The Bolshoi's Wandering Ballerina

Interview with Nina Ananiashvili, London - July 1999

By Marc Haegeman

Printed by permission from  Ballet Alert!, A Newsletter for People Who Love Ballet, which published it in December, 1999

The career of Nina Ananiashvili is an exceptional one. Now in her mid-thirties she is the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, but at the same time she conquered herself a prominent place on the international stage. The wandering ballerina par excellence of the nineties, Nina Ananiashvili successfully combines performances at the Bolshoi with guest appearances in several major ballet companies all around the world, alternating with tours of her own group of dancers. The attraction, challenges and difficulties of an international career, together with the fundamental problem of how to adapt to foreign styles without losing altogether one’s own stylistic identity, were just a few of the issues that were raised during this conversation in the midst of the long-awaited Bolshoi Ballet engagement in London, last July.

Nina, which ballets are you dancing on this Bolshoi Ballet tour?

So far, I danced La Bayadère with Sergei Filin. Later I am doing two performances of Raymonda, also with Sergei Filin, and two of Don Quixote with Andrei Uvarov.


This Don Quixote is a brand new production?

Yes, it’s the work of Aleksei Fadeyechev, who did a wonderful job by going back to the original Petipa/Gorsky staging that we had at the Bolshoi Theatre. He really restored the essence of the ballet and removed the later alterations. In Grigorovich’s production, which we had before, there were too many changes and new music.

With the new costumes and sets this present production looks very fresh and dynamic -- like the Bolshoi of today. We don’t bring some ancient Petipa with dusty old clothes.

We are especially happy to have this new production, because Don Quixote is truly a Bolshoi ballet. You can see many versions of Don Q all around the world, but I think the character, the spirit of the ballet is really Bolshoi: energy, excitement, never a dull moment.


You’ve been in London many times before this tour. Do you remember the first time you performed here?

Oh, that was many years ago, during a big engagement of the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden. It was right after I took part in the competition in Jackson, in 1986. The first ballet I ever danced in London was Raymonda. Like always in my career it wasn’t supposed to happen. As the youngest ballerina in the company I wasn’t scheduled to dance Raymonda, yet at the last moment I had to cover for somebody who fell ill. And this moment turned out to be of great importance for the rest of my career.

Raymonda is one of the toughest classical ballets in the repertoire: you have a thousand variations (laughing), and Grigorovich’s production has even more dancing. It’s like you’re always on stage and it’s pure Petipa. At every moment you have to be correct. But it’s a ballet I like and I’m happy (and nervous) to be able to dance it again in London.


Later you also guested with the Royal Ballet?

Yes, it was the first time that a dancing couple from the Bolshoi Theatre was invited. Kenneth MacMillan had decided to give us The Prince of the Pagodas. Aleksei (Fadeyechev) and I came here to learn this ballet, we had never seen it, only then we realized how difficult and different it was. But the performance was a success and I still have fond memories of this time. Afterwards Aleksei and I danced the Nutcracker here, we worked with Kenneth for Romeo and Juliet with Birmingham Royal Ballet. I also danced Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée and Cinderella.

I worked for some five years with the Royal Ballet.


Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did your career as a dancer begin?

I started ice-skating at 6, I didn’t think about ballet at all, because I was champion of my age group in Georgia and I really loved it. However, the ballerina who came to instruct us choreography saw something more in me and thought I would have a better future as a dancer. She started talking to my mother about this and of course, like most young girls, I liked the idea of becoming a ballerina, but I considered ballet something far too difficult and beyond my level.

When I was 10 my parents finally sent me to the ballet school, to try out. I was accepted immediately, but I had a difficult time trying to combine ice-skating and ballet, and also because I felt I eventually would have to make a decision. The training is completely different, so after one year my mother wanted me to choose. I don’t know why, but I took ballet. And that was it. I stayed four years at the Choreographic School of Georgia, in Tbilisi and continued at the Moscow Choreographic School.


Who were your teachers?

Natalia Zolotova. She is a pupil of Ulanova’s mother, Maria Romanova at the Maryinsky Theatre School in St. Petersburg. She danced mostly with the Maryinsky and eventually became a teacher at the Moscow School. I really think she is one of the greatest teachers I ever met. I consider myself extremely lucky that I had Natalia as my teacher. I’m convinced that without her it would have been completely different. Teachers and coaches are so important in ballet, yet very few people speak about them. But then you see how many girls, who seem to be born as ballerinas, fail because they don’t find the proper teacher.

After school I started working with Raissa Struchkova, who is still my coach now, preparing all my ballets at the Bolshoi. At the same time I work with Marina Semyonova – amazingly still active! -- in class. And for six years I work at ABT where I have Irina Kolpakova as my coach. It’s really important to have people like this around.


How did you start out with the Bolshoi?

