Masha and Vlad: Power Couple at the Bolshoi
It's no secret to those in the know that Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov ("Masha" and "Vlad" - as they at times affectionately refer to each other) are two lovebirds whose deep connection is visible both onstage and off. VaganovaToday sat down with the power couple to talk about their personal and professional lives, their insights about ballet, and their dreams for the future.
How did each of you get started in ballet?
Vladislav: My parents worked at the Stanislavsky, mom was a leading character dancer, my father was a leading premiere danseur, and my brother attended the Moscow Choreographic Academy and joined the Bolshoi. I did the same. As I recall, there was no discussion if I want to start ballet or not, I loved spending time at home in the courtyard with other boys my age, but later when I started to perform, it drew me in and even now it still does.
Maria: I have the opposite story, no one in my family was connected with the theater, either dramatic or musical, no one was connected with theatrical arts. I made my decision consciously at age 8, I specifically chose ballet. I didn't dream about fame or money or getting married well or being a swan or wearing a tiara or pointe shoes. I knew precisely that this profession would teach me about life, that I would understand the world of adults and most importantly, that ballet is done in silence. Because at that moment the world of adults really scared me. I had great relationships at home in our family with my parents, but when you leave that circle you encounter other adults and I didn't understand why people acted the way they did. But the theatre for me, the ballet profession was understandable to me. I saw a film about ballet on TV and that it differs from just 'dances' in that it is studied and taught.
I danced in a small performing group first, it was the Soviet Union at that time, and there was a very high level of amateur performing groups with wonderful repertoire and costumes. We performed frequently. The troupe included children from age 5 to 15 and there were roles for everyone. So the issue of the stage was understandable for me. And I understood that there were different gradations of what you could study. It was a very conscious decision -- as a child I was very wise. I confronted my parents with the fact that I wanted to do this. And they were seriously afraid for me because it is a difficult profession but they both supported me in my choice. For my mom it coincided with one of her dreams, she had always wanted to have a daughter Masha who danced. On the one had she supported me but was scared also because she understood that the competition was high and we had no connections to help us. But it all worked out.
What do you like best about work at the Bolshoi?
Vladislav: The first thing that comes into my mind are the productions that run on the historical stage, the productions of Grigorovich and the works in general here. No other theatre in the world has this repertoire.
Maria: At the very start what won me over was the scale. There are no limits and no ceiling, everything depends on your level of talent and to what degree you can master the scale. There is no scale or scope within a theatre like this anywhere. There are other stages that are smaller, bigger, or more comfortable or cosier. But that magical combination of the spectator's hall with the theatre, I've never felt it anywhere else. You find it one place in the world, and that's here.
What's the hardest part of work here?
Maria: People. The administration and the director.
Vladislav: I agree, I have nothing to add.
What role does the pedagogue play in the dancer's life?
Maria: Tatiana Nikolayeva Golikova [was my pedagogue]. If someone imagines who Masha Alexandrova is, it is she. Our work together was very difficult, very pleasant, a means of handing down from the generations. Unfortunately 5 or 6 years ago she passed away. And now I work with Nina Semizorova. Even now when I don't work in the theatre I try to rehearse with her. Because in our profession a mentor is needed. They can change depending on how you change, but in our profession it is dangerous in that you change as a person and it's always associated with your age. At times it benefits you and at others it doesn't. But if you trust a pedagogue, he or she can help you see yourself from the outside. If human connection between you is good, honest, strong and the person has the right to tell you the most unpleasant thing, and you allow them to do it, it allows you both to be honest with yourselves. I'm convinced, since ours is a very philosophical profession, that there should be people around you that can tell you the truth about who you are now, and in a timely way -- not protect you, because you make your own decisions in the end, but see you and how you develop. Its important that those type of people are around you and that professional atmosphere be around you.
No matter who your parents were, no matter who your boyfriend or spouse is, no matter what others say, no one can understand a ballet dancer better than the ballet dancer herself.
