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.