DANCE / The mourning star

Irek Mukhamedov is probably the Royal Ballet's best crowd-puller. But now, some believe, the company wants to ditch him. Jeffery Taylor, his biographer, investigates backstage intrigue
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The Independent Culture
IN MAY 1990, Irek Mukhamedov, one of the greatest dancers Russia's Bolshoi Ballot has ever produced, took a gamble that could have ruined his life. At the dangerous age of 30, he turned his back on the company that had brought him stardom, and left behind his homeland, a messy divorce and an enviable position in Soviet society to join the Royal Ballet in London. He landed at Heathrow with a naive faith in the future, two suitcases and a few hundred dollars strapped round the waist of his heavily pregnant second wife.

In the event, Irek's reckless flight brought artistic and material satisfaction way beyond his expectations. The splendour of his performances in a rapid succession of ballets as diverse as Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, Mayerling and Romeo and Juliet, dazzled Covent Garden audiences and demonstrated that he was an artist of even rarer power than his Bolshoi reputation had promised.

Five years later, he feels that the company that provided him with this spectacular new lease of life is threatening to bring his career to a premature end. He may still be the Royal Ballet's most explosive box-office star, but suddenly Irek is complaining that he is not being given enough good roles. He is puzzled and upset that he is being wilfully under-used. "At first," he says, "I had new roles and new challenges every year. When you have something good you want more and more of it." Now the honeymoon is over.

In his first season with the Royal Ballet, he danced 55 performances and made eight debuts. In the following year came five debuts in 60 performances. The next year his performances fell to a mere 27 and, as the 1994/5 season closes in July, Irek will have danced 38 times and re-created only the essentially mimed role of Petrushka.

He is reluctant to make a public attack on the Royal Ballet - or on its artistic director Anthony Dowell - but privately he is extremely bitter at what he sees to be his rejection. And he will say that he feels he is "dying artistically".

If his flight from Russia was made at a critical time, his position is even more perilous now. He is 35 and a dancer's career, built on years of gruelling discipline, is desperately short. "I have maybe five or 10 years left,"he says. "If I do not dance more and more to refresh my blood and my steps, then one day I shall feel too fat to move from my home and I will not go on stage any more because I only want people to remember me as I was. With less and less dancing, the sooner I will finish.

"You must have a tough character to go to class every day. But what for? For breakfast? I enjoy class, but I must know why I am doing it. Sometimes I feel part of the Royal Ballet, but at other times I feel further and further away from it."

On stage, Mukhamedov is the epitome of masculine strength and decisiveness, but real life is less simple. "Off the stage I am a pussycat. I cannot go into company director Anthony Dowell's office and bang on his desk and say, `I am Mukhamedov - give me what I want.' I always want to trust my director. It is his responsibility to look after his dancers. At the beginning I trusted Anthony; five years later I still trust Anthony. I told him a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to dance more in London with the Royal Ballet. He said that he also had to give the younger dancers a chance. But why have Mukhamedov and not let him dance?"

That question also puzzles Irek's many fans. His name has the same pulling power as Rudolf Nureyev's once did - vitally useful, one would think, to cash-strapped Covent Garden. Irek is also the highest-paid Royal Ballet dancer and the only one with a contract longer than 12 months. Last October he signed a new three-year agreement, with an option for a fourth year, at a reputed annual salary of pounds 100,000. That is a lot of public money invested in Irek's talents. If a football manager put that sort of money on a star striker and played him in the B team, not only would supporters feel as sick as parrots, but the manager would soon be dismissed for unreasonable behaviour.

Lesley Collier, the Royal Ballet's former principal ballerina and one of Mukhamedov's earliest partners in London, says; "Historically the company does not have a star system, and Irek is a star even though he is a regular company dancer. We have all suffered from this contradiction. Irek has never worked his way through a company, he was taken into the Bolshoi at the top, and the same thing happened at the Royal. Perhaps he doesn't fully understand the system.

"He is a wonderful asset for the company and it does seem crazy that he doesn't do more. But Anthony has a frightful job juggling his responsibilities to all his dancers."

Naturally, the Royal Ballet firmly denies neglecting its Russian star. Nobody would deny that Dowell does have problems juggling his troops, particularly the company's strong cast of men. Perhaps the cynical answer to Irek's inactivity is more subtle and more sinister than the dancer, reared with an unquestioning faith in the old Soviet ideals of personal service for the common good, realises. Many suspect that, like Nureyev before him, Irek is too popular, too much of a superstar, for the Royal Ballet's taste. The theory goes that the company mandarins are employing the Maxwellian tactic of making Irek's position untenable, thereby forcing his resignation. The tactic would - as happened with Nureyev - avoid the scandal of rejecting a dancer the public adores.

Lesley Collier danced with Irek at the Hampton Court Festival last week under the umbrella of his own group, Mukhamedov & Company. It was the group's fourth appearance; what started as an outlet for Irek's insatiable appetite for dancing may be turning into an answer for his future. If the Royal Ballet cannot give him artistic satisfaction, he will use the flexibility of a contract that allows some outside work, and find it elsewhere. He says: "I like the responsibilities of directing very much. It is pleasant occasionally to command.

"But it is the challenge of bringing everything together to make a performance that the audience will enjoy that I find extremely satisfying. In the past I have had good reports about my being a director, and I would like to end my career like that. But maybe I will just end up at Pineapple [the London dance studios] giving classes."

In 1990, Irek's instincts told him to abandon his motherland to seek a new life. "The Bolshoi will soon be in ruins and I do not want to be buried under the rubble," he wrote to his parents in Kazan to explain his departure. Subsequent events in Moscow proved him all too prescient. In what direction do his instincts point him now?

"The Royal Ballet is my base and the most important thing for me is to do more performances, to feel part of the company again." he says. "I did the right thing leaving Russia. The first two years with the Royal Ballet alone justified my decision. And I have gained so much personally. I feel fulfilled and matured by my family." The Mukhamedovs - Irek, his wife Masha, and four-year-old daughter, Sasha - live in a stylish, converted coach-house in west London with the two-car trappings of a successful professional life. "I love London, and love speaking English.''

And there may be signs of a temporary rapprochement at Covent Garden. From the programming so far announced for its next season - from October to December - the Royal Ballet appears, for the time being at least, to have found him more work. He is scheduled to dance in revivals of Manon, Balanchine's Apollo, Page's Fearful Symmetries and a MacMillan pas de deux created originally for Nureyev and Lynn Seymour. Still, that's only one three-act ballet, and nothing new.

"Personally, I have everything I wanted when I left Russia. Artistically, it is up to me. Maybe, after all, I must go and bang on Anthony's desk."

! Jeffery Taylor is the author of `Irek Mukhamedov: The Authorised Biography' (Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99).