Vladislav: I began working with Lavrovsky but then I shifted to Valery Lagunov and my trust in him is absolute. Even if I rehearse some parts with someone else, he always attends my performances and always tells me what's good and what's not. He was with me from the first days in my career and he knows all aspects of me, and I know all of his caprices and he knows mine. But he's a master who sees everything and will tell me the truth, if it's bad, it's bad. He will tell me if it's black or white.
Maria: It's important to move forward. We all get tired. But the pedagogue is not the person who should feel bad and sympathize with you but the one who will teach you to work honestly and completely, even when you're tired. You can't just go out and do the technical parts, you must live and exist in the character. Insofar as we work in a Russian theatre, the focus here is on drama and we have to create an image, a character. So it's not Masha Alexandrova on stage, but whoever you are dancing. You must be yourself of course, but within that role. That's the main difference in Russian theatre -- you insert yourself into the role.
You two met in the theatre?
Maria: I came to the theatre earlier than Vladislav, and our artistic interaction occurred a lot earlier than our personal relationship. When I started dancing, the top level principal dancers of the time brought me on stage as their partners, dancers such as Dmitry Belogolovtsev, Andrey Uvarov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze and Sergey Filin. They were my partners, I prepared my roles with them, my premieres, we endured various successes and failures together. But then came the period when these partners started to end their stage careers and gradually Vladislav started to appear more in my life, as a young artist starting his career who the directors were betting on. I preferred to take my risks with him and bring him into the repertoire. But bringing a new artist into a production is difficult. Because you already have a production that you've rehearsed with someone else, and you know how all sections of it work, you already know how it all goes. But when you shift to a new partner who is young, that production will fall apart, because you have a clash between experience and inexperience -- and that's normal, because no one graduates from school and goes on stage like a master. Your profession isn't created in school but in the theatre.
But the production has to be rehearsed again from the start, you re-learn everything.
And Vladislav was the person with whom I could take that risk -- it was pleasant to take that risk with him. I received larger emotional charge from him. At that point we had a lot of roles we danced together. And it was really comfortable for me to work with him.
Does working together on stage help home life and vice versa?
Vlad: I think absolutely it does. We sense each other differently at home and in the studio, and each time we check each other from various directions. It's a joy to work with Maria because it's a spiritual union.
Maria: For me, Vladislav as a partner is a huge gift. And I think I started to value it a lot more after I became more vulnerable when I was injured and just afterwards. The injury, which happened 4 years ago, it was very serious and until I returned to my profession... a ballet profession is very harsh, why do they say that? Because you can't combine it with any other profession. You can't be a first-class ballerina and also be a secretary in some financial company. So when a serious injury occurs, and I don't mean a twisted ankle that takes 5 weeks to heal and then you come back to the studio. I had a serious injury that meant i had to learn how to walk again. That meant I was suddenly an individual without a profession, without an income, and without a world. You're really alone at that moment. It's a huge joy if people at that time... if there is something that can replace that with soulful warmth. But I was very alone and the injury was serious and the only person in my life...it wasn't that I was offended with anyone, I understand everyone is busy with their professions. But the single person who cared about me was Vladislav, and at that point we were only interacting as friends, and he called and said, "Come back, it's boring on the stage." That was a trigger for me because at least one person felt it was important what I did.
Vlad: That's from your point of view.
Maria: Yes, from my point of view.
Vlad: From my point of view, the men from the troupe always respected her and she always stood and still stands in a special place in the Bolshoi roster because she's one of the last representatives of the pure Moscow School who combines femininity and beauty and of course character, she can dance various roles on stage. She's a live person, she's not a crazy ballerina who only thinks about what to eat or "I can't go anywhere because I have a performance." She enjoys life and lives as she considers appropriate. [he turns to Maria] So many people came to see you in the hospital. For the men in the theatre, it was important that Masha returned.
Maria: Vlad said the right combination of words, "crazy ballerina". To not become a suffering person who gets caught up in it all. You can't lose yourself. Your soul should remain young.
Vlad: Of course, that's what I'm saying -- you're alive and not some sort of ballet robot.
Maria: That's really pleasant to hear that others thought of me.
Vlad: I am saying that was the case, from the outside. And of course when Masha returned so quickly, it was unexpected after such a serious injury. But as a result, she returned at an even higher level than before the injury, because there was internal work done as well as physical work [that she had done]. I don't know of any other examples in history where after such an injury a dancer returned and danced at a higher level that before the injury. Seven months after the injury she returned to the stage.
Masha: I have a strong character, I love this profession, and there was one thing that really saved me. I've never had any bad habits, I've never drank or smoked or used drugs. I often think I'm boring because in order to feel emotions I do not have to use extra substances. Because I know that combination will make me not me. I don't need analgesics or steroids to feel life more intensely. I can recharge just from a sunset, or beautiful sunshine, or good social interaction. Maybe I'm very boring in that way. I can disengage, but it will be real and not artificial, not by altering my consciousness.
And nothing opens consciousness like feeling the situation in the moment and being honest with yourself and understanding the people around you. Ask yourself the question, '"What is happening and what's the meaning of life?'" and try to answer that. That saved me during my injury. There is a moment when you are at your own mercy and you have to do something with that. I was just ready for that. I healed more and more, but the credit goes to my doctor, who I trusted, and Vlad, because I believed and trusted him. The issue of trust was huge. And he just carefully tamed me and stole my heart. But the injury caused me to look at a lot of things completely differently.
Maria: To sift out what's not needed and to value what is important. What is really important. For example, it convinced me that to be a happy person you really do not need a lot. To find strength to do something for yourself you also do not need a lot. It's enough to just have one offer. And the rest just depends on you. It taught me to look at people in a different way and try to be good for everyone, but to understand that there are your people and not your people. That's normal, it's not bad or good. And to make decisions quickly. That may be difficult for other people but on the other hand there are no illusions that someone will live your life for you. You live your life and take steps. You are capable of changing things. Your choices can even change you yourself.
Vlad: All we dance together for us, each performance, is a different story. For me, I can't compare a performance with Maria to a performance danced with anyone else, it's the best that could possibly exist. It's genuine. I don't think up some internal story inside myself. I just live it and value it.
Of course responsibility changes as you take on risks together. And if something inside us changes, a disturbance, then that's one thing, but thankfully so far that hasn't happened. Of course there are some purely technical mistakes, if a step doesn't work out, on her end or on mine. But that's a tiny detail. But something spiritual from us is what gives the wholeness to the performance and that is unmatchable.
Maria: I like dancing with Vlad. And when we dance or rehearse, it's important that we have something valuable and important in our relationship. Being happy together is serious work! The most important thing is that when we work together he's not disappointed in me. I don't want him to say "I love her because she is a ballerina," but because "she is a special individual and is developing as a person."
Vlad: The very same thing applies to me too, of course.
Maria: I went through that phase when I didn't conduct myself well in rehearsals, and now I know what I do not want to do. It's important that it doesn't repeat. People can change, although it almost never happens, but it can. I want Vlad to be a strong man next to me who loves me; not be with me because of my status. I value the human side of it. Nothing disappoints us more than a human being. If you have ever fallen in love with a person who is on stage then you later meet them in person and are shocked at their behavior, then you know what I mean. I don't want him to see me in my profession and love me as a ballerina, because we spend much more time as humans than in our professions. You become a star on stage, but in order to get on stage you have to rehearse for a month first. All of our disappointments occur in that phase, in personal relationships, during the routine, the work.
Was there a golden age at the Bolshoi?
Maria: History shows that there was such a time. There are very creative periods and not so creative periods and they don't always coincide with the internal side of the theatre. Yuri Grigorovich was head of the theatre 30 years, but he was a creator, a ballet master, he's a person who created his world and his productions. That time is considered to be the golden age of the Bolshoi theatre, because it pushed male dancing to the forefront of ballet and made men equal with women, if not even higher than them. He set large scale works. But inside the theatre, there were also a lot of complications and internal politics but he remained director, but it's a natural part of life.
