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By Wendy Perron
An exclusive interview
Vyacheslav Lopatin and Anastasia Stashkevich in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
A former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, Sergei Filin, has been artistic director of the company for almost two years. Trained at the Boshoi Academy, he joined the company upon graduation and became a principal at 21. He performed brilliantly in the classics as well as in contemporary works. He partnered some of the great ballerinas of our time, including Nina Ananiashvili, Galina Stepanenko, Maria Alexandrova, and Svetlana Zakharova. In 2008, he retired from the stage to take on the leadership of the Stanislavsky Ballet for three years, raising the artistic profile of Moscow’s second largest ballet company. In March 2011, after a period of instability following Alexei Ratmansky’s departure, the Bolshoi appointed Filin artistic director of the Ballet. Like Ratmansky, Filin brought in new choreographers, but he also restaged some of the classic Grigorovich productions, like Sleeping Beauty. This balance seems to suit the dancers and the Russian public. The 220-strong Bolshoi Ballet gives at least 15 programs a month throughout the year in their two home theaters, plus touring programs. The company’s next visit to the U.S. is planned for spring of 2014. Filin, 42, is a People’s Artist of the Russian Federation.
When in Moscow last May for the Benois de la Danse, I was lucky to get an interview with Sergei Filin. The only thing he refused to speak about was superstars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, who had decamped to the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg a few months earlier.
Filin’s flair for comedy came through hilariously when he demonstrated the wrong way for Albrecht to react to Giselle’s death. It was quite a show.
The director’s English and my Russian are both minimal, so his assistant/advisor, Dilyara Timergazina, interpreted. —Wendy Perron
At right: photo of Sergei Filin by Perron.
What traditions of the Bolshoi do you honor and how are you departing from what you grew up with? The traditions have been preserved from one generation to the next. Everything that relates to music, performance style, and technique of the classics will always be the hallmark of the Bolshoi. Today with pride I can say we still keep our standard of the classics very high, and our corps is one of the best in the world. Our soloists and principals have musicality, art, architecture, and the dramatic skills that make dancers dancers. The other aspect is to be in touch with our time and work with leading choreographers so that we are current with the rest of the world and if possible even set some precedents of being ahead. We should give our dancers a chance to explore new choreography and have the freedom of self exploration. Then their bodies acquire a different type of plasticity so they can contribute something to the classics that’s more interesting and exciting.
I just saw Zakharova rehearse Distant Cries with Edwaard Liang. It’s really beautiful, the way she’s moving through it. That’s exactly what I mean. After working with contemporary choreographers such as Edwaard Liang, when she goes back to Swan Lake she brings something new because she has discovered new freedom, new plasticity, new understanding of her own body. But we also have to preserve the heritage of choreographers such as Petipa, Gorsky, and Grigorovich. Without these productions the image of the Bolshoi Theatre doesn’t exist.
At left: Edwaard Liang rehearsing Svetlana Zakharova in his Distant Cries. Photo by Vladimir Lupovskoy.
When you were dancing with the Bolshoi, what new choreographers did you work with? We worked a lot with Alexei Ratmansky. Working with Nina Ananiashvili and myself was how he started his career. His first works were for Nina and myself at the Bolshoi Theatre: The Charms of Mannerism, Dreams About Japan, and Capricchio.
In 2007 when you were dancing with Nina Ananiashvili at Jacob’s Pillow, I asked you about the latest Bolshoi director—Ratmansky—and you were not very complimentary. I think Alexei is one of the most interesting choreographers. But as artistic director he was not the most successful. But usually, you know, dancers never like the artistic director. I don’t know the dancers who are happy with their artistic director.
