DANCE / A Good Move: After Nureyev there came Irek Mukhamedov. In an exclusive interview, the world's leading male dancer talks candidly about his defection, life with the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet, and big legs that refuse to do little steps

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THE FIRST word that Irek Mukhamedov learnt when he joined the Royal Ballet was 'job'. The second was 'Gucci'. Since he moved to London in 1990, the Bolshoi star has delighted audiences and critics with his virtuoso style, and assumed a way of life unimaginable in the insecurity and turmoil of Moscow. Tickets for his performances sell fast, and fans wait for him at the stage door, hoping for an autograph, or just a closer glimpse. If this sounds like a standard response to a ballet dancer, it isn't. Not since Rudolf Nureyev's heyday have fans mobbed a dancer outside the Royal Opera House. Mukhamedov is always happy to sign programmes, sending matrons from the Home Counties and young women in Doc Martens into the night with a spring in their step. 'Irek is aware that he's a heart- throb, but he's unaffected by it,' says a friend.

Mukhamedov is more than that: he is an exceptionally gifted and truthful dancer, who commands the stage and surges through the air, but also an acute and imaginative actor. With the death of Nureyev, the mantle of the world's greatest male dancer has fallen on his shoulders. Nureyev revolutionised dancing with his physical prowess, but Mukhamedov goes further: he brings humanity to the tricks.

Mukhamedov won international fame in the Eighties for heroic roles in the Bolshoi, but since joining the Royal Ballet he has expanded his repertory and proved his versatility in great classical ballets, including Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet may be in the financial doldrums, but it has found a man to uphold its prestige. Sensitive and flexible, Mukhamedov has made Covent Garden his home by curbing his grand Bolshoi style to fit the Royal Ballet's lyricism. 'He seems to know what is required in a variety of roles to be believable,' says Lesley Collier, a Royal Ballet principal. 'He adds weight to the company.'

Although he has yet to find a partner within the Royal Ballet to reproduce the magic of Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, he has forged exciting partnerships with Collier and the feline Viviana Durante. And in Kenneth MacMillan, he discovered a choreographer who satisfied his appetite for challenging new roles as well as giving him the freedom to express himself as a dancer and an actor. This chemistry led to Winter Dreams, based on Chekhov's Three Sisters, and the acclaimed Judas Tree. Then, tragedy. MacMillan had promised to revive Mayerling because he believed Mukhamedov would discover new depths in the role of the drug-addicted heir to the Austrian throne. Mukhamedov waited two years for Mayerling. But on the first night, 26 October 1992, as Mukhamedov was dancing, MacMillan lay dying backstage of a heart attack. Mukhamedov is still grieving.

Within the company, Mukhamedov has been awarded the unusual right to choose his roles as well as his partners. Although he is liked by colleagues, he has inadvertently divided the company - between those who respect his sober commitment to his discipline and those who regard dancing as just a job. 'Irek likes things to go smoothly, but when they don't he turns on the temperament,' says a company dancer. Unlike Sylvie Guillem, the company's French superstar, he is one of the gang. But as the unrivalled male star, he has been known to pull rank. 'We think Irek would sometimes like to pin his payslip to the noticeboard,' says a colleague.

To dancers who share his passion, he offers a place in Irek Mukhamedov and Company, a small troupe he formed two years ago to tour during the Royal Ballet's quiet periods. Launched in Northampton in 1992, the group was hailed as a remarkable example of how dancing and choreography of top quality can be taken out of the opera house. The company makes its London debut next month, in a divertissement programme and a sizzling new Othello, commissioned from the Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Mukhamedov will dance with Arc, Brandstrup's contemporary-dance company, crashing the barrier between classical and contemporary dance. Although Mikhail Baryshnikov is now a contemporary dancer, no other dancer since Nureyev has danced with a contemporary company and then returned to ballet.