After him, there were artistic directors who were not ballet masters, but were choreographers, such as Alexey Ratmansky who created his own productions. After he left it became clear that it was an interesting, bright period, with successes or failures, but it was still fresh oxygen and that's more rare. As a rule, the relationship between the artistic director and artists is like the relationship between an employer and a worker: will he give you a role or not. It's a more confusing situation when the artistic director is not also a choreographer or ballet master. Because when a person creates his own ballets, he searches for his material in the ballet, and you understand if the choreographer needs you for his works or not, but it's at least some sort of measuring point for the dancer. But when it's just an issue of an artistic director issuing roles, that creates really difficult situations because you never know what is in their head and what their criteria are; in my view it contradicts the profession. Because a professional should differ from the viewer in terms of more than just whether he likes a dancer or not. The audience member can decide if they like a dancer or not, but the professional must have more than just that determination and should think in another way.
You have increasingly had more foreigners in the troupe?
Maria: We have always had them. We used to have Koreans. We have Armenians, Georgians, Ossetians, Kazakhs. We've always had them in the company We didn't separate them from Russians, but territorially speaking they differ now. People have always come here, from St Petersburg to here as well.
Vlad: No one ever leaves the Bolshoi but they do come here from other troupes.
Maria: It has always been possible to talk to people in this theatre and approach them in the cafeteria or at a party, because you might study in class at the Academy with someone whose parents are teachers or are members of the State Duma. So it's always been very democratic in that respect, we never had a division between the corps de ballet and the higher ranks. The casting was preserved in the understanding of your professional rank, a precise understanding of who is at which level.
The Russian theatre emerged from peasant's rights. The first children who studied in theatres were serfs, who were able to work a lot and tolerate a lot but always had a chance to move that framework, it was a place where a person could climb social ranks and a serf could become free. It was always a moment of hope for freedom. So the form of repertoire itself in fact is structured on having extra people around, there was always that encounter between the workers and the administration. It's a genetic Russian structure.
Do you cook?
Vlad: Yes we prepare everything usually together. We are like two chefs in one kitchen, we experience everything together.
Maria: It might drag out time-wise, while we talk or whatever...
Vlad: Yes, but doing it together is fun.
Maria: For us it seems to me we need to talk to each other, we really value it.
What do you cook?
Maria: Everything. We prefer to eat what we like No special diets.
Vlad: For me, the more the better! (laughs)
Maria: I don't eat on the day of a performance, I don't eat before a performance, I eat afterwards.
Do you have any cats?
Maria: We have two. But they are my inheritance, I wanted one and chose two.
You travel a lot, is this connected with performance tours or just vacation?
Vlad: With tours yes...
Maria: Then there is that point when we have to go to the sea, because it's for our health, so that's very important. We try to travel and receive new impressions but there are also people we go to see.
Vlad: Yes, to see people we know in various places and who we miss.
Maria: This year especially, we traveled a lot within Russia. We have a huge country and there are places to go within it! For us travelling is always a break from Moscow, because Moscow is a very energetically intense place, and Russia in general it seems to me, differs from New York or Hong Kong or Tokyo, in that the surroundings here are quite negative. In Moscow generally, and Russia, the overall environment is very negative. It's very difficult to work here, but there is also very high potential for growth here. If you work correctly, you overcome things. If you are growing, a person has a moment of overcoming things but it is important that that "moment of overcoming things" or that struggle doesn't turn into dissatisfaction. So all of that baggage and dissatisfaction we take with us on vacation and release it there, when we work in another place and the surroundings are easier to work in. There is a generally held view among Bolshoi dancers that the hardest place to dance is here at the Bolshoi, and anywhere else is better -- not better but easier, a more open environment, not open but less negative. It's a very pressured atmosphere here, but a good rhythm.
Which theatre is calmer?
Maria: For example, the Opera Garnier, not the Bastille. I love the Coliseum more than Covent Garden.
Vlad: Why? Its small.
Maria: It's small, but it's warmer.
Vlad: I like Covent Garden.
Maria: I feel that the Coliseum is warmer. London itself just provides incredible encounters with the audience, same as Tokyo, and in fact all of Japan. In Japan you travel not to a theatre but to a meeting with the audience, to their love. Just like London and New York. In New York you go to meet the audience. But Washington I associate with Kennedy Centre, they have a nice stage, it's nice.
Nureyev, the premiere -- it was set to occur, then it was postponed, and now it is rescheduled. What comments do you have, Vladislav, as one of the first casts?
I can't express what feelings I have. I want to say that I, and not only me, but all of the troupe, we hope that the production will occur. I can't imagine, if I and the other artists are feeling bad, how Kirill Serebrennikov and Yuri Possokhov, the creators, feel, as they are the ones who gave birth to this production. So of course I hope it takes place. We are waiting.
Maria: I think ballet is undergoing now a difficult period, namely from a financial point of view. And that has an impact on a lot of areas, on the school and theatre. Since ballet is distinguished by a high level and for that reason it is an elite art, the aspiration of people to something wonderful, people who enter ballet a special sort. The aspirations of those people will continue to live on, therefore I think that especially in Russia ballet will continue to survive due to their aspirations. Here in Russia we have a scientific base of teaching this art form of art. And the foundation of it is not just amateur ballet schools for lovers of ballet, but state schools created with programs that are based on developed experience and traditions. But ballet is undergoing a global crisis.
Vlad: I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I understand that we need to not stop now, but, on the other hand, we need to work more and more in order to save what we have and also potentially develop something new of our own. We have to create our own world no matter how difficult it is but to move forward and not stop, or else for sure this art form will disappear.
Maria: Vlad and I are two people who know the secrets of this profession. On the one hand, we differ from others in that quality. But on the other hand we do not want these secrets to die with us. We will resolve this issue somehow, so that something new appears. Because it's a big deal when two people in the same territory know the secrets of this profession, and are not just good performers, but have great experience. We have a huge country and a large, serious theatre. But our paths are individual...
I was always fighting against a lot of things in my career. My path in this art form was never easy, it was always through some sort of limitations. The easiest thing was to choose my profession and enter it, but after that you constantly have to demonstrate who you are and what you are. Despite the fact that I chose this profession very young, there was always the question of whether I made a mistake in my choice or not. But when I look back, I understand I'm a valuable representative [of the art form and the Bolshoi]. It's impossible to confuse me with someone else. So in ballet each dancer is an individual product. And Vladislav grew up in the same surroundings and has become his own individual personality in the world of ballet too.
Vlad: It was also not easy for me, no one pulled me up on to a pedestal, I had to constantly demonstrate with each new performance who I am and why I'm here. Every performance in this theatre is a fight.
Maria: Yes, especially recently.
Vlad: For me it was always that way. If did not demonstrate who I am and why I am here, they would have removed me immediately.
Maria: This situation differs from Western ballet troupes because we are constantly in battle, we do not work under comfortable emotional or psychological conditions. We have comfortable physical conditions, the theatre here, etc. But we do not work in an atmosphere of love. We fight, and we have to demonstrate our right to be here. So patience wears thin.
Vlad: You can't allow yourself to be a step back.
Maria: That's our relationship to our profession: you understand you become more responsible but we are inserted into a system of interrelations where there are more politics and intrigues, more behind-the scenes games. There is a lot that is unclear. But if you make it to the stage, you have a large space, and if you have a leading role, and not just dancing a variation. The biggest battle is to get on stage. Once on stage, you can enjoy your time there.
When you are a prima or premiere danseur you have more doubts than when you are still on the path to prima or premiere danseur. On the path there, while climbing the ranks, you demonstrate your qualifications. But after you reach it, self doubt arises and you start to succumb to the doubts more, your right that you achieved that rank comes into doubt. On the one hand you feel responsibility to it but on the other hand a large number of people may appear who try to create doubt in you. It's great to have a single person or two that you can rely on.
What are your dreams for the future?
Maria: I dream that Vlad will be happy.
Vlad: I dream of the same, the most important is that Maria is happy in everything, in her profession. The dream is that we will be happy.
Maria: But we're together, so the most important part is done.
Photo credits: studio shots taken by Charles Thompson. Don Quixote images by Damir Yusupov, courtesy of the Bolshoi Press Office.