When Anastasia met Andy

...it changed both their lives spectacularly. He, a rich lawyer, felt compelled to start spending his fortune promoting her. She, a young Russian ballerina, was launched as a star. The rest - the snide remarks, the collapse of his marriage - was predictable. But, they tell Julia Stuart, it isn't how it seems
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The Independent Online

As Anastasia Volochkova and Andy Kerman enter the Ikea-blue staff room of the English National Ballet School, in London, they immediately strike you as a curious pair. They are the type you would sit and stare at on the Tube as you tried to fathom out their relationship.

She, 25 and blonde, has the sort of beauty one is lucky to witness once in a lifetime. He, in tight Levi's, a white shirt and chocolate-brown leather bomber- jacket, with matching shadows underneath his eyes, looks his 55 years.

There has been a lot of speculation about the relationship between Volochkova, a principal of the Bolshoi Ballet, and Kerman, the millionaire lawyer and vice-chairman of the English National Ballet School (whose full name is Anthony, not Andrew), who became her patron two years ago after seeing her perform.

Much has been made of the breakdown of Kerman's marriage – the father-of-two moved out of the family home several months after meeting Volochkova, though he says that the two events are unconnected. Eyebrows have been raised about the time and money he is said to spend on the young Russian, and there's talk of him having applied for a permanent visa for her to stay here. And then there are the lavish London shows he finances and organises to showcase her talent, despite some appalling reviews, and the whisper that he used his influence with the ENB to secure her a specially created role.

As Volochkova nips round the corner to change out of her black dress, bronze gauze shawl and high-heeled ankle boots, Kerman prepares his tape recorder. Despite legal advice that she could win substantial damages for libel after a British newspaper called her a "marriage wrecker", Volochkova has decided not to sue – she would rather concentrate on her career, which, like that of all ballerinas, is terrifyingly short-lived. Yet Kerman is taking no chances, and reminds me that his firm handles libel cases.

Volochkova returns, dressed in a lime Nike sweatshirt, rustling black dancing trousers and brown woolly socks. On her wrist is a large diamond Chopard watch – a present from the Chopard president after he saw her perform. Her dancing has that effect on people, it seems. Ankles together, she sinks towards the floor and her joints crack like gunfire. She then assumes what looks like a birthing position on the floor. After fussing with his tape recorder, Kerman, who next month is staging a five-day programme at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London starring the dancer, tells her he will return after ballet practice and leaves.

Volochkova sits on the floor, feet braced against the sofa, back perfectly straight. She turns her exquisite face towards me, with its green eyes and full lips. She is perfectly made-up, save for a faint smudge of spot cover-up on her forehead. She chats in her soft Russian accent, in gorgeous flowery terms, about her "art": "I want to receive all light from this life, and to give this light from stage," she says.

Her little face crumples when I mention the allegations about her relationship with Kerman. I feel as if I've just broken a precious vase. In last year's seven-page denial in Hello! (wearing designer clothes and £2.5m-worth of borrowed diamonds), she told readers she would never commit the "sin" of having an affair with a married man, and denied claims that she was questioned when corruption allegations rocked the Kirov Ballet six years ago. "I was only 17," she told Hello! "Who would tell a 17-year-old about goings-on at the theatre?"

Today, she's less keen to talk about the allegations. "I don't have time to think about everything what written about me," she says bleakly. "I'm just trying to keep my soul clean, and clear, and give it to the people." Volochkova, who is called Barbie by dancers in Russia, believes the rumours started out of professional envy.

Why does she think Kerman gives her career so much attention? "I believe this work is interesting for him as well, and we are working together as a team, nothing can be more interesting, more nice, more beautiful." She is, she says "grateful to my God" for having met him.

"I believe that people who will come to my performances, they will see my heart, my soul, they will feel my heart, and that is the most important moment for me, not everything that was written. I would like to be in the people's hearts and the people's souls more than in the newspapers."

