Leader of the class

The Bolshoi Ballet's Nikolai Tsiskaridze discusses his former teacher-the legendary Peter Pestov.

  • 1. After the City Center performance, from left, Pestov and Tsiskaridze (Nina...

  • 1. After the City Center performance. From left, Pestov and Tsiskaridze (Nina...

  • After the City Center performance. Malakhov, Pestov and Tsiskaridze (Nina...

  • Tsiskaridze as Solar in La Bayadere (Mikhail Logvinov)

  • 5. Tsiskaridze as the Prince in The Nutcracker (Mikhail Logvinov)

  • 6. Tsiskaridze with Ilze Liepa in The Queen of Spades (Nina Alovert)

  • 7. Tsiskaridze in Raymonda (Nina Alovert)

  • 8. Tsiskaridze in Spectre de la Rose (Mikhail Logvinov)

  • 9. Tsiskaridze in Raymonda (Nina Alovert)

  • Tsiskaridze after a performance (Nina Alovert)

  • Tsiskaridze in Legend of Love (Nina Alovert)

  • Tsiskaridze in rehearsal with Galina Ulanova and Vladimir Vasiliev (Mikhail...

1. After the City Center performance, from left, Pestov and Tsiskaridze (Nina...

In April, the Youth America Grand Prix held a gala concert in tribute to Peter Pestov, a master teacher whose male students are boldfaced names, including Vladimir Malakhov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, Yuri Possokhov, Sascha Radetsky, Gennadi Saveliev, Yuri Burlaka and Alexei Ratmansky. The former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and now American Ballet Theatre's artist in residence, Ratmansky hosted the program "Peter the Great," introducing Pestov as "one of the most important and influential figures in 21st-century ballet." As he also noted, everyone knows the names of the great dancers, but very few people know the teachers who formed them. In honor of the celebration—marking Pestov's 80th birthday—Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi's talented and charismatic principal and one of Pestov's favorite students, spoke at length in Moscow about his teacher's methodology.

How would you introduce Peter Pestov?
Peter Antonovich is an interesting person. One of his friends correctly noted that, from early childhood, he dreamed of being a principal dancer. And it was this dream that he realized through all of us. His love for the stage and his knowledge was what he gave us. He didn't produce ordinary dancers. Take my entire class. I became a principal dancer at the Bolshoi. His graduates have scattered throughout the world, but no matter what troupe they dance in, many of them became principal dancers. Even students that he only taught for a short while, he managed to fill with a huge amount of culture and information; they built up a strong professional base with which any choreographer could easily work.

How did you go from the Tbilisi Choreographic School to Pestov's class in Moscow?
A couple of teachers from the Moscow Ballet Academy saw me and told me that I should go to Moscow.

So you became a Moscow dancer?
Despite the fact that I am really a Moscow dancer, I only had St. Petersburg teachers. In Tbilisi, I was taught by a graduate of the Leningrad Choreographic School. In Moscow, I was taught by Pestov. An interesting biographical detail about Pestov is that he was Alexander Pushkin's first student. Pushkin later became famous as a great Leningrad teacher, who graduated both Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Pestov began to study ballet in Perm during World War II. The entire Leningrad Choreographic School was evacuated there at the time. Lots of children took ballet classes because they got bread cards. [Note: food was limited; ballet dancers were given extra cards for bread.] Pestov mainly studied with former Mariinsky dancer Ekaterina Geidenreich. She enlisted Pushkin, who was still a Kirov dancer, to help with the upper classes. Pushkin taught classical dance to Pestov's class for his final two years at the school. Later on, Pestov came to Leningrad in his spare time and spent hours watching Agrippina Vaganova and Aleksei Pisarev's classes. At the theater, I studied with Marina Semenova, who was Vaganova's student.

