The following was transcribed from the July 17, 2012 National Press Club Newsmakers event with Oleg Vinogradov, Russian Master Choreographer and Emeritus Kirov / Mariinsky Artistic Director, speaking to the audience with the assistance of a translator. This is the first in a four-part series.
Part 1: Youth, Ballet, and a Big Promise
“Everyone has a designated purpose in life. My purpose has been to have an influence on ballet. I adore it…ballet; I am a disciple and a lover of ballet. Sometimes people don’t understand true ballet, which is Classical Ballet. I grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, known as the capital of European ballet, and I am a graduate of the Vaganova Ballet Academy (formerly St. Petersburg / Leningrad Ballet School), one of the best ballet schools in the world.
I saw the evolution of the development of the Mariinsky and Kirov ballet styles. I have been lucky to see in my lifetime the changes and evolution of ballet, unlike my predecessors, who weren’t able to have such an expanded view because for a long time, Russian/Soviet ballet existed only behind the iron curtain.
Generations of people didn’t know what was happening in the west so, in particular for me, I felt like I had to raise this curtain. I had to open the doors for the art (ballet) which we were not able to know before.
As times began to change, I was able to meet many artists and musicians outside of Russia—a first for my generation—[artists] including Herbert Von Karajan, an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor, known best for his work with the Berlin Philharmonic. My mission in the historic period of Vladimir Mayevsky (one of the leaders of an anti-Communist movement during the Russian Civil War in the mid-20th Century) was to bring western choreography (of Bejart, Petit, and others) to the people of Russia.
I never thought I’d come to America. At night, I would try to get American music to come in on my radio, but I had to be careful. I was always afraid that someone would hear it. (He cites the Soviet government’s restrictions on citizens.) Now I live primarily in St. Petersburg, but have been coming to the US regularly for 22 years!
[Also during this time I met and worked with dancers who would become world leaders in ballet] I graduated in the same class as Rudolf Nuryev at the Vaganova Academy; I created choreography for Natalia Makarova, who is one year younger than I am; and Mikhail Baryshnikov was among the first to dance my ballets right after he graduated from school.
During that time (1950-60s) Soviet ballet started to change with the rise of Yuri Grigorovich and other new thinkers. Symphonic ballet choreography was started by George Balanchine, who was brought up on Marius Petipa’s style, but who eventually developed his own style that is still used today. The last visit of Balanchine’s Ballet Company to St. Petersburg was in 1961 or so. I hadn’t staged any of my big ballets yet, but had started to choreograph for the Novosibersk Ballet Theater. I came to St. Petersburg to see Balanchine’s ballets which were so new at that time. I met Balanchine, who was young then and he asked me which of his ballets I liked best. I hadn’t seen any of them yet, which I couldn’t tell him, so I said, ‘I actually like all of your ballets.’ I also told him that if I ever got the chance in my life to bring his ballets to the stage, I would do anything to make that happen. I was still a ‘nobody’ at the time but 40 years later, I fulfilled my promise, and was the first to bring Balanchine’s ballets to the Kirov stage.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, in which Mr. Vinogradov discusses Russian ballet history, and his definition of the perfect ballet body.