The splendid 1998 American Ballet Theatre season at the Met was drawing to a close--as far as Nina watchers were concerned. She had already given us treasurable performances of The Dying Swan, The Merry Widow, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, and the new Snow Maiden (see Review Section). But another role was in the schedule for Nina--Medora in the company's first-ever staging of the complete Le Corsaire, and rehearsals were underway.

So, on a rainy, humid Sunday afternoon last June, I took myself to the Metropolitan Opera House--not to my usual place in standing room in the auditorium, but to the bowels of the building--the C-level rehearsal studios. These gloomy, not to say creepy, nether regions of the house are usually off-limits except to artists and staff, but on this day, I had the privilege of being invited to a private rehearsal--Nina Ananiashvili was being coached in her solos for Le Corsaire by an illustrious predecessor, the former Kirov prima ballerina Irina Kolpakova, who is currently a ballet mistress with American Ballet Theatre.

Among the first of a small group of friends to arrive, I find Nina alone, already at work at the barre, stretching. She explained to me that each ballet required specific preparation, and she was warming up the particular muscles she needed to use for that afternoon session. As she worked, she complained that the unrelenting humidity was wreaking havoc on her toe shoes. "They never dry in this weather," she says. Soon, Kolpakova and a Russian accompanist arrive, as well as Nina's other "guests." After cordial introductions, the session begins in earnest. It is intense, continuous, thoroughly professional, and slightly to my dismay, conducted entirely in Russian. Though I was able to follow the gist of the afternoon through movement, I wished I were able to understand Kolpakova's comments word for word. (Shades of opera before supertitles were invented.) It nevertheless was a thrill to witness Nina so closeup, and to see the kind of work and dedication artists lavish in search of perfection. Each set of steps, though already magnificently performed, was scrutinized--head and arm positions adjusted , and poses between movements given their full measure for emphasis. No detail of leg or foot positioning was spared critical scrutiny.

An added treat was to see Nina try on one of the costumes she brought especially for this new production. (N.B. She wears four outfits in the ballet--all marvelous and different from those designed for other ABT principals.)

After the rehearsal, Nina and I met at her favorite Lincoln Center-area restaurant to talk. Freshened by a post-rehearsal massage and shower--she glided in dressed casually but elegantly, to the staff's obvious delight and murmurs of "our beautiful Nina."

Our talk naturally turned first to the afternoon's coaching session. I ask her what specifically she was trying to accomplish.

She takes a sip of Pellegrino before saying, "You know, it is so strange. You think, it's easy if you just dance classical ballet. What's the difference between one ballet and another? But each ballet uses a different set of muscles, and especially when you're learning something new--even if it's classical-- there are usually some different steps, some different turns, so you need to do these again and again to make yourself comfortable, and to look beautiful and correct. So this is really hard--especially when I first dance a new ballet--like Le Corsaire. The first three days are so difficult. You feel you don't know anything about ballet."

It turns out that this is the first time Nina is dancing the whole role, so she's actually had to learn everything in three days! She continued, " I've never danced the complete role before. So the steps, the music, when and what you need to do--everything is new. And so today, with Irina--we stopped a lot of times. She corrects me--everything, hands, feet, how to make this position beautiful and right. And what we did today, we'll do again tomorrow--to make it more comfortable and more natural so the audience doesn't see this hard work. They should just see how easy and beautiful it is. That's what's difficult about classical ballet."

I tell her I am flabbergasted that she's putting all this effort for one performance--although it is the opening night of a new production, but Nina seems to take it all as just a normal day at the office, so to speak. I ask her how many days she needs to prepare a role. " It's much easier if I know the ballet--like Giselle--I need less time. When it's something new, like Merry Widow or Le Corsaire--of course I need a little more time. But we don't have much time here [during ABT's two-month season at the Met]. So this is a problem. And this year the company has a lot of new ballets. So you just learn and go onstage immediately. It feels like no time to do this. And for Corsaire, we have a lot of pantomime scenes. So we have tomorrow and Tuesday to put all these things together. I think the general rehearsal is on Thursday, and we're opening on Friday. But this time it's really hard because I have Giselle on Wednesday, so I'll be absolutely dead after Giselle and Corsaire is really hard."

Naturally the Friends of Nina attended the aforementioned June 17 performance of Giselle. Her first of the season, on May 23, was excellent, but as she had been doing all season, Nina astounded us with an even better second performance. Her extended series of hops on pointe was simply astonishing, and further rehearsals with her partner, Guillaume Graffin, resulted in a deeper rapport between the two dancers that made Act II all the more gripping.

