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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.

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