Mikhail Messerer on the Mikhailovsky Ballet

The Mikhailovsky Ballet makes its New York debut
Photograph: Courtesy of the Mikhailovsky Ballet Mikhailovsky Ballet
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From Nov 11–23, the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) offers New Yorkers a rare treat: a season of Russia's Mikhailovsky Ballet. The company's intimate size and feel—in comparison to the country's better-known troupes the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky—has attracted some of ballet's biggest stars, including Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, Leonid Sarafanov and Victor Lebedev. Before the performances, Mikhailovsky ballet master-in-chief Mikhail Messerer walked us through the programs and shed light on the company's inner workings.

The Mikhailovsky Ballet is a dance-world mystery. But this third company of Russia, revitalized in 2007 when Vladimir Kekhman took over as general director—he is otherwise known as the “Banana King” for introducing the fruit to the country—is no joke. Its impressive roster of dancers includes some of the brightest names in ballet, including Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, Leonid Sarafanov and Victor Lebedev; its ballet master-in-chief is Mikhail Messerer, a respected teacher and former Bolshoi member who was born into a dancing family (including his uncle, the Bolshoi dancer and choreographer Asaf Messerer). The Mikhailovsky makes its New York debut with four programs: Giselle, The Flames of Paris, Don Quixote and a triple bill, “Three Centuries of Russian Ballet.” Messerer, who has been in charge since 2009, opens up about his vision.

What do you want to show New York about your company?
[Laughs] We would like to make people aware that in Russia we have three companies of the imperial standard. We are smaller than the Bolshoi and Mariinsky, but I believe our niche is three-prong: We have classics of the 19th century, we have the Soviet pieces, which nobody else performs, and we have the contemporary work.

One of the Soviet works you’re presenting is The Flames of Paris. Did you reimagine it?
I remade it. As a child, I heard so much about this ballet because both my mother and my uncle were leads in the original in 1933 when it was transferred from St. Petersburg to the Bolshoi in Moscow, and eventually when I went to the ballet school as a young boy, I danced in it—a child’s part. Later as a senior student in the school, I saw it a number of times, and I always understood that it was one of the good productions created in the 20th century in Russia. There are not many ballets of such quality from that period, and Vasily Vainonen, the original choreographer, was extremely talented. Also in pondering the art of ballet, I believe that it is very important not to lose one’s roots. You have to remember. It is impossible to move forward without knowing one’s history. I re-created Class Concert for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2007—that’s ’60s choreography—and Laurencia by Vakhtang Chabukiani in 2010. And now Flames of Paris. It’s also important that we have a large company of 140 dancers, and as an artistic leader I have to think of my dancers—that they will have enough work. In Flames of Paris, there are more than 100 dancers onstage. Everybody gets work. There is character dancing, which would be a pity to lose completely but has been neglected nowadays. Mime is also an important part of acting. Our dancers learn how to live a full-blooded life onstage and also there’s so much dancing.

Why were you drawn to Flames of Paris?
It is well made, well composed both from a drama standpoint and from the choreography. The choreography is important in that ballet. Vainonen plays with music; he uses music in a very unusual way. He uses syncopation. There are brilliant elements in that ballet. Perhaps if I didn’t restore it, it would have been lost completely.

Have you seen Alexei Ratmansky’s acclaimed updated version?
Yes, and that’s a brilliant work. But it’s his ballet. It’s not so much a revolutionary ballet, which Vainonen’s was. I tried to preserve the spirit as much as possible.

How has character dancing been neglected?
Dancers are very adept at dancing classical and modern, but character has not been taught in schools as much as it was in the old days and choreographers are not choreographing new ballets using character dance, which is important. So it is not in fashion and therefore it’s being neglected by choreographers and by directors and by the dancers.

Even at the big Russian companies?
[Sighs] Well, at least in Russia it is the case.

And you mentioned that there weren’t a lot of great ballets made at that time. In your opinion, why?
There were great ballets by Balanchine, but not in Russia. Very few. It was under communism, so people created works against the system—not only in ballet, but in the other arts as well. It was very difficult to work if you didn’t know what was going on around the world. Those choreographers had a difficult time. Vainonen had never been out of the country, but he had to choreograph a Basque dance. He just invented it. Also, the other reason I brought back Flames of Paris is that any director of any company has this question in front of him sooner or later: What to put on the stage next? I also have this question and as I said, I needed to give work to my dancers, something interesting to perform, and they loved it.