While I was still at school I won a Gold Medal at Varna and while I finished Moscow School I received the Grand Prix at the Moscow Competition. Many people already spotted me, including Yuri Grigorovich, who was then director of the Bolshoi Ballet. After graduation I was invited to dance with the Bolshoi. That was like magic! I never thought this would happen. There were rumors at the time to close the Bolshoi Theatre for restoration and I remember feeling so upset because of this. I thought I would never have the chance to dance on that stage… but they didn’t close it and I’m still dancing in this theatre (laughing).

My first full-length ballet was The Wooden Prince by Bartok in Andrei Petrov’s production. Again, somebody was ill and I had to cover. "Ah, this girl is not bad, let’s take her!" -- you know. I had ten days to learn the role.

Before that I had danced pas de deux with Andris Liepa and Aleksei Fadeyechev. At the end of my first season I danced Swan Lake. I was 19. I prepared this ballet like this: two days in Moscow, two days in a train, and two days in Hamburg. In Hamburg we didn’t have the proper place to rehearse. I was performing in the first act of Spartacus and during the intervals I was backstage rehearsing for Swan Lake. Actually, I recently saw this first performance on a videofilm, and to my surprise it was not that bad! (laughing)


You’ve danced all the major ballets. Do you have a favorite ballet?

I love all the ballets I’m dancing. It’s like having children. You cannot pick out your favorite, you love them all. You put your heart and soul in them. The moment you are on stage, the ballet you are dancing is your favorite. (hesitatingly) Maybe after I’ve stopped dancing, and you ask me again, maybe then I will tell you which ballet I prefer (laughing).


Tell me about your work in the West.

I feel lucky that I could work with almost every major company in the world and I always considered it a privilege to learn different styles: Balanchine with New York City Ballet, Bournonville with the Royal Danish, MacMillan with the Royal Ballet. And I never came there with the attitude of "I’m already the big ballerina of the Bolshoi. There’s nothing more I can learn." No, I always had a good relationship and there isn’t a place where I only went once; I always return. And I’m proud of that. Especially with Kenneth MacMillan I had a wonderful relationship. Kenneth was an amazing personality, with whom I felt very free and easy. Kenneth and his wife used to invite Aleksei and me to their place, which is unusual. Even two months before he died we discussed about inviting him to the Bolshoi to stage a new ballet. His death was like losing a very good friend.


What are the differences and difficulties of working in the West?

The working system is totally different in the West and every company has its own style and manner. But I’m like this: I always want to learn something new. I was eager to learn new ballets that we didn’t have in Russia and I never made any problems about being taught by other teachers. No need to argue with these people. You just trust them, no problem. By the way, some young dancers have funny ideas about coaching. They think that when they are corrected the coach dislikes them. They don’t realize it’s for their own good.

Most difficult for me was to learn the ballets in a very short time. A short time, with few rehearsals and wherein there is no time left to do anything else. You need to be in the studio all day long. Also, the Western schedule is different from the Russian one. The season in Russia runs from September to June, with rehearsals alternating with performances. In the West, like in America, there is for instance two months of performing (like we’re having now on a tour) and then there follows a time to rehearse. They work with blocks in the West, which is very hard for Russians. I sometimes cannot understand how they can dance like thirty-two Nutcrackers in one month. Very few Russian principals actually stay in the West, just because it’s so hard for them to adapt to the Western way of working. I know only Yuri Posokhov, who is really happy and doing well with San Francisco Ballet.


Notwithstanding your frequent appearances with other companies, for me you are still in essence a Bolshoi ballerina. What does Bolshoi mean to you?

Right !

It’s funny but when Aleksei and I (we danced together for ten years) started working with other companies, people were thinking that I was leaving the Bolshoi. But in fact, not even one single day I ever thought of leaving the company. The Bolshoi is my home, my own company. I love this theatre which gave me everything. Even with the difficult time I had there -- but I don’t want to talk about that.

I decided to work elsewhere because I wanted to learn something new and increase my artistic experiences. Yet, everytime I wanted to go back, to work with my coach, to do class there, to dance with my partner Aleksei, and so on. I have my place there, even if I don’t dance that many performances – sometimes only five per season. But I’m always happy to do them.

In a way, I’m lucky to live now, because now you can go and work anywhere in the world without having to defect. But Moscow donq3mh.jpg (54539 bytes)remains my home, even if I wasn’t born there. With these tough schedules in the West I’m still willing to dance with the Bolshoi. Like just now, I was two months with ABT, then I flew for five days to Moscow, because I promised to dance the premiere of Don Quixote; then I flew to Japan to dance with ABT, then to London, because I promised the Bolshoi to appear with them there. Afterwards I’m going to China, the USA, and then directly again to Japan with the Bolshoi… It’s really hard, but I love to do it, because I think now is my time and after all nobody is forcing me. I choose whatever I want to do.

