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Vaziev was first appointed as the Mariinsky Theatre's ballet director in 1997, he was criticised for reconstructing outdated period- pieces; now, it's for breaking away from the company's roots.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

Arts and Entertainment
music

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain