Chain-smoking Marlboros in a dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera House, former dancer Makhar Vaziev speaks through an interpreter of the challenges of leading the Kirov Ballet today. Still boyishly handsome at age 38, he is reportedly the youngest director in the company's history--and youth is very much at the center of his current agenda.
The company's Met engagement, which ends Saturday, isn't its first U.S. visit since the fall of Communism, but it has provided America's first look at the Kirov since the departure of director Oleg Vinogradov in the mid-'90s. Back then, the company seemed to suffer one calamity after another: an embezzlement scandal, budgetary cutbacks, the departure of stars for better opportunities in the West and the dilution of the company's reputation by low-budget "Stars of the Kirov" Western tours retailing hard-sell technique.
But, beginning in 1997, when the company mounted a hit five-week season in London, and now in New York, a company that gave the world such legendary dancers as Nijinksy, Pavlova, Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov is returning to its former preeminence. Its method? Developing a new generation of stars--mostly young ballerinas--ready for daring new repertory challenges.
Indeed, Vaziev's official biography for the Met engagement ends with a policy statement that sums up the new priorities of his "new" Kirov: "Mr. Vaziev actively supports the development of the younger generation of Kirov Ballet stars such as Uliana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova and Maya Dumchenko."
Those names dominate the Met casting while more familiar ballerinas such as Yulia Makhalina and Zhanna Ayupova remain on the roster but are conspicuously absent. The only exception: Altynai Assylmuratova, who returns to the Kirov periodically between guest engagements and seasons with other companies.
From Vaziev's perspective, his support for the younger generation proved a matter of necessity. He says that he became director of the ballet company "officially two years ago but unofficially I took this position four years ago," during a murky transition from Vinogradov's 18-year regime. The most immediate problem he faced upon assuming control was the lack of female stars. "Most of them had either retired, been forced to leave the company or were under contract outside Russia," he explains. "So I faced two options: either lure back some of those who left or develop stars from inside the company."
He chose the second option and it brought the company spectacular success during the London engagement two years ago. "All the would-be pallbearers who had announced the company's artistic death were wrong," wrote Nadine Meisner in the Sunday Times. "In the past decade, interesting dancers have certainly danced their way out of Russia, but interesting new ones have taken their place. The Kirov has a seemingly inexhaustible well of talent."
Assylmuratova served as prima ballerina in London, but Vishneva and Lopatkina emerged as the big discoveries. For instance, Judith Mackrell wrote in the Guardian that Lopatkina "seemed to embody a whole new technology in dancing. She resembles other ballerinas the way a CD player resembles a windup gramophone."
Equally enthusiastic about Vishneva, Anne Sacks in the Evening Standard called her "spectacular" for her "bravura attack. . . . She has no fear."
Young Dancer Wishes for Older Role Models
Now 25, Lopatkina says the London acclaim took her by surprise but was "very pleasant." And she enjoys what she calls "almost a [company] tradition of bringing young talent on the stage," along with the expanded flow of information that followed the fall of Communism--especially access to videotapes of other dance companies. "The Balanchine tapes [of New York City Ballet] were for us a great discovery," she comments. As it happens, she is dancing two works by Balanchine and the full-length "Fountain of Bakhchisiray" at the end of the current Met run.
But, as the 22-year-old Vishneva explains, the Kirov's emphasis on youth has its downside. "Usually at the Maryinsky Theatre [the company's home in St. Petersburg], more than one generation would be dancing at the same time," she says, relaxing in her dressing room during a week in which she danced the leading roles of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Giselle." "And it would be better if the older generation were dancing with us, because young people need to be taught by the artists ahead of them. Without that, there is no way to learn the traditions of the company."
The process of learning those traditions involves an intense, long-term relationship with a Kirov coach--in Lopatkina's case, with 70-year-old former ballerina Ninel Kurgapkina, a survivor of some eight previous Kirov regimes. Speaking in a melodious growl, she characterizes the difference between Kirov dancers then and now primarily in terms of evolving physical changes: "In the past, the dancers were small and plump; now they are tall, have a wonderful stretch and, of course, when they are on stage the picture is absolutely different. But the technical standard is the same, the traditions of classical dancing are the same."
And so is one truth Kurgapkina has learned about Kirov policy during her 50 years there. "If we speak about the company in general, it doesn't matter who is the artistic director because the company has a life of its own. But if we speak of ballerinas, we see that each artistic director promotes his favorite ballerina, and that's why the career of each one--her artistic growth and how she appears on stage--is different. One will be up and then suddenly down.
"Under Mr. Vinogradov's leadership, Makhalina was at the top," she continues. "But even though she is still young now, she is not here--she no longer has those privileges she used to have." A deep sigh. "It's a usual practice: It's absolutely impossible for an artistic director to be objective [about ballerinas]."
Director Makes Changes in Company's Repertory
Apart from the ascent of Vaziev's slate of young ballerinas, his directorship is also notable for major repertory switches. Gone, for instance, is Vinogradov's staging of the complete "Swan Lake" (which was given its world premiere in the Shrine Auditorium in 1992) and restored is the previous version by another former Kirov director, Konstantin Sergeyev. But gone too is Sergeyev's 1952 "Sleeping Beauty" and, in its place, Vaziev has presented to New York audiences a four-hour reconstruction of Marius Petipa's 1890 choreography with reproductions of the original sets and costumes.
Inside and outside the company, the new reconstruction is controversial, for the Sergeyev adaptation is loved by generations of St. Petersburg audiences and dancers, among them Vishneva. "I would be very upset if it isn't performed anymore," she says. Lopatkina, however, speaks of the reconstruction as "a legend coming into reality. Everybody was very excited about it and wondering how the new traditions would blend with the old ones." And Kurgapkina says that the two versions belong in different categories: The Sergeyev focuses on classical dancing while the Petipa offers a much more complex experience.
For Vaziev, that complexity is "what we wanted to show," and his emphasis on it marks a major departure from the formalist priorities of Russian ballet in the Soviet era. "Petipa's ballets were not created as pure dance," he explains. "They've got pantomime and acting that help make the story real and express the profound ideas in it. We wanted to bring this ballet [as originally conceived] into this century because there was a real need for it. We needed this ballet to reveal more of the company--more of what we can do.
"Of course, we can reach perfection in the technique we perform, but unless we give full importance to the narrative side--the drama of the ballet--it won't be the real thing."