At the same time, I want to say this. I hear sometimes people say that they want to have a career like mine – they think it’s just guesting and guesting, you know. But they don’t realize how hard this is. I see the difference with the young dancers now. In the beginning I danced for seven years in the Bolshoi nothing else than what they told me to. But times have changed and I was able to change my life, working more in the West. These young girls now, right out of school, start to dance a small part and they already think they are the big ballerina who can do anything she pleases. It’s so funny, they’re so young and inexperienced. And it’s wrong! You don’t grow when you start thinking like that. I’m still working and learning, and I want to have somebody in front of me correcting me when it’s necessary. Our job is so difficult, you need to listen all the time, you have to think about what went wrong. I talk with these young people, everywhere you know, trying to help them. But the mentality is so different: the moment they’re corrected now, they think the coach hates them.


I recently interviewed Elisabeth Platel of the Paris Opéra Ballet just before she retired. She, too, emphasized the importance of the learning process. Even when you are forty you still have to learn and develop.

Yes, amazing, imagine this wonderful ballerina still thinking like this. But then, on the other hand, you meet some youngster now who thinks she is already the big star after one performance. I mean, how can you think like that? (laughing)

When I started dancing I had a difficult time because at the Bolshoi there were many great ballerinas still dancing. A really great generation of artists; even Maya Plisetskaya was still there. I had at least fifteen other dancers before me. Can you imagine how hard I had to work, hoping that they would give me something as well, after them? When they did give you the opportunity, you had to go on stage and give all you got, because you wouldn’t get a second chance. You immediately had to prove how good you were, only then you would get another performance. It wasn’t like you can hear now: "Oh, she is not ready yet, but for next performance she might be OK."


Are you saying that nowadays it’s much easier for a beginning dancer to get the big roles?

Yes, because some years ago the old generation was still present and there was no age limit, like they have at the Paris Opéra. Nobody was forced to go. Now, you can have a situation like in the Kirov, where it started with Vinogradov kicking out the old generation in favor of young dancers. In a way that’s fine, but on the other hand it’s wrong, because you need examples. It’s so important when you start out that you have these great artists in front of you, dancers you respect and admire, and from whom you can learn.

A lot of big mistakes have been made. Yet, there is this wonderful tradition in Russia and we should preserve it. The same goes for Denmark, where the situation is not so good either by the way. You have this marvellous phenomenon there that all ages are on stage, from the oldest dancers to the "babies." I remember dancing Napoli during the Bournonville festival in Copenhagen, when I had to remember some variation, even small girls would come up to me, saying: "Nina, do you want us to help you?" These young people know all the steps already, they watch the performances.


How is the situation at the Bolshoi?

The problem there is that the School is separated from the company. The students don’t have the possibility to see the performances at the theatre anymore. It’s actually another institution. It’s a pity, school and theatre should be together.


Do the beginning dancers have these examples now at the Bolshoi?

At the Bolshoi, there are still people from the generation before me around: Nina Semizorova is still dancing, Alla Mikhalchenko as well – though I think she wants to retire this year –, Nadezhda Pavlova, though she isn’t dancing that much in the theatre. Then you have the generation with Nadia Gracheva, Inna Petrova, Galina Stepanenko, myself; and finally, there are the youngest dancers.


Let’s talk about these youngest artists in theBolshoi . For instance we heard a lot about Svetlana Lunkina here in London.

I think she is fine. So far we haven’t seen her in much. Mostly in the romantic repertoire, but she is scheduled to dance Kitri next week on this tour. I am just a little worried about the fact that she is Maximova’s pupil, and I fear she will get everything too easily. She still needs to work very hard to become somebody and must realize that. It’s still too soon to say if she will be a ballerina. I don’t like what the Kirov Ballet is doing now, pushing a girl for one year, then forgetting her for another girl. They destroy these girls lives! First they act as if a second Ulanova is born (by the way, Ulanova became Ulanova after twenty or thirty years of hard labor) and a year later this girl has already disappeared. Give these girls some time! Of course we can say that they have talent when they dance beautifully and all that, but give them a little credit. Same for Lunkina: she is pretty, she has a good body, she is talented, for sure, but we need to wait and see how she will develop in a few years. Hopefully she will be able to dance different roles and won’t turn into a one-ballet ballerina.

I like other new girls as well, like Maria Aleksandrova, who is quite different from Lunkina. Aleksandrova is strong, better suited for Myrtha and Gamzatti. And of course, I don’t know any other company who has such good boys.

Actually, I watched some performances here in London and I am really happy and proud because the company looks so wonderful. The dancers are in excellent shape – the Shades scene in Bayadère was absolutely beautiful. Even Spartacus, which I hadn’t seen in a very long time and I wanted to attend Andrei (Uvarov’s) debut, it was like seeing a new ballet. I don’t watch this ballet with the idea that it’s not what it used to be. No ! Vasiliev, Lavrovsky aren’t dancing anymore, but I want to see something different. And I was pleasantly surprised how good these young dancers are.


Well, I think that this London season has proven that the Bolshoi Ballet still is a first-rate company.

To hear all these favorable comments about the Bolshoi season here in London gives a great feeling. When you are part of a company, you feel with this company: I am sad when things are going wrong. After all we have this famous name that we have to keep. We didn’t make this name, others did a long time before us, but we have to continue it. And that’s a tough responsibility. We have to show that the Bolshoi is the Bolshoi.