Interview with Nikolai Kabaniaev
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So you were there during Oleg Vinogradov's tenure. What was it like to work with him?
When I worked there, he wasn't my favorite person. But now, looking back, I think he wasn't so bad. I mean, the one thing he was doing that was good for the company was that he was taking it abroad and making a name for itself. Of course that process had started before him and continued after him.
Many people say that even if you tried to ruin the Kirov, it would still survive for another 100 years, because there are such traditions and such training behind it that the idea is that it doesn't really matter who runs it, it will run by itself. It's still a tough job. It's a big company to run -- 216 dancers. It's a tough job to do no matter who is doing it, the present or the former administration.
Are there any notable changes you've observed between your time at the Kirov and the company in more recent years?
I feel like the caliber of Kirov dancers is always growing and has risen even since I left. Now there are more young dancers who are promoted. When I was working there it took at least five years for people to get promoted to a soloist position from the corps de ballet. There was almost never a case when a dancer from the school would be promoted within a year or two. When I went back I found there were more young talents, and now, if they're talented, they're promoted faster. I also felt some influence from the Balanchine ballets. The Russian way of dancing was and is very slow, but Balanchine pushed the limits of speed -- the faster the better, and the more exciting it becomes. So when I was watching the Kirov's "Swan Lake" recently, I felt like it was almost twice as fast as when I was in the company. As if everyone was dancing faster.
When I visited St. Petersburg two years ago, I also stopped by the school. Some teachers who were already old when they taught me are still there teaching. They were very conservative then and still are. But at the same time they have a younger generation of teachers, about 40 or maybe late 30s, who have seen different ways of dancing and different types of choreography -- European movement like Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek and maybe Balanchine. My last year with the company was when Balanchine ballets were first brought into the repertoire. Suzanne Farrell came to stage "Scotch Symphony" and Francia Russell staged "Theme and Variations."
I remember when Suzanne Farrell was staging "Scotch Symphony," coaching a ballerina, and the dancer asked her where the arms were supposed to be. And Suzanne said they should be in a free position. Well, in the Kirov there is no such thing as a "free" arm position. There was only first, second, and third position, but no such thing as "free" position. But nowadays that "free" positioning is more integrated. Although it's still very academic and conservative, some teachers are trying to bring new ways of moving, more free movement, not as restrictive port de bras. And of course there have been changes in the footwork as well. Russian ballerinas in the past would jump on and off of pointe. In the West, you are taught to “roll through” the metatarsal and balls of the feet. Now the rolling through is increasingly integrated in the company and in classes at the Vaganova school.
Do you still have friends
in the company?
What do they do when they retire? Certainly not all of them can become teachers.
Yes, some of them change their jobs and do something else. The ones I was in contact with, of course they were either still with the company or working at the Vaganova School. The others -- I'm not sure what their story is. And of course lots of dancers from my generation left Russia, like me. Since it was the same thing for many years under the Communist regime, we lived there without any idea that the borders would open and the Communist Party would collapse. We could not imagine it. So when it happened, many people used that opportunity to leave -- maybe thinking, “I'm not sure how long this will last, maybe it's only a short window of time.” And because I never was allowed abroad, the first thing I did was I left.
Was the transition difficult?
Well, I left when I was 26, so I was still young enough to be open and adjust to dancing here, working with different choreographers and new kinds of choreography. At first it was difficult, yes, but the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And I felt that when I returned to performing classical roles after doing modern, I think it improved my classical dancing. Because I was freer, I wasn't as restricted.
Do you ever consider moving back to Russia?
No, this is my home and my country. And I got my citizenship three years ago. So I'm an American now, but with a Russian accent. I'm 40, so when people hear my accent they ask where am I from. I explain that I was born in Russia, but I left at an age when your accent is already engrained.
Definitely I enjoyed going there to visit, and setting the ballet piece for Faruk and Diana, and in the future if the opportunity presents itself again, I would do it again. But my life is here now, and I would never consider moving back to live there.
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