Home / Arts & Life / The Bolshoi, Under the Exacting Eye of Makhar Vaziev

The Bolshoi, Under the Exacting Eye of Makhar Vaziev

Mr. Vaziev, the former ballet director at two exacting companies, the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and La Scala in Milan, was appointed at the Bolshoi in March 2016 at a particularly fraught moment in the company’s long, tangled history.

Sergei Y. Filin, his predecessor, was partially blinded in an acid attack that a rising young male star, Pavel V. Dmitrichenko, was jailed for organizing. The scandal revealed the polarized, Balkanized world in the wings of the Bolshoi, where the corps de ballet felt they were treated like cattle and accused the management of exploiting their positions for personal profit.

The Bolshoi is also trying to readjust the rigidly classical repertory that defined its Soviet period, but it has stumbled in its most high-profile attempt thus far. Three days before an opening scheduled for last Tuesday, Vladimir G. Urin, the company’s new general director, who was appointed after the acid attack, announced, with Mr. Vaziev standing beside him, that the premiere of “Nureyev,” a groundbreaking biographical piece, would be postponed for at least a year.


The Bolshoi dancers Semyon Chudin and Olga Smirnova rehearsing George Balanchine’s “Diamonds” last week in Moscow. “Diamonds” is part of Balanchine’s “Jewels,” which the Bolshoi — along with the Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet — will perform at the Lincoln Center Festival, beginning on Thursday.

James Hill for The New York Times

The Bolshoi has basically always been viewed as the Kremlin’s stage, and the state still underwrites 70 percent of its budget. After the government first brought in Mr. Urin, he telephoned Mr. Vaziev to offer him the job of ballet director. Mr. Vaziev said his first reaction was to reject the post, which he had done several times before. But Mr. Urin persisted.

Mr. Vaziev said that what really attracted him to the Bolshoi was its scale, of both its productions and its ambitions. It was not just the 220 dancers and nearly 30 instructors, he said, but also that the Bolshoi fosters its own talent in virtually all aspects of ballet — dancers, musicians, choreographers, costume designers, etc.

“This is a huge empire,” he said. “I did not have that at La Scala.”

Mr. Vaziev, 56, his hair graying, still carries himself with the erect posture of the star dancer he once was — his polished black oxfords pushing out toward first position.

As a boy, he won a spot reserved for children from the provinces at a prestigious ballet school in what was then Leningrad, drawn there less by ballet than by an elderly neighbor in North Ossetia, who had filled his head with tales of glamorous city life.

Mr. Vaziev feared his mandatory two-year army service would end his dancing career, but he landed in a military dance troupe and then joined the Kirov, the Soviet incarnation of the Mariinsky. After becoming a principal dancer, he worked his way up through the management under Valery Gergiev, serving as ballet director from 1995 to 2008, then left for La Scala.

At the Mariinsky, Mr. Vaziev was known for a willingness to experiment with choreographers, so there is some anticipation that he will change the even more traditional Bolshoi.

Audiences around the globe want to see the Bolshoi because it maintains the exacting standards of classical ballet, he said. Yet recognizing that it is a classical company does not mean rigid adherence to form, he said, suggesting that his ideal would be 70 percent older repertory and 30 percent more contemporary works.

Given that dances by Yury Grigorovich, 90, remain central to the Bolshoi, any such changes provoke grumbling among devotees both inside and outside the theater that Mr. Vaziev is perverting Soviet standards that have long gilded the company’s reputation.

This November, the Bolshoi will stage Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “Romeo and Juliet.” “I am not going to hide the fact that I would dream of doing something with Ratmansky every year,” Mr. Vaziev said, but added that he had no intention of replacing Grigorovich’s work.

Instead, he continued, “I try to build something different next to it that should be more convincing.” The Bolshoi audience, he said, can vote for its preferences at the box office.

Mr. Vaziev defended the decision to postpone “Nureyev,” whose rehearsals had just shifted out of the dance studios. “We are not ready, that’s all,” he said in a brief interview after the announcement. “I was very, very enthusiastic, but then when we started to rehearse on the stage, I understood that we are not ready.”

The cultural elite, though, claimed that it was censorship reminiscent of the Stalinist era — that the Ministry of Culture was spooked by the idea that Russia’s most prestigious stage would be used to promote the life of a gay man who defected from the Soviet Union. One backdrop was a giant, full-frontal nude portrait of Nureyev, taken by Richard Avedon.

The latest uproar came just as the acid scandal seemed to be fading, even while both its main characters are sometimes under the Bolshoi roof.

Mr. Filin was put in charge of a workshop to develop choreographers, while Mr. Dmitrichenko, released from jail last year, was given a pass to take part in training classes. Mr. Vaziev, who issued the pass, said that it was in consideration of an artist’s seeking to regain his form, and that there was no talk of the dancer’s rejoining the company.

Among other changes, Mr. Vaziev, who said he spent 12 hours a day at the theater, has given every dancer in the company the opportunity to seek even a small solo role or to suggest choreography. Twice a month he holds an open session that any dancer can attend to present an idea. Knowing all the dancers individually helps shape how he interacts with them during rehearsals, he said.

“I need artists whose eyes are on fire, and not those who have stood there in ‘Swan Lake’ for 10 years,” he said. “I need them to understand that they are valued here, and that I need them.”

At the Lincoln Center Festival, before presenting Jean-Christophe Maillot’s 2014 “The Taming of the Shrew,” the Bolshoi — with the Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet — will be part of a possibly unprecedented three-company version of George Balanchine’s “Jewels” to honor its 50th anniversary.

Mr. Vaziev called Balanchine “the most genius choreographer of the 20th century,” and noted that he hoped to present more of his work.

At his desk, Mr. Vaziev clicked on the television remote to fill the screen with a rehearsal by Alena Kovaleva and an Italian, Jacopo Tissi, two budding stars he is bringing to New York to dance the “Jewels” matinee.

He picked up the phone to adjust their steps, then hung up, deciding to run down to the studio to do it in person.

Earlier, after watching Ms. Ibraimova incorporate his advice, he called back to praise her. As he signed off, he said: “Keep going. I won’t bother you, but I’m watching you.”

Continue reading the main story

About admin

Check Also

Two Books for a Happier Thanksgiving

Dear readers, Even if you’re partial to the holiday season, and I am, this particular …