It seems that true choreographers are born, and not made. At least that’s the case for Maxim Sevagin, now in his sixth season as a soloist with the Stanislavsky Ballet, but with more than ten years’ experience creating choreographic works for various companies. His name is already known well in Russia, and it’s just a matter of time before the West figures out he is one of the most promising young choreographers. Vaganova Today has been tracking his career since his graduation from the Vaganova Academy in 2015, and sat down with him to discuss his career thus far.
You were not born in Saint Petersburg, but in a small city, Rubtsovsk, in Siberia. What caused you to move to Saint Petersburg?
At age 4, I saw some dancers from a local studio performing on the street for a city holiday. I asked my mom to take me to classes, but I never knew what ballet was. Then, when I was about 10, I told her I wanted to dance professionally and receive dance training education. She started to think about what to do because in the provinces where we were located, far from the capital, you might say people aren’t as cultured and don’t know much about ballet. Through my friends, my mother found out about the Novosibirsk Choreographic College and I joined it and spent 1 year there.
After that year, we were invited by distant relatives to the Leningrad oblast (region). My mother and I had never been to Saint Petersburg before, so we decided to turn the trip into a vacation, relax and see the sights. By then I already knew that the Academy of Russian Ballet existed and was one of the best ballet schools in the world. So of course my mom and I went to see the famed Rossi Street. When we walked down the street, there was a large crowd of children near the Academy. We entered, went through the tourniquet, and a woman took me by the hand, brought me into the studio, said “get changed” and they looked at me. Altynai Asylmuratova at the time still sat on the admissions commission. They asked me if I wanted to attend, and I couldn’t answer because it was all so unexpected. We went back downstairs to where my mother had been waiting, and she cried but signed some papers. And when they asked me if I wanted to stay, I understood already that this would give me other possibilities in life, as I was already 11 years old. We had no money because we had spent it all on vacation. I had no school uniform, and I stayed on in Petersburg with practically nothing. I went to live in the dorms, my mom returned home, and my dad went from Rubtsovsk to Novosibirsk to send my things from there to Saint Petersburg. The entire thing is a mystical story thanks to which I remained in Saint Petersburg, completely unexpectedly. This was already the third round of auditions when they determine which class you will be in. My mom explained that I was in the 1st grade in Novosibirsk and didn’t want me to lose a year, so they took me into the 2nd grade (year).
hat was the atmosphere at the Academy like?
The first six months for me were very difficult because I was sick a lot. Literally after the first week of classes I had a temperature of 40C, they put me in hospital, and no one came because no one there knew me. Then I had some other sicknesses and missed the performing tours to Italy. But after New Year’s it all ironed out, so that at end of that first year I got higher grades in all subjects (dancing). In Rubtsovsk, I had already finished 4 classes of primary school. At the Academy you have both academic and dance classes. At first the Russian language classes were more challenging for me, as there was a lot of dictation and I didn’t manage to keep up and write it down fast enough. My classmates all had no trouble, but I wasn’t used to that speed. So I felt the level of education was higher in Petersburg than in Novosibirsk. But in general I did well, I always tried hard.
Did you enjoy it there at first?
Yes, I really enjoyed it. First, the living conditions were much better. When I studied in Novosibirsk, we had 8 people to a room in the dormitories, and shared shower and toilet for all of us. At the Academy we lived 2 people to a room with our own bathroom. I thought I had landed in heaven, from the point of view of living conditions.
Plus the Academy is a very beautiful building, it is huge and has a high reputation. Although my first year there were a lot of renovations going on, so many parts of the Academy were closed.
I liked it because was able to demonstrate my choreographic capabilities there at an early age, I even took my classmates aside the first year to create some dances.
In the 2nd year there, I set a number which we danced in the school concert. From that year on, I started more vivid choreographic activity and by the 4th grade I had already created more than 10 short works, not just for my grade but for the lower level grades as well.
When Altynai Asylmuratova (still artistic director at the time), saw how many choreographic numbers I had set, and once the pedagogues noticed it as well, they all started to ask me to create something for their students. Altynai gave me a book, and a ton of CDs with various classical music. She was very interested in my work. The next year I took part in Grand Prix at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, and set my piece. They gave me special prize for choreography, that was in 2012 or 2013.
The next year when I was in the First Course at Academy (we have 1-5 classes, then what are called “courses”, from 1 to 3) so I was about 15- 16 years old at the time, I participated in the first Young Choreographer’s Workshop at the Mariinsky Theatre.
