Interview with Vladimir Vasiliev, London 16 March 2002
by Marc Haegeman
Vladimir Vasiliev, the legendary Bolshoi artist, was briefly in London last Spring to supervise the performances of his Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican Hall. As part of the events marking the 75th birthday of another living legend, master cellist and conductor Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich, three evenings of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in a choreography by Vasiliev were danced by the Lithuanian Ballet, accompanied for the occasion by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Rostropovich.
Vladimir Vasiliev is now 62. He hardly needs an introduction. Universally recognized as one of the greatest and most influential dancers of the 20th century, a fertile choreographer, stage and film director, General and Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Theatre from 1995 to 2000 - in short, a massive artistic personality if ever there was one. Yet, it's a charming simplicity that greets you when meeting Vladimir Vasiliev. Casually dressed in a dark suit, brightened up by a scarlet jumper and his boyish, flaxen head, denying his age, at first sight there is an air of quiet resignation about the man. But as soon as he starts talking about his lifelong passion, he has a twinkle in his eyes, often underscoring his phrases with broad gestures, quite reminiscent of the brilliant performer in the grand old Bolshoi tradition.
I need to express my warmest thanks to Ms. Marina Panfilovich, assistant to Mr. Vasiliev, and without whose help and efficiency this interview would never have materialized.
Vladimir Vasiliev you are bringing Prokofiev's most famous ballet Romeo and Juliet in a somewhat peculiar staging. Can you tell me a little about this project. What is special about it and why did you decide to do it this way ?
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to stage Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. I always loved the original production by Leonid Lavrovsky. Although I think that it was very much a child of its age, in the sense that it is a real dance-drama, with not so much dancing but with each role dramatically worked out into the tiniest detail, I still consider Lavrovsky's version of Romeo and Juliet the best ever. Yet, my dream was to combine music and dancing. When I was dancing myself, I couldn't put a foot on stage until I could hear the music singing in me. That's probably why so many people described my dancing as deeply musical.
Anyhow, in 1989, I met Slava Rostropovich in Naples. We were drinking wine, chatting, and, as you know, on such occasions a lot of new and interesting ideas are conceived. All of the sudden we were thinking: why don't we do something together? I told Slava that I wanted to mount a ballet where the conductor is not in the orchestra pit, but is playing the main role, as narrator of the story. I was convinced that Slava was the right person for this, artistically as well as dramatically. He asked me whether I had listened to the suite of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet he recorded, a recent project of which he felt extremely proud. I listened to it and eventually this whole idea took shape to represent Romeo and Juliet on three levels, wherein the orchestra would form the central one, blending with the characters in the story. The levels wouldn't merely emphasise the division between the two families, but I also wanted to apply a cinematographic method to develop the story, with the levels, foreground and background, constantly interplaying.
Slava became very enthusiastic about this idea, especially when I first told him that at the end of the ballet he would come down from his rostrum and join together the dead lovers' hands.
Unfortunately, the premiere was not conducted by Slava Rostropovich, because he was much too busy at the time. However, I couldn't wait, so eventually it was my good friend Evgeny Kolobov, a fantastic musician, then musical director of the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, where the premiere took place, who conducted the opening night. And Slava would conduct it later on several occasions and even tour with the production.
When I mounted this ballet, I took care to avoid any discrepancies between the music and what is happening on stage, something which often occurs when you approach the ballet as a play by Shakespeare. It's essential to realize that Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is not Shakespeare. (You have a similar situation with Tchaikovsky and Pushkin's The Queen of Spades. Both composers created a new work and it's no use trying to follow the original story when you work with their music.) I only let the music direct my choreographic decisions.
This production is now more than ten years old, I have staged it for several companies, but I keep working on it. In general, I think it's important that the classics are changed continually, because each generation of dancers approaches and interprets them differently. After all theatre is a living body, not a museum.
What is your opinion on the current tendency to go back to the original notations of the great classics and mount "authentic" versions, like for example The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère at the Maryinsky Theatre?
In my view it's wrong to consider these productions "authentic". It's wrong, because it's impossible to re-create a ballet exactly as it was more than a hundred years ago, for the simple reason that we are not familiar with the aesthetics of those days. If you want to go back that far in time, you also need to re-create the atmosphere and the principles of beauty of that era, and most of all the aesthetics of dance and art of those days. It goes without saying that it's necessary go back to the originals, because often with the time we loose essential things. But there is no perfect recipe for it. The only thing that I can say is that when a ballet master wants to carefully revive the original ballet, he also needs to bring back the atmosphere of the time when it was created, the initial impression it made on the audience. This is very important to me. If this doesn't happen, then I think he failed.