Then came Friday (June 19) and the first night of Le Corsaire. We heard that the general rehearsal had been chaotic, but the opening performance was a triumph all around. The skeptical New York critics, who seemed ready to pounce on this hodgepodge of a ballet (see Review) were won over by the sheer exuberance of the dancers and the generosity and quality of dance sequences that composed the story of pirates, slaves and harem dreams.

While enjoying her unmatched mastery of the classical repertory, Nina is far from satisfied with simply repeating and reinterpreting the classics. Thus, when we spoke about The Snow Maiden, which was received well by the press and the public, she expressed how thrilled and happy she was to have an evening-length ballet made for her. "I feel it's important to have your own ballet. In my other roles, I am repeating what somebody else has done--for so many generations of dancers. Now, since this ballet was created for me, I am the first and anybody else (who does the role) must repeat this character. In this instance, the other ABT principals who followed her as the Snow Maiden were coached by the choreographer, Ben Stevenson, and mainly learned the part from videotapes, though Nina acknowledged that she "helped Susan Jaffe fix something." Adding to Nina's delight at seeing the sparklingly beautiful production realized on the Met stage was the participation of Kolpakova as the Czarina on several evenings. Never having been on stage with her before, Nina said she was surprised that Irina had consented to appear, since in Russia the tradition of retired ballerinas doing character roles had disappeared.

Nina's (and Russia's) fascination with the Balanchine legacy led to her January 1998 performances with the Bolshoi of Mozartiana. (At the time we spoke, there were also plans of perhaps acquiring the rights to perform Chaconne, plus other Balanchine works that would suit the Moscow company.) Never one the resist a challenge, Nina recently also added Birgit Cullberg's Miss Julie and Glen Tetley's Voluntaries to her repertory, dancing both works with the Norwegian Ballet.

With her own company, Nina Ananiashvili and Friends, the ballerina has expanded her range with a series of new works commissioned from Alexei Ratmansky. The Bolshoi-trained dancer-choreographer, a soloist with the Royal Danish Ballet, recently has fashioned two contrasting and fascinating works for this select travelling troupe. Nina first noted him at a gala in Moscow, where he danced a "small number he choreographed himself, a pas de deux with his wife." They got acquainted, and later on, when the company was in search of a new ballet, they called on him. The result was Charms of Mannerism, a piece for four dancers. Though quite different in style from Balanchine, it has echoes of that master's spirit in that though the work is a plotless ballet, there is a sort of story--about partnership-- that underpins the movements of the four characters who perform riffs on classical steps. Nina said the premiere, at a drama theater near the Bolshoi, caused a sensation. "All of us, Tatyana Terekhova [from the Kirov], myself, Alexei Fadeyechev and Sergei Filin, are known as classical dancers. Usually, we don't perform like this in Moscow. People went, 'Oh my god, these people danced together onstage, and it was so different, so good.' "

The next year they asked Ratmansky to do a new work--based on Japan's Kabuki--and accompanied by taiko drums and percussion. The theme was inspired by Nina's appreciation of the Kabuki plays she had seen during her previous visits to Japan. But aside from the basic characters from these timeless tales, there is nothing particularly Japanese, or linear, about Dreams About Japan--an imaginative and thoroughly modern interpretation of traditional roles--such as a woman who turns herself into a snake. The choreography emphasizes rhythmic precision combined with intricate footwork and gestures. The troupe toured the piece in Japan, where audiences were enthusiastic--and relieved to find an original work, "not a bad copy of Kabuki." (These ballets will be seen at Jacob’s Pillow, MA in August. See Where To Find Nina)

At the time of this writing, Nina is back in Moscow, dancing her standard repertory at the Bolshoi. Having just "lost" her regular partner at the company--Fadeyechev has become the artistic director of the Bolshoi--Nina has moved on to another set of partners--Sergei Filin and Andrei Uvarov. Though she acknowledges that the lack of a regular partner sometimes is difficult, she is undaunted. It is the perfection of her own art that ultimately matters to Nina. At the end of our conversation, when I thanked her once more for the beauty of her dancing--and mentioned her particularly wondrous Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (even better than the magnificent one she gave us in the 1997 season), she replied, "It is the most difficult classical ballet, and I haven't performed it too many times. One must build this role. I know many ballerinas who are perfect in the first act, but you don't remember what they do in the third act." To this viewer, she has succeeded in imbuing each act with the pearly glow of a wonderful dream. Nina dances it three times in Houston in March. Miss it at your peril. (N.B. It is not in ABT's repertory for its New York-Metropolitan Opera season in 1999.)