In my 2nd year there, I set a number which we danced in the school concert. From that year on, I started more vivid choreographic activity and by the 4th grade I had already created 10 short works, not just for my grade but for the lower level grades as well.
The ballets you created while still a student at the Academy, what were they?
I had one big idea when I was in the 4th grade (year) of ballet: We had 3 parallel classes, A B and C. I had the idea of grouping the best girls from these 3 classes into 1 ballet, and creating a group dance on them. I took this idea to Altynai, told her my thoughts, and she approved it. At the time I was deeply inspired by Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, so I used one part of it, called Summer. Twelve girls danced it. It was difficult, because for a long time my classmates did not understand why I, the same age as they, was setting a ballet on them and telling them what to do. They didn’t understood that they had to listen to me and do what I said. To them, I was their classmate. Even today I still experience this, because my both colleagues and my friends are in theatre, and not everyone can easily accept my shift to the role of choreographer. But we get through it. I just have to present myself in such a way so there are no questions. I also always say that in the ballet studio we work. And outside the studio we can be friends as much as we want.
Where does the inspiration for choreography come from? What comes first, music or movement?
Since childhood I have always had it. In childhood, I was already turning on CDs, not even classical music, but completely different types of music and dancing to them at home. Nowadays you can easily call what I did in childhood – improvisation. I have always been inspired by music, and when I start to consciously think about choreography I always take my cues from the music. There were some musical works which I liked a lot, and from there ideas and step patterns enter my head.
You choreographed Hungarian Rhapsody at the Choreographic Workshop in 2014 for the Mariinsky which was stunning. Then Elementarium in 2015 to music by Prokofiev. You also choreographed Not a Concert for a festival in France (Dauville) and Bloom at the Stanislavsky in 2019. You are now setting a new version of Romeo and Juliet at the Stanislavsky. How did the invitation come about?
For a long time Laurent Hilaire (artistic director of the Stanislavsky) wanted to set a new Romeo and Juliet at the Stanislavsky. He carefully considered which version to set. He thought about it endlessly, and my candidacy came to mind. It was a joint idea between Anton Getman, (director of the Stanislavsky Theatre until 2020), and Laurent. They offered me the project nearly 2 years ago, in December 2019. So I have had this production in my head all this time, almost two years now. I work on it along with the regisseur, Konstantin Bogomolov.
When they first suggested that I choreograph this ballet, I was sure I would work on it alone. Only later it became clear that the theatre wanted me to work on it together with the dramatic regisseur Bogomolov. Of course he is known for redoing all the libretti he touches into a contemporary time and setting. So we have changed the entire story considerably.
In terms of the libretto, I can say immediately that the idea was not to use the Shakespeare libretto but the Prokofiev score. Because from a historical point of view, Prokofiev did not want to adhere to Shakespeare, at first he wrote a musical suite. And in the ballet he thought of the emotional elements and sparks of drama that are contained in Shakespeare. But when the initial version of Romeo was set at the Kirov Ballet, there was a conflict between Prokofiev, Leonid Lavrovsky and the librettists, because they wanted to use Shakespeare’s story in detail, but in Prokofiev’s music you can clearly hear that the entire libretto doesn’t fit. So my first idea was to use Prokofiev and not Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is too far from us and Prokofiev is closer, as we use him directly and focus on what he wrote.
Of course Bogomolov and the theatre agreed that we won’t cut the score, so we are using it in full.
Can you tell us about the new libretto? Former Mariinsky prima Daria Pavlenko will dance along with Laurent Hilarie as mature Romeo and Juliet, that is a star cast…
Bogomolov wanted to set a dramatic play of Romeo in which the couple do not die, and are much older, because in his view, true love can only be demonstrated in our later years since, when we’re younger, life is more important than love. When we’re older, the person close to you is more important than life. And you can’t imagine life without him. So there’s an alternate reality in this version as if Romeo and Juliet do not die, as if they continue to live and there was no drama.
When Konstantin saw Laurent he immediately offered him the role of Romeo, and I of course also agreed to the idea, as Laurent has already danced the number I set on him and Georgi Smilevsky. Laurent is an incredible artist, so I was all for this idea. In terms of an adult Juliet, we thought for a long time who could it, and finally landed on Pavlenko.
Is it difficult to create for your own artistic director?
