Branching Out: Mariinsky Soloist Grigory Popov in Contemporary Dance

With over 20 years of stage experience, Mariinsky soloist Grigory Popov is still performing, but has recently added new forms of dance to his repertoire. The Mariinsky has recognized his skills in ultra contemporary movement and features him in a new educational program called “Theatrical Lesson” in which he performs his own choreography influenced by various modern masters. VaganovaToday sat down with him to discuss the trajectory of his career, this new direction, and what the future holds. Click here to read the Russian version of this interview.

You were born into a ballet family. Please tell us a little about your start in ballet.
I was born in Chelyabinsk. My father is a People’s Artist of Russia, he is a pedagogue and rehearsal coach (repetiteur) in the Mikhailovsky Theatre. My mother is an Honored Artist of Russia and a balletmaster and rehearsal coach for the children’s ensemble “Peterburg Sunshine”.

In childhood I saw how my father performed time and again. I liked it then, I watched a performance, I think it was “Romeo and Juliet” and I watched until the end. I was 7 years old. I went into his dressing room and said “Dad, I want to do the same as you.”

And then they started to prepare me further. They started to stretch me out which I hated because it was very painful. It turned out that it was not so simple as it seemed. I had thought that everything was simple in dance, but it turned out it wasn’t so. Starting in childhood I already needed to see myself as an adult and work on myself and my attributes.

We travelled to Ufa, to the Ufa Choreographic School. They accepted me and I studied there for 6 years in the class of Ferdaus Valeevna Nafikova. She is a People’s Artist of Tatarstan and a student of Vaganova. We had very strict discipline in class. Then I moved here to attend the Vaganova Academy in the 2nd and 3rd courses in the class of Boris Bregvadze. My father graduated under him in 1971 and I graduated from this great master later as well.

And that’s how my path began. After graduation, I was very lucky that I ended up in the Mariinsky Theatre. My dream came true. Until the moment I signed the contract to accept work, I didn’t believe it. Once I had signed, that was it — you’re already working in the theatre, you’re an artist in a great theatre. So my dream came true and that’s how my artistic career began.

My pedagogue in the theatre was Igor Petrov. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. But he was also a pedagogue from God. A lot depended on him  here in the theatre, practically the entire repertoire. He worked with us and rehearsed solo parts. I am so grateful that I worked with him.

What was the atmosphere like in the Academy those 2 years?
Well everything was a bit different because I had the goal at that point of joining the Mariinsky Theatre. I was strongly behind my classmates, they were “Vaganova”, technical, and well-prepared. I didn’t have enough physical preparation. I needed to stretch out, I had to work individually. I came to the studio alone and jumped. But evidently in the end I caught up to the other boys. But when you walk in the same corridors where great dancers have walked, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, and great choreographers like Petipa, then of course you want to work two times harder and achieve the same results.

How did Boris Bregvadze differ from other pedagogues, what role did he play in your life?
Bregvadze was not just a pedagogue for us. he was a life mentor. When we graduated and were already working in the theatre, he would call, invite us to his house, feed us, talk, show films, or even quarrel (Popov smiles). Everything was very soulful. He was like a second father, even a grandfather, who could  give us advice. we could call and ask him how to act in a given situation. In addition to the basic academic education that he gave us through classes, he also was interested in our lives, how we are studying. He loved to joke. I am truly very lucky that I was in his class and if it weren’t for him I would probably not have began to work in the theatre. He is a great pedagogue.

And Igor Petrov?
With  him it was a different type of work: on roles, on parts, stage technique that you need to know when you are on stage. [I was working] with him as a dancer with a pedagogue who is preparing you directly for the stage. It was very interesting to work with Igor Yurievich, he had a humongous energy as everyone who knew him, knew. We all recall his phrases, and he shared his secrets as a dancer on stage directly with us.

How did it happen that you were accepted into the Mariinsky?
I danced the Jester in “Swan Lake” for my graduation performance. And the pedagogues who came up to me after the performance, who at the time I did not know, they said I had been accepted into the troupe. But there had been no official audition, so I didn’t know; maybe they didn’t like me.  But I didn’t think about joining any other theatre other than the Mariinsky after graduation.

