The Bolshoi Ballet’s new artistic director, Makhar Vaziev, is unequivocal about the scope of his authority. “I’m not a democrat,” he declares, smoking in his Moscow office, his steely gaze tinged with amusement.
It’s a bold assertion for any leader, but the behemoth that is the Bolshoi, which returns to Covent Garden next month for a three-week tour, is no ordinary workplace. In March, the 55-year-old Vaziev replaced Sergei Filin, who was the victim of an acid attack in January 2013, in which he lost much of his sight; Pavel Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi dancer said to be disgruntled with Filin’s policies, went to jail for ordering the attack.
The storm that engulfed the venerable Russian company after the incident has led not only to bitter divisions, but also to a game of musical chairs. Anatoly Iksanov, the Bolshoi’s long-time general director, was fired the following summer and replaced by Vladimir Urin. Urin, in turn, decided in 2015 to dismiss Filin, who had returned to work. Urin declared that the next director would have a more technical role and limited freedom in determining artistic policy. Upon being reminded of the proposed changes, Vaziev cracks a sarcastic smile. “Look at me. Do you think I would ask for people’s advice on repertoire? I would never have agreed to be a technical manager.”
There is an implacable confidence about Vaziev — and it is warranted. No artistic director could have been better prepared to take on the treacherous politics of the Bolshoi: Vaziev has made a long career out of steering some of the most complex, unruly ballet companies in the world, from the Mariinsky Ballet to Milan’s La Scala.
Born in North Ossetia, near Georgia, Vaziev traded home at age 11 for St Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy, as one of many ballet students admitted under the quotas for every Soviet republic. He joined the Mariinsky (then known by its Soviet name, the Kirov) in 1979, at a “difficult, even dangerous” time, he says, not least because of political tension and high-profile defections. In 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov — whom Vaziev admired as a child — had opted for exile. Yet the company’s artistic shine was undiminished, with stars such as Alla Sizova and Irina Kolpakova. “They showed us the heights you can achieve,” he says.
After being drafted and serving two years in the army, Vaziev reprised his career as a soloist in 1986, and was later appointed assistant director by Oleg Vinogradov, the ballet’s long-time director. “Then he left, and I stayed”, is Vaziev’s wry take on his rise to power in 1995, waving aside the charges of bribery and corruption that were Vinogradov’s downfall.
He led the Mariinsky Ballet through the murky waters of the late 1990s in Russia, staying the course for 13 years. His resignation in 2008 was abrupt; the finger has often been pointed at the theatre’s powerful general director and conductor, Valery Gergiev, and his authoritarian handling of the company. “I will only take a job now if at least 51 per cent of the decision-making depends on me,” Vaziev says allusively. “At that point, I realised it was only 49 per cent. When you are in charge of dancers, teachers, you cannot say something just isn’t up to you. You have to take responsibility.”
A few months later, La Scala came knocking. Was the move to Milan a shock? “For them, yes,” Vaziev deadpans in English. Labour issues and strikes have dogged the Italian theatre for years; its ballet company had lost much of its historical lustre and was reputedly unmanageable. “After seven years, I can tell you it’s possible to work there,” Vaziev says. Although La Scala Ballet remained reliant on guests, its level improved, with Italian talent such as Nicoletta Manni rising to prominence.
“Companies like the Bolshoi or Mariinsky are empires — they spin by themselves — but ballet is marginalised at La Scala. We overcame so many difficulties with the dancers — this theatre has a special place in my heart.”
The Bolshoi first called on him in 2011, but Vaziev opted to remain at La Scala. When Urin reiterated the offer in 2015, he initially declined again, but the working conditions in Russia won the day. “What I can do in the Bolshoi in three months takes two years to achieve at La Scala.”
Vaziev is the first St Petersburg man to lead the Moscow company in the post-Soviet era, another sign the rivalry between the two cities may be thawing where ballet is concerned. The Bolshoi has also welcomed dancers trained in St Petersburg in recent years, including its newest principal, Olga Smirnova, who will open the London tour. Stylistic differences remain, though Vaziev quips about a potential fusion: “In Moscow, to jump higher, you don’t always follow the classical rules, but not in St Petersburg. In my opinion, you need to follow the rules and jump even higher.”
His no-nonsense ambition and knowledge of the workings of Russian ballet may be what the volatile Bolshoi needs. At the Mariinsky, Vaziev was credited with gradually opening up the repertoire to western choreography, including George Balanchine and William Forsythe. He also championed the first attempts, by Sergei Vikharev, to reconstruct the 19th-century classics in their original form using period notation — in the face of vehement opposition in Russia, where many consider Soviet productions the reference. “I thought I was going to be fired,” he chuckles.
Vaziev also provided Alexei Ratmansky, a former Bolshoi director himself (2004-08) but now one of the brightest choreographic stars on the international scene, with some of his earliest commissions. At La Scala, Vaziev recently co-produced Ratmansky’s own, more thorough reconstructions of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and hopes to bring Ratmansky, who is now in residence with American Ballet Theatre in New York, back to Moscow — along with some reconstructions. “They are part of Russian history. It’s something we should understand and learn from.”
While recent directors, from Ratmansky to Filin, started to diversify the Bolshoi repertoire, the only new work in London will be Jean-Christophe Maillot’s 2014 The Taming of the Shrew. Vaziev may face the same resistance they did from factions faithful to Soviet-era strongman Yuri Grigorovich, whose productions of the classics remain in place in Moscow. “The Soviet period is over,” Vaziev maintains. “We need to take the best from it, what is well-made and relevant today, and move forward.”
A new workshop scheme to nurture young choreographers will be headed by none other than Filin; from his desk, Vaziev waves to the pile of suggestions his injured predecessor has sent him.
Other plans remain under wraps, but a trademark of Vaziev’s has been to push talented dancers into the spotlight as early as possible. At the Mariinsky, he entrusted Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova and Alina Somova with leading roles before they turned 20, shaping their subsequent success. “When I give chances to young dancers, I feel like I’m growing with them,” he says.
He has already done the same at the Bolshoi: the London performances will feature major role debuts by newcomers such as corps de ballet member Margarita Shrainer, a decision many would consider hazardous on a high-profile tour. To hedge his bets, Vaziev is regularly in rehearsals to supervise progress. “The most important thing for me is the result on stage, but I can only get it with the help of the dancers and coaches.”
With his combination of traditional Russian authority and forward-looking sangfroid, Vaziev is arguably the best man the company could have hoped for to fill the most perilous job in dance; it is now up to the Bolshoi, and Russian ballet, to leave some of the past behind.
Photographs: Elena Fetisova/Bolshoi Theatre; Petr Antonov