Interview with a Legend: Vladimir Vasiliev, December 2023

VaganovaToday had the honor of interviewing the legendary Vladimir Vasiliev, the Bolshoi Ballet star who later ran the Bolshoi Theatre for 5 years as its General Director, opened a school in Brazil, and continues to work as balletmaster, coach, and sculptor. Read below for the interview. Click here for the Russian version.

It is said that you started dancing in small children’s classes. Was your start in ballet your own desire, or the wish of your parents?

V. Vasiliev: It was probably providence, or my profession chose me. Because when I was 7 years old, I happened to end up in a dancing class when I went along with my friend “to keep him company” to the Kirov House of Pioneers in Moscow. They noticed me during the very first class, and the wonderful pedagogue Elena Romanova Rosse complimented me. She later advised my mother to send me to the Choreographic School since she thought I had talent.

You’re one of the greatest male dancers in the entire history of ballet. Which teachers helped you along the way, and what did each of them give you?

V. Vasiliev: My teachers were and remain all of my pedagogues in our Choreographic School and later in the theatre itself. Choreographers who set their ballets on me. I owe a lot to them. But not only to them. I always learned from my colleagues whom I watched in class and on stage, including dramatic actors, choreographers, regisseurs and dancers. I tried to assimilate the best of what I observed, which seemed important to me. And I’ve continued studying all my life. It is an endless process.

There are cases in a dancer’s life, for example, injuries, when you must go on stage but it’s difficult to do so either physically or psychologically. In those moments, from where do you draw strength and inspiration? What is the source of your endless flow of energy?

V. Vasiliev:  From childhood, they teach us to endure great physical loads in our profession, and to overcome pain often. Starting with the very first classes in ballet school, we’re prepared for work in the theatre with harsh discipline and responsibility. The spectator should see neither your pain nor how you surmount it. Of course, within the limits of what is possible. I started to work in the theatre at age 18, when doctors diagnosed me with bone periostitis and said that it was not curable. The pain was intolerable, it was impossible to touch my legs. But what could I do, leave the profession? That was unthinkable! I had been accepted into the Bolshoi Theatre and immediately began to work. I forced myself to go to class and rehearsals, to dance through the pain. I knew that, right now it will be painful, but I was used to dancing through pain. I couldn’t even imagine it was possible without pain. But a miracle happened: about six months later, my body apparently overcame this ailment and the pain retreated. As with many of my colleagues, there were many cases in theatre life when they danced through pain with high fevers and felt awful. Once I had to dance with a torn meniscus. When this happened, I could not refuse performing with Alisa Alonso in “Giselle” in Cuba, and immediately after that I had to dance four “Don Quixote”s at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires because all of the tickets had already been sold and the impresario begged me with tears to perform. Immediately afterwards I went to the operating room [for surgery]. The doctors could not believe that I could even walk with such injuries. Or on tour in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House in “The Nutcracker”, when the leading hero enters through the trap door under the stage in order to fight with the Mouse King, and smoke is supposed to rise from there. But at that time they used chemical reagents and by mistake this steam effect was directed at my back and not above into the trap door. They burnt my back – it was painful! and after that I was still supposed to dance the pas de deux! But you cannot stop in the middle of a performance and interrupt the act. So I had to perform the production until the finish, through this pain, so that the viewers would not notice anything. I think any ballet dancer can tell you a considerable number of similar stories in their own career. Being prepared to surmount these incidents, it seems to me, is a part of our profession.

For you, what is the most important thing in a performer?

V. Vasiliev: Everything is important in a performer. I never tire of repeating what my great teachers told me: there is nothing unimportant or secondary in a performing art. Therefore the rarest quality in an artist is a sense of a natural organic source from which everything melds into a single and inseparable harmonic whole which is impossible to separate out into its components or explain, and this all works well for the development of the character. This is what we observe in truly great performers. And this is a great gift, it is unlikely that it can be learned.

You added and yourself created many new types of jumps which never before existed in ballet. How did you accomplish this, did it stem from a choreographer’s ideas, or were you playing around in the studio? How were these amazing jumps created?

V. Vasiliev: It happens in different ways. In classical ballets, through which many generations have already passed in the absence of the authors who created them, talented dancers often thought up new elements themselves so as not to repeat what existed before them. Especially in my time, when new ballets appeared rarely, and you had to wait for something new for a long time. My fantastic pedagogue, himself a great reformer, Alexei Ermolayev, always said to me: “I’m not interested in doing what has already been done before me.” He urged me to find new improvements, think up new mis-en-scènes and even new movements for my heroes. Most important was that they seamlessly integrated with the existing fabric of the production, as if they had always existed there. That is what happened with “Don Quixote”, when I performed this ballet for the first time in 1962 and presented a version that I had created along with Ermolayev. It was called a revolution in ballet. And now I see current dancers performing this version, and it’s considered classical. That means we managed to introduce something new without destroying the author’s intention. I can only welcome such changes in the direction of adding complexity and altering the aesthetics and technique. When a new ballet production is made, I like when the ballet dancers on whom it is set enter the spirit and atmosphere provided by the choreographer and suggest some interesting movements or mis-en-scènes themselves. That is how it was with me when I worked with a choreographer — finding myself at the mercy and intention of the tasks set by them, I always offered my own interpretation of the role. And I also always welcome such artistically inspired dancers in my own productions.  

What is your favorite production as a dancer, and as a viewer?

