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Flash Interview, 7-21:
A Legendary Dancer Re-invents Himself and His Legendary Company
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
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 his...art.)
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
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
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
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
VV: Yes, of course.
PBI: Do you plan to increase
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
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
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 only...an 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
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
PBI: So most of the funding
is from the government, but there's private help with tours and
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
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,
PBI You don't miss that?
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
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
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
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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