Arc dancers were apprehensive about working with such a big name. They expected him to be difficult, but, on the contrary, found him unstarry. He comes across as natural and friendly, and seems without vanity or defences. I met him at the house he shares in south-west London with his wife, Maria Zubkova, a former Bolshoi soloist, and Sasha, their three-year-old daughter. For one who dominates the stage, Mukhamedov is slight. Equally surprising in one so serious about his work is his self-deprecating humour. Now fluent in English, he is amusing about his 'big legs that don't do little steps' and his fear of being 'hopeless' in new roles. Masha, as his wife is called, comes in to say hello, smoking a long, thin cigarette. 'He's so Russian in spirit that when he comes to Masha he really comes home,' says Deborah Bull, a Royal Ballet principal. Masha could have become a leading Bolshoi dancer, but she has not danced since leaving Moscow. She says she does not miss the daily rigours of training, although she is preparing a return to the stage to partner her husband next month in a divertissement after the 50-minute Othello. It will be the first time that the couple have danced together. Besides coaching the women in Muk hamedov's company, she likes driving around London with him in their Honda Civic, shopping together for food in Putney or for clothes in Knightsbridge, and videoing Sasha's nursery-school concerts. They seem unburdened by their public status.

MUKHAMEDOV was born in 1960 in Kazan, Tatarstan, in the southern Soviet Union - a Tatar, like Nureyev - the younger of two boys. When he was three, his mother came to collect him from a hospital where he was recovering from serious flu. 'Do you hear that banging upstairs?' the nurses asked her. 'That's your son.' The boy was entertaining the ward with a dance. His mother enrolled him with a local folk-dancing group, where his first teacher recognised the boy's talent. She suggested he apply to one of the great Soviet schools to pursue a career in ballet. When he was 10, he was accepted at the Moscow Choreographic Institute, the Bolshoi school. He gives credit to Alexander Prokofiev, his teacher, for impressing on him the importance of understanding. This, Muk hamedov insists, is crucial to his approach. 'Before I dance, I read books,' he says. He is also loyal to the Bolshoi method, where there has to be a reason for each step, even the smallest hand gesture. It is this actorish concern with motivation, unusual in a dancer, that brings vividness and humanity to his roles.

On graduating, he joined Moscow Classical Ballet, a spin-off of the Bolshoi, as a principal dancer. In his three years there, he gained invaluable experience in theatre skills. He came to the attention of Yuri Grigorovich, director of the Bolshoi, when he won the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1981. Grigorovich immediately invited Muk hamedov to join his world-famous company as a principal. After four months, Mukhamedov made his debut as the lead in Spartacus, the slave leader who foments a rebellion against Rome. He was 21 - the youngest man ever to dance such a challenging role. 'The steps were difficult,' he says. 'I had to jump, split and fly - but I did it. I wanted to prove to Grigorovich that I was a worthy principal.'

It soon became clear that he was a dancer of extraordinary strength and stamina, unfazed by Grigorovich's technically demanding steps. He was tagged 'Hercules of the Bolshoi'. Mukhamedov soon began to dance the epic Bolshoi roles that made him famous. In 1983, Grigorovich created The Golden Age for him, and Mukhamedov defined the role of Boris, the young workers' leader, for successive generations of Bolshoi dancers. He danced no classical roles with the Bolshoi, only heroic ones. 'No one else in the company wanted to break their neck, but I was prepared to,' he says. When Grigorovich was in London with the Bolshoi last year, he said he regretted Mukhamedov was no longer with them: 'He was my favourite.'

Meanwhile, the romance with Masha had begun. Both were married to other people, whom they divorced. He continued performing with the Bolshoi and appearing throughout the world as a guest dancer. It had never occurred to him to leave Russia. 'I thought Rudi and Misha were bastards for defecting,' he says, referring to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. 'I was from a Communist country and I thought they had betrayed the motherland.' Everything changed when Masha fell pregnant. It was 1990 and an era was ending. Mukhamedov feared he might have to get up at four in the morning and queue for food for the baby, and then go to class and perform at night. It began to dawn on him that he too was going to defect. 'I started thinking and thinking. I had met Nureyev when I was rehearsing his Sleeping Beauty as a guest for the Paris Opera (Ballet, which Nureyev directed). He wasn't the bad person other people said he was. I realised that Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Natasha (Natalia Makarova) had kept themselves in the public eye by always doing new things. They had to go to develop their art. I realised if I was to develop my art I too had to defect. If you do Spartacus all the time, your legs change shape. If you don't do classical ballets, you lack vitamins.'

Nureyev defected in Paris and stayed in Europe; Baryshnikov and Makarova went to the United States. Mukhamedov could have gone anywhere. He considered the US but rejected it. 'When you're on stage you're thinking about what business to start to make money. I would like to make millions, sure, but not at the cost of my art.' When he decided on London, he had never seen the Royal Ballet perform.