And now you’re an artistic director! My attitude is with a great amount of irony and humor. This is my approach. But getting back to contemporary choreographers: I started dancing during the times of the Soviet Union and finished when it was the new Russia. We didn’t have the same freedom of working with western choreographers as the dancers have now. I was very lucky to have a chance to dance with other companies like Derek Deane at English National Ballet and Ben Stevenson of Houston Ballet. I’m very happy that destiny has given me these opportunities that enriched me. No one was bringing to the Bolshoi contemporary choreographers. At the Bolshoi I was the first one to work with Flemming Flindt and to perform in his ballet The Lesson. I worked a lot with Suzanne Farrell, who came to the Bolshoi to stage such Balanchine works as Agon, Mozartiana, Symphony in C. We also worked with Boris Eifman and John Neumeier. Roland Petit came here, but all the major principals were touring Japan at the time. I also performed with Yuri Possokhov. I was the first Bolshoi performer in his Cinderella. I also had a chance to dance a lot of choreography of August Bournonville because we were friends with Frank Andersen and he taught us a lot of Bournonville technique. I was the first to dance Pharoah’s Daughter by Pierre Lacotte. For Ratmansky, I was the first to perform the classical dancing of the Bright Stream, the first on pointe.
Dilyara interjects: Actually Sergei came up with this idea to have a male dancer on pointe.
Really? That was your idea? Yeah, but it was beautiful and fun. Among the professionals and ballet dancers this choreography is considered to be just a little joy. It’s a fun piece, not a serious piece.
It’s very popular in New York. Because it’s easy to perceive. It’s like you become a child again. But the way it’s performed here, people understand the references to the histories, the folkloric. There’s some national colors which only Russians can understand.
Some of the critics in the U.S. were offended by the whole idea of the collective farm being funny. They felt like it shouldn’t be made a joke of. If you know what it is to be inside of the collective farm, it’s thousands of times funnier than what you see onstage. Alexei has taken all of these funny things directly from Soviet cinema about the collective farms. There are some things in this ballet that are impossible to explain to the U. S. public, for example the “exhibition of achievements of the national economy” because even the combination of the words for you doesn’t exist.
You invited David Hallberg here, which is a big thing. I consider him to be one of the best dancers in the world. I think he’s a very interesting dancer and he has confirmed with his work that he is the premier of the Bolshoi and deserves lots of respect. I knew him as a beautiful, great dancer but when he came to the Bolshoi I also discovered that he’s a great partner and a great actor. He danced with Zakharova in The Sleeping Beauty at the opening of the historic stage. Since then they have danced together in Giselle and Swan Lake and he also danced Swan Lake and The Nutcracker with other dancers. He is extremely attentive and is able to create an inner world with his partner onstage. It’s not like he’s fond of presenting himself beautifully onstage without taking into account what’s happening.
Above right: David Hallberg and Svetlana Zakharova in Sleeping Beauty at the opening of the restored Bolshoi Theater. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.
How many principals do you have? Eight men, David included, and eleven women. But the company’s over 200. But in reality, not so many because on paper they can tolerate much more than on the stage.
At the Bolshoi, and also at the Kirov, there is a coach for each of the principals. In the States, some people are envious of this tradition. I think it’s the most important component of the system. You cannot preserve any traditions, any styles, without this.
Who was your coach? When I came to the Bolshoi Theatre my first coach was Nikolai Simachyov. He taught me everything, and I prepared all my first performances of Yuri Grigorovich productions with him. And then I was given by Grigorovich to dance in big productions. At the rehearsals I was working with my partners together with Ulanova and Marina Semyonova, and it was an exciting time for me. It taught me a lot.
So you actually worked with Ulanova? No, but I danced with the girls who were the pupils of Galina Ulanova. That’s why she was always at the rehearsals. When we went for the first time on the big tour to Japan, Galina Ulanova came with us. She was in this same bus and I had the chance to talk to her a lot. But my closest friend was Marina Semyonova because I danced most of all with her pupil Galina Stepanenko and she taught me a lot. It’s maybe even due to my friendship with her I’m now sitting in this office because really, I learned a lot. And she was telling me things which she didn’t share with anyone. She was an amazing person, an amazing friend, and a most amazing coach.