What about Class Concert?
Class Concert is the same thing. I danced in it at the Bolshoi, and we took it on many tours. I also watched it many times waiting for my entrance that I memorized the steps for everybody. When I defected from Russia in 1980, I was asked by the Royal Ballet in London if I remembered that ballet that they saw years before. I set it at the annual performance of the Royal Ballet School in the early ’80s, and I videotaped the performance. Eventually, I set it for the La Scala Ballet School along with company dancers and for the Royal Swedish Ballet as well. So I had those videos. Some years on, Alexei Ratmansky who was directing the Bolshoi had heard that I had staged it in the West; he asked me if I would do it for the Bolshoi, and I agreed. We did it in 2007. It was a good success and for this American tour, we needed something for the 20th century. This is the only ballet I can think of where in some 35 minutes you can show all of the company’s stars—everybody. That’s a good thing about that ballet. It shows class onstage as it really is in a real class. Maybe it’s a little more romanticized and theatrical, but it is the real sequence of the steps as you do it in daily class. Every step you do go through in a ballet class is in Class Concert.

So it’s like Harald Lander’s Études?
Oh yes. There are a number of ballets based on ballet class. But the difference is the school is involved, the children. Simple steps are performed by schoolchildren. And Études is a genius piece, but it doesn’t have the sequence of steps—they start with plié, for example, but then they jump to grand battement right away or something, whereas in Class Concert it starts with an actual plié and an actual tendu and an actual dégagé and an actual rond de jambe à terre and so on building up to the difficult jumps and pointework.

Are you bringing children?
We will use Americans, and we will bring four male students from the Vaganova school. As for the rest—we have several schools lined up for the other performers.

You are also presenting Nacho Duato’s Prelude. How involved is he with the company?
He just started his work in Berlin [as the artistic director of Staatsballett Berlin], and he is very busy, but we hope that he might stage a ballet for us next autumn. That will depend on his schedule in Berlin.

So you are in charge of the company, correct?

I have been in charge since 2009 when I was appointed ballet master-in-chief. For two seasons when Nacho Duato was with us, we sort of shared responsibilities.

How much contact or decision making do you share with Vladimir Kekhman?
He is not involved in artistic decisions. For our opera company, we have a musical director, Mikhail Tatarnikov, and for the ballet company, myself. But of course, we have to do everything in conjunction with Mr. Kekhman, and he must control the expenditures. I’m very happy to do it in conjunction with him. He is brilliant at finding sponsors, for one. We are run by the St. Petersburg city government, whereas the Bolshoi and Mariinsky are run by the federal government and for us, it’s important to have proper funding.

Even though he has gone bankrupt? 
Well, his personal business doesn’t have much to do with his executive role in running our theater. He’s an appointed chief executive, if you wish, of our theater. So although he’s a businessman, his business affairs never had much to do with our theater. We do not feel any change in our financial circumstances really. As I said, he finds sponsors and those sponsors are as good as they used to be. He’s good at finding sponsors so we have no financial need.

Does the theater have a school?
We don’t have a school unfortunately. We use students from the schools around Russia. The Vaganova school, Moscow’s academy, schools in Perm and so on. And many from abroad. Dancers from Ukraine, many dancers from other ex-republics. And we have two Americans.

If you did have a school, what would your focus be? Are you more inclined to align yourself with Moscow or St. Petersburg training?
Well, I am a teacher first of all. [Laughs] I do have a method, which I think is the correct method. I follow my teachers, because you cannot start teaching out of nowhere and of course I teach what I have been taught myself, and I’m sure my teachers taught me what they had been taught. I like this method, which I teach, whether it is Moscow or Petersburg; I think it’s Russian. But I spent 35 years in the West, working and teaching, and I think I did take in the best or good qualities that I found in other teachers, such as Ninette de Valois [founder of the Royal Ballet], whose rehearsals I watched very attentively and whose method reminded me of my old teachers in Russia. There wasn’t much of a difference. That is just one example. I had some great teachers in New York and in Paris. I studied with Vladimir Dokoudovsky in New York, for example. I was already teaching, but I kept taking classes. He was a principal dancer from Ballets Russes companies; he had a school, the New York Conservatory of Dance, and he was a great teacher. If I had a school, I know how I would teach, yes. [Laughs] We have to preserve the academic traditions of classical ballet and try to make sure that classical ballet does not disappear. You have to believe in classical ballet otherwise your disbelief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And classical ballet is easy to destroy. So it is important. That’s what I try to impose on our dancers when we dance Swan Lake and Giselle. They need purity and exactness of positions and épaulement and proper placement of feet, arms and expressiveness.

What is the climate like in Russia for ballet right now for you as an artistic director?
The Russian public loves ballet. You can compare it to British football—people in England are crazy about football and they know every footballer by name. I couldn’t care less. [Laughs] In Russia, ballet is very popular. So anything new is eagerly awaited by the Russian public, and we at the Mikhailovsky sell out because there’s a demand. No matter what we perform, as long as it’s the Mikhailovsky Ballet it is very difficult to get tickets.

Is it good in a way to be out of the spotlight?
It is a good thing in that (a) we don’t have petitions by the dancers and the federal government and (b) we don’t have acid attacks on our artistic directors. In that way, it is better.

