In 1991, Kirov Ballet veteran Eldar Aliev had come to a crossroads. After working his way up through the legendary Russian company's corps, he had become a distinguished principal; at age 33, he was traveling the world and enjoying the spotlight in "Swan Lake," "Spartacus," "Le Corsaire" and other major works.
But Aliev had incurred a spinal injury during a recent Korean tour. A second such injury could end his career. Even if he remained healthy, he knew that his years at the top were limited, and he didn't want to turn out like so many of his colleagues, "waking up one morning and realizing that nobody needs them."
Fast-forward to 2004. It's a gray autumn day, and Aliev, 46 -- tall, trim and casually elegant -- is at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the Cal State Los Angeles campus, checking out the facility for the Indianapolis-based Ballet Internationale's production of "The Nutcracker."
The engagement, at the Luckman Theatre on Friday and Saturday, will be the company's first Los Angeles appearance. But for Aliev, Ballet Internationale's artistic director, it will be the latest milestone in his journey from the fabled and mighty Kirov to a small city ballet in America's heartland.
Leaving the Kirov was hard, he says -- "It is still my love and heart" -- but the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened doors to many new international possibilities for Russian dancers of note. So Aliev, a native of Azerbaijan, came to the United States in 1992, his wife and young son in tow.
His destination was considerably off the beaten path: sporty Indianapolis of automotive fame, home to a low-profile, 18-year-old professional ballet troupe.
Sitting in a small conference room at the Luckman, Aliev shrugs when asked about his choice.
"Where can you go and what can you do after being a principal dancer of the Kirov Ballet for many years? I had offers from the major companies in the states, but I knew I will never dance better repertoire. I will never dance with better partners. I will never work with better teachers. And I was feeling like somebody walked me through my life, my career. My teachers, my coaches, the Kirov -- I was a puppy led on a leash, and I didn't want to live that life anymore."
An "unknown, small regional company" seemed the right place to "try myself in the world," he says.
A new staff
Aliev joined the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre as principal dancer and ballet master for its 1992-93 season; by 1994, he had become artistic director. His determined push to reshape the company for the world stage was soon reflected in its new name: Ballet Internationale.
Aliev next brought in former Kirov prima ballerina assoluta and American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova -- who had been partnered by both Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev -- as assistant artistic director.
He appointed another ballet legend -- Vladilen Semenov, former Kirov premier danseur and head of the esteemed Vaganova School of St. Petersburg -- as principal of Ballet Internationale's Clara R. Noyes Academy.
As a consequence of Aliev's aggressive scouting, the company's original pool of local dancers has given way to an infusion of young talent not only from the U.S. but also from Italy, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Canada and elsewhere around the globe.
Russian style dominates. Many of the dancers have been trained by Russian artists or in the Vaganova School -- although, Aliev says, "clarity of style" is the most important thing.
Kolpakova, who divides her time between ABT in New York and Ballet Internationale, joined the Indianapolis company eight years ago, when Aliev "asked me and my husband to work with him. We have one vision," she says, in her heavily accented English, "for the way to make good ballet company." She is "glad and proud" that some of her New York colleagues have taken notice of the company's accomplishments.
With a stated annual budget of $2.8 million, Aliev continues to expand Ballet Internationale's touring schedule across the U.S. and abroad. Last year, the company spent six weeks in China; this year it was featured in Le Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur in Montreal.
"And we are talking to presenters in Japan. If we will break into that Japan market, that will be huge," Aliev says beaming.
"Of course, we're still improving, we're still building the company. The process is still not accomplished."
His efforts are certainly attracting attention. Critic Clive Barnes, reviewing Ballet Internationale's production of "The Creation of the World" for Dance Magazine earlier this year, praised the company for its "enormous vitality. The women have lovely arms and strong backs; the men excel in that open, forthright presentation of the old Kirov."
The company's repertoire includes classical gems, one contemporary ballet and one original work each season; in April, Aliev will premiere his version of the swashbuckling classic "Le Corsaire," with his own choreography and libretto.
A new 'Nutcracker'
His lavish "Nutcracker," with sets and costumes by Russian designers, is traditional, with Aliev's original choreography. But his libretto emphasizes story, tying the first and second acts together, he says, by making magician Herr Drosselmeyer a principal role.
"He's Hoffmann in my version," Aliev explains, referring to the author of the original German fairy tale, E.T.A. Hoffmann. "He's nearing the end of his life, and he is writing, creating magic and showing Clara his work, telling her that the world is beautiful."
Older audience members, Aliev feels, will identify with Drosselmeyer's hope that Clara will continue his legacy, while "kids 5, 6, 7 years old will enjoy the dancing, the music, the colors. The mid-generation will probably see it from my perspective: 'What is my goal in life? I have to leave something after I am gone.' "
Although the weekend will offer L.A.'s first look at Ballet Internationale, Aliev seems serenely confident that it won't be the last. After all, L.A. needs a ballet company. Maybe something can be arranged, he says, only half in jest.
"I have a big dream. Can I share it with you? My dream is to have a sister city project. To have my company presenting back-to-back seasons here and in Indianapolis. When I hear from people, 'Oh, Los Angeles is not for ballet,' or 'Ballet is not for Los Angeles,' I always want to say, 'Don't tell me that, OK?' "
He remembers how he and his fellow dancers were greeted like rock stars by delirious balletomanes when the Kirov came to L.A. in 1986 on its first North American tour in 21 years.
"People were standing in line for tickets when the performances were sold out; after the performances, people were trying to touch us. And they couldn't because there was FBI, CIA, KGB, and we couldn't even talk to the people."
He pauses as he recalls a more recent, less pleasant memory that clearly still rankles.
"When I moved to the States, I was filling out an application for something. It said 'occupation,' and I said, 'ballet dancer.' The person reviewing my application said, 'Oh, you're a ballet dancer. How nice. But what do you do for a living?' For a few minutes I couldn't understand the nature of his question. When I did, it was a slap in my face."
The feasibility of an L.A. connection aside, Aliev's efforts to transform Ballet Internationale with his Russian aesthetic and to raise the consciousness of the ballet-phobic are born out of "the passion of my life," he says.
"Ballet is one of the finest, most elegant art forms. It is more than just a profession to me. Ballet is my religion."
Where: Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
Price: $50 to $65
Contact: (323) 343-6600, (213) 365-3500, www.ticketmaster.com