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Vaziev was first appointed as the Mariinsky Theatre's ballet director in 1997, he was criticised for reconstructing outdated period- pieces; now, it's for breaking away from the company's roots.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 7.30pmReuse content