Can you tell me any specific things she said in coaching you? She was telling me things like Don’t marry this one and don’t marry that one because this one is misshapen and this one doesn’t have a very high breed. [Dilyara laughs.] And another thing: When you become artistic director, don’t be the same fool as the ones we have at the moment. [laughter]
So she foresaw your future! Yes, and another thing, when she was 90 years old, we went on a tour to Japan and she wanted to go with me to Disneyland. There is some kind of space effect which is in the darkness. And she spent one hour in a queue with me and took a ride with me. After that—she was wearing a skirt that was pleated—she picked up her skirt like this and said, “And where is the next place we are going to go?” She managed to share a lot with us. And I think due to this knowledge, Galina Stepanenko, her pupil, is still dancing and she’s about 46.
Is Stepanenko the oldest member of the company? Yeah and she still appears in Giselle. She was together with Nadezhda Grachova in the same class. Grachova is now a coach. Speaking about my coaches, after my work with Simachyov, Ulanova, and Semyonova, my major coach when I was a principal was Nikolai Fadeyechev.
I think he was the favorite partner of Plisetskaya! He was the favorite partner of all the ballerinas. He was young, tall, and good-looking.
Dilyara interjects: He’s still around.
What did he make you work on? Keeping your shoulders down, things like that? On everything! [laughs] The shoulders down, yes. But the most important thing that he tried to make me understand is What am I doing, where am I doing, the context in each performance, why am I doing this? Understanding the nature of the role.
It sounds like almost an actor. There were some interesting technical things he also helped me understand, the role, also the partnering, especially. I remember working with him on the Romeo and Juliet by Lavrovsky. I’m really very lucky because everything that was shared with me by Ulanova, Semyonova, Fadeyechev—this is something which is absolutely priceless. They taught me to listen to music, to hear the music. I remember very well how I was preparing the first time the role of Albrecht in Giselle and I was rehearsing the second act when the hero comes to the cemetery. I would start running around looking for the grave and being kind of nervous and restless. Fadeyechev told me, “Wait a moment. You’re so brave in running around, but have you ever been to the cemetery during the nighttime? Go and try to run around the cemetery during the night and then tell me your impressions.” So I went to the cemetery in the dark and it was really, really scary. The next time I was rehearsing, I tried to walk onstage so quietly that not a single twig would make a noise, because when you are at the cemetery during the night, each small sound becomes enormous. And so I went to an old village cemetery at night and it was right after the burial was made during the day. And when you see the soil that was just put on the grave, it gives some kind of evaporation that creates the sort of vapors that are like fog and it’s really, really scary. All these things find their reflection in our dancing.
Perfect for the wilis! Fadeyechev told me this and many other things too. For example, when Giselle dies in the first act [here Filin went into a hilarious acting out of Albrecht shouting at both the dead Giselle and Hilarion.] “She was killed by you!” He would tell me you cannot do it the same way to her and to him.
Because she makes you sad and he makes you mad. And now people treat this dead girl like she is some kind of dead dog or a sack of potatoes; they don’t care if she was a human being, a fragile thing. There are so many subtleties in each role, and that’s why the coaching is so important.
What makes you nervous about being an artistic director? Most of all I’m nervous because I’m the artistic director from morning till night. It’s a huge job. When I was dancing I was responsible only for myself. And I could wake up in the morning and tell myself that I would just have some rest. I would call Fadeyechev and Ananiashvili tell them, “I am not coming to the theater today.” Now I have not this luxury. Now I am responsible for everyone and everything: for the quality of soloists, the corps de ballet, the lights, the way the sets are being changed, the conductor’s playing the orchestra, the way the dancers have their hairdo and makeup done. I live in the theater 24 hours a day because if you don’t dedicate so much time and effort, then it’s useless.
As the artistic director, you need to challenge stars like Zakharova as well as the corps dancers. How do you balance all these things? This is most of the time what I am doing—trying to get them motivated. If you take an established dancer like Zakharova, you should come up with more reasons for her to be challenged and it’s more complicated than challenging a corps de ballet dancer. My major goal is to make the dancers, when they wake up in the morning, to not think about whether they should go to their job or not, but to make them motivated so they have only thoughts to run, and to run as fast as they can, to work.
