stringing together whatever was “ready to go”. That was an interesting time.

The Bright Stream is a burlesque, and each artist would improvise little things, wherever his imagination led. Incredible but true, Ratmanski accepted nearly all the suggestions we artists made! The troupe had fun with it, and we pulled off our comedy !

In December 2003, Romeo & Juliet was an important step forward for me as an actress, an adventure. In that ballet, I had to be natural, not put on. Otherwise, Juliet could not be herself, and the show would have been a parody. Shakespeare and Prokofiev are men of genius. And in that show, there was a contradiction between form and content. The only solution I found was to make Juliet as human as could be, sincere. I regret none of my roles, I have always given everything of myself to them, and I have lived each personage in the depth of my being.

I’ve learnt from each of those roles, I love them all, I’ve thrown myself into them. With Romeo, something very droll happened. For the longest time, I couldn’t imitate Juliet’s laughter. I couldn’t even speak on stage, and as for laughing, that was almost impossible. Only the child’s laugh at the ball could I manage. But the show calls for another “laugh”, that I rarely utter, only when I want to laugh, and that’s not often. It’s happens in the scene where I’m preparing to go to the ball, pulling on my dress: we rehearsed that laugh, several times, and finally decided to do without, because I just couldn’t. Although in that scene, it’s not all that crucial. But what was crucial, was the fact that I couldn’t laugh at the end, and he wanted that. I couldn’t do it, even in rehearsal, alone with my teacher of Radu Poklitaru [the choreographer of this new version of Romeo & Juliet – editor].

And then one day, I was at home, slicing tomatoes for salad. I thought to myself “let’s try it”, and burst out laughing out loud. Madder than a hatter: I started giggling uncontrollably, and then it became hysterical laughter. My family rushed in: “Are you all right, dear?” After that, the real rehearsals went smoothly, and I could laugh like that!

And what of Alexeï Ratmanski’s arrival as the Bolchoï’s AD?

Things began to change before his official arrival, as he was already by then in a position to influence managerial decisions.

After The Bright Stream, the cat was out of the bag! The young girl I truly was came out, and roles plashed down like spring rain. A month later I danced Esmeralda in Notre-Dame-de-Paris by Roland Petit. I’d been refused that role earlier, but this time, Nicolas Tsikaridzé put his foot down, and said he’d only dance it with me.

That was late in the 2002 season. The real surprises came the next season, in September 2003. That autumn, I danced Makhméné Banou in A Legend of Love, Aspicia dans The Pharaoh’s Daughter and the première of Romeo & Juliet. Then, in January 2004, we went on tour to Paris. On returning, I danced the Lilac Fairy in “Beauty”, the reprise of the Balanchine programme where I danced “my” Third Movement of Symphony in C, the Tchaïkovsky Pas de deux and Léa by Ratmanski. The season ended with the London tour.

So the year 2004-2005 was intense, and very rich. At the end of that season, after a performance of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, our AD announced, in public, that he was appointing me principal. At our Theatre, this was the first time that an AD had done so in public, as is the tradition at the Paris Opera. And now, I shall concentrate on Swan Lake. It’s another great stage in my life, I’ve finally got the opportunity to turn to the great classical ballets. I must make Odette real.

Which role is closest to your heart ?

I love them all, they have all become a part of me. Never have I said: «Let’s get through this ASAP, and I shall go down and dance it in public». I think a lot, think each detail through from beginning to end. Of course, I can and may be wrong, and sometimes, I cannot get across what I intended. But I do swear that everything I have inside me, goes into every role.

I do not care to be typecast in the heroïco-dramatic genre, and refuse to accept that I am incapable of doing so many other things. I revolt, I will not have someone tell me beforehand that I can or cannot do a certain thing, or that it would be wrong to attempt it. The artist learns so much from error. One is entitled to err, provided one be prepared to acknowledge one’s own errors, prepared to go beyond oneself to put them right.

That is the essence of our trade, seeking each day within oneself to build oneself, to increase self-knowledge, awareness of one’s potential, qualities and also, flaws. Nor should one attempt to hold an artist back from that path.

On occasion, a spectator is heard to say: “Costs a pretty penny to attend, so I expect to see a good show, not some dancer’s mishaps”. Now, of course the public is right, to be demanding. But it is precisely to meet that requirement of quality that one must accept a time, where a young artist is tested, to discover what his or her style may in fact be. An artist goes through many stages. He joins the theatre as a young lad, dances first one role, then another and another, and his skills are observed. Should he succeed in all – and all the more so, where the roles are very diverse – and attains a certain level, and if there’s not been a single show where he’s let the side down, then one must trust him, one must give him the chance to express himself in major roles. He’s shewn that he’s a cut above the rest, he’s won the right to test out new roles [i.e. new works, new choreographies – editor’s note.].

