|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
- 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!
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Interviewed on May 8th 2005.
© Maria Alexandrova – Dansomanie / English translation by Katharine Kanter