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Ex-Bolshoi Star Dances This Time With Royal Ballet

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four years ago, Irek Mukhamedov was the much-anticipated new star whose dynamic leaps and bold stage presence captivated audiences during the Bolshoi Ballet’s U.S. tour. Hurling his muscular body through seemingly impossible tricks with boyish eagerness, the darkly handsome dancer was the natural heir to the long line of bravura Bolshoi men.

Recognizing a marketable asset when they saw one, the presenters of the Bolshoi’s 1990 American tour splashed his bare-chested, airborne image across posters and advertisements. Yet by the time the company arrived for its July/August performances, Mukhamedov was nowhere to be seen. One month before the tour, he had joined the Royal Ballet, signing a five-year contract as a principal dancer.

Mukhamedov’s sudden move, coming in the post- glasnost era when Soviet dancers frequently made guest appearances with Western companies, did not stir up the intrigue that marked the defections of an earlier era. However, his switch to the Royal was still big news on many fronts--a blow to a Bolshoi already suffering heavy criticism from within and without; an exciting new addition to a rebuilding Royal Ballet; and a hot topic for balletomanes worldwide.

Now Mukhamedov is with the Royal Ballet, appearing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, its first time in Southern California since 1979. Mukhamedov will be Prince Siegfried to Viviana Durante’s Odette/Odile in tonight’s opening night performance of Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production of “Swan Lake” (which he also dances on Saturday night). He will also appear on Thursday and Friday in the central role Sir Kenneth MacMillan created for him in “Winter Dreams,” a one-act ballet inspired by Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

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Taking a break between class and rehearsal while the Royal was performing recently at the Metropolitan Opera House (the first stop on the current five-week tour), Mukhamedov sat in his dressing room and reflected on the considerable personal and professional changes of his past year.

Although his comprehension of English is improving and he has picked up some useful phrases (“no problem,” he tells a ballet mistress who pokes her head in to remind him of his next rehearsal), he answers questions through an interpreter.

A vigorous, effusive presence onstage, especially in such unsubtle roles as the heroes in Yuri Grigorovich’s “Spartacus” and “The Golden Age,” Mukhamedov is more muted, even a bit cautious, in conversation. The fact that the questions interviewers now pose tend to veer toward the political and sociological, in addition to the artistic, has clearly added a touch of wariness to his answers.

“The main thing which prompted me to leave the Soviet Union was that my wife Masha was pregnant, and my main goal was to create a normal life for my child,” the 31-year-old dancer explained.

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His wife, former Bolshoi dancer Maria Zubkova, gave birth to their daughter Alexandra 10 months ago.

“For children, it is very difficult there,” he noted of the Soviet Union, citing the poor quality of medical care, food and clothing. He chose London because he wanted to remain in a European milieu and was familiar with the city from several Bolshoi tours.

Mukhamedov also alluded to “a lot of smaller problems” that helped spur his decision to leave, and acknowledged that the lack of original roles created for him was a major artistic drawback during his Bolshoi years.

In 1982, one year after he joined the company, he originated the bravura role of Boris in “The Golden Age.” But during the ensuing eight years there had been no new ballets at the Bolshoi. “Grigorovich tried to choreograph new ballets, of course, but there were problems within the Bolshoi Theater, and problems occurring in the Soviet Union overall. So we had to leave to find projects,” Mukhamedov said.

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He found himself involved in the creation of a new ballet almost immediately after his arrival in London. MacMillan quickly began working on a pas de deux for Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell, the company’s youngest principal and newest home-grown star.

Entitled “Farewell,” this pas de deux was the vehicle for Mukhamedov’s Royal debut in July, 1990, and it evolved into a central episode within “Winter Dreams,” which had its premiere last February. Mukhamedov portrays Vershinin, the military officer in love with the married Masha, danced by Bussell.

“There was a wonderful atmosphere during the creation of the ballet,” Mukhamedov recalls. “We worked very quickly, seriously and dramatically. It was fascinating to work with MacMillan in a totally different style. I don’t think the difficulty of the role lies in its technical aspects, but in fully understanding the style.”

