Paintings infrequently inspire ballets. Notable exceptions include Yuri Possokhov's Magrittomania, based on the works of surrealist painter René Magritte, and Christopher Wheeldon's recent Strapless, centered on the woman in John Singer Sargent's painting “Madame X." Different though Magritte and Sargent's paintings are, they both depict people in one way or another—ready material for choreographers. Thus, I'm intrigued by Mauro Bigonzetti's ballet Kazimir's Colors, inspired by Kazimir Malevich's abstract, colorful blocks.
Loosely inspired, I'd say. Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Malakhov are anything but blocky in this 2009 clip. Pliant as putty, she snakes her limbs around her partner, who is sturdy but equally fluid. The piece and Kazimir's paintings do share similarities in their colors, of course, but also in the strength of their off-kilter lines. Vishneva's gorgeous extensions conjure the art's sharp angles. And, like the geometric shapes, the pair's movements are at times thin and reedy and at others wide and bold.
Whereas Bigonzetti recently joined a venerable ballet institution (he's La Scala Ballet's new artistic director), Vishneva will soon leave one of hers. The 2016/2017 season at American Ballet Theatre will be her last, though she will stay on as a principal at the Mariinsky Ballet. Vladimir Malakhov, whose career took him to Vienna, Berlin and beyond, also danced with ABT. He has served as artistic advisor to the Tokyo Ballet and recently produced his show, Malakhov & Friends, in Germany. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
It’s morning in a booming, revitalized Berlin and the principal’s class at Staatsballett Berlin is just starting center. Even in a studio packed with the company’s most accomplished dancers, artistic director and dancer Vladimir Malakhov stands out. At 39, he moves with lightness and authority, extending his elegant line while working just as hard as the other company members to perfect turns and jump with ever more precision. To look at him, one would think that this fine-boned, blond Adonis is too fragile to run a company, but looks can be deceiving. In its second year, Staatsballett Berlin is doing very well, partly because he is an artist at the top of his form, but also because he is determined to create a world-class company.
Malakhov readily tells you he is not the only ballet star directing and dancing with a major ballet company (Julio Bocca and his Ballet Argentino come to mind, and Marcia Haydée directed and danced with Stuttgart Ballet). While leading a company both on the stage and behind the scenes is not unique, Staatsballett Berlin is.
Ballet has a long tradition in Berlin, but making it work in the 21st century has been an uphill battle. Until 2004, the city had three opera houses, each with its own ballet company. To streamline the state-sponsored cultural institutions, the city of Berlin combined the three ballet companies into one, selecting Malakhov to lead the new company. Now the 88 members of Staatsballett Berlin are an international mix from 26 countries, some invited to stay on from the previous companies and the others hired from annual auditions.
As the debate about how to finance three opera houses and one big ballet company continues, the company gives more than 100 performances a year in two opera houses and in the 2007-08 season it will begin performing in the third. “[Berlin] is big,” says Malakhov, “but I don’t know any city in the world that has three opera houses and three ballet companies. To keep three companies was impossible. [Now] interest is increasing because there is only one.”
A graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet School, Malakhov was the youngest principal at the Moscow Classical Ballet and won gold medals at the big competitions before leaving Russia for a glittering career as a guest artist in the West. None of which especially qualified him to be an artistic director, but the Ukrainian-born ballet star is not a novice. From 2002 to 2004, he directed the Staatsoper Ballet, one of Berlin’s three former companies, and, drawing on Russian traditions absorbed at the Bolshoi School and his own keen artistic sense, he has staged several classics to great acclaim. In addition, his ideas about programming, audience development and fundraising indicate that his years of guesting with major Western companies have paid off with savvy practicalities about running a company. Now as “intendant,” as he is called in German, he has the opportunity to make an even larger mark on the world stage.
Yet even with a company to direct, Malakhov still jets off regularly to guest around the world. He manages to get it all done by planning far ahead, juggling schedules and budgets—and relying on Executive Director Christiane Theobald, General Manager Georg Vierthaler, six ballet masters and a handpicked staff.
“It’s a matter of organization,” says Malakhov. “I try to make a different repertoire in the two opera houses, so that the sets don’t need to go from one opera house to another, but you also have to plan ahead not to have a big première when you have a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty, and to organize the rights and schedule the choreographers. You also have to think of things like how to go from the classic to the modern, or from classic to neoclassic.”
Malakhov has a more “dancerly” approach to planning a rep and begins by telling you that he is a dancer first. His concern for the well-being of the company centers as much on the dancers as the product of their mutual efforts: “I am very close to my company,” he says. “There are many beautiful dancers, all of them with a very big interest in becoming better. I have to lead them and control everything that is going on, but I am the same as they are. I try to make them happy and also to make the quality of the performances better.”
To keep the dancers content and properly challenged—and to feed his audience new delights—Malakhov is amassing a broad repertoire that is stocked with classics, as well as such novelties as last year’s Ring Um Den Ring, Maurice Bejart’s five-hour ballet based on the series of operas by Richard Wagner called the Ring Cycle, and the “Robbins Evening” that premiered three works by Jerome Robbins in the fall.
A special marketing push to 20-somethings drew as many jeans-clad first-timers as elegant ballet aficionados to the “Robbins Evening,” creating a huge hit. The Staatsoper audience rolled with laughter during The Concert, was held captive by a luminous Afternoon of a Faun (which Malakhov danced with the young and exquisite Polina Semionova) and was charmed by a fresh Fancy Free.
“It’s nice for the company [to dance a range of ballets],” says Malakhov. “That’s why I am keeping a balance between classical and modern.” In December, along with the Robbins, the company danced a mixed bill (David Parsons’s The Envelope, Leo Mujic’s Out of 99 and William Forsythe’s The Second Detail), Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.
“I like this mix,” says Nadja Saidakova, one of five principal women; she has known Malakhov since they danced together at Moscow Classic Ballet. “You need both [classical and contemporary],” she continues. “In the classics, your control must be so sensitive, down to the last muscle. But in the modern style, you can be so free. You get an absolutely different feeling in the body.”
The mix may to be right for Berlin as well, although the public seems attracted as much by Malakhov’s status as an international star as by his efforts as director and choreographer. “There is not doubt that his name is a draw,” says dance critic Volkmar Draeger. “Audiences admire him, and his evenings are completely sold out, especially when he is dancing the main parts. He is opening doors for the ballet in Berlin, [but] he is also modest and very popular in the city.”
Still, the dual role is punishing. “He’s a world star and he’s a director, ballet master, choreographer—so many different jobs,” says Saidakova. “He is very concentrated in class and rehearsal and onstage, then, half an hour later he’s in [business clothes] on his way to a meeting.”
Making the most of his time and what he’s been given—both in terms of talent and opportunity—seems to come naturally.
“I enjoy it,” says Malakhov. “Of course, I am almost dying, but it is okay. I’m busy, and it makes me happy. I am lucky to be here in this company, to see the people with so much feeling and enthusiasm, working for everything.”
Enthusiasm aside, directing a company of young, ambitious dancers is not easy. “It is a big company, and everybody is very sensitive,” says Croatian-born principal Ronald Savkovic, who was a principal at the Staatsoper Ballet as well. “I think it’s not that easy for him. As the next principal after him, I try to be helpful.” Which means he is a sort of unofficial sounding board for the dancers to complain about roles or other issues like rehearsal time.
“For example, we had some problems with some soloists,” says Savkovic, “but I told them [that] we have a responsibility. We have to be good because they are going to say, ‘[That’s] one of Vladimir Malakhov’s dancers.’ We have to show respect toward his work and for the company.” That sense of respect and shared responsibility binds them together as a company, but ultimately success or failure rests on Malakhov’s shoulders. Planning the January gala to celebrate his 20 years of performing, he mulls over what the program might be. “We will invite some new guests and some of my old friends. Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño will come, and also Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, from Munich, and another couple from Tokyo Ballet, because I spend lots of time dancing there. They will present classical and contemporary pieces. Of course, I will be doing Romeo and Juliet, because they haven’t seen me in that here,” he says. “I always want to surprise the public.”
For now, retirement goes unmentioned. To watch Malakhov in class or onstage with his company, Staatsballet Berlin seems more like a way to dance forever.
“Everybody is watching, suffering, taking care of each other,” he says. “That’s why I come two and a half hours before the performance to put on my makeup [and] do a warm up. Then, I go [to the wings], and I watch. A dancer said to me, ‘I see you all the time watching the performance. I think you don’t need to watch every day.’ I told him, ‘But this is my energy. I want to be with you—I am nervous, and I am laughing at the same time.’”
Last April when Staatsballett Berlin principal Polina Semionova made her NYC debut performing in the Youth America Grand Prix gala, her mere appearance on the stage elicited screams of delight from the aspiring dancers in the audience. They knew the young star from a video, “Demo (Letzter Tag),” in which she dances a sweet and expressive solo to music by popular German musician and actor Herbert Grönemeyer. The video has been viewed by close to 1.5 million people on YouTube, making Semionova more popular on the internet site than Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri or Natalia Makarova.
In September I had a chance to observe the young ballerina in company class and rehearsal in Berlin and to talk with her about her dancing. In person, she is both appreciative and animated, the first to acknowledge that luck has played a role in the chain of events that propelled her to fame. At 24, Semionova says she now carefully calculates pluses and minuses before making big decisions, but the opportunity to do the Grönemeyer video came before she gained such maturity.
“I was so young!” she laughs when asked if the project came from a desire to reach new audiences for ballet. “I was 18 and had just joined the company. It was supposed to be a different dancer, Nadja Saidakova, but she was injured and I was the third or fourth choice.” And though she had no idea how much the video would be watched, Semionova is happy that “people who are not interested in ballet watch it and think of coming to the theater,” she says.
Serendipity is a recurring theme in Semionova’s story. As a child growing up in Moscow, she and her older brother Dmitry loved sports, especially ice-skating, while her younger sister studied music. When Dmitry’s coach recommended that his tall stature was better suited to ballet stages than ice rinks, Semionova was forced to switch pursuits as well. “Three children in three schools? This would have been too difficult for my parents, so I ended up in ballet. I cried because I loved ice-skating.” Again she laughed at the synchronicity: her proportions, like her brother’s, are perfect for ballet.
Accepted at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Semionova worked hard but was not at the top of her class. She credits the three international competitions she participated in (Moscow, Vaganova-Prix in St. Petersburg and Nagoya) with giving her the opportunity to find herself and realize her abilities.
“In school I never danced solo roles,” she says. “We had a very talented class. Often I went into a studio to work alone. Other students could afford extra classes with the teacher but I could not. One day Yuri Vasuchenko, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, saw how I was working and said ‘I will help you.’
“He was preparing his son for the first Moscow International Ballet Competition, and asked me to be his son’s partner. I had never done solos or pas de deux before. Yuri had me run the variations three times in a row to make sure I had enough strength.” At the same time, she recalls going through a growth spurt that left her weak. “I was shaking after each pas de deux,” she says.
When her teacher and director of the school, Sofia Golovkina, heard that Semionova was planning to attend the competition, she disapproved and forbade her to go, saying she would throw her out of class. But Semionova went, albeit crying, and was awarded the 2001 junior division gold medal. When she returned to class, Semionova recalls that Golovkina said, “You won,” meaning not only the competition, but the right to make her own decisions.
Semionova reflects on the experience and adds: “Competitions are not only about medals, but about the process. In fact, they are mostly for the chance they offer dancers to reach for more.”
The ballerina makes a habit of pushing to exceed her grasp, as I saw in the rehearsal I watched later that day. Ballet mistress Valentina Savina was coaching her in Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” for the gala that opens the company’s season in Berlin. The pas de deux is a study in classical refinement: spare and technically challenging. Several times, the man places the woman in a position, lets go of her hand, and she balances. During the rehearsal, each time Semionova established a beautiful balance, she lifted her passé a little higher before transitioning to the next step. Even in rehearsal she was living her motto: “To be happy for what I have, and to try for a little more.”
Semionova was rehearsing with her brother Dmitry (he has been a principal with the company since 2007) but she will dance with the artistic director of the Staatsballett, Vladimir Malakhov, in the gala. Since becoming director in 2002, Malakhov has changed the look of ballet in Berlin: He guided the city’s transition from three troupes into one, and has attracted a younger, more stylish audience through smart programming and marketing.
In many ways, Semionova’s rise to acclaim has paralleled Malakhov’s success, and offstage, Malakhov smoothed her transition from Russia to Europe. When she arrived, not speaking a word of English or German, he was not only her director, but also a friend.
Now, as she begins her seventh season with the company, she is comfortable with both languages: “Living alone changes you,” she says. “You have to be more independent, more open. When I was in school, I was very shy.”
Both Semionova and Malakhov were trained at The Bolshoi Ballet Academy and also share unique similarities in their physiques and movement. When Malakhov visited his alma mater in 2001, he was attracted to the way Semionova approached her work.
“When I was in Moscow to film part of the PBS documentary, Born to be Wild, I visited the ballet school and saw this beautiful girl in class,” says Malakhov. “Her teachers wanted to show me other students but my head was always turning to watch her.”
Malakhov liked the way she worked so much that he offered her a contract to join the Staatsballett as a principal. She also received offers from The Kirov Ballet and The Bolshoi Ballet, the company that Golovkina expected her to join.
“I chose Berlin because a principal contract is not offered to many people,” says Semionova. “I took Vladimir coming to the school and seeing me as a sign—I thought if I didn’t take the offer, I would feel I hadn’t tried.” She admits that it was difficult to break the news to Golovkina, but that her teacher was understanding because of Malakhov. “‘He is my kid. You are also my kid,’” Semionova recalls Golovkina saying. “‘I know he will take care of you, so my heart will stay calm.’ Then she told me, ‘When I was tough with you, it was only to make you stronger.’”
Whether it was her teacher’s toughness or her own determination, Semionova pours herself into her work. “Class is not only how you warm up for the rest of your day, but it’s also for your muscles, your strength,” she says. “I would say to young dancers, ‘Don’t save yourself, but don’t work stupidly either. Work with the body and the head.’ Sometimes it’s better to do an exercise once and thinking, rather than 100 times and getting cramps everywhere.”
Practicing what she preaches, Semionova was a study in perpetual motion during the class I watched. There is an ease and perfection in her movement, which makes it difficult to watch anyone else in the studio. She plays with qualities of movement: sometimes slicing her leg to the side in a staccato manner, other times letting a grand battement float up to her arm in high fifth, seemingly effortlessly. Her legs appear attached to her body with pliable elastics. Her turns are similarly smooth: four or five pirouettes coast around rather than spin forcefully.
“She has made a wonderful development during the six seasons she has been here,” says Malakhov. “When she came to Berlin, she was called the baby ballerina by the media. She was very young, but with time she has gotten more and more stable and secure. She worked very hard for this. She is so strict with herself.”
Focused on the work, Semionova uses her concentration to get the most out of her dancing. “Onstage you perform the movement you do well, what you enjoy,” she says. “But class is our job, our work, our time to make weaknesses better. Sometimes a teacher gives a combination and I feel I need to do a little more for a certain muscle so I work my body in between exercises. I believe each dancer knows their own body the best.”
The ballerina frequently performs with Malakhov, and he continues to inspire her, particularly in “the way and how he works,” she says. “Onstage he doesn’t act, he lives.” This is what she aspires to. She wants the audience to become enamored of the characters and emotions. “When the public watches a ballet I want it to affect them like a movie.”
Berlin is an apt home for this talented artist: The opera house is situated between the Brandenburg Gate, a historical landmark in the city, and Alexanderplatz, a commercial center. Semionova herself seems to straddle different worlds: from her exquisite Russian training to her presence on YouTube and Facebook. As she explores traditional ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake, she also reaches younger audiences with new forms of technology and communication—she is a link between the past and the future.
Kate Mattingly teaches and writes about dance in the United States and in Europe.