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An Interview with Nikolai Kabaniaev

-- A Preview of the 2003 US Tour by the Kirov Ballet

by Catherine Pawlick

September, 2003 Currently Co-Artistic Director, Choreographer and founding member of Diablo Ballet, as well as a teacher for Contra Costa Ballet School, Nikolai Kabaniaev discusses growing up à la Kirov. The native St. Petersburger trained at the Vaganova Academy and performed with the Kirov Ballet before coming to the U.S. fourteen years ago. Nikolai offers an insider's view, sharing his thoughts on the past and present of the world-renowned company.

You were trained at the famous Vaganova Institute. What are your impressions of the training you received there?

Well, basically the Vaganova Institute provides very traditional training. All of the ballets and all of the roles that the Kirov Ballet still performs "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake," "Nutcracker," "Les Sylphides" all of those were first choreographed for the Mariinsky Theatre. So as students at the Vaganova School, we had to study all of those parts. We had acting classes and would study scenes from "Giselle," for example, when Albrecht falls in love with Giselle. All we really knew about ballet was its classical aspects. We didn't see much contemporary ballet, and, while I was there, we didn't see modern dance at all. Boris Eifman was the most contemporary person in the ballet world in Russia at that time.

What was that life like?

Ballet classes and the dancers' lifestyle were our life. Our teachers were complete fanatics. The most important thing for us was ballet class and the performances. If you were sick or you didn't feel well -- whatever happens, the show has to go on. That's how we were raised basically.

And of course we felt this big sense of tradition and connection to previous generations of dancers because the Vaganova School itself is basically a big museum. They still have the same studios where Pavlova and Nijinsky rehearsed; the barre those people were holding on to still stands. It's a very big building -- five floors, long corridors with pictures and photos and paintings of famous dancers.

When I started there were no remnants of Baryshnikov, Nureyev, or Makarova -- no photos of them, and we couldn't talk about them. When I visited two years ago, there were photos of them on the walls, and even Balanchine's picture was included. Now they're allowed there. They became heroes.

As far as Baryshnikov and Makarova were concerned, how did you learn about them?

The first time I heard of Baryshnikov was when I was probably 13 or 14 years old. Our teacher showed us his photograph and said that this person defected and he is an enemy of the people, but he was also a great dancer. We were not allowed to talk about him.

Later when I joined the company, people would talk now and then about Baryshnikov or Makarova and would actually measure performances against them. They would say, "Well Baryshnikov did it this way, Nureyev did it this way, Makarova did it this way." But absolutely we would not be allowed to pronounce their names in public or in meetings.

So you graduated from the Vaganova School and then joined the company?

Yes, I joined the company in 1983 when I was 18 or 19. I was there for seven years, until I was 26.   I had never been officially promoted to soloist, but I danced lots of solo parts. In my seven years there, I was taken on a foreign tour just the last year. I was kind of on the blacklist while I was with the company.

What happened?

When I first joined the company, they immediately gave me a solo in Napoli to rehearse. I really was striving to be the best and do the best. I really didn't pay much attention to communist propaganda promoted in the company. The company did promote communism because the Kirov was a touring company during the Cold War, so they were really monitoring all of us. But I was very far from that. I was only thinking about dancing and I wanted to be the best and to be promoted. So I worked very hard.

Then one day they held a meeting. You were asked to come into a room, and there both the Kirov administrators and members of the KGB were present. I came straight from rehearsal, breathing hard from jumping, still sweating. They asked me if I had read the latest Brezhnev speech, and I said no, I hadn't. It didn't even cross my mind that I should lie and say something different. Immediately their faces changed and they couldn't believe I said something like this. Basically everything was built on a lie, and no one read that speech. But that answer affected the next six years of my work with the company. So I was on the blacklist and would never be taken abroad on tour. But when the company went on tour, and the rest of us stayed in Leningrad, I would get better roles: "Les Sylphides," "The Fountain of Bachchisari," leading parts in "Paquita" and "Napoli."

So I actually enjoyed when they went on tour, although for monetary reasons I wanted to go on tour as well. Because on tour they make better money, in addition to earning their normal salary in Russia. Those who stay behind (and do not tour) make very little.

While on tour in the 1980s, dancers would receive $25 to $40 per diem and principal dancers would get up to $1000 for a show, but of course they wouldn't perform everyday. It was much more than we were making in Russia at the time. Now a lot of things have changed. [With the new] political situation and everything, people can travel freely and say anything.

It was strange being back there two years ago. Now most of the dancers in the company hadn't even begun ballet classes when I was dancing there.

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