He’s got to be given that freedom, and he’ll soon find out for himself what his true limits may be, as opposed to limits that Management might imagine, Management, that decides who dances what. If Management is understanding, and loves our trade, then people will never be pulled up short. A dancer’s life on stage is so brief, he studies roles that he may never get to dance. Yes, it’s true that sometimes, one knows full well that a certain role will never be quite suited to a certain artist, while knowing equally well that it will be very worthwhile to have him work on it nonetheless.

What do you think of emploi?

Emploi? I think that the public wants to see me as I am today, and cannot imagine that I might be something quite other. I’ve many facets, and have always wanted to do more than the roles I’ve been offered. But I’ve tried enough things to know that the range of my potential emplois is vast. I’ve often come up against attempts to slot me into a given emploi, and typecast me. The answer is NO! I myself don’t know what my real emploi is, so how can someone else be expected to define it, when there are heaps of things I’ve never even tried? That attitude doubtless stems from the fact that I’ve got beyond the time when I was offered nothing at all, and also, that I’ve learnt to make dullish roles interesting. Now, following in my footsteps, others interpret those parts using that method. It’s the way I work, my pride in the trade: I refuse to shew myself on stage, worse than I really am.

Well, some will hit the roof when they read this, but I know that I can only dance better, that I will not backslide. To know whether one be capable of surpassing others in a role, one has got to try it on for size. To be quite frank, I’m not even sure myself whether I’ll manage, until I’ve tried. It’s all the more so for others. There are many ways to let a dancer dance everything. One can try out certain roles in another theatre, on tour, with another troupe, abroad or in Russia. Don’t prevent people ! All those « forbidden things » stick in the artist’s gullet. I accept the notion of emploi, it would be ludicrous to think otherwise. But I do not want labels stuck on people, they’re pigeon-holed, and then prevented from trying anything else.

For example, everyone thinks that X could not possibly dance something. And then one day, he does, and everyone has to admit, he was marvellous. It is an artist’s soul, his entire appearance that defines emploi, both the psychological and the physical potential. The various factors do not always add up to a definite emploi; on the other hand, one should bear in mind as well, that such criteria are not always purely subjective.

What is that notion of emploi? Is it appearance, length of arms or legs? Costumes are invented to amend or hide whatever’s not ideal. Obviously, one cannot hide the precise shape of one’s legs, but there are ever so many bow-legged (arqué) ballerinas who dance Swan Lake, and they can often be extremely good at it. Through the soul the artist puts into his work, he brings the public to forget whatever physical flaws he may have. But this of course is matter for endless debate: in a barrel, there’s always a tiny drop of gall to spoil the honey!

Some artists cannot be fitted into any pre-defined framework, whilst others better express themselves when supported by a strong structure; still others will never be at ease when they’re kept on too tight a leash. They cannot live and breathe inside a tunnel, they need the wide open spaces.

What roles do you dream of, which do you reject out of hand?

I am not, unfortunately, in any sort of position to turn down roles. I hunger for roles ! I’ve not enough leads to dance to turn any down. Had I, I’d pick and choose those best suited to me. But as things stand today, I can’t say there are any that I’d refuse to try on for size.

I’ve only done the tiniest morsel of what I’d like to do for the theatre and for the public. And at the same time, I’ve been dancing at almost every show that we give at Moscow. That’s why I dream of each and every role, all at once ! I want to dance them all, try everything.

Let’s be practical though, and look at our repertory today at the Bolchoï. First, I want to dance Raymonda, Aurora and Nikiya. And so many others: Manon, the siren in the Prodigal Son, the list is long. I can be dramatic, but I can deal with ingenue roles as well; I’m not bad in heroic roles, and I can adapt to the bravura style. I’d like to try Giselle; they say that I’m good as Myrtha, but why should the one prevent the other? Not to claim that I’ll necessarily be earth-shattering in it, but I do want to try, and if it works, so much the better.

  • III.   The classical dance in Russia


What is special to the Russian School?

Mobility in the arms, expressivity, in the face. It’s hard to list our many qualities. All I can say is that I find the Western ballerinas too dry, too held-back, and too inexpressive in the Russian repertory. It’s another view of the world, another psychology.


Will the Russian style be preserved, or are we now tending towards a single international style?