We are very lucky because in the first place, Laurent is just a very good person, along with being a great director. It’s easy to talk and work with him. As an artist he is attentive and asks us to repeat things a lot of times. It’s a great pleasure for me to work with him in the studio, because the work comes together and he’s very responsible. The same with Daria Pavlenko. They both have huge experience behind them, great careers, both have danced works by numerous choreographers. For these roles, we wanted those sorts of “saturated” artistic careers in their backgrounds.
You have another project coming up just after the premiere of Romeo, that is your work done for the evening in honor of Leonid Desyatnikov, the composer. I notice you enjoy using oxymorons in the titles to your ballets. This one is called “The Perfect Mistake” (Безупречная ошибка). Tell us about it.
Alexander Sergeyev, the producer of the JokersLab agency, called me unexpectedly, as they had four choreographers for their evening of Desyatnikov works, and one of them should have been set by Anton Pimonov. But since he’s the artistic director in Perm now, he couldn’t participate. so they had to find another choreographer and invited me. They offered me specific music, but said if I didn’t like it I could choose another score. I liked the music though, and I agreed to create a ballet to it. It’s important to me that Desyatnikov is such a known and valued composer. He will attend the premiere in Ekaterinburg on October 2.
It’s great to work with another troupe, different artists in another city. The ballet is only 15 minutes long, there are only 4 dancers, but it’s very saturated.
Do you have other hobbies? I know you have a dog you love.
I now have two dogs, I got another one not long ago, a puppy just 6 months old. One is a pug and the other is a collie.
When I have free time, there are a lot of other things I enjoy doing. Right now working on such a huge project like Romeo, I don’t manage to do anything else, I have no strength left over, because you give everything you have to the creative process. But when I have free time, I love to read, I love Japanese culture, I read Maku and watch Anime. I also started to study the Japanese language. Right now I am reading Alice Murdoch’s The Black Prince in English. But ou have to constantly work on languages, to keep them alive, so in my free time I try to do that. Especially with Japanese, you have to write a lot to remember all the symbols. But I like drawing them, its meditation in a way for me. and at the same time I can do brainstorming because they have a huge number of symbols.
Do you prefer dancing or choreographing?
Since childhood people have asked me that, and I can never choose because one really supplements the other. The experience that I receive as a dancer definitely influences me as a choreographer. And as a choreographer, it’s much easier to dance. The two are interconnected. Of course, doing both of them simultaneously is almost impossible, because when you work on a large production as a choreographer, it’s a huge load for your brain, since you’re thinking about images/roles and music constantly. And when you’re dancing you have to work a lot on physical form in order to dance well. Not just stay in shape, but to improve and perfect it. So for example right now, when I participated in rehearsals Sharon Eyal’s ballet, I stopped working on Romeo for 1.5 months. At first I tried to combine the two, but my brain just exploded, so either I dive into the dancing as an artist or I set ballets. But trading off is ideal, because each time you complete a cycle, you become more: you go on stage more expansively with more experience as a dancer, or as choreographer you have new ideas and thoughts.
Do you have other ballets planned for later this season?
From point of view of ballets, no. After Romeo and Juliet, for a while I will just dance more, because we will have interesting premieres in the theatre, such as Forsythe, and a new work by Sharon Eyal, and I want to participate in them. Next season we will have the premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s Nutcracker, and I want to dance in all of that. Plus dancing while I’m still young is important, as you need a specific amount of stamina for ballet in general. You need fresh energy.
Have your parents seen you on stage?
My father was a professional boxer but now he is a trainer and lives in Rubtsovsk. He came to my performance at the Stanislavsky only once to see me in The Snow Maiden. My mom lives in Saint Petersburg, and she really wants to come, but three years ago she gave birth to my brother, so she is taking care of him now.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I’m the type of person who likes a lot of different things. I’m very open to any project and anything new. I always say that Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers, so the fact I have the chance to set Romeo and Juliet now, of course I never even dreamt of it! When they told me, I actually cried from happiness in the office because I could not have ever imagined the offer! I thought Laurent might let me set maybe a one-act ballet, but not a full Romeo. I would really like to set a Cinderella to Prokofiev’s music. And in terms of dancing, I want to dance any modern choreographer’s works, of course I have a special love for Crystal Pite. It would be very interesting to work with her. I think she’s one of the best in the world now in terms of living choreographers. Although my entire life I have wanted to dance something by Balanchine as I have never danced it. We performed his Serenade and Concerto Barocco and I didn’t participate, but I was glad I was able to watch them.
Photos courtesy of Maxim Sevagin from his personal archive