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The Spanish choreographer on running the Mikhailovsky
After pressure from Spain’s ministry of culture in 2010, Nacho Duato left his company Compañía Nacional de Danza. He accepted a position as artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, offered by the new general director, the Russian “banana mogul” Vladimir Kekhman. A year later, Kekhman wooed Bolshoi stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev to the company. Marcelo Gomes was recently engaged as a guest principal dancer for the season . Duato, known for his rich imagery and inventive movement, is still getting used to his new, more classically based company (which has four times the number of dancers as Compañía). And it’s steeped in all of the history of an old-world theater. Meanwhile his works are performed by companies all over the world. Dance Magazine’s Wendy Perron was in St. Petersburg last spring and visited Duato in his office at the Mikhailovsky Theatre.
What differences have you found here, coming from Spain, where you had built the company over 20 years, and now you have a company that’s new to you? Well it’s a lot of differences. Not only personally, being in a new place with a new language, it’s a big barrier because you can’t communicate with people. People don’t speak English here. The culture is very different. It is not Europe, it’s not Asia, it’s Russia. We’re all human beings and we all have same feelings, but you have to adjust. And then I had to stop as a choreographer to develop, because the kind of ballets I was doing in Spain, these dances are not ready to do it, and the public are not ready to see these ballets. Those ballets very different music, the subjects are a bit harder. I feel myself here like being a teacher, trying to teach my kind of movement. I’m setting pieces from 20 years ago—doing Without Words from 15 years ago. The two ballets I did on this company, it’s really made for classical dancers. I cannot ask them to crawl on the floor. So I make bread with another dough. I can still make bread, but it’s different.
Does it feel like going backwards? It’s not backwards. As a choreographer you learn from everything. I have also lots of joy, and I think a step forward. I did Sleeping Beauty, which was very difficult for me.
Was it your idea to do Sleeping Beauty? No, but Mr. Kekhman asked me to do Sleeping Beauty and I just said yes, because I am absolutely…how do you say, crazy? [laughs] If I would have thought twice…[laughs] After I told him I went home to listen to the music and I said, What did I say, my God.… I am a little irresponsible sometimes; I just do it. Now since I’ve done Sleeping Beauty, I look at the classical repertoire with more respect. It’s very hard to move 80 people onstage and have four acts, and try to find inspiration from the music…
But the audience here is familiar with that. The audience loved Sleeping Beauty. It was sold out, and it’s been a big hit. The critics of course have to write funny things, but the audience absolutely loved the piece. And I like it, and the dancers love to do it. It’s not my cup of tea, but I learned a lot from it.
You’re directing this company here, and yet you have many other pieces in other companies. How do you balance that? I have assistants and they set my work abroad. If I have time I like to go to make the casting and then I go a week before the premiere. They just did Arcangelo at the Staatsoper Berlin and I went there for three days; that’s all I had time for. So, in some other places…like I haven’t been in Sao Paulo, I haven’t been in Tulsa, for Por Vos Muero. I think Tulsa has 11 ballets. I turned down many companies because I have not enough time, or because the assistants have not enough time. Also, if you do too much I think that the work suffers. Five, six ballets a year is enough. Now all the stars, they want a pas de deux from this ballet or that ballet for their galas. [Leonid] Sarafanov is doing Without Words, Malakhov and Vishneva are doing something from Bach; Zakharova and Mercuriev are doing Cor Perdut. It’s just a bit crazy.
Is the Mikhailovsky bigger than the company you had in Spain? This company is 160 dancers. In Madrid I had 30 and 15 in the second company. It is 160, but like three are pregnant, five are at operation, and many of them they are just here for opera. So actually it’s like 100. But you need to have a lot of people when you perform so much. We perform 120 shows a year, plus 100 operas—and then the tours. Next year we go to London, we go to Munich, Weisbaden, Valencia, Rome maybe, China.
And what about New York? Kekhman is now in New York, and our impresario, Sergei Danilian. They’re trying to fix another date because we, as you know, we cancelled this.
But if you come to New York would you do all your work or also some of the classical work? I think we have a nice Giselle. When we were going to go to State Theater, I wanted to do Giselle, my Sleeping Beauty, and a triple bill.
Did you take any dancers with you from Madrid? No. I didn’t take anything from Madrid. Nothing. Just a suitcase with enough clothes for like a week. And the picture of my brothers, sisters, father, and mother—I have nine brothers and sisters—and that’s it. I still have my house and my housekeeper in Madrid, but I wanted to really shut the door and move on. Anyway they could not dance here because they are not classical dancers.
Are you trying to mold this company into dancers who can master your work? They can do already my work very well. And that proves that my work has got a strong classical base. You need the lines—even for the more crazy work that I was doing lately on the floor, and more crooked. But there is always line, there is always the jump, turns, the quickness. Only classical technique gives you that.