V. Vasiliev: I could never choose just one thing as my most favorite in art. There are never enough of them. How could I for example choose my favorite composer? After all, throughout the history of music, there were so many wonderful authors. And then, today you like one thing, and tomorrow maybe something else. We ourselves change with time.

You have a school in Brazil, and one of your graduates, Viktor Caixeta, danced here at the Mariinsky. Another was a principal dancer in Perm and is now with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. What do you try to give to the younger generation?

V. Vasiliev: I’m happy that, next year, our school in Brazil will have been working for a quarter of a century. It was a genuine breakthrough when we opened it in 2000. After all, it functions based on the methodology of professional Russian ballet schools. We really wanted all of the most important components of our Russian training to be taught there. And so many wonderful graduates are now working across the world! At the last Moscow Ballet Competition, a graduate of our school received the gold medal, Wagner Carvalho, and graduate Amanda Gomes won the silver (when there was no gold awarded). They are both principals with the Tatar State Opera and Ballet Theatre. Our school in Brazil is probably the only in the world where not only the traditional “Nutcracker” is performed in full, but als0 “Giselle” and “Don Quixote”.

I would like to give the new generation what my pedagogues taught me, and what I have already spoken about: there is nothing unimportant in the artistic profession. Technique, sure, it goes without saying that it must be of the highest level. But technique is the basis on which we work in class. It should not be noticeable, it should not exist separately when creating a role in a performance. In order to develop dramatic embodiment of a role, it seems to me it is necessary to think up the hero’s story for yourself even before the character has entered the stage, and to try to understand his personality and actions. During rehearsals, my pedagogue Alexei Ermolayev often said “Working on pirouettes and jumps — you work on technique in class. But here in rehearsal I want to see and understand why and for what reason you are doing those movements one way and not another.” This “why and what for” are characteristic in Russian theatrical training as a whole. And they are also important in ballet performances. The language of ballet is conditional, and our task is to make it unconditional and understandable for the viewer. And this is achieved by means of the ballet dancer’s entire arsenal which is subjected to the main component, the music. It is important to vary this arsenal, to use more hues, half tones, and accents as much as possible. The richer it is, the more complex and interesting the character will be onstage.

Does the current generation differ from yours? How?

V. Vasiliev: You probably can’t answer this in just two words. It’s completely obvious that the overall level of technique has risen considerably. But often in the pursuit of technique and tricks, the dramatic component of our profession is forgotten. And the main thing which is crucial in art is the characterization and imagery!

In your opinion, does the Leningrad “school” (training) and style differ from that in Moscow?

V. Vasiliev: The most important thing is we are all representatives of a singular Russian ballet school. There are always nuances. It’s often said that the dancing in Moscow is larger, freer and more emotional, while Petersburg preserves cleanliness and academicism. That’s possible. But taken in isolation from concrete performers, these definitions themselves can hardly show the full picture. The majority of my teachers and choreographers with which I had the occasion to work, were Leningraders: Elizaveta Gerdt, Alexei Ermolayev, Galina Ulanova, Kasian Goleizovskiy, Vasiliy Vainonen, Leonid Lavrovsky, Leonid Jakobson, Vakhtang Chabukiani, Rostislov Zakharov and Yuri Grigorovich. And they gave me, a graduate of the Moscow school, a great deal, including in expressive plastique. I recall when I rehearsed “Giselle” with Katya (Maximova), I was searching for my own solutions to the role, and trying to remain natural without disturbing the positions of classical dancing. Galina Ulanova, who rehearsed one of the mis-en-scènes from Act One with us, said to me, “Don’t think about the positions, stand up as you would naturally stand up as this character.” We still watch and admire the recordings saved of Ulanova — they contain mystery, emotional intensity and character imagery.

You’ve worked as a ballet dancer, director, pedagogue, and choreographer. What would you like to show the audience with the premiere of “Aniuta”?

V. Vasiliev: About “Aniuta”, this production is already 37 years old, but it will appear onstage in Petersburg for the first time. Although it was born in a television version here, in Leningrad. Of course, I’m happy that finally this production that is so loved by both viewers and dancers is returning to its source.  So many great names in this glorious city are associated with it. Of course, above all, with Valery Gavrilin, for me an astonishing, soulful and very deep composer! And with Alexander Belinsky, and with the wonderful first cast of performers who set a high standard for all subsequent generations of dancers. I would like to dedicate our premiere in the Mariinsky Theatre to them.

Which of the roles that you’ve held during your lifetime (choreographer, dancer, director, etc.) is closest to you?

V. Vasiliev: I can say only one thing: no matter what I’ve done in my life, and there were quite a few of these various guises or professions, I always devoted myself fully and wholly to the work. Otherwise I don’t see any point in doing something. And it is unlikely anything important would come of it otherwise. 

Will classical ballet live on?

V. Vasiliev: It seems to me that classical ballet will continue to live as long as human beings as we know them continue to live. After all, the classics have survived for over a century, demonstrating the demand for them, and their importance to people. And of course, for this, the school and traditions must be preserved and developed.

Your advice for young people?

V. Vasiliev:  Work, work, work, and be dissatisfied with what you’ve already accomplished. Step by step go towards your perfect unattainable self!

Photos by Natasha Razina; Portrait of Vladimir Vasiliev at the top by Mikhail Vilchuk. All images courtesy the Mariinsky Press Office.