The rise and rise of Vladimir Vasiliev

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The Independent Culture
It's been a long time, but now he's back. And he means business. Helen Womack meets the Bolshoi's new artistic director

Perestroika has replaced stagnation at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. Vladimir Vasiliev - their very own wunderkind turned rebel - has taken over from Yuri Grigorovich as artistic director. Critics admit that Grigorovich will go down in history as a great choreographer and ballet master, but complain that he held power for too long. Towards the end of his 30-year reign, they say, he was cramping the style of his artists with his authoritarian ways, and boring his audience with his stubborn refusal to revolutionise the repertoire.

For journalists, the Bolshoi under Grigorovich was anything but user- friendly. Penetrating the Ministry of Defence was often an easier task. Dealing with Vasiliev couldn't be more different.

Happy to be interviewed about his plans to revive the world famous theatre, the peroxide-haired 55-year-old modestly jokes that he is "the Gorbachev of the theatre... there is the same euphoria here now as at the start of Perestroika."

Vasiliev, a former Bolshoi principal dancer, would still like to be out on the boards, rehearsing and directing his artists. Instead he spends long days in his office - a very beautiful office with red silk chairs, a chandelier and, on the table, a swan-shaped silver dish laden with apples - trying to make contact with the outside world after years of the Bolshoi's isolation. And when he's not on the telephone, or sending faxes worldwide, he is arguing with the theatre staff, trying to win them over to his "modern" ways. Task number one is to replace the Soviet jobs-for-life system with Western-style performance-related contracts.

Vasiliev, who was thrown out of the Bolshoi several years ago after artistic disagreements with Grigorovich, bows to the old ballet master's undoubted talent but says that he had become a "little Stalin". So why do many of the Bolshoi's artists mourn the man?

"They are confused because for so long their good depended on him," Vasiliev explains. "Now there is a new Tsar. It is natural for people to feel fear in the period between two Tsars. I am trying to reassure them. I have said there will be no mass sackings but we cannot go on in the old way. I must listen to all their grievances, listen patiently to what I already know. I must convince them I am right. The process is speeding up. Some are already coming round; slowly, we are starting to find agreement."

Vasiliev made a good impression when he addressed the whole staff at his inauguration at the end of March. Some of the artists had been on strike in support of Grigorovich, forcing the cancellation of a performance for the first time in the 18th-century theatre's history. Vasiliev gave everyone a tough pep talk, telling the artists that their duty was to serve the audience, not to engage in political intrigue. He reminded them that the world did not owe them a living, that nobody was indispensable. And, in the same breath, he accepted the same standards for himself, promising to resign if he does not achieve tangible improvements within three years.

Vasiliev is a friend of Valery Gergiev, the energetic young director at the Marlinsky Theatre in St Petersburg who has put his opera house on the map by renewing the repertoire, choosing artists on merit, inviting guest conductors and performers from abroad, and developing contacts with foreign companies such as Covent Garden. Now Vasiliev, who spent years in exile dancing in Paris and producing in Rome, is relishing the chance to do the same at the Bolshoi: "I have had these ideas for a long time," he says. "It is just that Gergiev got a break before me."

And so Vasiliev is busy phoning and faxing world maestri with whom he would like to co-operate in future. The Italian director Franco Zeffirelli has received a call, as has the conductor Claudio Abbado. Vasiliev also wants to work with Russians who, because they fell foul of the old Communist regime, have either spent years in exile abroad or have been under-used in their own country. The cellist-turned-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich falls into the first category, while the director Bruce Pokrovsky belongs to the second.

Vasiliev does not yet know who will accept his invitations but, as he says, "I don't like an empty fridge. I like a full fridge so I can choose what I am going to eat. I want to have lots of possibilities for the Bolshoi and then I will choose."

The main complaint of the Bolshoi dancers under Grigorovich - apart from the fact that he would not allow them to go off freelancing and earning hard currency for themselves - was that he kept them on an unvaried diet of classics, pieces like Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, "and works of Communist propaganda such as Spartacus", preventing them from exploring the world of contemporary dance which was blossoming in the West.

At his inauguration in March, Vasiliev said it was too late to stage anything new this season, but last week he changed his mind. The summer programme will now include a short ballet by Mikhail Lavrovsky set to music by Rachmaninov.

Lavrovsky was the ballet master at the Bolshoi before Grigorovich, and Vasiliev wants to revive his choreography. So audiences can look forward to a slightly revised version of the Romeo and Juliet which Lavrovsky made famous in 1956, the year the Bolshoi came on a triumphant visit to Britain.

Set designs from the 1956 production have been preserved and will be put on exhibition. "Of course I will not just copy the whole production," Vasiliev says, "I will do my own work but I want to capture the old atmosphere."

He will also do a fresh version of Swan Lake so as to "wipe out the association in the minds of many Russians between this ballet and the 1991 putsch." (The hardliners who tried to oust President Gorbachev nearly four years ago ordered a news blackout and tried to keep the Russian population quiet by repeatedly broadcasting Swan Lake.)

A completely new ballet production could be Alexander Navsky, set to the music of Prokofiev. Back in Grigorovich's day, the French choreographer Maurice Bjart wanted to do this ballet but the old artistic director was not keen - perhaps because Bjart was a foreigner. "I will get in touch with him and see if he still wants to do it," Vasiliev says. "If he does, I will give him carte blanche."

Vasiliev also wants to see the work of George Balanchine, one of the West's greatest choreographers, in the Bolshoi repertoire. His plans may tempt back dancers such as Irek Mukhamedov, who fled to London during the Grigorovich era, although the new artistic director has said he will not automatically take back every prodigal son. "Not all our artistes have grown while they have been in the West. I will take only those whom I think are interesting," he says.

Although he has worked all his life in the ballet, Vasiliev is also now in charge of the opera. Here too he plans a mixture of renewed classics and some modern works. Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which has been on at the Bolshoi for years and is still seen as an essential part of the repertoire of Russia's national theatre, will be revamped while audiences will be able to see Shostakovich's Skaterina Izmailova for the first time. A new generation of Russian singers such as Dmitry Khvorostovsky and Olga Borodina may get opportunities along with rising foreign stars.

As soon as he can free himself from his management role, Vasiliev plans to start working creatively with the artists again. The man who in 1964 won the title of Best Dancer in the World at a competition in Paris, says he will not perform himself anymore - he has had a break of a few months from training and at his age it is difficult to get back on form once regular exercises have been abandoned.

Although he regards himself as a "democratic" manager,Vasiliev says he will be a "dictator" when it comes to directing dancers. He will not allow "temperamental" performers to destroy his vision.

"Democracy is not possible in art," he explains. He makes a distinction between the authoritarianism of Grigorovich, whom he compares to MacBeth ("a good warrior destroyed in the seat of power") and his own creative dictatorship: "I will also be a dictator but for the sake of creativity not intrigue. There must be no fear, only love and conscience. The artists give themselves up to free slavery. That's how it should be."


The Bolshoi is still desperately in need of $350m in order to complete its restoration. Inesco is giving some assistance, but the ballet company is appealing for donations. Contributions can be paid directly into the following bank account:

Bankers Trust Co New York, 04-096-089 Chips Utd 320446, in favour of Elbim-Bank Moscow, A/C Number 07002015, Bolshoi Theatre Russia