Will Gergiev Destroy Russian Ballet?
It’s well known that the powerful Russian conductor, Valerie Gergiev, looks down on ballet. As general director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, he has threatened his musicians by saying, “If you play badly, I’ll send you to play for the ballet.” (Ballet Review, Winter 2008/09) Now it seems he is trying to destroy Russian ballet at its very foundation: the legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy.
Gergiev wants to combine the Mariinsky Ballet and the affiliated school, the Vaganova Academy, and have them both under his own control. The longtime rector of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Vera Dorofeeva, wrote a letter objecting to this plan. She refused to let him take over the school’s space. Then, on October 28, culture minister Vladimir Medinsky announced that the former Bolshoi dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze is now acting rector of the Academy, supplanting Dorofeeva. And that Uliana Lopatkina, who is still performing as a Mariinsky principal, will be the artistic director, replacing the supremely lovely, devoted, and smart Altynai Asylmuratova. No one at the academy was given any advance notice.
The "acting" rector of the Vaganova Academy: Nikolai Tsiskaridze
Tsiskaridze is often referred to as a Bolshoi star, but his flamboyant, sloppy performances with Kings of Dance have been markedly devoid of starlight. He has, however, attracted another kind of media attention by constantly criticizing the Bolshoi on television and elsewhere. Bolshoi general director Anatoly Iksanov accused him of fomenting the kind of negativity that made the tragic acid-throwing attack on Sergei Filin possible. For his constant negativity, Tsiskaridze's contract with the Bolshoi was not renewed by Iksanov. And then Iksanov lost his job. They've been dropping like dominos.
Tsiskaridze has friends in very high places, and they’ve found him this new job. Although he is known to be a good coach, I can’t imagine a worse person to oversee this great school. He seems to ooze negative energy and an outsized narcissism. Many are outraged.
Diana Vishneva, the most famous of the Vaganova grads still performing, courageously spoke out against the appointment: “The rector of the Vaganova Academy needs to be a person who has the necessary education for this. It should not be forgotten that this is a school for children and its leader should be morally irreproachable.”
Diana Vishneva in La Bayadère (right)
Mariinsky soloist Ilya Kuznetsov has also spoken out, saying that by removing Dorafeeva and Asylmuratova, "the bureaucrats have ripped out the heart and soul of the academy." He’s circulating a petition that calls the appointment “legally unauthorized…and harmful to the fate of the Academy.” He threatened to quit, but has now thrown his hat in the ring to compete with Tsiskaridze for the permanent position as rector.
Ilya Kuznetsov (left)
To remind you of the storied past of the Vaganova, it produced many of the greatest dancers in the world: Pavlova, Ulanova, Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Makarova, Asylmuratova, Kondaurova, and most recently Smirnova. I was fortunate to attend the Vaganova’s 275th year celebration.
I remember very well that when I interviewed Tsiskaridze a few years ago he showed disdain for both St. Petersburg and the Mariinsky Ballet.
According to trusted British source Ismene Brown, who translates from Russian media coverage, the firings were a “fee” for Gergiev’s promise to not subsume the Vaganova and Mariinsky together.
At the press conference, attended by many teachers, Tsiskaridze assured the teachers that the Academy will maintain its independence. Dorofeeva announced that she agreed to leave her job at Vaganova only on the condition that the school would remain independent.
But just today culture minister Medinsky suggested another sort of merger: that Tsiskaridze would combine Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet School and St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy into one organization.
How could all this be happening? How could there be so little oversight or discussion of this takeover? The New York–based Russian producer Val Golovitser says, “Gergiev is a friend of President Putin so he has a green light for everything.”
Gergiev’s previous idea was to merge the Vaganova Academy with St. Petersburg’s music conservatory and art institute. Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker, says the problem with Gergiev is his “worldly power.” His annual income is about $16.5 million—at a time when Mariinsky dancers are famously underpaid. Ross contends that Gergiev is stretched thin and the quality of his performances is getting spotty.
Gergiev claims that the Vaganova Academy is no longer producing dancers of the highest standards. So his solution is to replace all those in leadership.
But noted dance photographer Nina Alovert, a Russian émigré since 1977, said that the lower number of outstanding graduates is due to a larger cultural shift. “The Ballet in Soviet times was very popular," she explained in an email. "The theaters in Soviet Russia replaced the church, especially the ballet. The ballet was the keeper of morality and beauty. Also, dancers at that time were privileged people: They could travel to the West, see the world, buy fancy clothes, and have international recognition. Now, people can go to the West more easily. Parents prefer for their children not to have so difficult a life, especially the boys. They would like to see their boys as businessmen or something like this. The less boys in the school, the less possibility to have talented students. The girls are still coming to the school.”
Asylmuratova’s counter accusation is that Gergiev has neglected the ballet. While the Mariinsky Opera has had eight premieres in the last year or so, the ballet has had none. And that some of the Academy's best graduates are going over to the Bolshoi and other companies, where the conditions are better.
Dorofeeva says the real reason Gergiev is trying to take control is that he wants to use the Vaganova building, which she and Asyluratova have resisted. Alovert says, “I think Gergiev hopes that Tsiskaridze will be more flexible.”
The crazy part (or one of the crazy parts) to me is that Tsiskaridze, in order to keep up the pretense that he has been put in charge for artistic reasons, says he plans to hire teachers more familiar with current styles. But in the past he has lambasted the Bolshoi for being too influenced by contemporary styles outside of Russia and ignoring the great Yuri Grigorovich. He claimed that other countries are laughing at Russia for not using this national treasure more. Perhaps Tsiskaridze hasn’t noticed that very few other ballet company outside of Russia have asked for a Grigorovich ballet. (The choreographer's Ivan the Terrible performed by Paris Opéra Ballet in 2003 is available on a Naxos DVD.)
Tsiskaridze has another rival in Alexei Fomkin, currently the Vaganova’s well respected vice rector. The author of a hefty book on the Vaganova technique, Fomkin is the person who opened the Vaganova archives to Elizabeth Kendall for her terrific book, Balanchine and the Lost Muse, about the choreographer’s time as a student at the Academy. Kendall told me that she sent a letter of support to Fomkin, expressing her respect for what the Vaganova Academy has accomplished under the Asylmuratova/Dorofeeva/Fomkin leadership.
The Academic Council will meet at the end of this month to set a date for the election for a permanent rector. According to Academy rules, all the faculty will get to vote. I am hoping that Tsiskaridze's well-placed friends will find him a more appropriate job, and that Gergiev will leave the Vaganova Academy alone.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series