Do you have a direct pedagogue now as well?
Right now in the theatre each pedagogue has their own production and, for example you work on that role with the pedagogue attached to it. So I don’t have a concrete single pedagogue with whom I work now.

What was the atmosphere and load like that first year in the Mariinsky?
Now you can’t compare the workload to what it was then, now the load is 2 or 3 times greater. Because now we have two more stages: the Mariinsky 2 stage (new building) and the Concert Hall.  When I graduated there was only one theatre, the historical stage, and we didn’t have as many performances as we have now. We had a lot of free time. Now that doesn’t exist. It’s good when there is work, bad when there is none. So probably this is a good shift.

Do you have any particular memories, moments, or roles from the past 20 years that stand out?
There are many. In the case of a ballet, “The Young Girl and the Hooligan”. The role of the Hooligan means a great deal to me. I worked on that role with Igor Petrov. But all of my roles are important to me.

Do you prefer roles where there is a concrete personality or character to play (as opposed to abstract)?
 I understand that in my essence I am not a blue-blooded classic, I’m not a prince. Although I had the experience of dancing a prince, I travelled to Canada and danced the Prince in “Swan Lake” there. I understand I have my own emploi which I really enjoy. For me, that emploi is more interesting. For example Stravinsky’s Petrushka is very interesting, you have to experience it and then it gathers meaning. It doesn’t have difficult technical elements in it, but the interesting part is placing yourself under those established emotional conditions and “speaking” to the viewers that way. It’s more interesting to dance those roles than the classics for me. Although of course I really love the classics, but my build and my image are what they are.

How did you begin working in your new direction with modern dance?
I actively began to become interested in contemporary styles when the pandemic began, when they closed the theatre. I thought, what am I doing sitting at home, we can’t go anywhere, why am I doing nothing. I went online and thought I needed to master something new, learn something new, and why not take some sort of online contemporary classes. There is a troupe called Vertigo in Israel and they gave online classes. I would work on this for 4 and 5 hours alone in my kitchen. I loved it. I like to develop, I thought if I’m going to just do a regular ballet class, that’s somehow already familiar to me. But to learn something new, in order for new connections to be created in my body, one has to study contemporary. So I thought, why not try it. I loved it and now cannot imagine my life without it. I am endlessly interested in what happens with my body, my thoughts, and my brain, what connections are found in my body, or not, and what patterns occur. It’s all fascinating.

You took lessons but you are also creating your own dance “language”.

Well, that’s if it works out!

Why wouldn’t it?

Time will tell. It’s all very difficult to create choreography or music.

The “Theatrical Lesson”, the educational program offered through the Mariinsky, where you now perform your short ballet titled “No Matter What” with contemporary movements — that is your choreography.

Yes. Yuri Smekalov asked me to do it. I said, “sure, but if questions arise, will you help me?” I’d never done this before, and moreover on the Mariinsky Theatre stage, that entails a great responsibility. He has a lot more experience as a choreographer and regisseur than I do. He gave me directions and set tasks before me, he helped me. It was very difficult, I had about 4 days to do it. Yura said “If you don’t do this, you will leave me hanging”. I didn’t want to leave him hanging, he’s a good friend and great guy.

And the piece remains as it is, there are some moments of improvisation in it, I included those on purpose. I actually love improvisation.

So then where do the ideas for new movements and compositions come from?
Yes, that’s what is so interesting to me too! I never thought about it before. Where does it all come from. Sometimes from the music. It’s interesting what drives me. Either I do it, or what is between my ears — my brain. My brain or me.

Or something even higher.
I don’t know. I didn’t think about that before.
Maybe. Maybe we can discover this and maybe we can’t.
Modern art should cause people to think, to direct them. It seems that way to me. If you create something — paint a picture or compose music on this earth– it needs to affect people emotionally. Art should make you think.

