January 2, 2022 marks the 95th anniversary of the great Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich. It’s increasingly difficult to come up with questions that he hasn’t yet answered in his unrealistically long and incredible career spanning seven decades. In honor of the Master, a festival is being held at the Bolshoi: his ballets are still in the repertoire of theaters, he is invisibly with us, although he has retired.
“None of my beloved loved ones remained”
– Yuri Nikolaevich, now is such a difficult time associated with the pandemic, people in old age are forced to be isolated, to limit their communication. How do you get through this time, are you not lonely without a theater?
– Yes, this is a common test – something completely new in our life, our way of life and way of life. At first, of course, there was a shock – how the artists who come to the theater every day for a lesson to keep in shape will be left without a class, teacher, performance, finally. It seemed like the end of the profession.
But inside all the time there was a thought – ours will endure this too. People of duty and discipline, moreover, internal, they do not need to be urged on. This is their life’s work.
And I was so happy when, after the first restrictions were lifted, the performances went on and the artists returned to the stage. And, as it were, they closed the gap, the fatal break in their repertoire. All kept at a high level. It fills me with hope for the light at the end of the tunnel. In any case, ballet has confirmed its historically famous ability to preserve art through the preservation of form and the School. Bravo – to all of them and their teachers!
– You probably mean the post-revolutionary period, when the two main troupes, academic troupes, were on the verge of collapse, and then the war years, when the Leningrad Kirov Theater and your Vaganov school were evacuated?
– Yes it is. I remember this time as a teenager. Part of the way to Perm ran along the Belaya River, through Ufa – everything is mysterious and romantic. And we with a group of guys decided to raft on a raft – to the front, were immediately caught by a patrol and, having received a slap on the head, returned to the place of our stay.
Decades later, Ufa has become a desirable place for me – I have staged many performances there, we are friends with them, we ring around on the phone. The evacuated Leningrad children lived in the large hall of the Molotov police club, and the Kirovsky artists – in the seven-story hotel “Central”. They worked with us in such a way that we felt like real artists.
We took part in the world premiere of the ballet “Gayane” by Aram Khachaturian. There I saw him for the first time. That is, life went on in spite of everything – hunger, ration cards, heavy losses at the front. A passionate desire to work, not to leave ballet owned everyone. The news about Leningrad was shared – that with the city, with the theater, with those who remained when we return …
– You are a native of Leningrad, like Galina Sergeevna Ulanova, who has longed for St. Petersburg in recent years. Do you have nostalgia for the Leningrad past?
– I understand very well what it was about – what Galina Sergeevna was longing for. Longing for a place is associated with the years of youth and with her experiences. But to return to the city where everything has changed and to think that he has turned back life itself is very naive. I try not to think about these topics. Although there are moments of shrillness.
Several years ago I came to the Mariinsky Theater to stage The Stone Flower and I was accommodated in a theater house next to the theater. I go to the entrance, open the door, go up to the apartment – oh, God! – Yes, this is the first residence of Simon Virsaladze. Here he lived, and we got together, discussed sketches for our first ballet.
Half a century later, I walk the same steps as if I were to study The Stone Flower in order to pass it on to a new generation of Mariinsky artists. How not to worry!
– Now, looking back from the height of what you have lived, and assessing the past, have there been many situations in your life, or fundamental decisions that you regret, would you like to change? Would you make a completely different decision now?
– Of course, I would accept others, but some would remain unchanged. Our actions are very specific – as the only correct stage decisions. They are associated with time, with a situation. You cannot jump out of the “proposed circumstance”. You can try to change them, I did this often, at least I tried to turn them to the benefit of the cause, the troupe, the theater. And today, the rules are different, the context is different, I probably would have acted differently. But it is important that our actions would not be impermissible compromise. That’s why they act, through them we reveal our beliefs.
– And if we talk about people – are there those you met with whom you would never want to get involved?
– It’s just simple – I don’t want to and I don’t get involved. The problem with relationships for me is not not dating someone. And the fact that I have no one to meet with – there is no one left of my beloved loved ones, interlocutors, whom I could call and was sure that they would listen to me and understand me. Just sit at a conversation, understandable only to us, argue, finish the interrupted. I loved that. True, it rarely succeeded. There was no time for anything other than the theater, it absorbed completely.
It seems that he entered it as a child in the 1940s and emerged as a gray-haired old man in the next century. It is right to speak of the luxury of human communication. This kind of luxury is, unfortunately, being lost.
“I don’t like to be a soothsayer and predict the future”
– About losses. A period called the “Golden Age of the Bolshoi Theater” is associated with you. Do you think it’s already over? Do your assessments of the state of the Russian ballet make it possible to speak confidently about its future?
– Oh, how I do not like to be a soothsayer and predict the future. I have always lived in the present, although the past was actively present in it. The culture of the past, especially the ballet culture, has always been the most important component for me, I correlated the norms of profession and beauty with it. But I did not know how and did not want to guess what would happen tomorrow. It was easier for me to organize tomorrow, the next month, year, season.
