A Forsythe saga

Why is the Kirov, a byword for classical ballet, performing William Forsythe?

The Kirov is a byword for classical brilliance, tradition, conformity, and endless Swan Lakes. So what are they doing bringing to London a programme by one of ballet's most radical choreographers, William Forsythe? A deconstructionist whose work could be seen as an assault on the purity of classical ballet values, you might think that he had no place in the Kirov's illustrious canon.

On the Kirov's last visit here, in 2003, they performed Les Noces of 1923, which, believe it or not, counts as modern in some ballet circles. The corps de ballet struggled with its rhythmic complexity, and looked as if they couldn't wait to get back to their tutus. So, why are they coming back for more?

The thing is, you can't keep a determined ballet director down. When Vaziev was first appointed as the Mariinsky Theatre's ballet director in 1997, he was criticised for reconstructing outdated period- pieces; now, it's for breaking away from the company's roots. There may be some whom he'll never win over, but he is adamant in his convictions. For him, it wasn't just a case of introducing modern work for the sake of it; he saw Forsythe as "a necessity".

"The Russian ballet has a tremendous history, and, of course, we could survive without new works," he says. "But the more we take into the repertoire, the more chances we give to the dancers to learn more, to feel their body more. That makes the future.

"This particular choreography helps to reveal and open up the dancers with a new approach and understanding. My purpose is to create a universal, intellectual dancer."

Forsythe, who led Ballett Frankfurt for two decades before launching his own company last year, does, indeed, make demands on his dancers' brains as well as their limbs. His work spans the neoclassical and the highly theatrical, sometimes incorporating text or video alongside movement that pushes the body to its limits. His dancers have an unreal plasticity, a talent for unlikely angles, and a stunning but seemingly effortless muscular strength and speed. "This choreography does take us to extremes," Vaziev admits, "but our life is made up of extremes, so it comes naturally."

The life of Kirov dancers is certainly extreme. Their schedule means that a principal might be performing Swan Lake one night, learning a new Forsythe work the next day, dancing in La Bayadère that evening, and maybe Giselle the next. Dancers have been known to finish one performance and head straight up to the studio to rehearse a different ballet until midnight. They tour constantly to earn money, and are lucky to get a week's holiday.

Kathryn Bennetts, director of the Flanders Ballet and former ballet mistress at Ballett Frankfurt, who set Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated on the Kirov last year, found the punishing schedule unbelievable. "There was one day when someone started crying because they were just so tired. I looked at their schedule and felt horrid asking them to dance," she remembers. And yet the dancers were still excited about taking on new works. "It's food for a dancer," says Bennetts. "They were hungry for a different style because ballets such as Swan Lake they've done to death."

The dancers may have been eager, but they were also insecure about approaching a radical new piece. In fact, says Bennetts, "they were terrified that it was going to be awful". But the irony is that, technically speaking, many of the physiques were ideal for Forsythe's style of work. It is exactly the assets that mark them out as Kirov dancers that make them suited to Forsythe's style - their precision and cool purity of line, supple backs, expressive arms.

Forsythe's use of the arms, for example, is not so dissimilar to the Kirov's. Both tend to raise them high above the head, with rotated elbows. "That's the way the Kirov works anyway," says Bennetts.

It's not so surprising when you consider that Forsythe is hugely influenced by Balanchine, who was trained in St Petersburg.

"For me, what stood out about the Kirov Ballet is a spectacular use of the back," says Bennetts. "The dancers have that instinctively, a beautiful clarity in the upper body. That particular part of their technique is really so special."

It transpired that it was just the dancers' attitudes that Bennetts had to loosen up. She encouraged them to take risks, to go off balance - a scary prospect in pointe shoes - and even to improvise. "That was scary for the corps de ballet girls," she says. "They just stood and looked at me, frozen, not knowing where to start. But that changed once I'd given them permission to just try it. They're used to having to be perfect and do everything right first time. For us, it's more like a process. It's not an exam. There's no 'wrong'.

"In Russia, you do what you're told. You don't say what you think - maybe the big stars do, but not the general company. I'd say, 'Try that, which feels better for you?'. And they'd look horrified, because they're not allowed to say. It's a different mindset."

The experience of learning these works seems to have informed the dancers' other work. Vaziev talks about how the dancers have "revealed themselves" and begun to interpret the classical ballets differently. Bennetts thinks that they might even be getting carried away with their newfound freedom. "I heard that in recent performances, they had to be held back a bit," she laughs.

While certain dancers have said there's no value in the modern repertoire, others have excelled in Forsythe's work. Andrei Merkuriev and Natalia Sologub were both awarded the prestigious Golden Mask award for their Forsythe performances. Even Vaziev was amazed by the transformation of his troupe. "It was a big surprise because I know them as classical dancers." And when Forsythe himself came to visit, the choreographer was forced to revise his opinion of the staid old Kirov. "I asked Forsythe, what do you think of this?" says Vaziev. "'Oh my god!' he said, beaming." Which must be the sound of a man eating his words.

The Kirov Ballet, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 18-30 July (Forsythe programme, 24 July, 2pm and 7.30pm

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice