Interview with Makhar Vasiev, Director of the Bolshoi Ballet - 22 March 2017
You directed the ballet troupe at Teatro alla Scala for 7 years. How did that differ from running the Mariinsky?
Everything was new for me: a new system, a new culture, new values. Although there are general human values that are shared as well, there were a lot of revelations for me. As interesting as it was for me in Italy, working in the Bolshoi or Mariinsky Theatre you always know that it is a large empire, and there's some sort of guarantee -- that's the presence of the Vaganova Academy for the Mariinsky and the Moscow Choreographic School for the Bolshoi, and that's a huge strength. La Scala also has their own school but it’s not what we have here.
After all, our school, our training system is distinguished by the fact that there is practically no place else in the world where students are taught and graduate on the basis of classical dance through means of a complex system of classes: character dance, historical, duet, ballet and others. There are few schools like these two in the world. Another thing is the repertoire these two theatres have.
But to return to what I experienced in Italy: it was not simple or easy, it was a period saturated with new things for me and very interesting. Everything was completely different, the system in La Scala works according to different laws. Don’t forget that I left the Russian repertoire. The system in Italy is the system of renting productions, which is a completely different approach. Thanks to the experience I gained at the Mariinsky, I managed to achieve something at La Scala. It was not easy, moving to another country, heading up a company and starting to live by their laws, I needed time to adapt. But in any system of any kind, the challenge is determined by the people. What is a system? It's something that people create that either functions or it doesn’t. The complications arise when you don’t know the people; once I knew them, things went more smoothly.
The trade unions in Italy were scary. In the end I managed to create my own system, but at first they threatened me, and to this day I don’t understand why they forgave me, because everything I did was against their rules and against the administration of the trade unions. But I told myself then, either I do it or I am going to leave. I came home one day and asked my wife "how fast can you pack a suitcase in case we have to leave quickly?" She said, “In five minutes, but what happened?”. I told her we weren’t leaving yet, but as a result of my actions, the entire trade union would threaten me. The next day a huge crowd of 20 people --the trade union leaders—were waiting for me outside my office. They told me I had to change my decision or they would strike. I didn't want to be one of those who leaves due to the trade union. So I said I would not change my decision; they said they would strike; I said go ahead. I went home that night and Olga asked me if we should pack our suitcases and I told her not yet.
That was the start. But La Scala is dear to me, because I went through that path alone, and I value it. I nonetheless managed to achieve quite a bit despite those strict rules and laws. To date, people from Milan still text me, we remain on good terms. Over the course of those seven years they forgave me, as I had built a system that started to see results. The system I inherited when I arrived actually conflicted with their own interests, but I didn’t change things in order to specifically violate the laws, I just understood there was no other way to raise the level of the ballet. And the system has remained in part the way I left it.
I'm very grateful to La Scala and I'm very glad my "Italian period" opened so much to me, experiences that I would, under other conditions, hardly have either allowed myself or even imagined. It was a rich experience for me personally.
How did your appointment at the Bolshoi come about?
They just invited me [smiles]. No, it wasn't that easy. The main hero of the fact that I ended up here is Vladimir Georgievich Urin, he convinced me, and most importantly, he spoke with me very honestly and described the entire situation to me. It entailed sufficiently long discussions and, prior to agreeing, I had to understand what I was agreeing to. On the other hand, it was hard for me to leave La Scala because we had planned the next three years of repertoire. While I'm very grateful to La Scala, I grew up in another milieu, in Russia, where the art of ballet has achieved colossal heights. When you grow up in the Russian system, and moreover then participate in it further, sooner or later you feel that it is lacking (when you're not there). And I felt the lack of what Russia has to offer, its place in the world of ballet. So for that reason I decided to move back.
Did you ever imagine you'd have worked here?
When I worked at the Mariinsky, I had no time to think about when or where I would end up. Most likely, no, I didn’t think about that. But when I moved to La Scala, then yes some offers came to me. But you know, the issue is not the Bolshoi, which is a gigantic empire entailing huge tasks. You have to understand what your goal is and why. Can you help, can you influence the artistry towards further development? All these questions for me were very important and pressing. So I can’t say that I immediately accepted the offer or thought, “Sure, I will go". I think the more experience you have, the more doubts you have. I didn’t make the decision quickly, and it wasn't an easy one to make.
Is there a fundamental difference between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi?
Of course there is a difference. Do not forget there is also a difference in me too, because 9 years have passed since I left the Mariinsky, so likely I have changed in some way. But to speak of the essence of the two theatres, I don't like to compare the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi, their paths are different, what is great at the Mariinsky and the direction I would choose for that troupe doesn’t mean the same thing would work here. The Bolshoi has another path. If the form of aesthetic dominates at the Mariinsky, then at the Bolshoi it is the content, the characterization, and the roles that dominate. The Mariinsky of course has that too, but the history of each theatre is different. Yet, if we compare the difference between classical ballets here and there, I can’t say that there is a huge difference, simply because the basis of classical dance is the same.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
The most difficult? I haven't really thought of that. I think the biggest challenge is the chronic lack of time. By that I mean, and my colleagues know this, I’m here from morning to night, and even with that, I still want to work all night long here. I think the challenge is when things are not fully clear or some sort of evasiveness, but when you work with your team, a team that is professional and honest, then huge complications don’t exist. Yes, there will be difficulties but not global problems. It’s funny, you see artistic directors complain about the challenges of their job, but if you don’t like the job, don’t do it. In any case, I can say fully openly that I completely love working at the Bolshoi. I really love it.
Who determines the style of the dancing in the troupe? Is it the pedagogues only or can the artistic director influence the style as well?
Style is determined by the theatre and the people who run it. That means a type of artistic intelligence and academicism. Yes, in that way it exists. As you and I began to talk, we began with the comparison of the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. I don't really like to do that, although I realize it’s interesting to people. Ye,s two great theatres that have a powerful influence on culture -- not only in our country, but two world-class theatres that influence the entire world of ballet. Are they different? Yes, of course they are, but I would not draw parallels. In terms of style, yes of course there is a difference. But if we speak about classical ballet then the schooling, the training system here is one and the same. Everything else is a question of the taste of concrete artistic directors and what they want to see on stage.
I spent a great part of my life dancing in the Mariinsky and then I ran it. I was, am, and always will be a representative of the Leningrad-Petersburg school – that much is obvious - because for sure I am not a product of the Italian school. [laughs] Yes, there are nuances and moments that differentiate us, but they're not so significant. Cardinal differences? No, cardinally there are none. What I ask of the dancers today is nothing new for them. It just may be the case that prior to me, or at various times under various artistic directors, they had a different emphasis. But what I’m asking of them today does not mean suddenly they are shocked at a request for some huge change.
So the style depends on the artistic and professional taste of a concrete artistic director, on what he focuses on, on the arms or head or torso. So is there a difference, yes, unconditionally so, but we should not, as the Italians say, exaggerate it.
What then are your preferences for style?
If we are speaking of classical ballet, then I prefer impeccable, ideal form that corresponds to the classical form of dance. My artistic taste doesn’t change in that respect from how it was at the Mariinsky. Concerning characters and embodiment of roles, I require dramaticism and inclusiveness.
Maybe some things are done better at the Mariinsky, but in other areas the Bolshoi dancers may be stronger. The most important thing is to find the balance between form and content. Plus I really love seeing “stage culture” in big theatres, in other words when dancers are the bearers of intelligent culture, even in character dances such as the Mazurka in Swan Lake or Raymonda - these "salon dances" must be cultural and tasteful, not rural and peasant-like, but academic and stylized. I pay great attention to this and give great weight to it. Classical dance itself is important, plus I require form: aesthetically and technically it must be on a very high level because we must move forward. In that respect, I don’t see a huge departure from how I was 9 years ago. Maybe I pay even more attention to it now than I used to.
Who answers for technique?
The pedagogues answer for everything, but the pedagogues do it not on their own. They are professionals but each time I come to rehearsals -- and I attend rehearsals practically every day -- I demand and express specific demands. [Vasiev points to a large flat screen television in his office and turns it on] This is a live feed from the stage rehearsal going on now. Often I will pick up the phone, and give corrections to the dancers rehearsing on stage, ask them to adjust something and run through it again.
I give my comments to the pedagogues so that they will they will implement the remarks I’ve made and see to it that the results I’m seeking are achieved. This is normal work, we work in a state theatre and we have to be responsible for that. No one in a state theatre can just use "freestyle" and just dance any way they want. We have a concrete task, and as I mentioned, when I agreed with Vladimir Georgovich Urin to take this job, he set a concrete task before me, in terms of what he'd want to see of the troupe and how he imagined it. We came to a mutual agreement and it’s my responsibility to carry out my work and fulfill those promises that I gave Urin.
While at the Mariinsky you promoted a lot of young stars who went on to have successful careers. Who are some of the promising young stars at the Bolshoi today?
Alyona Kovaleyova, Ksenia Zhiganshina, Elvira Ibraimova, Margarita Shriner, Anastasia Denisova. I am moving them forward and helping them to grow. I think that it is well known. In terms of men, we have Igor Sverkov as well, these are people who in the future will be the next generation to take responsibility as leaders in the theatre. Yes I helped and promoted a lot at the Mariinsky, and it must be that way because we have a short artistic life and we have to act quickly. If you allow a year to pass, a certain dancer's chance may be lost in that period. It’s important to promote the young dancers when there are great ballerinas in the theatre like Svetlana Zakharova and Katya Krysanova and Olga Smirnova. So the younger generation has an example to look up to.
As of last year you began a Young Choreographer’s Workshop, is that continuing?
Yes, we do it every year, Sergey Filin is now responsible for it. He gathers the choreographers, they work on the ballets, and then present them. This year it will be closer to summertime. It’s not limited to the talent within the Bolshoi, we look throughout the country and also invite individuals from other countries.
Can you discuss plans for next season?
I can’t announce plans for new season --we will have a press conference in May to announce them officially - but I can say we will have 4 new ballets, and I can say that 2 of them are big productions.
You spent 7 years in Italy, where the country and culture are known for their food. What do you like to eat?
I do not hide the fact that Italian cuisine is my very favorite, I really miss it. As for my favorite dish, I will surprise you with the answer: I think my favorite is pizza, but I’ll explain why. I was born in Northern Ossetia, I’m Ossetian by nationality. There is a national dish there, pies with cheese and potatoes or meat. I always loved the ones with cheese. Pizza is close to those Ossetian pies. I love spaghetti and seafood too. I can't live without Italian food, but my wife, Olga Chenchikkova, learned how to cook Italian food well while we were in Milan.
She worked as a pedagogue at the Mariinsky. Is she working here at the Bolshoi now?
Yes, as a pedagogue. She works with Alyona Kovalyova, Anna NIkulina and the very capable Nastya Denisova.
Speaking of food: what are your thoughts on diets for dancers?
You know, this is a very relative question. The individuals in ballet who diet are those who tend to be plumper. The rest do not differ from regular people in any way, they eat everything they like and want. But since our profession has its specific requirements, and since there must be a specific physical shape, then if someone gains weight, they need to diet to get back into shape. But there is no specific diet for dancers, it's a myth that ballet dancers don't eat. They don't differ from regular people in any way. Maybe there are ballet dancers especially ballerinas who skip sweets because sweets have properties that add weight. But a specific diet – no.
Is body type important?
For me body type has a colossal significance. Do not forget the art of ballet especially classical ballet demands impeccable physical form and classical training. When you see ballerina with long legs, arms, and beautiful ankles and long neck, look at Svetlana Zakharova for example, she has a fantastic figure. When she goes out on stage in a classical ballet she can simply stand there, not move and still create incredible beauty that overwhelms you. So appearance is very important, absolutely.
What other qualities are important for a dancer?
In addition to physical appearance, when a ballerina has a powerful character and is obsessed with what they do, and they approach it systematically every day, of course that is an investment that the individual will achieve big results. Character without question has huge significance too, along with will and a passionate and powerful desire – when combined, that all leads to colossal result.
Italy is also known for its fashion. Successful individuals each have their personal take on the importance of clothing. How do you feel about it?
First, I want to say that Italians incite admiration for their taste in clothing. I've always loved and enjoyed that harmony, I relate to it well, I consider it beautiful and pleasant when people have taste and have the ability and capability to dress well; beauty is like sunshine.
Moreover, neither in America nor in Paris nor in Russia I have I ever seen an audience member attending the theatre dressed the way they dress at La Scala when they come to the opera. It is a veritable parade, men and women and even the children, all dressed in the very best. There are many countries where you see people attend the ballet in shorts and maybe that’s not so bad, maybe the important thing is that they attend it in the first place. But how you dress gives a special meaning to the evening. I would love if people came to our theatre dressed the same way. I think the public here tries to dress well, but I can’t say that we are on the level of the Italians attending the theatre...yet. It’s a particularity of their culture. Fashion there is an industry, a huge one. In that way it’s really hard to compete. It’s not only in the theatre in Milan either. If you travel there, the first thing you notice, and you may not realize it at first, is that people dress with taste, it’s in their blood, they love to dress well and they like to please each other how they dress. I think it’s wonderful.
Does ballet exist outside of Russia?
Yes, it does. In France, in Germany, in America. Today it’s in demand. It exists and will continue to exist, that’s not the question. People will always attend Swan Lake and it has become a tradition to take children to the Nutcracker at Christmas time in the USA and Europe. In fact, there are few art forms that have similar traditions, so ballet is developing, and various directions are arising, modern ballet and the use of technological development. Now many choreographers are using lighting and projections and that gives a specific impulse to their work, but I think the art of ballet is very specific and conventional art.
In 1877, the great Marius Petipa created La Bayadère and Act III, the Kingdom of the Shades, remains the greatest masterpiece of classical ballet. Imagine now that 140 years have passed but this section of the ballet to date is still the greatest as it has not been altered in any way. Similarities exist in music, but music is a different art form in that everything is recorded by notes. We have a great advantage because the genuine value is in history and even today ballet gives young choreographers the chance to develop a basis in various directions. Ballet is a surprising art form and you’re unlikely to find something similar in other art forms. Look at a Verdi opera, or one by Wagner, for example. Two hundred years have passed and yet they remain the greatest operas and they still enrich new generations. But there is one exception. It is possible to keep setting new versions of these operas to the music of Verdi, new versions of Lohengrin and Tristan et Iseut, but the Shades scene from Bayadère remains unchanged because the first version of the ballet in its initial form acquired absolute perfection, and that is the true genius of Petipa. I can’t compare him with anyone else because what he did with dance, his scale of talent is unmatched. He is the greatest choreographer without question.
Can you imagine life outside of the theatre?
I will answer this way: of course the most important interest of mine right now is the Bolshoi Ballet troupe. Those tasks that I set for myself to achieve along with the dancers and pedagogues here are the main interest in my work. But with years comes an understanding that life aside from ballet has a lot of wonderful things to offer and much of interest. When I worked at the Mariinsky it seemed to me that nothing more interesting in life existed than life at the Theatre. But my move to Italy gave me the chance to experience something else. On the weekends we would sit on the train and go to Venice. That city has always seemed somewhat unreal to me, like a dream, like the sets in a theatre. Life without ballet would be very difficult, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy for me, absolutely not, because for me the most important thing is that my family and friends are alive and healthy, everything else is not a tragedy. But it’s a difficult question, because all my life I have worked in ballet and so it’s my life. But there is so much outside of ballet that is interesting and incredibly beautiful. That is what you learn with time, with experience, and I won't hide the fact that Italy taught me that -- because Italians know how to live. They like working much less [smiles], but they love to live and are able to do it in an intense manner,
Do you have free time?
I have no free time and I can’t say that's a good thing. In order to do your job seriously and if you want to achieve great goals and great artistic heights, then you must work from morning to night. Because a troupe of this size has a lot of productions, a lot of artists and you have to work with them daily and try not to waste any time. That is why I say I don't have time. If I had more free time I would of course go to Moscow theatres, probably not ballet theatres, but dramatic theatres. And I would go to Italy more often. And I would eat my favorite pizza.
Have you seen much of the city?
I have been here one year now ,but I don't know Moscow well at all yet because I'm here in the theatre from morning to night. Moscow has a different rhythm than Petersburg and the cultural capital is there, in Petersburg, it's a European city. Moscow has a lot of immigrants, it's a powerful business city, the entire world comes here. It’s surprising, because Peter the Great began to build Petersburg and he did it as a European city. If you consider it Russia, then Russia is not similar to Petersburg, which is an exception. I’ve noticed how people who come from Petersburg to Moscow never return back there. Probably because there are more possibilities here. But Petersburg is my native home city, when I go visit and walk into my old apartment there, I feel that I'm "home". During my childhood I studied at the Vaganova Academy, then worked in the Mariinsky and then suddenly now I visit that city and I’m no longer employed there, as if I'm going as a guest, although I have my apartment there. But "home" is where your family is, and my family is here.
In that respect, I think Milan is a 'home city' for me as well. But I moved to La Scala alone. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know how the system worked.
It took me 5 years at the Mariinsky, from 1999 to 2005, to create a fantastic company. I'm not sure how many years I’ll need at the Bolshoi to do the same. You asked about style and of course style is raised and formed and depends on concrete people, those demands that I set forth for the artists today are not something new they knew about it but other people didn’t pay attention to it and that makes a huge difference. And of course we must dance Grigorovich's ballets as well as the classics purely. But most importantly at the highest professional level we must give birth and raise new stars.