When you arrived at school, what was your first impression of Pestov?
What would a child's image of a ballet teacher be? A tall, strong man? We're running through the halls and see a guy in clogs. But even with those platform clogs, he was still shorter than me. As an obedient Georgian boy whose mother believed in giving flowers to teachers, I showed up at school with a huge bouquet of roses. His back was to me. I told him, "Good morning, I am going to be in your class." Instead of looking up at him, I looked down at him. He took the flowers, tossed them aside, as if to say, "Go to class." His class was strict. Everything was your fault—the sun failed to shine, the trolley didn't come... From the first second, because he said that I looked like Malakhov—although we have very little in common—I was immediately labeled as an outsider.

He placed his students into two categories: Either you were lazy or very talented, so everything was easy for you. That meant that you had to work ten times as hard [like Malakhov]. Or, you were a hard worker, like Gennadi Saveliev [an ABT soloist]. The latter were never yelled at. But we got it plenty. He humiliated me so many times and even reduced me to tears! One time I was at the barre, crying. I looked around and the entire class was sobbing out loud.

That was how Pestov heated up the atmosphere. For example, he showed us the proper leg extension, but we weren't able to do it properly, so we cried because we were frustrated. On Saturdays, he'd say, "Saturday is dark work. You'll get plenty of rest tomorrow, so you'll get a double portion of work today...." Or, "Tomorrow is March 8, [International Women's Day]. The entire country will be resting, but it's a woman's holiday. You may come to class if you wish." God help you if you didn't show up. He would repeat, "I don't eat my bread for free and won't let you, either." Then, let's say he threw you out of class. You couldn't leave the school. You couldn't stand there leaning against the wall. At any moment, the door could open and there would have been a scandal. Other teachers simply walked by.

And said, "Poor boy"?
No! They said, "Boy, you're going to be a principal dancer! All those who stood here became stars." The next day Pestov walks into the class and closes the door. That means that you can't come back to class. If he opens the door, you can follow him back into the class. Then, he'd ask you the question, either right away or within the next 45 minutes: "Why are you here?" "I want to study." "We don't study here. We learn." And you're once again standing behind the door. The next day you ask, "May I come and learn?" "We don't learn here, we work." At the end, you just say, "Hello, Peter Antonovich. May I come and study, learn, work, suffer, agonize?" He taught us order.

We always worked in white shoes and white socks. The tiniest hole in your shirt had to be mended. We wore hairnets. It was a nightmare! We even took our last exams in the school with those hairnets. When the exams were over, I shredded the hairnet and cut up the black tights. I never again walked into a rehearsal in black tights as a sign of protest.

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Why did you have to wear black tights?
So that there was order. So that everyone was uniform. So that everyone lifted his leg in arabesque to the same height. Because of my phenomenally high extension, during final exams I was allowed to only lift the leg high three times, to demonstrate my level of flexibility. For the rest of the exam I had to do exactly what everyone else did. This is probably where his methodology lay. But all of our careers have developed because we went through eight years of incredibly strict discipline and stress. We never heard, "Well done."

But why would one treat students so brutally?
I asked him about that years later. "You told me that everything was badly done. You reduced me to tears and made me feel like I was damaged and ugly. Why?" He said, "I couldn't tell you that you were doing things better than everyone else. I had to raise 12 other children to your level." That means that during his classes, the best students suffered the most.

And do you believe that this is the correct teaching method?
Yes. A child cannot be taught with good words to extend his leg higher. In sports, music and ballet, it is necessary to physically guide the student. Otherwise, how can you get the muscle to tighten, if it isn't tightening? Pestov got results with horrible exercises. Sometimes we did the same movement for three hours straight. The worst-case scenario was when he came into the class and told the pianist, "Thank you, you are free," and we were on his count. "One...." Two could have been 20 minutes later. Your leg already begins shaking from strain. God forbid that someone lowers his leg—everything would start from scratch. And later, all the other students will beat up the culprit—because of you, everybody suffered. It sounds cruel, but there is no other way to train the muscles. We danced in school concerts and you didn't set foot onstage until Pestov had reduced you to tears. When I came into the theater, I rose up the ranks quickly and with the speed of light everybody began to do whatever they could to stab me in the back. But because I had already danced through hysterics, I couldn't care less. If the stage collapsed and the lights were turned off and then on again a minute later, all of the other dancers would be dead, but I'd still be dancing in the ruins. I have a program, and I'll go onto the stage with it and do everything. He gave us our core. That was when I called him and said, "Thank you for forming my character."

