Makhar Vaziev, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet company, talks about some of the most discussed problems in ballet today, as well as wanting a third theatre in Moscow for the Bolshoi opera and ballet companies.
Problems of Space
Initially, when I came to the Bolshoi with quite a lot of experience at both the Mariinsky Theatre and at La Scala, I set myself certain tasks and, based on those tasks, created an organisational framework. After about four months we went on tour to London and, even though it was a huge success, I suddenly realised that something wasn't quite right and that what I had planned was going ahead, but not in the way I'd hoped. The problem was an internal one being that we divide our time between the ‘historic' and ‘new' stages, sharing with the opera, which meant that I began questioning how to balance the Bolshoi ballet and opera companies' needs. It might sound strange from the outside that we have a problem when we have two theatres anyway, but the problems are big…
In Paris there's the Garnier and Opera Bastille with 1800 and 2700 seats, so Paris sells 4,500 seats an evening, meaning that an Aida and a Bayadère can be put on without problems. The pricing policy for opera and ballet is pretty much the same. In St Petersburg, the Mariinsky Theatre has 1,600 seats and the Mariinsky Theatre Second Stage has 2,000, so that equals 3,600; plus there's a concert hall for 1,100 spectators. The Mariinsky can sell 4,700 seats a night, and St Petersburg has half the population of Moscow.
In Moscow the Historic Stage has 1,680 seats and the New Stage has 900, so in the end we can only sell 2,580 seats, so economically you can't stage both Aida and La Bayadère on the same night, especially because the pricing for opera and ballet is different. The opera's schedule is arranged according to the availability of the guest stars, so opera productions are organised first, while the ballet, which is a good money earner, takes the leftovers. With two unequal performance spaces it is difficult to find a suitable solution. It isn't anybody's fault because it just happened that way, but whereas in Paris and St Petersburg they have an ideal situation, in Moscow we are stuck with a problem.
I'm absolutely convinced that the Bolshoi needs a third stage, but it needs to be equivalent to the Historic Stage. In that case, we could really plan what is necessary for both the ballet and the opera. As a company, we are shrinking to fit into the New Stage where there are fewer possibilities to present the classics, and how can you maintain the level of a company if there are no classics? That's why soloists come to me and say, and say, “Makhar Vaziev, give me a performance, I'm just rotting away!” In ballet, you can't make up for a missed week as a performer, let alone a month.
Problems of Injury
Unfortunately, our profession can be traumatic. A dancer may be in top form and warmed up, but then in class they do a simple assemblé and they twist their ankle. We've just had an injury with Ivan Poddubnyak [from the corps de ballet] who wasn't even injured in rehearsal, but in class. At the end he asked if he could do a cabriole, and so he did the cabriole…
We have a huge risk of injury, and apart from the horrifying fact of the injury itself, it takes time to recover after an operation. Of course, if you removed some of the basics of classical ballet then there would be fewer injuries, but we can't do that. You do a glissade cabriole lunge and your knee is always at risk. People get hurt a lot when they're joking: you start fooling around in class, you get distracted, and at that moment anything can happen. That's why concentration is absolute.
Ivan Poddubnyak has had a terrible injury, and I hope he will recover. In the West, there are more specialised clinics, and with Ivan the problem was getting him a visa quickly during a pandemic. We worked fast and he flew to Germany for the operation.
Problems of Harassment
Today everyone's talking a lot about harassment. Some unreliable stories from twenty years before: that man touched my knee, and that man touched my shoulder, and that man looked at me the wrong way… In America and in some Western countries it become absurd. It almost begs the question: why did society and civilization create social interrelationships anyway?
The law is a set of rules and there are certain authorities that enforce it, with a court that makes decisions. But when those decisions are made without a court – just because one singer or actress declares something and others join in – that's it, there won't be a trial. The public are already outraged by what someone's done even as that person tries to prove that things are not exactly as they have been presented. But we know that the rule of the majority, as well as the minority, is not the measure of justice, yet that is the agenda in the West today.
Problems of Race
As for the race issue… again there are new trends from the West. There are people who are saying that we should stop applying strict selection requirements in classical ballet, and that there should be quotas: so many black people and so many white, and so on. Skill and talent don't matter anymore? Then, excuse me, why are we even bothering if everything is to be based on quotas. I can agree that there must be no element of racism, no aggressive manifestation of one nation in relation to another, but we are talking about art and ballet is a traditional art. You don't walk through life with turned-out legs, but that's the way ballet works.
