Viktor and the wolf

Viktor Fedotov, chief conductor of the Kirov, is that rare animal: a musician who can satisfy both composers and dancers. But then he's been wielding the baton since he was 15. Louise Levene meets the maestro who never sleeps
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Forget the hours spent propping up the barre, bleeding into your point shoes; without a bit of friendly co-operation in the pit, the finest dancer can look unmusical, under-rehearsed and unfit. With a particularly inept (or mischievous) hand wielding the baton, a dancer can look all three. The usual explanation offered for such infelicities of tempo is that ballet attracts second-rate conductors, either because the music used in ballet is not of a sufficiently high quality to attract stars or because no maestro worth his salt will settle for being a mere accompanist at the mercy of the dancers' whims.

Tell that to Viktor Fedotov, chief conductor of the Kirov, whose genius ensures that, so long as he's in charge, ballet is an art you can enjoy with your eyes shut. Fedotov is that rare thing: a conductor who can simultaneously meet the demands of the composer and the needs of the dancers. As he sits in his London hotel, he delivers a gripping monologue on his life in music, in fluent broken English, punctuated by expressive and elaborate mime. Periodically he pauses to produce more chocolates from his suit pockets. By the time I go home I have 12 little tablets of Lindt in my handbag.

Fedotov began playing music when he was about four years old. I can't give an exact date because the year of his birth is a bit of a mystery. "I'm now maybe 63, 64 years old." He was one of 12 children and although his mother (and his passport) went for the year 1933, his big sister insists it is 1934. Anyhow, there he was at four years old playing any instrument he could get his hands on: guitar, balalaika, accordion. At the age of seven (well, seven-ish) he won a local folk music competition: "Special prize for me, and for my mother and father. At seven years I was Laureate!"

During one of his 25km walks home from music school one weekend through a Russian blizzard, Viktor met a wolf. I meet the wolf too because Viktor is growling and menacing with his claws. "Grr! Grr! Cold, cold. Ice, ice. Wolf! Grr! Grr!" He hid in the snow and was in bed with frostbite for two months. "But I was young. I regenerated."

That same year he remembers his big brother Ivan coming home from the Air Force. Ivan had composed a tune and played it to the family. Later that night Viktor crept out of bed and played the same piece of music. "My brother woke up and asked, `Who are you?' - he didn't know me. I said, `I am your brother.' Ivan said, `How come you know my new music?' and I say, `You play. I listen. Then I play.'" It was clear that little Viktor was a musical prodigy and Ivan took the boy in hand.

Fedotov's brother was not merely responsible for promoting his musical talent but also his phenomenal concentration. "I must everything listen, everything see. It was very difficult from the beginning. Then it was easy." Ivan, bomber pilot, composer, poet and musician was also a hypnotist. When the German Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus was discovered, a gibbering suicidal wreck, in a cellar after the siege of Stalingrad, they sent for Vanya, whose calming influence apparently contributed to Paulus's conversion to the Russian cause. Paulus would later testify against the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Ivan's hypnotic powers also had a lifelong impact on his young brother: Viktor Fedotov never sleeps. He takes four hours' rest but sleep as we know it is just a waste of valuable time. "Since I was 12, I sleep only four hours. My brother said to me, `If you sleep eight hours like everybody, when you're 60 that is 20 years asleep.' So I think about it, I train myself and after 15 years it's normal. I don't like sleep!"

It was when Fedotov was 15 (OK, maybe 14), playing in a military orchestra, that he got his big break: he was the oboe soloist at a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony when the conductor suddenly had a heart attack (mimes agonised collapse). "They say, `Who can carry on?''' Viktor puts his hand up. "It was a great success but it was so simple because I could play so many instruments. Composing is difficult. Conducting is not so difficult." By the time he was 18, the academy where he studied had his future mapped out. "They say, `You must be a conductor,' but I say, `No. I am composer.' But then I am seeing many, many scores, beautiful scores: Brahms, Bellini. I know that I cannot write the same. And so I am a conductor. At the Conservatoire I conduct Carmen without score, Onegin without score." These extraordinary feats of memory are the key to the greatness of his conducting. He quotes Toscanini on the subject: "Sometimes the conductor has the score in here [he taps the side of his head] but another conductor he is in the score [buries his head in an imaginary book]." On 26 May 1963 (for a man so vague about dates he is very particular about this one) there was a big competition at the Kirov. Fifty-seven conductors were in contention but it was Viktor who took the prize and came to the attention of Konstantin Sergeyev and Natalia Dudinskaya, director and ballet mistress of the Kirov. "When they see me they say, `He can conduct without score! He is very important for ballet.' I was young. I was beautiful."