The Bolshoi was on the eve of a big American tour, and Mukhamedov had to tell Grigorovich he was about to leave. Grigorovich had built the repertory around him, and he exploded. 'Grigorovich was worried that he had no one to replace me. The fact that he was so cross showed me, maybe showed him, that too much responsibility had been given to one dancer.'

He had not set out to sabotage the American tour. At the time, it was still difficult to get passports, and the Mukhamedovs had to pretend they were going to America. But 'if I went to America I might lose that one chance I had to leave'. Many Americans, when they heard Muk hamedov wasn't coming, returned their tickets. It is unlikely he will dance with the Bolshoi again.

Through contacts, Mukhamedov secured a permanent position with the Royal Ballet. The company was desperate for a man to match the impact of Sylvie Guillem. It was also searching for a partner for Darcey Bussell, who had shot to stardom with MacMillan's Prince of the Pagodas. The company was hoping Mukhamedov and Bussell would recapture the golden era of Nureyev and Fonteyn and Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell. Ironically, Mukhamedov had watched a friend's video of Prince of the Pagodas before leaving Moscow, and was impressed by Bussell. 'On my first day at rehearsals, Darcey walked in. 'My God,' I thought, 'this is a dream.' '

Mukhamedov made his debut with Bussell in August 1990 at the Queen Mother's 90th- birthday gala, in a MacMillan pas de deux that was to become the climax of Winter Dreams. MacMillan designed Winter Dreams specially for the partnership, and it looked ravishing. But their partnership in Manon, another MacMillan ballet, did not look as good, and Muk hamedov refused to partner her in it. There is no ill will between them. Mukhamedov admires Bussell as a dancer, and as a person 'with a good heart', and says he would like to dance with her again in the right ballet. He prefers to vary his partners so that moves do not become automatic. 'He is a quick, responsive and attentive partner,' says Collier, who will be dancing in the London programme. Of Durante, he says, 'We are a unit on stage; we understand each other'.

A ballet had not been created specially for Mukhamedov since Grigorovich's Golden Age in 1983. So he was surprised when soon after he arrived, MacMillan did Winter Dreams for him, and then the violent and mysterious Judas Tree. Right away, dancer and choreographer clicked. 'Kenneth saw not just a body but something extra, something psychological. He regarded me not only as a dancer but as an actor and gave me a free ticket to do my own interpretation. And I understood what he wanted.' At 30, Mukhamedov had at last found his choreographer - only to lose him. 'I finished the performance and someone told me Kenneth had died. I was shocked. After a few seconds I thought, 'What will I do now? I have just found my choreographer. Now what?' ' With extraordinary self-control, he went back on stage to take a curtain call. 'I couldn't lift my eyes up. I was thinking and thinking.' Mukhamedov had great trouble concentrating for the next few performances. 'I could not get through a wall of thoughts that Kenneth was not watching, that he's not going to be there to give corrections.'

For the Royal Ballet, Mukhamedov has begun to dance more classical roles - Raymonda, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. 'When he dances classical roles, he goes back to the roots,' says a colleague. 'It's honest and doesn't look out of place.' It's not all success: his worst role, he admits, is Des Grieux, the Frenchman in Manon, MacMillan's 19th-century ballet with 20th-century sensibilities. His Des Grieux is too melodramatic, too emotional.

A DANCER'S life is brutally short, and Mukhamedov is not dewy-eyed about the future. He feels a big responsibility for bringing his family from Russia, and a responsibility, too, for his colleagues. This is why he started his own company: to give colleagues a chance to dance new roles from the Russian repertory, to commission young choreographers, and to help colleagues make money in the holidays. What is the provenance of this sense of responsibility? He laughs. 'It's in my blood. I was a Communist.' Mukhamedov would most like to perform new roles, but with the deaths in a decade of Ashton, Balanchine and MacMillan, there is a worldwide shortage of good choreographers. He could dance with any company in the world and is not short of invitations. Teaching is an option he favours. Or he could direct a company. What would a ballet company be like with Mukhamedov at the helm? 'He has strong ideas,' says Deborah Bull. 'He would bring out the best in dancers, but would limit them to what they are good at, which would be frustrating. But his company would look good, and his vocational, committed, disciplined way of working would come back into fashion.'

Mukhamedov has no nostalgia for Russia. 'I'm happy with the company; I give it my best.' More important to him is his perception of himself as a classical dancer. But he wants to be more than a dancer. 'To be an actor at the same time is very important. I want to create a life on stage.'

'Othello': Sadler's Wells (071-278 8916), 9-12 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)