Let's take the example of Giselle. Why is the ballet Giselle immortal? Because each new generation of dancers changes it. If we would return to the original Giselle from 1842, it would look funny. When we watch the photos of all those great dancers from the beginning of the 20th century we can't help smiling, because they look so different. The aesthetics were so different and are no longer accepted now. Yet, the ballet Giselle still exists and is loved everywhere.
Talking about going back in time a little, why and how did you choose for a dancing career? From where comes this passion for dance?
By coincidence. My parents had no connections with ballet or theatre whatsoever. It was really by chance that at seven I joined an amateur folk dance group in one of the Young Pioneer's Houses in Moscow. However, with that group I did my first steps on the Bolshoi Theatre stage when I was eight. At that time I even had no idea what classical ballet was. I had never seen it before. When during that same concert I saw a couple of young dancers from the Moscow Choreographic Academy, I was totally mesmerized! I immediately ran to the mirror, trying to imitate them.
One year later, my teacher at the Pioneer's House called my mother, telling her she thought her son had a special talent and advising her to send me to the Bolshoi Ballet School. I liked the idea and I was admitted to the School. That's how it all began.
All the way through your career you had the chance to work with many remarkable personalities. Who do you particularly value? Who influenced you the most?
I never really had idols, but I would like to mention some exceptionally talented dancers I met. Even now, after all these years, there is no one comparable to Maya Plisetskaya. Then there is Galina Ulanova, another phenomenal ballerina. She was a unique artiste, much ahead of her time. With an absolute minimum of external signs she revealed so much of her inner world. Yet when you saw Ulanova dancing, you realized there was a volcanic passion inside. This really came from her years at the drama school. I once danced with her when I was eighteen; she was forty-eight - in Chopiniana.
Of course, I need to mention my all-time favourite partner, my wife Katia Maximova. Between the two of us there was a special chemistry. We were physically well matched and we danced together since our school days, continuing through our whole career.
And then there are all these people who had an influence on me: Vakhtang Chabukiani, my teacher in the sixties Alexei Yermolaev, with whom I prepared my first Don Quixote, Mikhail Gabovich, Nikolai Fadeyechev, Maris Liepa, and in the younger generation there was Misha Lavrovsky, Nina Timofeyeva. Also outside the Bolshoi Theatre: Margot Fonteyn, Yvette Chauviré, Yuri Soloviev, Rudolf Nureyev (Nureyev and I graduated almost at the same time.) Seeing Margot Fonteyn for the first time as Giselle was a revelation for me. You need to realize that in the fifties and sixties the differences between ballet in Russia and abroad were so much more pronounced than is the case now: the aesthetics, the technique, the power of movement, it was all very different.
At the Bolshoi in those days, dancing was built on emotion, on a strong dramatic presence, and in fact on a certain freedom. There were no strict rules, which also made the main difference with the Leningrad School. Now, both companies have grown toward each other. All our coaches were coming from Leningrad. But what I learned in the Bolshoi Ballet School remained the true basis of my dancing.
Also, the importance of the male dancer in classical ballet was something unknown in the West at that time. It was a Russian tradition going back to artists like Vladimirov, Chabukiani, and Yermolaev, who had revolutionized the role of the male dancer in ballet. Rudolf Nureyev and myself, we developed this further, yet in different directions. Nureyev emphasized refinement, while I projected a more virile image. Different schools, different aesthetics, but there were surely points that brought us together. For instance, Rudik was the first to execute a grande pirouette on high demi-pointe. We didn't have this in our schooling in Moscow. When I saw him doing it, I immediately imitated him, even if it decreased the number of turns. Rudik left very soon for the West, while I stayed in Russia and with these turns on high demi-pointe I actually became an example for many dancers in Russia.
Today, of course, there is much less of a difference between Russia and abroad. Russian ballet has had a profound influence on ballet, not only in the West, but also in the rest of the world. Now you can even see really wonderful classical dancers in countries like Brazil, China or Japan. When the Bolshoi Ballet first went to China, people out there didn't know a thing about ballet.