I would hope that classical dance will go down a path other than ironing-out all national styles, artists, the character proper to each nation. I’d expect some utterly different, but what, I cannot say. Did I only know, I’d suggest it myself ! To my mind, the art of ballet is stuck in an impasse. Modern ballet? There are wonderful artists, and ideas that start out well, but somehow, one ends up spinning round in a vicious circle.

Both in the literal, and in the figurative sense, I see in modern ballet a kind of over-simplification, despite an apparent complexity. Classical technique is hard perhaps, to grasp straightaway, but it is nonetheless simple and logical in its execution. It has amplitude, it moves through several dimensions of space. Modern ballets strike one as flat.

What do you think more important: to carry on the tradition, or to do new things?

One cannot create anything new unless one be well-acquainted with what went before. When one knows one’s sources, one’s roots, the direction is clear. We can have our ups and downs, but if one has truly integrated a tradition, one will never fall too low, but keep to a certain level. We must preserve tradition, indeed, all studies begin with learning tradition, the sources of the classical repertory.

Is the Vaganova method still the basis for study in Russia, or are Western methods now prevailing?

To my mind, the heritage of Russian dance and the Russian School, is preserved only at the Bolchoï. The Mariinsky has chosen the path of assimilating Western style, whereas it is they who should, first and foremost, be the standard bearer of our tradition.

To date at least, none of the Western professors who have come to the Bolchoï have persuaded me that we’ve missed out on something, that there’s something we haven’t quite got, that we are hemmed in by conservatism and tradition, that we’ve neglected things. Not one single person has convinced me of that, not one. I’ve attended every lesson though. If one asks them, « WHY should we do this or that?», they have no reply. They’ve no system.

Now, if one wants to study with a given professor on account of his personality, well yes, that is worthwhile. If one wants to see new movements, that too can be worthwhile. Or to learn of new trends. But if it’s to study the daily exercise that is the class, as a system that must actually tend towards something, then there are no answers, outwith the Russian tradition.

But Marius Petipa was French. Does the young generation to which you belong still see him as the emblem of Russian ballet?

Marius Petipa is the most extraordinary person in the history of dance. For me, he is the symbol of pure art, that has reached a pinnacle of achievement. In no way is his work dated. It speaks for him. Petipa is like the Pyramids of Egypt, like the Parthenon. Human civilisation rests upon such edifices. The ballet rests upon Petipa, he is our fundament and our pinnacle. Between those two extremes, one can build whatever one choose.

What remains of the Soviet heritage?

A great constellation of brillant artists. Of whom the world was not, perhaps, sufficiently aware, because at the time we toured very little. But again, it may be that living enclosed as it were, favoured the ballet’s development, and even the appearance of those stars, who, had they lived elsewhere, would have been other. What is the cause, what the effect ? But one thing is certain: countless artists spanning several generations, lit up on our stage.

As for choreography, there remains little of the work of Lopukhov or Goleizovski, unfortunately. There are still some ballets of Zakharov, such as The Fountain of Bakhchisaraï, or Lavrovski’s Romeo & Juliet, Jakobson’s work, or that of Grigorovitch.

I can’t say that I feel particular empathy with Grigorovitch, but it’s interesting nonetheless; the form and the personages are larger than life, and there’s room for interpretation. I can say that after dancing Grigorovitch or Petipa, one always has the impression that one’s danced a work that’s professional through and through, from the first bar of music to the last. Perhaps some might say the same after dancing Forsythe.

  1. IV. The Paris Tour in January 2004.


Was that the first time that you travelled to Paris?

The first time to dance. I’d been to Paris two years before on a private trip. I was taken ill, and couldn’t dance. I went to Paris, took a cab, it was evening, and suddenly there was the Palais Garnier. The Theatre was all lit up, it was all so splendid. I was so impressed that I cried out to the cab driver: «Stop, Stop!» I was swept away by emotion, jumped out of the cab, and drank it all in. And then I thought – this Theatre deserves to be conquered. Before I left, I bought a post card of the Palais Garnier glistening in light. That card still stands on my desk in my dressing room at the Bolchoï.

Did you meet with any of the French dancers on the tour?

Yes, six months before, I’d danced in Japan, in a gala with French artists, viz., Aurélie Dupont, Agnès Letestu, Manuel Legris and José Martinez. We ladies all used the same make-up room. We chatted, slight though my knowledge of French be. We were delighted to meet again at Paris, and then when Aurélie travelled to Moscow. Aurélie Dupont is most surprising: very different on stage, than off. When we did Neumeier’s « Midsummer’s Dream », I saw her dance Titania: she was excellent, every detail thought through, one can’t imagine a more stylish interpretation.

Did you discuss your experiences with the French artists at Paris?