In 1877 Marius Petipa staged his greatest work, La Bayadère. Yes, there is some use of blackface, but it's very sweet and everything is done with love. We are not mocking or belittling anyone, and the ballet has been acclaimed all over the world, and Yuri Grigorovich's version of La Bayadère has become the trademark of the Bolshoi Ballet. I am unequivocally against racism, but we are talking about something else here, about the concept. We have taken our ballets all over the world and they have caused nothing but admiration and appreciation yet suddenly we have to revaluate all of that? Petipa is dead, but Yuri Grigorovich told me that himself that in his version of La Bayadère he preserved as much as possible, everything that was important and valuable, everything that was created by and that belonged to Petipa. Are they proposing to meddle with the ballet and revise Petipa?
It's not about race, it's about talent. That is what is most important in art: talent, not skin colour!
Makhar Vaziev was talking to Moskovskij Komsomolets, the Moscow-based daily newspaper.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
A fascinating read, Graham! Than You for having shared!
Interesting interview, thank you. The Russians just_don’t_get_it about the blackface in La Bayadere. How is Bayadere less great if they eliminate the blackface? It’s not only irrelevant, to Americans in particular it’s offensive. Betraying Petipa? Isn’t it more important to be respectful than to stubbornly adhere to a trivial detail that does nothing to advance the drama in Bayadere out of reverence for Petipa?
I agree fully with Vaziev – enough. Petrushka is a fascinating historical piece which brings the baggage of that age with it. How can you whiten the Moor, or put a black dancer into that role? It’s a slippery slope.
But my comment was NOT about the Moor in Petrushka, it’s about the absurd blackfaced dancers in La Bayadere. Whether you agree or disagree with the blackface, the Moor is a symbol, The Bayadere dancers are not.
So out of touch. Boycotts on the next tour? The world has changed guys.
Petipa is dead. Why try so hard to appease a dead person instead of people that affected NOW? He lived his life, so let’s live ours…..in 2021.
Yes, but do we really need to insist on American taboos on blackface, based on American history, being observed in Russian productions performed in Russia for Russian audiences?
Do you really think that only Americans are offended by blackface? That’s a very narrow view. Do you really think that Russian ballets are only performed for Russian audiences? Russian companies tour the world. Even if their outdated ideas stayed in Russia alone, that does not make them acceptable.
I can’t tell if you think there are only white people in Russia, or if you think that mocking other races is okay if they aren’t there to witness it, or if you think only Americans used blackface as a weapon of white supremacy despite Russias long long long long history with racism and anisemitism that you’re choosing to ignore because if white people were having fun could it really be racist?(the answer is yes by the way)
It’s funny how people act as though ballet audiences must be so sophisticated and well educated but you’ve really blown that idea out of the water
Any comment on why there is not a female director of the Bolshoi recently or ever? Harassment viewpoint- love it. Illustrates everthing about the problem right there in one nutshell, self-evident. Patriarchy at its pinnacle. Why not just have a not-blackface bayadere? Who knows.
I cannot believe anything coming out of this man. Makhar Vaziyev is a bully who barks directions and humiliates dancers. Just check out his appearances on World Ballet Days if you want proof. He can mock the West all he wants, he is the champion of harassment and a major part of the problem, not a solution for a healthy work environment.
Let’s get some facts straight, the Bolshoi Ballet actually has black dancers, just saying… also Mariinski and Bolshoi are the staples of ballet quality in the whole world, there simply isn’t anything like it. You watch their corp du ballet and you can see how every single one of them could easily be a soloist in any other company in the world and actually raise the level of quality all together. They also start the earliest from all countries and have special schools just to produce these incredible dancers that will always blow us away. So, coming in with American ideologies that don’t even work for Americans themselves (in spite of the world history of racism on Earth ! cuz sorry I don’t remember Russia flooding entire cities of blacks to literally erase them from history) and denying their level of quality based on outside aesthetics like quotas is quite frankly insulting at this institution. And the premise of it is wrong too, do you actually believe that everything would suddently be perfect if the Bolshoi has a 50% black quota ?! Do you think that would eradicate racism ? Of course for that little black girl it would be so inspiring and amazing to see a black prima ballerina but this doesn’t deny her love for ballet as it is. Let’s not kid ourselves here, especially at Bolshoi they sell a brand, a very very specific brand where children are being tossed out for not having the right feet, or amount of flexibility or aren’t tall enough, or slim enough. Do you think that rejection feels any less painful ? You’d say, oh but if one black dancers fitted the mold, it would be a downright injustice and pure institutionalised racism not to hire them, well, those black dancers, at the required level with the required anatomy and all the needed criteria actually did make it, clearly. And of course, you don’t have as many because how would you get that kind of training to begin with if there is racism at every corner ? AND that my friend is your actual problem, which Americans are trying to solve with their little quotas, i.e. to make up for hundreds of years of actively dismantling all the opportunity blacks could have had to develop in any way. So it’s a bit of a catch 22 at this point, except for the Bolshoi Ballet School from Brasil !! Which has a ton of black people cuz it’s Brasil and