Have you been afraid for yourself? 
I really live in the house. I have an apartment inside the theater. After what happened to Sergei Filin [Ed note: the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, who was the victim of an acid attack in 2013 and is still recovering], of course, I was very careful, and I would think twice before going into the street in the evening. I prefer not to go on my own if I have to go. But I don’t go out much. My secretary buys me groceries, and I don’t need much. [Laughs] A company car takes me to and from the airport. [Sighs] It is very sad what has happened.

It is so sad, and it must be such a strange experience for you—you lived in London for many years.
Yes. It is difficult. It’s crazy to think of what happened to a person like that for the artistic work he was doing.

Do you choreograph?
I don’t really—I don’t have an inclination, but when I re-create a ballet, such as Flames of Paris, sometimes I  have to create little dancing sequences to fill in the holes. For me, it’s important that nobody realizes where that is. I try to stylize it. But I wouldn’t call it choreography. I don’t invent new ballets.

Who would you want to choreograph for the company other than Nacho Duato?
We only had one [contemporary] ballet when I came in 2009 by José Limón: The Moor’s Pavane. That was not enough in my view; the previous director had been a choreographer and his ballets were not preserved in the repertoire. I am in talks right now with other Western choreographers to create ballets for us, and we also have a Russian choreographer who made a ballet for us, which we took to London subsequently: Slava Samodurov, who is now the director of a company in the Ural Mountains [Ekaterinburg Ballet]. A very talented person. He was a dancer of the Royal Ballet and before that he was in the States. That was one of the first things I did; I brought him to choreograph a ballet for us. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t many Russian choreographers in existence. It needs to be changed.

Do you have choreographic workshops for your dancers?
I would love to do that. We have constraints. We don’t have many ballet studios in our house. In September, we opened yet another studio, which will be a great help, and I intend to arrange a workshop for our dancers and with people from outside perhaps to use our dancers to choreograph something. It’s very important. 

Do you think about having to compete with the major companies of Russia?
I don’t think we should speak of competition, because the two companies are federal-government–run. They have possibilities, where we are much smaller. But being smaller we take care of every dancer. I know every dancer’s birthday; I know every dancer, of course, by name; and I know their children’s names. We have one half, if not fewer, the number of dancers at the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi. The Mariinsky has between 300 and 400 dancers—they don’t know how many themselves, which is why I’m not sure. [Laughs] I know exactly how many dancers I have: 140. And I work with every dancer, and we make the best use of each. Dancers like to be in our company because they know everything they do can be developed and nobody will be left behind.

What did you take away from your many years as a teacher at the Royal Ballet?
I observed rehearsals by Ninette de Valois and by [Frederick] Ashton and by [Kenneth] MacMillan and other choreographers and teachers there, during that period—this was back in the early 1980s—the style was very close to what my old teachers taught me. I would say that pre-Vaganova style from Russia has been preserved in England, and that opened my eyes that this was something I should not forget. I knew that I shouldn’t forget that, and that I should look to develop my pedagogical style in that direction.

Do you think the ballet world is so different anymore? The way dancers move from company to company and the rep is kind of similar…
Absolutely, and it is unfortunate on one hand, but on the other hand you can’t do anything about it. National schools almost don’t exist anymore. You used to be able to tell exactly what was Danish or British or American or Russian. Nowadays all dancers watch YouTube—they are taught by YouTube more than they are taught by their teachers and they pick up good things and, unfortunately, bad things too. But technique has improved tremendously as a result; you can watch yourself. My dancers record their solos on the telephone and immediately watch and correct themselves, or I correct them saying, “Look at what you do here—you shouldn’t be doing that.” We couldn’t even have dreamed of that. So people have never danced that well from a technical point of view, but from a dramatic point of view, expression is not always as it should be.

Do you have opinions about the New York companies?
New York City Ballet I don’t know much anymore; when Balanchine was still alive I used to go every night. I used to watch rehearsals and his performances. I am more familiar with ABT. Since I took over the Mikhailovsky six years ago, I haven’t have the chance to guest teach as much as I used to, but I still manage to go to a few places, including ABT in the last couple of years. I saw Osipova and Vasiliev performing with them and Polina Semionova and so on. I believe they keep very high standards. The dancers in class are a great pleasure to work with. And the way they work—the soloists and the principals stay in class until the very, very end, which Russians don’t always do. Americans stay until the end, until they applaud to the pianist and do a class full-out no matter how many shows they have that week or no matter how famous the star is. That’s tremendous, and you see the results onstage.

Why did you take the job in the first place?
[Laughs] Because I’m crazy! Well, it happened gradually. I wasn’t working with the company, but Mr. Kerkhan had asked me to stage Swan Lake, an old Bolshoi Ballet production, which had been done by Alexander Gorsky—acts one, two and three. Act four had been done by my uncle, Asaf Messerer. That’s the production that the Bolshoi brought to the West; Mr. Kerkhan liked it, and I said, “Yes I can do that.” So I staged it and while working with the company, I became friends with Mr. Kerkhan and with the management. They asked me to stay on, and I did.
The Mikhailovsky Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Nov 11–23.
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