In 1964 the Kirov went on tour to America and Fedotov played with 16 different orchestras, at one point conducting 12 performances in 10 days. "Cauchemar!" he cries. "When I went to America my hair was black, but after America I was white." He pulls his shock of silver hair on end. His repertoire by now contained 56 different productions, 30 operas and 26 ballets.

This vast experience combined with his total absorption in the score, the stage, the audience, makes him the ideal conductor for dance. Because dancers are all different, ballet conductors need to be prepared to play with the score a little to accommodate them. Age, weight and technique all affect the speed with which a dancer performs. "Tchaikovsky never expected a metronome for ballet. In symphony, yes. Why is rubato in opera OK and not in ballet?" But Fedotov's is a counsel of perfection. In practice, it doesn't always go that smoothly: Irek Mukhamedov has been known to shout "Faster" from the stage if the tempo is unflattering to his 36 years, Lynn Seymour used to hiss across the footlights if the pace slackened unacceptably. Not all instructions are this clear. At a performance of Le Corsaire Natalia Makarova once shouted "Slow! Slow!". The conductor, agreeing that they were perhaps dragging their feet a bit, speeded up - how was he to know she wanted it played at an even more lethargic pace? Fedotov admits to finding Natasha a little sluggish at times. "She was very slow. I say this to her, but she said, `I'm so old, Viktor.'" Do dancers ever signal to him from the stage? Perish the thought. "Never! I know before. I must know. If not it is a catastrophe for the music. It must be organic."

The superhuman concentration that makes this possible has proved as much a curse as a blessing because it has deepened his capacity for overwork. "I conducted all the ballets and half the operas. When I finish [mimes collapse in a chair]. Water, water, water. Doctors experiment with me. Electrodes. Every performance I lose three and a half kilos: tea, water, beer." He realised that he needed a change of pace after a serious shock to the system. "One time I play Romeo and Juliet, death of Tybalt. Pom, pom, pom, pom, pom-pom, pom." He hums tunefully and vigorously, conjuring the power and menace of the Capulets in a few bars. "I didn't breathe for four minutes. Collapse. Cauchemar. No more tragedy. I need champagne: I need Don Quichotte."

Fedotov's conducting goes through phases like this. At the moment Swan Lake is a no-no for him. "I have an allergy to Swan Lake. I've conducted it many, many times. Since 1963: Giselle, Swan Lake, Giselle, Swan Lake. Now I must rest."

During the Kirov's five-week London season he is conducting Don Quixote, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Sleeping Beauty, and he treats them all with equal seriousness. The obvious pleasure he takes in Don Quixote, surely the most rum-ti-tum of ballet scores, is in marked contrast to the snobbish disregard with which ballet music is treated in the West. I suggest that maybe this is because Russian ballet conductors get to play complete scores written specifically for dance, whereas many Western choreographers cannibalise symphonies and operas for danceable tunes. Fedotov is very unhappy with the theft of symphonic music: ``When a composer writes symphonic music he thinks about many different things. When you take [he makes a nasty grabbing movement] this music for ballet, there is then only one version." Dance-makers often allow the music of dead composers to be dissected and reassembled to fit their scenarios. In their tetchier moments, many musicians regard this sort of thing as mere grave- robbing. The kindly Fedotov has a feeling bordering on contempt for those who profit from this grisly trade: "It is criminal! Arrangement!" he almost spits as he pronounces the word. "Minkus is Minkus. Adam is Adam. You don't `After' Minkus. After! It is bad. It can kill our art." It obviously irks him that the Kirov's touring production of Sleeping Beauty is an hour shorter than the full version played in St Petersburg. However, even the truncated score manages to include the sublime entr'acte violin solo composed by Tchaikovsky for Leopold Auer. Fedotov hums it abstractedly, his face enraptured. Has he no pity for small companies that cannot afford a full orchestra? He offers a sympathetic shrug but no compromise. "Theatre must have big troupe, great music. If you should like new Swan Lake please make new music, make different ballet." Schooled in the grand traditions of the Maryinsky, he is depressed by shrunken, inferior productions. "When I see that I think, `They should like to have food and money - but it is not art. In my family for 400 years everybody plays music. Music is my life, not my profession"n

Viktor Fedotov is scheduled to conduct the Kirov at the London Coliseum (0171-632 8300) in `Sleeping Beauty' Fri and Sat; `Don Quixote' 25, 26 July; `The Fountain of Bakhchisarai' 28-30 July