At Paris, our programme was so heavy that we had no time to meet and discuss with anyone. Once, I walked past a studio where Aurélie and Agnès were rehearsing. The girls ran out to say hello, but neither they nor I had time for more. Alas!

And what about the 5% rake at Garnier?

At the Bolchoï, the rake is only 4%. But I haven’t come across a lovelier stage than Garnier. I felt quite at home, and didn’t even think about technical issues. I do remember though, what I thought on first seeing that stage: it was during the rehearsal for Swan Lake, and I thought: «Heavens! What if I fall, and roll down!» Then I stopped thinking about it, and there was no problem.

How is the Paris public compared to Moscow?

The French public is lively, exciting and one feels it. They react to the slightest detail. The Theatre is designed differently, the stage feels closer to the public. When I’m not dancing, whenever I can, I go straight into the auditorium and watch the stage, to see things from the other side. At Paris, it’s well organised, both the stage and the hall, one can see the eighth swan before the seventh lake! The contact between the stage and the public is close, whereas one never senses that at Moscow, even in the first rows of the parterre. Perhaps the orchestra pit at the Bolchoï is too high, and sets up a kind of glass barrier? Anyway, I like to «get the public going », and it’s fun, when the public « plays along ». At Paris, I felt that it worked. It seems to happen more often abroad, or in the Russian provinces, than at Moscow. I couldn’t say why, don’t ask – I’m on stage. Ask the Soviet balletomanes!

And what do you most recall from the Paris tour?

Like certain ballets, some tours represent a stage in one’s life, and that is true of the late Paris tour. The air of Paris is something delightful. A stay in that divine city is like returning to a place that one had long left, but where one always felt welcome.

On my first trip, I was very taken with the architecture, but I had not noticed that lightness in the air. Only on the second trip, did I said to myself «You see, you do feel well, see how one’s cares and troubles vanish». What a pity we had so little time to ourselves, just one day . I went to the Winter Circus, the oldest circus in town, built under Napoléon III, and I loved it.

  1. V. And the future?


You recently danced Le Tricorne with José Martinez, didn’t you?

It was the first time I’d ever danced with José, and the first time with any Frenchman. Pity that the choregraphy was also en vis-à-vis: twice, our hands touched, but it was not in Massine’s text! With José Martinez, we rehearsed only once, the day before the dress rehearsal, and only afterwards did we work out some details. Lorca Massine, who watched in the studio, said that there was a spark between us, and that it would go smoothly. I’m most grateful to José for coming, and it was a good experience.

But perhaps, for the Theatre, it was less of a good experience. The Bolchoï soloists who could have danced [José’s] the role, were both in good shape, and ready to dance. I had the impression that José, who comes from a theatre with a great tradition, was made a little uneasy by the situation, and did not feel indispensable. As for me, Macha Alexandrova, I was thrilled. The next day, I danced with Dimitri Goudanov, and .oh ! how to say it. He’s the partner I dance with now, and he’s my favourite. With Dima [i.e. Dimitri, editor’s note] it went very well too.

Will you dance with any French troupes now as a guest?

I’d very much like to, and especially at Paris. Just ask, make a suggestion, invite me. They say the Parisians liked my dancing? Well, I liked Paris and I’m ready to dance there as often as they’d like!

What will happen whilst the Bolchoï is being renovated?

Management will decide on the plans. It seems there will be more tours, abroad and throughout Russia. We’ll have a roof over our heads, in point of fact we’ve got another theatre! But we’ve been deprived of something splendid, and I am very downcast. The death of Raïssa Stepanovna Stroutchkova intensified that sadness. It may not be simply the end of an era, it may be the End.

And the new theatre remains to be built. Perhaps I should try to think otherwise, but for me, the Bolchoï means THIS theatre. When I went down onto its stage for the first time, I found it hard to take a single step – so sacred a place, venerated by so many artists who have danced here.

I fear that in Russia, we may have lost the ability to build something that people will be enthusiastic about. For too long, we’ve been forbidden to invest, to spend money properly.

I’m worried about the renovation, I’m uneasy, I distrust the outcome. This business with rebuilding the Bolchoï has reinforced the feeling in me, that we Russians are not master in our own house. And as a young dancer, I fear that I shall never see the inside of my theatre again, until my career’s over and done with. And what of my older colleagues? Not for a second do I believe that we can rebuild it in three short years, nor even in five. It makes me sad.

Maria Alexandrova

Interviewed on May 8th 2005.

Reblogged from:http://www.forum-dansomanie.net/pagesdanso/inter_masha_eng.htm

© Maria Alexandrova – Dansomanie / English translation by Katharine Kanter