Sergei Filin and Zakharova in Pharoah’s Daughter. Photo by Viacheslav Podorozhny, Courtesy Bolshoi.
As opposed to when you woke up… Yeah, I want to make them wake up not the same way that I used to! I just want to show you our casting…. For March alone, we had 68 debuts in the productions.
Wow. The next time the company comes to the U. S., would you consider bringing some of the more current ballets like the Mats Ek or Wayne McGregor? It depends whether the U.S. needs it. Usually the presenters want Swan Lake or Don Quixote. They don’t want contemporary choreography because there are many American companies who do it. It’s not up to us. Many people think that Bolshoi dancers are unable to dance contemporary, choreography by Kylián, Nacho Duato, or Wayne McGregor. But there’s no choreography in the world that the Bolshoi dancers are unable to perform. They are dancing successfully Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián. After the premiere of Chroma last July, Wayne was asked the question, “At which percentage do you evaluate the performance of the Bolshoi dancers vis à vis The Royal Ballet?” He said, “I evaluate them at 120 percent, if we take for 100 percent the performance of The Royal Ballet.” They can dance any choreography of the world. But the world doesn’t want it; they want the Swan Lake. There are few companies that can do big productions at the level of the Bolshoi. The presenters want to have the full-length, beautiful, grandiose ballets. That’s what the public likes.
But when you do the new works by Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor, what is the audience’s response here at home? Our public is very intellectual and they are anticipating this work. They want to see the Bolshoi at par with the rest of the world and they want to see the best choreography being staged here. Also we would like to give our dancers the chance to work with the best choreographers personally, like John Neumeier himself or Jorma Elo himself. That might help them bring something new to their performance of Giselle or Swan Lake. Working with Wayne McGregor they might find some new flexibility in the joints. They don’t mind twisting their knees to improve, they want to renew themselves.
Dream of Dream by Jorma Elo, with Ekaterina Shipulina, Anastasia Stashkevich, Svetlana Lunkina, Kristina Kretova, Olga Smirnova, and Maria Alexandrova. Photo by Elena Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi.
What do you do with a dancer who doesn’t want to work with new choreographers? There are dancers who did their studies, came here, and got their job and that’s it. They want to use only what they have learned. They don’t want to work with anyone, with you, with me, with Grigorovich, with Mats Ek. It doesn’t matter how much they are paid, they don’t want to do it. We put them in the last row of the corps de ballet. But there are many dancers who would like to work with everyone, with Pierre Lacotte, Yuri Possokhov because they want to feel needed. There should always be some healthy competition. They should all have an opportunity to do something new.
Yes, that’s good. When Wayne McGregor came, he said he wouldn’t stage Chroma unless Osipova was in the cast because he knew her he wanted to work with her. But Natalia had different plans. And then I introduced Svetlana Lunkina, who was really eager to do it. And I asked Wayne to look at her and try to work with her, and she became Numero Uno in this ballet. She was really outstanding. Later Wayne came to my office and said, “I would like to thank you for introducing Lunkina. She was an unbelievable revelation.” And I said. “What about Osipova?” and he said, “I don’t even want to think about that.”
When you are looking for new dancers, do you watch the graduating class of the Bolshoi Academy? Yes. But not only here. Also at the Vaganova Academy, Perm, everywhere. The limit is the sky.
Olga Smirnova (see her in “25 to Watch”) and Semyon Chudin in Apollo. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi, @Balanchine Trust.
Yeah, the sky is the limit. Exactly, the sky is the limit. We have open audition and the best ones come and we like them. But I’m really happy with the company now because people work very hard. When I came over, there was no discipline. [He goes to open a drawer.] I’ll show you the number of applications to go on their personal tours. I had the feeling when I saw this pile that no one was working at the theater.
But, Sergei, isn’t that is how Nina Ananiashvili started? Didn’t she have her own group? Yes, but she was already a ballerina at that time.
What did you do to instill discipline? Just implemented discipline. The rules were always in place, but they didn’t work. It’s like watching a movie without the sound. I just turned on the sound. And now everything is the way it should be.