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Flash Interview, 7-21: Vasiliev!
A Legendary Dancer Re-invents Himself and His Legendary Company

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Vladimir Vasiliev, Self-Portraits. Images courtesy of Vladimir Vasiliev.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the way dance is mis-perceived as a fragile, effeminate art. For a variety of reasons. At the Village Voice, the showcase for our leading dance writer, Deborah Jowitt, the space for dance and thus for Deborah's views has been emaciated to a half-page. There's a biting irony in the reason given the last time this happened, by the way. The paper was running a section on the new protest movements, and needed as much space as possible. The irony is that dance itself has always been a protest on the deepest level: a protest to cynicism, a protest to the negative winds sweeping life, a protest to American society's discomfort with the body; even a protest to the weak image of the gay male that has been a side product of the AIDS pandemic.

Speaking of AIDS, and its toll on our community, I have been reading Diane Solway's "biography" of Rudolph Nureyev, given to me by my friend and DI colleague Edward Ellison. (It's an over-gossipy tome; there's a good reason Nureyev accumulated all that money and became a hit on the international party circuit, and it's

Nureyev, and his international fame, stands in contrast to his contemporary on the Russian scene, Vladimir Vasiliev. Tho the ballet world of course knows the name of the former Bolshoi star and current Bolshoi Theatre director, I don't think Vasiliev is an international household name the same way Nureyev was. There's one basic reason for that: He didn't defect, instead toiling in the Soviet system. And yet if you talk to ballet experts, Vasiliev was a giant of the sixties and seventies. When Edward says his name, it's always with a gleam in his eye and with an exclamation mark: "Vasiliev!" Once Edward showed me some films of Vasiliev - most notably in Yuri Grigorovich's male tour-de-force "Spartacus" -- I could see why. This is a lion of a carnivorous dancer. He eats the stage. He is not discrete. While beautiful, he is anything but delicate. He is fierce. If Nureyev, and Nijinsky before him, were androgynous removed beauties, almost as ethereal as the women, Vasiliev is masculine and clearly of the earth (tho anything but earthbound, judging by those barrel turns!). He's a macho hero.

In 1995, Vasiliev attempted to don a hero's mantle of a different kind when, in the last putsch of the USSR's transition to Russia, the apparatchnik Grigorovich was ousted, and then-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin asked Vasiliev to take his place. The ballet legend became director not "merely" of the Bolshoi Ballet, but of the Bolshoi theater, a 2,000-plus organization encompassing ballet, opera, and orchestra.

When I interviewed Vasiliev in 1995, along with my colleague Richard Philp, he seemed, if still gregarious, not entirely confident in his new position -- like a man who has been handed a golden goose and is afraid he might drop it and see it smashed to smithereens. On that occasion, we had two translators, and they -- humorously -- repeatedly argued over exactly what it was Vasiliev was saying. The interview meeting ended on a physical note. Richard -- who at that time was much more aware of Vasiliev's historical importance than neophyte me, and thus more awed -- kissed Vasiliev on the cheek, and Vasiliev kissed him back. I was kissed too.

We had some contact in correspondence a few months later, in 1996, when Columbia Artists Management mounted a tour in which it used the name "Bolshoi," but without the Bolshoi's authorization. Then, Vasiliev asserted himself in no uncertain terms to disown these "stars of" troupes.

There is no mistaking that the Bolshoi company which, finally, after an absence of ten years has returned to New York this week is real. (See Flash Review 7-19, Strasvichay! And Flash Review 1, 7-20: Bravo Bolshoi.) And there was also no mistaking the confidence with which Vasiliev, greeting me for an interview at 10 the morning after opening night, bounded over with a vigorous "Strasvichay," and sat down to discuss the Bolshoi's future as it faces the imminent closing of its historic theater; its upcoming repertoire; its budget; and how he has made the transition from legendary dancer to administrative leader.

Vasiliev appeared for the interview, conducted in the lobby of the Parker Meridien, in a dashing ensemble of red shirt, black vest and black slacks. With his shiny blonde mane, silvery goatee, piercing blue eyes, and robust form and bearing, he has the aspect of an only recently retired swashbuckler. (See the two self-portraits by Vasiliev on this page.)

My first several questions came from Edward, starting with whether Vasiliev was still performing. And here I have to state that while the answer was no, he did recently thrill an audience at the Bolshoi Theatre by giving an encore dance performance at his sixtieth birthday celebration, April 18.

This time around we blessedly had just one translator, and a good one: Bolshoi press chief Marina Pamfilovich.


PBI: Do you miss performing?

VV: No. I have no time to miss anything.

PBI: What's your opinion of the present relative lack of artistry in the world of ballet with dancers, teachers, choreographers, directors, etcetera, compared to when you were dancing?

VV: We have good teachers. And there are some good choreographers, and good choreographers have always been a rare thing in the world, a real talent is always a rare thing.... And what is more important, and more pleasant, is that there are so many good dancers nowadays. And that is why I don't torture myself with my glorious past.