I staged in Sofia in those years when Wang was in great fashion. There was a pilgrimage to her. As a sign of special respect, I was offered to arrange a meeting with her. And I declined with gratitude. Quite deliberately. I myself wanted to do and did my future. I already knew that it was wonderful – I work in my profession, I manage the first theater in the world, I meet with an amazing troupe every day, world success, respect … Support all this – this is the future. And if she said that Natasha (Natalia Igorevna Bessmertnova (1941-2008), Russian ballerina and spouse. – P.Ya.) would leave before me, how would I live with it?
Today I can confidently speak about the Bolshoi Theater troupe – they are all wonderful! Preparation, school, the desire to take place – everything is with them. I know they work a lot, don’t wait for roles, take care of their repertoire themselves, are less attached to the theater, more choice of opportunities (adjusted for the pandemic). With an active pursuit of diversity, they understand their mission as classical dancers. God grant that everything will work out for everyone. Then the future of ballet as a whole will be assured.
– Many of the dancers on whom you have staged your ballets do not match the standards of today’s dancers performing your choreography, which probably affects the quality of the dance. And you are the creator of a special heroic style in Soviet ballet, when courageous dancers took the stage and did technically unimaginable things. Today, how do you feel about change is different?
– Stop. The creators of a special heroic style in Soviet ballet were not choreographers, but artists of the pre-war and military generation: Konstantin Sergeev, Boris Bregvadze, Alexey Ermolaev, Vakhtang Chabukiani, especially the latter two. Their splendor now has nothing or anyone to compare.
But for my ballets, their concept of “heroic” was no longer suitable. Starting from the 60s, my heroes fought not only on the barricades, their front expanded – they fought, at times, with a lack of understanding of their inner circle, with their fears, doubts, phobias, they fell into a crisis of disbelief, passionately in love, they refused love; they finally confronted a third impersonal force – a metaphysical evil that cannot be struck with weapons.
It is important for me today that the performers of my ballets, who have other physical capabilities, understand these distant goals, so that they are guided by more than one technical problem, so that they develop themselves as widely as possible – along the line of great meaning and image. And then everything will be all right.
And changes in choreography, of course, are unacceptable, any choreographer will tell you that. Or they should be done by the author himself, or at least by his assistants. I have edited my ballets more than once in the direction of compression of meaning, greater laconicism and seeing new artists in front of me. I must say, there was no case when they did not understand me or did not perceive my choreographic text, changed or distorted semantic tasks. Quite the opposite, they were very receptive – not copying their predecessors, sometimes not seeing them. This is the School, the common language we speak.
– Even 10-15 years ago, mega-stars were of general interest in the world of ballet. Today, there are no big names among performers, despite the presence of excellent ballerinas and dancers in troupes of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theaters, the Paris Opera, and the Royal English Ballet. But the new performers do not make an international career and are little known in the world.
– The movement of artists has become the norm, they appear in public more often than they can show something new. The notion of the uniqueness of the ballet repertoire is disappearing – their repertoire is standardized. Previously, certain choreographic compositions could only be shown in specific troupes and were theirs, and only their conquest and peculiarity. Today everyone shows stylistically about the same thing. Even if it is supplied by different authors.
The monotony of a seemingly active author’s search arises. Yes, there are radical choreographers, they are visible, but they cause short-term interest. Because not everyone is able to consolidate and develop their own findings in the long term, for this you need to create your own theater. And this is not given to everyone.
This is the background against which someone’s international career is developing or not. It is clear that it can only develop under the conditions of a stationary academic troupe – with an extensive repertoire, with the gradual development of an artist, with daily pedagogical supervision, with international exchange, etc.
On the other hand, there is no need to lament so much about the lack of international recognition – ours are still the best. Moreover, today there is so much nonsense coming at us from the USA and Europe regarding ballet standards and new criteria of beauty and meaning. And should we fit into their order, seeks to earn the so-called “international recognition”? Remember, in “The Master and Margarita” – “this armored room was given to them …”. Such an international career has been given to you.
– Among the choreographers – all significant names are people over the age of 60, at least, what is this connected with? Which contemporary choreographer can you distinguish?
– Really over 60? How quickly time flies … I had and still have two favorites – John and Irzhik (John Neumeier and Jiri Kilian – P.Ya. ). Although for thirty years now, thanks to the Benois de la Danse program, we see new choreographers every year. The picture is motley.
“In” The Master and Margarita “I was inspired by Bulgakov’s mystery of the imagination”
– They say that the prime minister of the Soviet government, Alexei Kosygin, loved your “Angara”, and he could often be seen in the Stalinist box. Why is this performance, which was sensational in its time, for which you and the artists received the USSR State Prize, is not even performed in your Krasnodar troupe?
– Each ballet has a history, and Angara also. We worked with enthusiasm, but not without internal difficulties. The play “Irkutsk Story” by Alexei Arbuzov became a ballet, and this meant, first of all, a generalization of its realities. Valentina’s first paycheck, a walking excavator, the birth of a child should have been transformed into a poetic series. This is how the images of ballet were born: the acquisition of love, the loss of a loved one, a large river, on the banks of which people came, wishing to conquer it. And she obeys them – but in return takes one of them with her forever. And the woman on the shore looks at the running waters that carry away her beloved …
This is what we were up to with the composer Andrei Eshpai, the artist Simon Virsaladze and our artists. The life basis of the play must correlate with its existential plan – otherwise it is not a ballet. It turned out that it is not so easy to move from the youth dance floor, the life of the builders, from the realism of drama to the abstract categories of eternity.
