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 second in a four-part series.
Part 2: Russian Ballet History and the Perfect Ballet Body
“Today, seven to eight of my ballets are performed in the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater. This was my school, where I learned about ballet and the great Marius Petipa, who was Artistic Director of the Mariinsky for 60 years. I was Artistic Director for a little more than 20 years. I learned from Petipa’s ballets about the basic structure of classic ballets like Don Quixote, Giselle, and others. I based my ballets on this classical ballet structure. I followed a story, included dramatic conflicts, developed the characters…overall ‘life’ construction. One of the major important effects of Soviet ballet for the rest of the ballet world was the creation of these monumental full length ballets.
The Kirov/Mariinsky company had at its core a couple of profound principles: to save and further enhance the traditional repertoire and to create new ballets by modern choreographers which are close to the company’s aesthetic–these principles are very important.
They would not bring what would not be correct to their style. It is important to hold high standards, and to demonstrate the classical style and to show the infinity of possibilities of the classical style. If a dancer has classical schooling, they can dance anything. The Kirov/Mariinsky company today still shows that philosophy.
In today’s world, not everything called ‘ballet’ has the right to call itself ballet. There are a lot of genres and styles of dance, but ‘ballet’ should have the aesthetics that make ballet an art form. A lot of companies are interesting and wonderful, but should be called something different, and ‘ballet’ should stay ‘ballet.’ Only ballet aesthetics actually improve the nature of the human body. Ballet excludes any ugly positions of the human body. Classical ballet doesn’t have any ugly poses. It is impossible, in classical ballet, for the dancer, as an instrument, to not fit the aesthetic of classical ballet: [which is] a small head, long neck, shoulders down, waist same width as the hips, hips not longer than calf of the leg, a short hand palm, longer arms, and large wrist arch.
This great art, because of the selection of its instruments [dancers], has been improving for more than 300 years. Classical exercise has everything to perfect this instrument [the dancer] and then enhance it in classical ballets.
The development of Russian ballet came from reforms which in turn came from the original classical ballets which are still performed today. The rich, literature-based stories, the developed action and drama, the development of specific characters, interesting stories with conflicts and obstacles, all provide the basis for the dramatic Russian ballets. The masterpiece of these [types of] ballets is Romeo and Juliet by Lavrovsky–staged in the Kirov Theater, and then performed in the Bolshoi Theater.
When I started to stage my own Romeo and Juliet [at age 26], I was a choreographer from a new generation but I could still feel and live the same emotions of Shakespeare’s characters. I lived during a time when the symphonic ballets had already formed and my ballets should be a choreographic symphony like Cinderella and all the other greats.
When the Soviet political structure started changing in the days of Mikhail Gorbachev, censorship was more lenient and fear of ‘saying the wrong things’ lightened up. We started to have more freedom and choices….we started getting invitations to stage ballets in other countries. I saw a lot of new work in Europe but still wanted to come to America. I learned from the European masters like Jirí Kylián and others. This was very important for me and I started inviting them to work with the company. The audiences were happy about the expanded art forms and the dancers were happy because they were now able to dance classical as well as any style they wanted.
A lot of things which were impossible before, at this time became a reality. For example, in 1980, after working at the Paris Opera, the general director invited me to be Artistic Director at the Paris Opera. When the Soviet government found out, they said, ‘No, forget it, you don’t need Paris because you have the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater.’ I was grateful for this time with the Kirov/Mariinsky Theater but left anyway.
Different cultures have influenced each other over time. Russian ballet was born because of dancers in Italy and France in the European culture that created the ballet aesthetic. When Russian ballet reached out to their whole nation, then Russian artists like Makarova, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev started to influence the west and the world–all different artists but all exceptional.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series—Mr. Vinogradov dishes on his time with the legendary Natalia Makarova, fellow student Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and French/Swiss Choreographer Maurice Béjart.