An Interview with Igor Zelensky

by Emma Pegler

London, 5 May 2003 -- Igor Zelensky is a man back from the brink. Two years ago it was not at all certain that he would ever dance again. He spent six months lying flat in bed after two operations on a herniated disc. He returned to dancing last November and although he is not back to full fitness – he is still not able to lift ballerinas – he has big plans for himself. All that time lying in bed gave him plenty of opportunity for reflection: “For six months I couldn’t move and I thought how I would react if someone now wanted to give me my own company – gave me the chance to be a director. But I still had a chance to be a dancer.” He has to dance. He is in London to support his friend and fellow Kirov dancer, Irma Nioradze, in her venture to bring Kirov stars to Europe beyond their frequent sojourns as part of the official Mariinsky Company on tour. As well as performing an excerpt from ‘Le Corsaire’ as part of the “Ballet Stars of St Petersburg” Gala at The Royal Albert Hall, he will meet with Monica Mason, Director of the Royal Ballet, to discuss his contract to guest (imminently) with the company and was due to visit Darcey Bussell, his “favourite partner” on the evening before her foot operation. He is enthusiastic about his five years with the Royal Ballet and appreciates Bussell because “she gave me what I wanted to do in England – ‘Manon’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” Bussell had invited the young star over from New York City Ballet to guest in London. He wasn’t sure that Anthony Dowell liked him in the beginning but after the intense rehearsals to learn the role of “Des Grieux” from Dowell, he is sure Dowell came to like him in the end.

Dressed in blue jeans and suede Adidas trainers, wearing sunglasses even in the darkness of the Millenium Hotel bar, and with his open and effusive approach to being interviewed, he seems more American than Russian. The look was acquired during his seven years as a ‘permanent’ guest of New York City Ballet. He is a bundle of energy, brimming over with plans to make up for lost time. “We have an expression in Russia,” he enthuses, “if you are not moving forward every day by a step, you’re going back two steps. So you have to go forward and have to learn as much as you can.” He is only in his early thirties but is well aware that “in my art, we are very limited - we have twenty years. A famous Russian conductor said at 70, ‘I can conduct another ten years by standing and another ten by sitting.’ But in my business you have to do everything straight away.” That means he will guest with the three companies with which he made his name before the injury: the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet. In each company he has his favourite partner: Bussell in London, Darci Kistler in New York and Svetlana Zakharova in St Petersburg. They are the three greatest companies in the world in his opinion. None will be his ‘main’ company and nowhere is home. “I am always rushing.” He has an apartment in New York and one in St Petersburg but his life is, more than ever before, dedicated to the dance and wherever it takes him. He travels with his home. His mother, Galina, is his best friend and constant companion and he believes that he wouldn’t be the successful dancer that he is without her support and shrewd business sense. (It’s also the reason, he jokes, why he hasn’t yet got married.) She encouraged the young Igor to take up dancing when he was twelve and, when, by the age of fifteen he began to suffer from exhaustion from trying to balance competitive running (he was a promising athlete before he took up ballet classes) with the physical demands of ballet, she encouraged him to choose dance. From that point on Zelensky was focused on becoming the best dancer that he could possibly be, dancing eight hours a day. His mother takes care of his daily life and he concentrates on his work. “I swear to God I want to dance as much as I can.” Does he do anything else other than dance? “Nothing…this is my life.”

The facts bear this statement out. As well as regularly performing with three companies, he will draw on his contacts to pull together a small troupe of dancers to perform galas over the next year in Moscow, St Petersburg, New York, China and South America as ‘Igor Zelensky and Friends’. These galas will comprise highlights from classical ballets and will also give him the opportunity to stage his own productions of classical works. He wouldn’t dream of replacing the master Petipa’s steps and doesn’t have any particular desire to be a choreographer, but he likes to introduce more solos: more dancing and less walking, as he puts it. Balanchine’s “Apollo” will also be a staple part of such evenings. Apollo is one of his favourite roles largely because of his affinity with Greece. He has worked a lot there staging his own productions of Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote and it is his dream to open the 2004 Olympics in Greece with “Apollo.”

Yet what is really driving him at the moment is the hunger for choreography to be made on him – something he can call his own. He has a big project with New York City Ballet dancer, Albert Evans, for next year. Evans and other NYCB dancers have made pieces on him in the past but the results haven’t received international recognition. “I am known around the world as a good partner and a good jumper…but I want the world to know that I am not only a partner.” And, thinking even further ahead - eventually he will want to settle in one place and direct his own company. He is perfectly placed to do so: “I am one of the only Russian dancers who has huge experience. I left Russia when I was 19 and have worked with so many different companies and learned so many styles.” Each company and school has contributed to his style. He doesn’t dance one school’s style over another. He has his own Zelensky style, he believes. He tries always to appear a ‘real’ man on stage. Quite.

By now he is literally bouncing off the walls of the bar as he recounts the product of two years of thinking and wondering whether he would ever dance again. Did he always have a plan and a clear shape for his future or was it just that lying on his back for so long had made him want to make up for lost time? “The first time I met Rudi [Nureyev] was in Berlin in 1990 and he said ‘you have to go to America and you have to go to Stanley Williams who is one of the greatest teachers.” Stanley Williams made him the great 'Apollo' that he is. Both Nureyev and his hero, Baryshnikov, had been the inspirations for Zelensky to leave Russia in search of experience and knowledge. Both had told him that he should learn as much as he could from as many different people as he could and he clearly sees himself as following in their footsteps. He had already had excellent tutoring as one of the last students of the legendary teacher, Chabukiani, at the Tblisi School of Ballet and was a rising star of the Mariinsky. But he was desperate to dance Balanchine. “George Balanchine was from my home town, Georgia,” he declares proudly. The classics were not enough for Zelensky. Although Balanchine still represented the classic tradition for the young dancer, he was modern and the second most important choreographer after Petipa. Plus Zelensky wanted to dance Bejart, MacMillan and Petit. So he left for America while retaining his links with the Mariinsky. As he drags on his Marlboro light and sips his beer, I am reminded of his sexy portrayal of the bohemian painter in Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.” Pulling my mind back from the image of his bare chest and smouldering look (on stage – not in the bar) I told Igor that I had seen him dance this piece with Yulia Makhalina in St Petersburg. He was impressed. Not quite as impressed as I had been at his bare chest and sultry dancing, but impressed, nonetheless. “Maestro Gergiev [Director of the Marrinsky Theatre] and Vaziev [Director of the Mariinsky Ballet] have done so much with the company that the kids don’t have to leave now. They’ve got everything right at home and perform all those ballets in St. Petersburg.”

He looks American but I would guess that his heart is still in Russia. He has just flown back from a weekend in Russia to celebrate Gergiev’s birthday where he danced “Le Corsaire” for the guests because they wanted “flashy” stuff. He felt honoured to be asked to return from his week with the Kirov at The Lowry in Salford to perform for the Maestro. He’s still in party mood and fast approaching his second beer. “I’m giving all this up this week,” he says, nodding towards the Marlboro packet with its bold ‘Smoking kills’ label. “I never knew I would come back but thanks God, I’m back.”

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