“Winter Dreams” is only one of the eight new productions Mukhamedov danced during his first season with the Royal--a number that clearly pleases him and also leaves him hungry for more.

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He admits he was unfamiliar with the Royal’s repertory before he arrived, having seen only a videotape of MacMillan’s “Prince of the Pagodas.” “I did not have a particular repertory in mind when I joined. I just wanted to dance everything,” he says.

Before his decision to become a member of the company, he had already made plans to appear as a guest artist in the Royal’s production of “La Bayadere,” a ballet he did not know well despite its Russian origins. He learned the role of Solor from Natalia Makarova, who staged the Royal’s production, and found himself partnering another Russian: Kirov ballerina Altynai Assylmuratova.

Since taking over as the Royal’s artistic director in 1986, Anthony Dowell has broken with his predecessor Norman Morrice’s policy of cultivating home-grown talent and barring guest artists. Dowell, the company’s great danseur noble during the 1960s and 1970s, has opened the door to foreign dancers appearing in either short-term or ongoing arrangements.

Bolshoi dancers Nina Ananiashvili and Alexei Fadeyechev have danced with the Royal recently; Sylvie Guillem, the globe-trotting French ballerina, has made the company her primary affiliation, joining as a principal guest artist (though she will not dance in Orange County); and Paris Opera etoile Laurent Hilaire has often appeared with her at the Royal.

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The company’s roster includes dancers from Italy, Japan and Hungary as well as Americans Robert Hill, a frequent partner of Bussell’s, but currently sidelined with a knee injury, and Bonnie Moore, the former American Ballet Theatre soloist who will dance Odette/Odile on Saturday afternoon in Costa Mesa.

The increasingly international company dances a repertoire that emphasizes full-length works--both the classics and contemporary dramatic ballets by MacMillan and resident choreographer David Bintley.

Despite his lack of advance expectations, Mukhamedov has found a strong selection of suitable roles, ranging from new versions of works he danced at the Bolshoi--"The Nutcracker” and “Raymonda"--to contemporary narrative ballets such as Bintley’s “Cyrano,” in which he danced the title role, and MacMillan’s “Manon,” in which he alternated in the two contrasting lead male roles.

He says he has his eye on additional MacMillan roles--Prince Rudolph in “Mayerling” and Romeo--that he hopes to learn soon.

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Performing Siegfried in Dowell’s staging of “Swan Lake"--a role he is assuming for the first time on this tour--was both a familiar and a new experience. “In this version, you have everything--mime, dancers, actors. At the Bolshoi it’s mainly dancing; even Rothbart is a danced role in Grigorovich’s version.”

His repertory for next season will include two additional roles: Colas in “La Fille Mal Gardee” and Albrecht in “Giselle.” While known for the intensity of his dramatic portrayals, Mukhamedov expresses an interest in sampling more abstract works by Ashton, Balanchine and Robbins that are also an integral part of the Royal’s repertory.

Between the onslaught of new roles and the onset of fatherhood, Mukhamedov has clearly spent an eventful year. The wealth of changes and his focus on the future have kept him from devoting much time to looking backward, and a question about a relationship with his former company seems to touch on a subject that is not among his priorities.

While his departure did not sever ties the way a defection would have 10 or 15 years ago, he hints at a troublesome relationship with the Bolshoi.

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“Maybe for other people the doors are still open and they can go back. But for everything connected with me, the doors will close very quickly,” he says with a rueful laugh. “It appears that the dancers can come and go as they please, sign foreign contracts, but to me it doesn’t seem to be that free. But I can only speak for myself.”

He feels settled in London for now; he and his family have bought an apartment “with a nice communal garden,” he says in careful English. Visiting the Soviet Union does not seem to be among his immediate plans. “Yes, I can go back, but we’ll wait a little. When our daughter grows up a little, we’ll show her where her parents are from.”


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