The reason why it leapt into the eye in the past that these dancers were marvelous, good in comparison with others, was the difference between the personalities. The top dancers and the rest of the soloists, for example, in the past was very great, was significant. And today the general level of the dancers is so high that there's not such difference between the top dancers and the soloists, and that is why it's more complicated nowadays to be ten levels higher than the average level, because the average level is very high.

PBI: What kind of major changes and innovations do you foresee in the future of ballet choreography?

VV: It's the mixture of arts, and of styles -- the penetration of one style into another and the mixture and influence of the classical ballet on other styles of art. New inclinations. And (the incorporation of ) some modern dance language, and the changing of that language. So the language of classical ballet changes because of this.

PBI: Should the training in schools change to address this?

VV: Yes, I do think so. But as facts show, such companies as the Bolshoi, more than any other company in the world can work in different styles, both in classical and in modern... An example is the recent Bolshoi premiere of "The Russian Hamlet" of Boris Eifman. This was absolutely new choreography, so different from the pure classical that the Bolshoi company dances so well. In the beginning, (the dancers) resisted, because it's an absolutely new language, but then they were so involved in the process of working...the result was amazing."

PBI: So have you incorporated modern training into the Bolshoi school?

VV: (We have) no school of our own, it's a pity.

PBI: How is it going for the Bolshoi financially?

VV: The Bolshoi Theatre has a special line item, a special separate budget directly from the prime minister, not from the ministry of culture. And the only advantage of this fact is that they pay this money to us without delay. Because other theaters who receive money from the ministry of culture, sometimes they don't receive money at all.

PBI: So things like, for instance the delay in pay the Army has to deal with, you don't have to?

VV: No.

PBI: How are the dancers being paid these days?

VV: They receive much more than any other dancers in Russia, but of course less than the dancers of the same level elsewhere, for example in the U.S. or in Europe. Plus they have different contracts and different payments... And of course any contract is commercial. But of course we cannot compare this to the U.S.; the dancer of the Bolshoi is at such a high level, but will receive much less than colleagues elsewhere in Europe and the U.S.

PBI: What does a principal dancer in the Bolshoi make?

VV: (It varies.) Nina Ananiashvili receives much more than any other dancer. Top soloists receive some monthly salary plus fees for every performance. (Altogether), the average is about $600, $700 monthly, total.

PBI: Do they get more when touring?

VV: Yes, of course.

PBI: Do you plan to increase touring?

VV: Tours are good only if you go on tours and work at home where you can stage, where you can dance and prepare new performances, because tours are the result of your work during a season at home. If you just tour and tour and tour you just lose quality and it means you don't make anything new.

PBI: But will you need to tour more when the Bolshoi closes for repairs?

VV: The renovation of the theatre will start only after the sister theater is constructed for us. We will move to the sister theater next to the Bolshoi, the construction of which is being finalized now, and the company will perform there. We cannot move anywhere until this building is finished and we can perform there because without a permanent home it would mean that the company would be destroyed.

PBI: What's coming up for the Bolshoi?

VV: We will have new productions in our season in the sister theater, which are a mixture of opera and ballet. And one new production next season: Alexander the Great. [Choreographed and directed by Vasiliev, this joint production of the Greeks and the Russians will open a festival, the Theatrical Olympiad, on April 20, 2001.] This is a new kind of style -- opera ballet; for Russia, we have nothing of this kind. And the composers specially wrote music for the ballets, which are all new works... When we move to this new building we will stage these specially prepared works for the Bolshoi. For us it's a new language.

Next season we will have four new ballet productions, and three new opera productions. Also we are continuing to gather some Balanchine repertoire, and we'll have another work of Balanchine, "Bugaku." Last season we had our first premiere of Jerome Robbins, and we will have another work of Jerome Robbins next season.

PBI: Which Robbins works?

VV: Last year we presented "Afternoon of a Faun." We would like to have "Dances at a Gathering." [For the first time in the interview, Vasiliev switches to English, for the next two words.] My favorite! We are talking with his foundation.

We've also invited Stanton Welch, who will make a new work on the music of a Japanese classical composer, so we will have a Japanese evening. This will include "Bugaku"; a work of a very popular Russian choreographer, Alexei Ratmanski; and Stanton Welch's new work.

There is a another interesting work, to the music of Shostakovich, an absolutely forgotten work but very interesting and with very nice music. It's called "Imaginary Dead," something like that in translation. I will be choreographing. It's a very interesting piece, the music, written in the thirties; it was a musical! A Sovietski musical.... There will also be another work I made, for a special anniversary of Pushkin, based on his poem, "Fairy Tale About a Priest and His Worker, Balda." The name of the ballet is Balda. Also it's a very nice thing, because Shostakovich wrote music especially for this.... It was a cartoon, but it didn't happen to see light, because the cartoon was burned during the wartime... I used this music to stage a very humorous and colorful ballet, so it will be an entire evening of Shostakovich.

And we'll have the opera "Nabuko" next season, especially for Verdi's anniversary, and "Evgeny Onegin," the restoring of a previous production. And this season we will have "Carmen." [Directed by Vasiliev, and incorporating real flamenco dancers, staged by flamenco experts from Spain.]