We had four ballerinas: Natalia Bessmertnova, Lyudmila Semenyaka, Alla Mikhalchenko and Nadezhda Pavlova. Everyone did great roles. And Lyuda Semenyaka still considers Valentina one of her main, favorite roles.
Were in that ballet, as I now see, genuine intonation, a certain emotional mood that came from the person, his simple, and at the same time complex emotional experiences. We loved Angara, and we did not find anything vulgar Soviet, of which I was later accused. And it turned out to be difficult to restore it – the costumes and decorations were lost, several generations of artists changed, new ones would have to learn everything from scratch. In general, it is problematic even for the Bolshoi troupe.
And you can put the score itself. We once said that the Krasnoyarsk ballet troupe could take a closer look at their native plot and music – and our modern ballet would come out.
I don’t remember anything about Kosygin, maybe he came, well done, you are welcome.
– Yuri Nikolaevich, now there is a sharp surge of interest in the novel “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. There was a premiere at the Bolshoi Theater, followed by a staging by Canadian Robert Lepage at the Theater of Nations. In Bulgaria, the novel was staged by the Russian choreographer Vasily Medvedev. But back in the 70s, you were the first, together with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, to turn to The Master and Margarita. Why didn’t the premiere take place, and how did you see this novel on the ballet stage?
– There is little I can say here – yes, right after the first magazine publication I wanted to stage it, I caught fire, they began to compose a script with Alexander Demidov. They brought him to an application to the Ministry of Culture, where in words everyone was “for”, but in the end they lost the application.
Later there was a meeting with Krzysztof Penderecki, who, it turned out, knew the novel in translation and was also in love with it, and this brought us even closer. And we started rethinking it. An official contract with him was signed in the fall of 1985.
The troupe and I continued to travel a lot around the world – for six months. The work went on in fits and starts, and was postponed until a new life began in our theater too, and soon a new life began in the country. In general, it did not happen. But this did not divorce us from the composer. We maintained good relations and saw each other for the last time in 2008 at the Bolshoi Theater at a concert of the symphony orchestra under his direction and after the concert met at a reception at the Polish embassy.
I understood The Master and Margarita both then and now as a Russian novel in the first place, despite the presence of eternal, timeless themes and legendary events in it. At the same time, it was clear that different plans must be kept in the stage narration, they cannot be separated without loss, something should be considered the main thing, the rest is secondary. In general, at work, we all experienced minutes of enjoying the text and our own plans – this is all that was given to us that time.
– Are there any regrets left?
– At first they were. Today you look at it from the height of the past years. I am glad that the novel itself is gaining over the years, growing in the minds of people. We started when not everyone in the country read it, and we worked with pure, idealistic enthusiasm. Bulgakov’s mystery of the imagination literally inspired us, these flights over the sad land, the combination of genre specifics, all kinds of primus – and eternity, humor – with lyricism. I wanted to transfer his magic to the stage – why does it exist. And nothing seemed to stop us.
If you want, there was a holy belief that the text would give in and play on the ballet stage. Yes, it happens that you are deceived by your own dreams. Not everything can be accomplished, no matter how long you live. There is something outside of us and does not let us go beyond the line.
I have seen such cases even among great composers. With Shostakovich, we talked about the limits of what is permissible – after all, he refused the ballet Don Giovanni, he saw in the final scene with the revived statue of the Commander looking beyond a certain edge.
– You are talking about the limit of the dancer’s possibilities in ballet, while the possibilities of the body and plastic are constantly expanding. Today’s artists do things that were previously unimaginable and, it seems, have reached some kind of peak, and further discoveries in this sense are impossible.
– Yes, there is such a feeling. Before my eyes, the youth and formation of our prime ministers passed – Vasiliev, Lavrovsky, Vladimirov. In relation to their teachers Ermolaev, Messerer, Chabukiani, they also added a strong technical component of the dance – all these jumps in Spartak, double pistols in Angara, spins and cheats in Don Quixote, and so on. Fortunately, they added not only technique, they formed, in fact, a new collective type of premiere, through them the evolution of the male heroic role in the Russian ballet of the twentieth century proceeded.
The limits of body physics, of course, are. And there is no need to artificially load it, just to show off an extra round. There are no limits to creative imagination. And there is no need to artificially restrain him.
– Yuri Nikolaevich, it is known that Ulanova did special gymnastics even in old age. Do you have any secrets that you could share, knowing, like no one, the capabilities of the dancer’s body?
– Yes, Galina Sergeevna studied according to an individual method. But, you see, preservation of form is, nevertheless, preservation of interest in life and profession. This is a feasible opportunity for participation in the surrounding world. This would be to keep us all and my dear colleagues in the shop for a longer time. Hello everyone and success! I hug and follow everyone on TV …