Can we still talk of "national schools" of dance today?
The tradition of each school survives, in spite of the mutual influences, of a definite interpenetration. We also changed, we became much more attentive to the exactness of the positions and everything. This wasn't the case in the old days, yet now we cannot live without it: ballet needs to look much 'neater' nowadays. But the essential qualities of each school remain visible. French dancers are incomparable for the perfection of their legs and feet, but the Russian school is still unequalled when it comes to the plasticity of the upper body.
You have been very active as a choreographer as well as a dancer. Do you think that the step from dancer to choreographer is a logical one? Why did you decide to try choreography?
I already wanted to try choreography while I was still a student. It is something deep inside of me. Yet, because of my career as a dancer it wasn't possible to concentrate on choreography and staging ballets. It is either this or that. When I finally found some time, in 1971, I asked our director Yuri Grigorovich whether I could stage Swan Lake. Of course, he didn't allow that, at least not before he did it himself: "I'll do it first, you'll follow" he replied. But he allowed me to work on Icarus from Sergei Slonimsky. Without thinking and without having listened to the music, I had said yes! I really wanted to have a go with it. After Icarus there was a long break until I did Macbeth. I wrote the libretto for it and it was my only ballet I choreographed in close cooperation with the composer Kirill Molchanov.
You not only created new works, but you also staged your own versions of the great classics like Giselle and Swan Lake.
I couldn't help doing my own versions of some of the great classics. When I danced them myself, I always changed some steps here and there. The variation in Don Quixote, which is now danced by everybody, was created by me. At the time I was severely criticized for introducing it, yet now it's considered to be an integral part of the work. "How could you change this venerable classic?" they objected. - "Which classic do you mean? Chabukiani? He just did the same thing before me. For twenty-five years Chabukiani's variation was a classic, now it's Vasiliev's".
It's important that these changes take place. And even if it wouldn't be important, these changes would still occur for the very simple reason that each dancer continually wants to expand his vocabulary. It's an inevitable process. He wants to introduce new movements and steps, but if he has to wait until a choreographer comes up and does it specifically for him, it might never happen. We change and edit, in our very own understanding of the ballet and the role. Needless to add that these changes aren't mere whims. When speaking about Don Quixote or the other great classics, we have this whole performance tradition and history behind us. We were brought up and groomed in a certain style and language going all the way back in a straight line to Alexander Gorsky, at the beginning of the 20th century.
And yes, there is always a danger that some dancers will apply changes for the mere sake of movement, for the sake of external beauty, or add steps without any logic. It cannot be that a dancer who is fond of a certain combination of steps uses that combination all the time. It's not that simple, of course. Changes should only occur strictly within the spirit of the work. That's why it's so important to know the historical background of the ballet, the reason behind the movements and the steps. And that's where the artistic director comes in: he needs to keep an eye on quality and good taste.
You also made your version of Swan Lake which we saw here with the Bolshoi at the Coliseum in 1999. Why did you decide to re-stage this ballet and how does your version relate to the famous Petipa/Ivanov staging?
First of all, there is almost no Petipa in the current productions of Swan Lake. What is there of him, are the national dances revamped by Gorsky. For the remainder there is Messerer, Sergeyev, and others. The classical parts, the lakeside scenes, were staged by Ivanov.
Now, the tragedy of Swan Lake is that the libretto makes so little sense and was used wrongly from the very beginning. Nobody can understand who the character of Odile, the so-called "Black Swan" really is, and how she is related to Rothbart, for example.
When I eventually decided to stage the ballet, I took Tchaikovsky, and only him. I tried to follow him, just as for Romeo and Juliet I had followed Prokofiev, and came to realize that there is no Black Swan in Tchaikovsky's music. I concluded it would make a lot more dramatic sense when the usual antagonism between White and Black Swan was dropped altogether and reduced to a single character.