it was intended specifically to train the poorest of them all and with that training you can then go on to the Bolshoi Academy and then Company. So I’m sorry, but out of literally all ballet companies on Earth the Bolshoi Ballet is actually the only one actively breaking this catch 22 by solving the issue of well Bolshoi standards ! You can’t achieve them without the Bolshoi School, so they made a school and there are dancers flowing in from Brasil that were trained in their preffered Vaganova Method and so on. And so, how DARE YOU all so easily criticise Bolshoy just because it’s Russian and surely Russia should be criticised for sooo much, but do it right ! Do it justice ! Isn’t it ironic how your own prejudices make you so vile and agressive at an insitution you know nothing about. Mind you, there exists NO OTHER Bolshoi School on Earth other than Moskow and Brasil, that’s it and for me that is just glorious ! Because it truly gives these kids a real chance. Now let’s talk about America shall we ? Where professional ballet dancers work as waitresses at fast food restaurants just to pay their health insurance! Are you kidding me ? Because oh the “patriarchical institution”, well I’m sorry, Russia HAS a real institution of Ballet, what does the US have ? Rich bastards who comission ballets when they feel like showing off, leaving these poor dancers with no work contracts, no health insurance, no perspective whatsoever, and if there isn’t a grand event there is no ballet, and thus no funding so how will you survive ?! Whereas in Europe and Russia and UK Ballet is an actual real stately funded institution who can actually pay their dancers every month regardless of what they’re playing or dancing. So how about you fix your fucking diseased system where no body has access to proper schools or companies and even then they need to hold multiple jobs just to get by, and then talk about the racism in the Bolshoi. I’m sick and tired of the American propaganda of telling everyone else, that they have a problem and not bother for a second with their out disgusting history of abuse both around the world as well as with their own freaking citizens. I mean most Americans think Puerto Rico is a foreign country and that they need a passport to go there… and you’re telling the world about “racism” ?! Really, check your bullshit and maybe, which will never happen, is US ballet companies ever get to that level of quality and perfection, they can have an opinion about how they should go about it, until then it’s just envy and bullshit. So do that, make your own institutions with all the dancers you can get (btw there are less black dancers in the US than possibly Bolshoi so fuck off!) come up with a world leading standard of ballet, that is fair and just and inclusive and then yes, SHOW everyone else on Earth it can be done because you’ve done it ! But you haven’t and won’t, let talk about the rapes and abuses not only in Ballet in the US but in all sports alike ! And racism, I mean black folk in the US never get a chance to a proper training so they can even compete at auditions so they can easily be rejected on grounds of not being good enough. Now that is actual institutionalized racism, which you don’t have the in Russia cuz there’s isn’t enough black people to begin with, and also their companies are far more diverse than any company I’ve seen, from asians to blacks because they don’t care and at the same time have the most discriminatory regulations ever, like again height, weight, general anatomy etc etc. And they serve the whole world which something that is unique. Distroying that in the name of “diversity” is quite very ironic, because how diverse is a company is they all look the same, all have the same quotas for the sake of quotas and all have the same standards because oh well, everything else is “bullying”. And no, I don’t agree with bullying and I DO BELIEVE there has to be a better way that might yield even better dancers, BUT no one has done it recently. So talking about representation, we don’t need black dancers, we need PROOF that ballet can be done suitainably without so many injuries, without all the yelling and shouting, without the DIN standards of body type, etc, and IF you can prove that and be a shining example and represent that things can be done differently and it works, racism dissolves instantly, because racism when it comes to ballet isn’t the issue, it’s just a symptom. And even then I do want to see white ballet, and I do want to see black ballet and I want to see all kinds of things that are surely incredible to look at. Because you are delusional if you think for a second that ballet isn’t about the visuals, are you kidding me ? everything in ballet is done in relationship to how to LOOKS to the audience, so if you think you can achieve the same visual effect of all white skinny swans, with randomely 5 black ones you’re delusional. You’d need at least half the swans black so you could maybe make a sort of checkerboard that is symmetric which would be beautiful in its own right but again it would be beautiful differently. And I do want that TOO, but not solely because I am honest, unlike most people here, because you’re trying to imply that merely enojying Bolshoi is racist which is not, it is however a long tradition than kept morphing and developping into making that mold be and look its very finest! And so what we’re lacking is a a black ballet institution that can built a tradition that makes black folk look jawdropping on stage, and it so happens that in the US black communities have had many moments of great development and great beginning of starting their own and traditions and the US responded by flooding their entire cities, and now as a great self fulfilling profecy claim that oh but the blacks can never do anything right or organise themselves properly. So again, learn some fucking history and maybe don’t attack culture itself, i.e. culture = the summation of the best thoughts, arts and endeavours a country had to offer over the centuries! So attacking this is bullying, is ignorant, arrogant and selfimposed sense of justice, in one word all that is the US, as opposed to what they pretend they are.