The combination of ballet operas is more modern and more experimental work for the Bolshoi, and for Russia as a whole. We are expecting this with the move to another theater, not next season; next season we are working in the Bolshoi. We hope we will work another year in the Bolshoi.

PBI: How do you find being a director?

VV: I never have a moment when I think about this. Just working, for me it's an every day project, from morning 'til late in the night. Of course there is no similar theater in the world, because even by the quantity of the people working there, it's huge -- 1,150 artists, and 1,300 other workers.

PBI: Do you have to spend a lot of your time on fundraising and politics?

VV: When I came to the theater five years ago, in my introductory speech, about my plans, I said the Bolshoi Theatre will never be dealing with politics, it is artistic entity, and it should have nothing to do with politics. The Bolshoi is neutral to political influences; there's only one religion for the Bolshoi -- art. No, I'm not dealing with politics, and I'm not dealing with politicians.

PBI: How can you avoid it if funds are coming from the government?

VV: The main thing for me was to insist that this separate budget continues to come directly form the government, because it was very important to go directly to the government and not to the ministry of culture, so I did this and I insisted it should be so. Until present, it is so.

And of course I spend a lot of time fundraising separate from the state budget.

PBI: How does that break down?

VV: It's less than the state budget. But thanks, for example, to the foundation of Paul Leperq, we staged the production of "Giselle." And John Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew" and some other productions were made thanks to such foundations... Thanks to the friends of the Bolshoi in Russia, last summer we had the possibility to bring both the opera and ballet companies to London for the first time together on a large-scale tour in the history of the Bolshoi; such projects are also done with the help of Friends of the Bolshoi, and next year a large-scale tour of the opera and ballet to Covent Garden, and we will have an exchange tour with Paris Opera Ballet. And of course in my plans I would also like to have both the opera and ballet here in New York. Because in order to estimate what is the real greatness of the Bolshoi, [you] should see both the opera and orchestra, and ballet, because it is the unity of all these elements that make the Bolshoi great. Because (for this tour) we are here without our orchestra.

PBI: So most of the funding is from the government, but there's private help with tours and new productions?

VV: Yes, absolutely.

PBI: What's the total budget for the theater?

VV: We get $7.5 million (U.S. Dollars) from the State and box office together. And $500,000 - $700,000 from U.S. foundations. [Figures are for last year.]

PBI: When last we talked, you were getting ready to replace the Soviet system of guaranteed lifetime employment with a contract system for dancers. How have they responded?

VV: Well, it's different with different artists ...But that was the only normal way accepted everywhere in the world to work with artists. And now, they are used to it. First it was new to them and they were afraid of it as is any person accepting anything new, (seeing it) as something unknown and risky. But now they are all used to it, and they are glad this system works, and they know what rights they have, and what are their responsibilities. It's all clear, there is no dictatorship, no autocracy, it's only the legal system which dots the i's and crosses the t's.

PBI: Do you ever peek into the studio and work with dancers yourself?

VV: No, because you cannot combine this work as a director in such a great theater, with its huge responsibilities, with other work. There's absolutely no time. Of course I'm visiting rehearsals but this is only for watching, checking.

PBI You don't miss that?

VV: No.

PBI: What's the importance to the ballet company of its artistic director, Alexei Fadeyechev?

VV: He's a very high professional, this is the main thing. He has a very good head on his shoulders, and that is a valuable skill in the ballet profession. His head is screwed on right. He has a very strict policy and he knows what he wants to achieve, and he knows how he wants to achieve it. Sometimes artists are very emotional, and he's very reserved, and he knows how to talk to them... And it's very important with a company like the Bolshoi because it's a big company and there are so many dancers and all of them are different. And he's an authority as a dancer, because he was a very good dancer himself.

PBI: Are you able to keep hands off?

VV: In some things. In fact, the main thing for him is to gather good artists, to keep the quality of the ballet company on the highest level, and to propose repertory, and we discuss it. If I don't agree with him of course it's a matter of discussion, and of course the repertoire should be confirmed by the board of artistic directors of the whole theater, though he has a lot of possibility to be independent.

PBI: What are the structural problems with the Bolshoi Theater, and how long will it take to fix them?

VV: The main thing will be to renovate the stage arrangement and equipment, because now we cannot put on modern productions, because the stage equipment is rather old. Of course the main thing will be to introduce improvements so we can introduce new scenery. At the same time, the Bolshoi is a worldwide treasure, and we have to keep everything intact; the problem will be to keep everything intact and at the same time to modernize everything inside.

PBI: How long will it take?

VV: Ideally, three years.

PBI What effect if any do you think the new president, Vladimir Putin, will have on the Bolshoi and/or on the arts in general?

VV: Russia is an unpredictable country, so who can say anything really in advance. So I don't think there will be very much because the Bolshoi is great theater and dealing with arts on highest level and hopefully will remain the same.


For photo images of Vladimir Vasiliev, visit his web site. For more on the Bolshoi, visit its web site. The Bolshoi season at the New York State Theater continues through Sunday, with performances of Vasiliev's produciton of "Giselle," and a mixed program including works by Balanchine and Grigorovich.

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