An interview with Altynai Asylmuratova, Artistic Director of the Vaganova Ballet Academy

In January 2000 Altynai Asylmuratova succeeded to the late Igor Belsky as Artistic Director of the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. Just 39 at the time of her appointment, Altynai Asylmuratova was still performing as the senior ballerina of the Kirov troupe and also regularly appeared as a guest artist with various companies around the world. However, by accepting these new responsibilities it became clear that her dancing career would take a different course, and a lot sooner than was expected.

Yet, even if this turn of events may have surprised more than a few, surely nobody will have harboured any doubts as to whether Altynai Asylmuratova is the right person for the job. One of the most gifted and internationally acclaimed ballerinas of her generation, Asylmuratova has been widely recognised as a supreme exponent of the Vaganova School. Born in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, into a family of dancers, she trained at the Vaganova from 1970 to 1978. Upon graduation she joined the Kirov Ballet, soon giving that company the face as well as the soul it needed during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Now, almost two years after her appointment as Artistic Director, I thought it rewarding to talk with Ms. Asylmuratova about her work and her first experiences at the Academy. With its history of over 260 glorious years and continuous generations of talented artists on its roster, the Vaganova is one of the world's most illustrious ballet schools. It is the cradle and the guardian of St. Petersburg classicism, and has as such been defining for a large part what the dance world has always valued and cherished as the "Russian style". It is also a very complex organisation with a Soviet mortgage trying to survive in a difficult period of transition. Ushering that venerable house into the new century, indeed presents more than a challenge.

Ms. Asylmuratova, how would you characterize, briefly, the importance of the Vaganova Academy for Russian ballet in general, and for the Mariinsky Theatre in particular?

If I had to put it in one word I would say professionalism. When you consider just the Mariinsky Theatre, the Academy and the ballet company have always been closely linked. They are in fact one institute. All the way through history there has been a continuous exchange of people and talent. The Academy gives the ballet company most of its dancers. Teachers who worked at the Academy continue as repetiteurs or give class in the company, while retired dancers of the Kirov Ballet continue as teachers in the Vaganova. It's really like a chain. Our basic principle has always been to teach from hand to hand, or from leg to leg if you prefer. It's not possible to learn from a book alone. You need people with experience to hand down our traditions from one generation to the next.

How did you became artistic director of the Vaganova? Was this your own decision?

No, I didn't think about it really. It just happened, as people from the Academy invited me to take the position. I always had the most profound respect and admiration for our School and what it represents as an artistic institute. Of course, I had no experience for this kind of job, but I think I can say I know something about my profession. I didn't accept it for the sake of my career, but I did it because I love the arts - it's more than anything an emotional matter. I admit that I hesitated for some time, because I had no idea what it was and wondered whether I would be able to handle this "big machine". There are actually two sides to the coin: I remember the School from my own days as a student there and I know almost all the professors, which to some extent makes it easier for me; but on the other hand, I wasn't really prepared for it. Yet in the end I considered that I could do something for the Academy, maybe not much, but still something good.

I sense that you encountered several problems at the Academy. Can you tell me something about those?

Well, it's like life you know. I want to obtain the best in everything for the Academy, but just as in life it's not possible to achieve the ideal. Moreover, the situation of the School is linked to the general political and economical situation in this country. But to remain within the limits of the School, yes, there are some problems. Our own, small problems. You see, when you work with a teacher who has been around for 30 or 40 years, he or she will tell you immediately what has been lost and why. For example what has been lost?

When you watch a video tape of dancers of the old generations, for instance Galina Ulanova, Marina Semyonova, or a bit later Natalia Dudinskaya, you can see a certain coordination of body and arms, a musicality - you might call it 'singing with the body' - and above all an emotional depth to the dancing which no longer seem to exist today. The technique was present alright, but it was never there just for the sake of technique. The accent was first and foremost on emotion. However, now it's all about high legs. I consider that a serious problem. All we seem to think about today is how high the legs can go, but there is hardly any concern anymore about form, plastique, harmony, and about what's coming from inside, about soul. That's something we lost. We also need to work on our feet. Graduates from the Paris Opera Ballet School are perfect in this respect. Their feet are a true delight. Even though our School has always been famous for arms and upper body, I think it should be possible to enhance our feet. It's not even a question of changing the methods of teaching, we just need to switch the accents. When I became director I found out that lessons in French and music had been dropped at the School. Two essential things for a dancer: all ballet terms are in French and we work our whole life with music. Yet, they were no longer obligatory. I have already reinstated them.

It's a well know fact that in recent years the Mariinsky Theatre accepts more and more graduates from other schools than the Vaganova Academy. What do you think of this development?

That's a sad evolution. It's necessary that School and Theatre remain close together. The thing is that not every graduate can be immediately ballerina or premier danseur. We all know it takes time for people to develop, yet now the Theatre wants graduates who can immediately tackle Don Quixote or Swan Lake. The Theatre wants "stars". What we deliver, however, is a good professional base. We provide just the material for different theatres and once the students graduated it is up to these theatres to use them, to work with them. The Academy is not a star factory, but that is often forgotten today. We have students with different personalities and of various abilities. Of course, there will always be a talent that stands out, but in any case, no matter how talented or physically gifted, when they leave the School they are not ready yet for the very top. They are not stars. If you take famous examples from the past like Ulanova, she, too, began with small roles and she developed slowly, step by step.

