Like any artistic director, Oleg Vinogradov has critics. Unlike others, he claims his are trying to murder him

Infighting and a failing ecomony are threatening to bring down the Kirov Ballet. By Daniel Jeffries

Oleg Vinogradov fears for his job and his life. "I spend half my salary on bodyguards," he says from his seat in the Green Room of New York's Metropolitan Opera House. "So yes, I am concerned about my safety."

Vinogradov has been the director of the Kirov Ballet since 1977. Last week he decided he could no longer live in St Petersburg, where the Kirov has been based for more than 200 years. He says his enemies inside the company have already had him beaten up once. Next time he fears he may be killed. This is a man who stayed at the Kirov for the years when its home town was called Leningrad and when Kirov stars like Nureyev, Makorova and Baryshnikov fled to the West. Now he feels he cannot return to Mother Russia, although he is desperately homesick.

Vinogradov is 54. He has the slight frame of a dancer and piercing eyes. It's unsettling, to say the least, to think of him on the ground in a dark alley, beaten by fists and boots and clubs.

"These are very bad people. I don't know who they are or why they want to hurt me," he shrugs. "There are big changes in ballet in Russia. Change always brings new enemies."

Vinogradov will now direct the Kirov from Washington. To protect his interests in Russia, he has appointed two assistant directors, the dancers Farukh Ruzimatov and Makhar Vaziyev. At the Kirov's Maryinsky Theatre back in St Petersburg they will occupy the director's office, but they will not be able to make any decisions without Vinogradov's consent. Despite reports that he has been deposed as director, Vinogradov is resolutely in control. "I have run the Kirov," he says, his finger stabbing the air, "I do run the Kirov and I will run the Kirov."

To Kirov staff it doesn't always feel that way. Isabelle Fokine is the granddaughter of Michel Fokine, who created works for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe. In New York, she is at present directing three of her grandfather's ballets, The Firebird, Scheherazade and Chopiniana. "I never know from one day to the next who will come to rehearsals," she says. "The cast list is changed constantly. There are artistic tensions, but with three directors that is inevitable." She pauses to give instructions.

Working with Fokine is the beautiful Anastasia Volochkova, soon to become a prima ballerina. Along with Uliana Lopatkina, Aleksandra Gronskaya and Tatiana Amosova, Volochkova is one of four rising stars known within the Kirov as "the Basketball Team" because all are over 6ft tall. It's an appropriate description, if Volochkova is anything to go by. Her technique is a mixture of skill, grace and boisterous athleticism. "Don't flap your arms," shouts Fokine, "it looks stupid. Stick to the choreography. You may change it, but only if it adds grace to the dance."

Grace. That indefinable quality, not easy to come by in a company so beset with problems. Insiders say the solution has always been simple: to survive, the ballet must cut costs and tour constantly; there can be no more jobs for life; and older members of the corps will have to make way for young stars like Volochkova.

The average age of the Kirov company is now 24. And by clearing out the old guard, Vinogradov has made enemies. It may have been some of them who paid Russia's all-too-available gangsters to teach the man at the top a lesson.

Vinogradov scoffs at the idea that Ruzimatov and Vaziyev have a share in his power. When he talks about them, his sharp blue eyes grow cold. "They are my delegates," he says, with a decisive chop of his hand. Those in the know say the choice of two co-directors was a deliberate political ploy: a single rival would have been in a stronger position to launch his own coup against Vinogradov.

So many institutions of the old Soviet Union have splintered since the collapse of communism that it comes as no surprise to many that the Kirov has joined the list. "We have so little money," laments Vinogradov. "That could destroy the Kirov. We can only pay the principals $150 a month, do you hear me? A month! Nobody has to stay in Russia now, and every Western company welcomes a star of the Kirov."

In order to survive, the Kirov's 210 dancers have now been divided into two companies. One group performs at home while the other goes on tour, and then they switch places. Vinogradov is bitter about the way things have turned out. "The Tsars and the communists, they were much kinder to the ballet," he says. "They both understood a role for the ballet and treated it well. The democrats do not treat us well... they do not need the ballet."

But the ballet and its director have an undeniable resilience. When Vinogradov steps on stage to direct the dress rehearsal of Swan Lake, his cylinders are charged, his romanticism is undimmed. Young dancers look at him with palpable adoration, the older ones incline their heads and listen respectfully. On stage, the King of the Kirov is unchallenged.

At the moment the Kirov is performing Swan Lake, Cinderella and Les Saisons Russes in New York, and will bring them to London on tour later on this month.

Vinogradov draws my attention to his version of Swan Lake; the choreography for the final scene, he says, is "entirely new". It is, almost, and the effect is both dramatic and lyrical. Not that Vinogradov's efforts have been appreciated by the New York critics. While Les Saisons Russes won good reviews, the Kirov's other works got a slamming. "Just plain tedious" was how the New York Times described parts of Swan Lake, while the New York Post called it "one of the feeblest productions ever given by a major company".

Vinogradov just shrugs. "Here they do not understand the classical ballet - for them everything has to be modern. In Europe the critics will understand what we are trying to achieve. The American critics forget the Kirov has been around longer than their country; not everything good is modern. I take comfort from the audience, they love these works."

His next great project is a new staging of Romeo and Juliet. As Russia slips closer to anarchy, its dancers remain devoted to the great romantic classics. "People need the ballet to be a sanctuary," Vinogradov says. "We must try and lift people's eyes from the troubles of their times. Maybe in the romantic tradition they can find some peace, and from that sometimes comes a way forward."

His utopian vision manages to exist with a streak of uncompromising practicality: the Kirov's ballet school in Washington is sponsored by the Unification Church headed by one Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Sponsorship, year-long touring and even completely uprooting the company may be the only ways to proceed. "Anything is possible now," says Vinogradov. "I'm sorry to say that. But Russia gets worse every day. Can the Kirov survive in Russia? I don't know. Its life is already half in the West. Maybe I should bring everything here."

Back in the rehearsal room Isabelle Fokine is still hard at work with Anastasia Volochkova. The young dancer has an unmistakably Russian quality about her - she seems to have an aura of emotional suffering, a soulfulness that makes her perfect for the role of a romantic heroine. This is the stock in trade of Kirov ballets, and while it's hard to imagine the Kirov without these "Russian" qualities, it may be necessary to imagine the Kirov without its newly American director.

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