But even with that, I still find his level of cruelty extreme.
But he also cared about us. For example, when I came to the school, Pestov told my mother, "Tell your son to hold onto the handrail when he walks up the stairs." The children tried to hit your legs. Many times I was pushed from behind. If you're praised, if you're the best, children always try to bring you down in some way. Pestov's positive treatment of me began with an incident. He used to take us to museums and told us about books. He taught us Greek mythology. I later understood how important this was: Many ballets have Greek mythological heroes. When video cassettes appeared, he showed us the first recordings of Baryshnikov. We watched them at his house where he had invited us and our parents. He fed us. At the end, he would show some action movie so that we would not be bored. He made us listen to operas and told us about arias that we had heard. It was during one of those get-togethers that he said, "I'll put on an aria. Maybe you'll be able to tell me the composer or even the country, whether it's an Italian opera or a French one." And he put on an aria from Don Carlos. When I was in Tbilisi, I participated in one of the group scenes for the opera and listened to this aria. Pestov said, "Well, who'll tell me where this is from?" I raised my hand. He said "Well, Tsitsidriza what can you tell me?" I said "It's Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlos, Act IV, Eboli's aria." He froze in amazement. He had no idea that I had been going to the conservatory to listen to music concerts since I was three. After that incident, he started taking me more seriously. He moved me from the side barre to the center barre. He still cursed me out like before, but his tone changed. He said, "You're doing it badly for now, but that will change if you try harder." Then, when I became an adult, he practically pushed me into studying at the Moscow Choreographic Institute.

How did his class differ from other teachers' classes, from a professional standpoint?
Others taught you how to jump, but Pestov taught us how to land softly after the jump. We learned the soft landing at the barre. He taught us not to release the muscles until the moment that we landed. He taught us to pay attention to cats and how they jump and he didn't allow us to do "tricks." He protected us from the harmful, for our age, strain on our still-immature ligaments. He saved us from overextending our young tendons. This was why, with the extremely heavy workload at the theater, I managed to dance 12 years without an injury. By the way, Yuri Grigorovich invited Pestov to give classes at the Bolshoi, but he declined. He said, "I teach at a school. The class will have Vasiliev and Lavrovsky. What right do I have to teach them?" On the day after the last exam, he greeted us with, "Hello colleagues!" Grigorovich loved Pestov's students, because he knew: If Pestov's student needed to dance a new role unexpectedly, he could learn it.

Based on your stories, Pestov is a very strange man.
Yes, he is very strange. After I graduated, he tried to get into arguments with me like he did with the other students. I think this was because he thought that we didn't pay him enough attention. But I visited him regularly and gave him tickets to my performances. He'd say, "I won't come," and I'd say, "Okay, then give the ticket away." He came on the 105th time. When I danced the main role in [Lavrovsky's] Paganini, he was in the front row and I saw that he was crying. I called him and he said, "Child, if you can do so many movements, so many musical phrases, then my life wasn't in vain. I began to cry, because I saw how musically you danced." For him musicality was the highest criteria by which a dancer was to be evaluated. He was very lonely. His wife died. No one said anything positive about him until recently. In 1999 I walked into Ballet magazine and told them, "Pestov will be 70 this year. Please award him your Soul of Dance prize." They told me, "We can't, because all of the prize recipients have already been determined." Then I told them, "Why don't you create a new nomination? Category: Teacher." This was what they did. Pestov received the title Best Teacher. At that time, his book Forty Lessons had come out. Unfortunately, we only began to value his teachings when we became adults. I love him. Pestov laid the foundation for my entire artistic life onstage.

Nina Alovert is a Russian-American ballet critic and photographer. Her books include Baryshnikov in Russia and Vladimir Malakhov.

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