Or like yourself?

Yes, I was in the corps de ballet for four years. Maybe that was way too long, who knows, but still I feel it's necessary to go through all the steps. The corps de ballet is like a school as well. Moreover, a dancer needs guidance all the time. It's important to have a repetiteur. This phenomenon of the young stars is also worrying. Dancers of twenty are behaving like big stars, thinking they can do everything already. That's not the right mentality. Not everybody is able to handle this star status. It's only the most intelligent ones who can get away with it. And on another level it's worrying because these young stars at the Mariinsky are seen as examples by the students, while in fact they shouldn't be.

Isn't the famous style of the Kirov Ballet at stake with the increasing recruitment of non-Vaganova trained dancers?

Quite. And it's so obvious. We have a course for dance teaching at the Academy and when people from other schools come here to teach or to learn to teach, you can immediately spot the difference. Theoretically it's the same, but in practice it's so different. Especially the arms and the coordination, which are unique in our School.

Many people see you now as a teacher. But do you actually give classes or teach?

Right now I do give class, but that's only a temporary situation because one of our teachers is in Brazil for three months. Of course, it would be better not to interrupt the courses, but we have to do it for financial reasons and we give teachers the opportunity to do guest contracts abroad. I like to teach and would be interested to guide a dancer. My own repetiteur Olga Moiseyeva, who worked with me during my whole career in the Kirov, gave me a lot of important things and I want to hand this on to a new generation. It's interesting and I love working with young people.

Some of your old professors are still at the School today. How does it feel to work with them now?

Good! In the beginning it felt very strange really, also for them I guess, but they never let me feel it. I try to keep a good spirit in the School. Also, I didn't arrive as director of the School with the idea of making a big splash. These people have been there for so many years. They know very well what it's about and I don't want to stir things up. I just want to give them the opportunity to work in comfortable surroundings. If I have some disagreement, I try to work it out the quiet, diplomatic way. That usually gives the best results. Even if it's not always the easiest way, because you know that artists are not normal people. They are very emotional, sometimes downright weird, and you need to find the right way how to deal with these many different characters. Artists remain children for their whole life and have to be encouraged and cajoled all the time. But for me it's the result that counts. I don't believe in this continuous shouting and screaming to obtain results. It just doesn't work. Yet if you do it just once in a while, when it's really needed, it makes more impact. It needs a lot of diplomacy and you have to realize that many of the professors in the school are old people. I respect them a great deal. The work they are doing is invaluable and without any prospect of fame or fortune. Nobody knows them. The repetiteurs in the ballet company are famous, but who knows any of the professors of our School? Everybody knows Moiseyeva, Kurgapkina, and people like that, but hardly anybody can name a professor of the Vaganova Academy. And yet it's a much harder and ungrateful job than to work with a soloist in the company. It's very monotonous, sometimes boring. Our professors work like 40 years in the School and get nothing for it. They don't have a car, a house, just nothing. Still they continue the tradition because they love ballet. And that needs all our respect.

How is the financial situation of the Academy?

I don't want to say much about that, because I cannot say anything good about it. Of course, we try to find some extra possibilities, for instance by sending a teacher to Brazil or Japan for a few weeks or a couple of months. But it's a difficult situation, because each teacher has his or her own class and cannot be missed for an extensive period at the School. When a teacher is absent for two or three months, one can already see it. It's not right. But sometimes it's necessary.

The Vaganova is famous for academic dance. Do you also pay attention to contemporary dance?

Yes, some years ago Igor Belsky introduced a modern dance class and I think it's a good development. We recently found a good teacher for this section and I like the results so far. It's strange, but when you do contemporary dance it helps for your classical training. Sometimes young people feel too constricted in classical ballet, yet modern dance allows them to open up and to relax their bodies, so it has a benign effect on their classical training. And of course, our students need to be ready for various choreographies.

Do you think that classical ballet still has a future in the 21st century?

Yes, of course, classical ballet will always be there. By contrast, contemporary is good for two or three years, and it already became old-fashioned. But Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, … these ballets will exist forever.

I understand that your new position at the Academy directly affects your career as a ballerina.

Right. I decided to quit dancing. It's not possible to do both jobs. Moreover, I am a woman and I have my family, my daughter. And when I do something I cannot do it half and half, it needs to be done all the way. I really cannot divide my life between School, Theatre and home. It's no tragedy. It's normal. And I decided to go in a quiet way. No goodbye, no grand gala or anything - I didn't want that. It's quite Russian, you know: it's like when you are invited to some place and you just leave without saying goodbye.

16 November 2001

Interview with  Altynai Asylmuratova Copyright 2010 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance International Summer/Fall 2002, pp. 44-45 and reproduced here with permission.

Copyright 2000-2010. All rights reserved.