How are you working on contemporary dance now?
If I have time, I take contemporary classes, I try to attend, but sometimes it is impossible to do for a long time because we have a large workload in the theatre. There are a lot of performances, and sometimes on a day off I will need to go take a class because there is no other time to do it. And then the day off is not a day off.
But I also travelled to Israel to the Bat’Sheva company to work with Ohad Naharin in summer 2023 in order to participate in his ga-ga master classes.

Does the fact that you are from a ballet background mean you have more experience in movement than the dancers who work in modern styles?
No. Because I’m a ballet dancer, a classical dancer. And we have a lot of patterns that we need to escape, they wriggle out. You know our aplomb, almost some sort of woodiness. In modern styles you need to know where to relax the body. There is a specific mastery of the body and you attend these classes in order to learn that, and you have to keep learning all the time.
Sometimes the classical habits help. You can make a step more turned out, do it your own way. But the ballet laws, for example, working on relevé, we lift up and tighten our thighs, we are above the body. In modern you need to be grounded, the center of gravity has to be in the pelvis, in the center of the body. So the rules are a bit different. Therein lies the complexity and the fascination: what can you do with your body, how can you change it, what “new” can you find in yourself.

What do you hope to do with contemporary in the future?
I want to dance. After all, I’m not doing this in order to choreograph, I want to dance, to speak from the stage with the viewers and work with choreographers if they notice me and find something interesting in me, if they need me. But if I manage to create something myself that will be interesting, then sure, with pleasure.

What advice to you have for ballet school graduates?
Go after your dream, do not give up. And be a human being, don’t change for the worse. Because it the theatre changes people a lot. The main thing is to remain a person. Pure-hearted people are very visible onstage immediately. So it’s better to be pure-hearted.

Belief in God?
I believe in God. If we speak about God within people, let’s take the example of Mozart. He began to play at age 3. No one taught him. Such people exist. They’re geniuses and we look at them and wonder how they do it. God touched him, showed him. It means God exists. Or for example, Leonardo da Vinci, how did he start to draw. Well probably a force began to speak through him, so we can’t deny that this exists. I believe that some things happen to us that we cannot explain.

Ballet dancers are superstitious. We often are very overanxious, superstitious and will think, for example, that some higher power may help us or sometimes we believe “someone helped me”. But I think that this is common among all artistic people and people in general. I know for sure that any artists, including dramatic actors, are superstitious.

Do you have any rituals around going on stage?
I never cross the stage before a performance. I always walk around the periphery. I do not cross the stage to reach the dressing room because the performance hasn’t started. The performance starts when I go on stage, fully dressed in my costume, in character. If I’ve walked across the stage prior to to being in costume, prior to the performance, then my mental and physical preparation vanish and I’m not prepared.

There’s also a red line on the floor in the wings for the repairmen, and I never cross it prior to the performance. Before the performance begins, I remain behind that line, and I am Grisha Popov. And once I cross it, I am already dressed and in character for the role I will dance in the performance. It seems to me that this is a normal situation that helps you. Plus it is respect for the stage. After the performance begins, during intermission, I can cross it. And warming up on stage too, that’s OK because I’m already in costume. Many dancers have their own things. Viktoria Tereshkina has to lie down like a starfish in the center of the stage before a performance. So there are different rituals. Artists and actors are very superstitious and I think this is absolutely normal.

When you’re injured or just not in the mood but you have to perform, from where do you draw strength?
Well I love my work. And lots of us dance through pain, that’s normal. Sometimes you have to fight. You can fight and go out there and do it.

Do you have a dream for the future?
To be on stage more. I understand that I’ve been in the theatre for a long time, and I have less and less time left to dance the roles that I do. I mean it’s possible to go out and perform in various other styles, and not only dance in the Mariinsky Theatre.

Do you want to teach?
Maybe, but I’m not yet ready for that yet. I’m still learning…

Photographs courtesy of the Press Office, Mariinsky Theatre. Top portrait by Valentin Baranovsky. Photo with briefcase in Popov’s own choreography “No Matter What” by Alexander Neff. Other photos by Natasha Razina.