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: or

Reposted from


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 :

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.

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© Maria Alexandrova – Dansomanie / English translation by Katharine Kanter