What I also consider essential is that Swan Lake is the most Russian of Tchaikovsky's ballets. The 4th Act is filled with Russian themes, so it's obvious that the Swan Princess has to be a Russian Princess. We moreover know from the performance history that in the original production of the ballet the Russian Dance at the Prince's ball was danced by Karpakova, who also danced Odette. None of the variations usually danced by the Black Swan in current productions were actually written by Tchaikovsky for this character - and I don't like any of them. But the image of the Russian Princess is present in the Russian Dance - a tremendous piece of music. After a long consideration I decided to use this Russian Dance as the central piece in the ballroom scene instead of the familiar Black Swan pas de deux. Finally, the main thing is the 4th Act. Just imagine that the current productions are conceived in such a way that the Black Swan pas de deux in the 3rd Act is turned into the highlight of the whole ballet, and everybody can go home when that number is finished. Of course, no ballet critic will ever forgive me that I removed this spectacular piece of dancing - a Swan Lake without fouettés! And yes, I know, it was a daring step, because Swan Lake is sacred in Russia, therefore it should not be touched. But I hope that future generations of choreographers will start to appreciate what I did in a different light and will continue to work in the direction I pointed out. The only thing I regret about my staging of Swan Lake is that I didn't opt for a completely new choreography, making a clean start, without anything from previous versions, because I kept Ivanov's choreography for the 2nd Act and that maintains a certain image from the past.
One often hears that choreography in Russia is at a low point. Do you agree with that?
That's not true. There are several artists active who continue the great tradition of Russian choreography in our country, meaning choreography with a strong emphasis on drama and emotion. At ballet competitions in Russia there are always several young choreographers coming from various places in the country. Their works are often miniature pieces and it's true that most of them are working locally. Frequently they lack the proper place to experiment with their creations, and only a few of them, like Ratmansky and Panfilov, have managed to acquire a bit of a name abroad.
There is very little place for contemporary trends in Russia, because the pressure from classical dance is too important. Russians are a long way from understanding that not everything can be expressed through a classical vocabulary. That's in my view also why classical ballet is gradually transforming. It's necessary, otherwise it will arrive at a dead end street. We should move on. Classical ballet may well be there for a very long time to come, but it needs to develop and be renewed.
For that reason I think it's important that the repertoire of the great classical troupes in Russia continues to expand, also by introducing and exploring Western choreography. It breaks the monotony of dancing only the classical warhorses and to the dancers it's a way to develop their skills.
The introduction of new choreography (Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins, Neumeier etc.) is only one of the important changes that occurred in recent years. What are the other differences that you see in the Bolshoi Ballet since the time you were a dancer?
Unlike the Russian dancers of today, our generation was isolated from the rest of the world. We were living in a closed circuit. This makes of course an enormous difference. We didn't have this interpenetration of different styles and schools in our days, and consequently the aesthetics have changed considerably since then. If I can put it this way, dancers of today look much more neat. But, strange as it may seem, at the same time the virtuosity from our days has disappeared. There are only a handful of dancers now who can properly perform pirouettes.
It doesn't mean that the technique has declined, but everything became more rational. And this attitude is continually burdening the technique and is influencing the artistic quality in general. Which is a regrettable thing, because after all you don't need "to think" of how to express emotions, you just express them, if you understand what I mean. Somehow everything became a lot colder. It often looks calculated and that strongly affects the impression a dancer makes on an audience. And this goes for the soloists as well as the corps de ballet. The corps of today is better, more professional, that's true, but at the same time it's colder.
What do you think of the fact that in many great companies today there is almost no age difference among the dancers? They are all young, while living examples, experienced artists, are a minority or absent?
In my opinion this depends of the repertoire whether this is a worrying fact or not. A Balanchine company for instance needs young dancers, but for Russian companies it is of vital importance that there are older dancers around to give the examples.
We can also wonder why there are no more striking personalities among the young dancers of today? I think it's because the average level of the dancers increased substantially. In order to become a real personality nowadays, one should be a genius. In our time, there was a huge gap between soloists and the dancers of the corps de ballet. Of course, we had these legendary personalities like Ulanova amongst us, who were of the greatest importance in our formation.
Yet, what really mattered in those days was not the technique, but the artistry. Artists only get better with age. The problem is somehow that with getting older your technique and your physical capacities decline.
Can you tell me about some of your future projects?
I would like to stage Carmen. It will be the opera by Bizet but with a lot of ballet added. I have several ideas for ballets based on a subject taken from literature. One of my old projects is Boule de suif from Maupassant. Initially, I wanted to make a ballet film about it with my wife in the leading role, yet so far it never happened, although I keep thinking about it. Some time, for the near future.
Interview with Vladimir Vasiliev © 2002 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance Now, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter 2002/03.