Interview with Nikolai Kabaniaev
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What are you looking forward to seeing when the Kirov hits Zellerbach on October 7?
One of the programs I'm going to see is the all-Fokine program. It includes "Les Sylphides," "Scheherazade," and "Firebird." I'm very excited about seeing this, and I would recommend everyone go to see this program. I saw it two years ago with Faruk in "Scheherazade," and I was blown away. It exceeded my expectations, and I was so proud for him. He is still in such great shape, his artistry is amazing. His star quality has always been there, but he hasn't lost anything -- he has only gained more. It was one of the best performances of any kind that I've ever seen in my life. If people have a chance to see him in this ballet, it will be unbelievable and unforgettable. And I don't say those kinds of words often.
Do you notice any differences in the American versions of these ballets, when or if they're performed here?
Yes. I actually just staged "Les Sylphides" here for Contra Costa Ballet. I've danced it with both the Kirov Ballet and with Oakand Ballet. In my opinion, the American interpretation of this ballet is missing a lot of nuances and style. It was choreographed by Fokine at the Mariinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg for this company, and they have preserved the style of the original work. They hold on to what he did, and how and why, and what the story behind it is. Sometimes it gets treated here [in America] as a regular classical ballet, and actually at that time it was a revolutionary ballet. Fokine was influenced by Isadora Duncan, who visited St. Petersburg and presented her free modern dancing. If you know all these details, it makes a difference. In the Kirov they nurture these nuances, which is very important because it gives an absolutely different look and makes the ballet look magical.
Here you look at American companies doing this ballet, and frankly it can be not very exciting and even on the boring side, just because those nuances aren't followed. I think the audience at Zellerbach will see that it is one of the most beautiful ballets.
What about "Firebird"?
The third ballet on the program is "Firebird," with music by Stravinsky. It is fantastic. There isn't a lot of dancing, but there is a lot of pantomime. The dancer in pointe shoes is the Firebird herself, but it's a very visually appealing piece. The scenery is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, and I would compare it to ballets like "Les Noces" -- with groups of dancers and great simplicity, but looks very dramatic and totally works with, of course, the great Stravinsky score. "Firebird" I think of as a great prototype with ballets like this. Lots of people on stage, kind of simple steps but kind of transfers you like… a museum piece, a big beautiful museum piece.
And of course the second program: I haven't seen the Kirov perform "Jewels," so that will be interesting. I've heard everything about it from rave reviews to comments like, "The Russians cannot do Balanchine." So I will be very curious to see how the Kirov Ballet does "Jewels."
There is a standing debate in the ballet world that younger dancers may be missing part of the “soul” that is so integral to successful artistry in classical ballet. What do you think?
As a dancer you have to learn a lot and you have to mature. You can't expect an 18 or 20-year-old to have the maturity of a 40-year-old. There are only a few dancers around the world who mature early and can be fulfilling in dramatic roles at a young age. The majority still have to live their life in order to bring a level of maturity to the stage and translate it into their characters and their roles. But one thing about the Kirov Ballet -- there is a lot of coaching there. Many teachers who were principal dancers in their prime are now coaching the younger dancers, so that helps to expedite the process of maturity in some of the younger dancers.
Do you have a preferred ballerina to watch perform?
Diana Vishneva. I haven't seen her in much live dancing, but I've seen tapes of her dancing and graduating from the Vaganova School, and of course I was fortunate enough to work with her and Faruk two years ago. She's one of those young dancers who is very emotionally mature. They're both that way. Faruk was the same way when he was a very young dancer. People would compare him to Nureyev because of the emotional level he was dancing at. I think Diana is the same kind of dancer. Even when she was very young, she was very exciting and totally emotionally convincing in roles like Giselle and Carmen.
In your opinion does training make a difference in the final output of a dancer?
It's really difficult to generalize about training. If you have Vaganova training and you have a flexible personality, you're open to new things, then this training works for you. But if you think "this is the best and the only way" -- and I've seen that a lot -- I've seen some dancers wouldn't want to try different things and would think classical training is superior -- then I think it works against them because they limit themselves.
The Vaganova is a huge school. In our graduating year we had 73 people graduating at the same time. Among those, we have some who received the Vaganova training but their body type was more appropriate for something else. And then there were others who were incredible in any style. They can do contemporary or modern…they can do anything. For some dancers who are very good at only Vaganova technique, it is difficult at first to do something else. Of course that training gives you a lot of strength and durability, and a perfect line for classical ballet. So if you want to then bring that background into modern dance you will have to learn a different way of moving. And if you're open to it, you'll be able to learn faster and achieve success faster in modern dance. If you're not open to it, it will be very difficult for you.
I think any kind of training is…important. When I was watching classes the last time I was there, I saw both. I saw pluses and minuses in some of this training. I think the best thing would be if some teachers from here would go back to Russia and give a few classes now and then to introduce different ideas of giving classes and teaching. And the same applies here as well. Interaction is good and I think it would benefit everyone.
I can give you a funny example in a way. When I went to Russia, I went to see a ballet class my teacher was teaching. He was of the older generation when I was there, more than twenty years ago. And he was STILL teaching the same class, some 30 years later. And these young guys in his class were about 16 years old and were extremely talented. I felt they were very constricted in that ballet class, it was like yesterday's ballet. It wasn't today. And my teacher-- and I have the greatest respect for him -- he asked me to give a couple of combinations at the end of class. He asked me to give one classical and one modern combination.
I asked what he meant, because there is no such thing as a modern combination in a ballet class. So I gave him what I considered classical combination, and they had a very hard time with it. Not because they had to jump higher or do technical feats, but because it was dance-y and lyrical, and it wasn't the same formula of steps they were used to. It was something they weren't used to. Then when it came to modern combination I thought to myself, "What am I going to give them?" So I asked the pianist, "Can you play jazz?" And she looked at me funny and said, "No." So I asked her what she was going to play, and she started with a regulated "oom pah pah" metered march.
So I told them, "Okay guys, legs in free position, arms down," and I gave them a variation in the style of Balanchine. And as soon as the music started, their legs went into perfect fifth position, their arms went into a perfect ballet position and the music began – ‘oom pah pah' and they did a classical version of Balanchine. So they are not really ready there to [move in this direction]… they don't have tools yet to do something like this. Even Balanchine work, which is neoclassical.
So at the end, the teacher said, “I told you modern is corrupted classical ballet.” But the boy's eyes were burning like they wanted to escape the old routine and do something different and move differently, in a new way of moving -- because all they're doing is the same thing over and over, year after year.
So personally, I think it wouldn't hurt them, it would only benefit them if in the Vaganova training they would incorporate jazz and modern to introduce them to those ideas. I think it would make them even better classical dancers.
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