Yeah, but you also are very deep into the floor—I’m very earthy.
How long did it take you to get these dancers to go down into deep plié? The dancers are doing it. Good classical dancers can do good modern work. Zakharova did my Sleeping Beauty, but also Cor Perdut and she gets on the ground. She’s very good; She’s beautiful.
It seems like you have a good relationship with the Vaganova Academy. Yes, I always had good relationships with schools. I give my work to Juilliard. In Australia they just premiered something. In Madrid with the conservatory every year they premiere something from me. I give them all for free all the decors, the costumes—
That’s fantastic! The only thing they have to do is to pay the assistants. So with Vaganova I did the same. I send them an assistant and they learn Madrigal. They could not believe that I didn’t charge anything, and I was there every week rehearsing with them. It is important to work with the students because these are your future dancers and they [should] work with choreographers that are alive. When they did Madrigal they looked so nice and the audience liked it very much. It was really a breath of fresh air.
What do you look for in a dancer? They have to love dance. And I feel that immediately with a dancer. There are so many dancers that don’t really like to dance. And this is frustrating for themselves, because they feel all this pain and they are lazy, and it’s frustrating for their colleagues, and frustrating for the teachers or choreographers. Also they have to be musical. They have to feel music in their bodies. You see so many dancers that don’t feel the music and this, for me, is painful.
Recently Osipova and Vasiliev came here. How do they fit into the company? Because this is the first year and they had so many commitments and galas everywhere—at the Met, at La Scala, in Japan—we don’t see them so much around. But in September, they will be here much more. They canceled things, they try not to go away so much. They want to work with me, that’s why they came here. My next production will be in December. I’ll do Romeo and Juliet for them. It’s not completely new; I already did it in Madrid. But I have more dancers, orchestra, different stage. I change the décor, costumes, I use more people. The choreography is more or less the same. I will change some things for Osipova and for him. So next year they will be more around and they do all the classics—Don Quichot, Swan Lake.
What do you miss most about Spain? My friends. I have no friends really here. But it’s fine. We have only one free day a week. Spain now is so bad economically, and that affects the art, the culture, the education. The country’s just falling to pieces, I don’t know what’s going on there. I’m very sad about it, but in a way I’m lucky that I left just in the right moment. They just cut 17 percent the budget of the National Ballet—it was already very small. They have no tours, they have no money to invite choreographers.
They invited one—Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Yes, they can do small ballets, but...So I miss to phone somebody and go to the movies and walk around. You know how nice Spain is to just socialize and walk and sit on the terrace—it’s beautiful. Everybody knows you, you can talk to anybody and make friends. But maybe there’s too much of that. I admit that they need much more concentration and to be serious in the work. There’s too much sun [laughs], too much good weather.
Here dance is so old—the Vaganova is going to be 275. Ballet is ingrained here. I really think the audiences are fed up with the classics. They love them and they come and they will always come. But when they see something new, they are...[gestures tunnel vision toward the stage] I feel very well received here. They respect me very much. They realize it’s the first choreographer since Petipa, the first foreigner that comes here and is going to stay here, doesn’t go back home, every day works with the dancers. They recognize all this effort that I’m making and they’re very nice to me. I feel the support from the dancers, from the direction, from the audience. I could have taken a modern company; that would have been more logical in a way. But I think, what I can achieve here is much more important.
What could you achieve here? Something has already happened, just by the fact that I came, and [a year] later Osipova left the Bolshoi….I have 70 people coming on June 3 to audition for the Mikhailovsky. This has never happened. I hope to give these dancers opportunity to experience other way of dancing. Jirí Kylián’s coming in March to do Songs of a Wayfarer. I’m calling Ohad Naharin; I want to talk to Billy [Forsythe]. And then to give to the audience the chance to see modern pieces not just by invite their companies but by Russian dancers. Russian dancers really have something special,. There is something they have, I don’t really know, this certain way of holding themselves, that no other dancer has.
The fluidity? No, not fluidity, because they’re very strict. But the dedication: They’re here all day, from 11 until after performance. It’s absolutely crazy. And they still believe in the power of classical ballet. I don’t think in Europe we can really talk about art of dance. We are so blasé. To many modern dancers, like we don’t care about lines, we don’t care about feet. Then there’s all this non-dance in France. So [the Russians] are really the only ones who can still keep some of the past. It’s nice to see that every day, I like that. A bit strange, but I like that.
From top: Nacho Duato. Photo by Vlad Loktev, Courtesy Mikhailovsky; Valeria Zapasnikova in Duato’s Prelude, made for the Mikhailovsky in 2011. Photo by Nikolay Krusser, Courtesy Mikhailovsky.