Volochkova, who grew up in St Petersburg, wanted to be a ballerina from the age of five, when she was taken to see The Nutcracker. "Ballet is a magic, it cannot be explained by words. Something touched me," she says.

Her parents – her father was a table-tennis champion and coach, and her mother an engineer – took her to Vaganova ballet school. However, it took Volochkova three attempts to get in. "I didn't have so much abilities of ballet, everything what a dancer needs – big jump, high legs, big extension, flexibility, feet – nothing," she admits. "I had only one thing: I had a very big wish, and this wish was won."

At the age of eight, she was given a trial year at the school, during which she had private lessons every night. "My family was not rich, but at the same time not very poor, and they spent all their money on my private teachers. I was the worst student when I came into the school and in one year I was nearly the best."

She made history by performing with the Kirov as a principal dancer (playing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake) while still a 17-year-old student. At 18, she joined the company as a principal dancer, and during the following four years performed 15 main roles. During that time, the family was made homeless when a property deal went wrong, and had to sleep on friends' floors for three years.

Five years ago, her father was shot in the street. He survived the attack, but it's another subject that sends Volochkova's face into freefall. She says she has no idea who was behind it. "In Russia, life is so terrible, so dangerous, it can happen to everybody who walks on the street." Does she still fear for his life? "No, of course not, because it was just an accident."

In 1998, she moved to the Bolshoi, and last year turned freelance for a period, playing Carabosse in the English National Ballet's production of Sleeping Beauty in June. In October, Kerman staged a one-off Russian gala at the Palladium starring Volochkova, which was the venue's first genuine sell-out for ballet. Last March, he staged another, at Sadler's Wells, again starring Volochkova, which was sold out 10 days before the show opened.

She was not, however, to every critic's liking. One called her Carabosse "completely over the top" and said her performance was "technically wobbly". Another noted her "dubious talent". A review of her gala at the Palladium said she had "very little to show us in the way of phrasing or musicality. Some works didn't suit her... others were plain embarrassing."

Nadine Meisner, dance critic for The Independent, says: "She's had wonderful training, but I'm not sure she's really handled herself very well since that. For a while at the Kirov, she was doing quite well being given top roles. Since leaving, she's sort of drifted. She seems to be trying to be a kind of mass-market, glitzy star, and I don't think that's the best thing for her artistically. I don't know why she has to do these lurid concert programmes. I saw the programme at the Sadler's Wells [last March] and I didn't want to go. It just seemed so tacky.

"I'm not sure she approaches all her roles particularly intelligently or expressively. However, I did see her do one performance with the Bolshoi in London of Raymonda, and she was very good. But I've always found her rather vacuous.

"Kerman is a lawyer, I don't know how much taste or judgement he has. It's a bit of a puzzle why he's actually backing her. Maybe he genuinely thinks that she does have great talent. To my mind, she has to prove herself a bit more before I'm going to start saying she's a future international star."

Volochkova replies: "You know, of course I was very disappointed to have such a terrible press about me, but at the same time, people who are writing the stories, they are doing so because it's their job. I respect professional people who are dancers or ex-dancers who understand ballet, and I can listen to my teachers, people whom I trust. I cannot listen to everyone," she says quietly.

She has rejoined the Bolshoi, with a contract permitting her to continue performing her galas around the world. When she's not living with her mother in St Petersburg, she stays in Moscow or at a central London flat, said to be paid for by Kerman (who refuses to confirm or deny this).

From 25-29 September, Volochkova will star in two new programmes at Sadler's Wells, for which she will perform the Carmen and Don Quixote suites, Act III from Irek Mukhamedov's Swan Lake (a British premiere), and various classical divertissements. She will be joined by 15 Polish and 45 Russian dancers. She is, she chirps, "very exciting" about it.

Volochkova, who hopes to be a film star when she leaves ballet at 30, heads off towards the studio to practice. Kerman, whose St James's practice represents a number of "high-profile individuals" and "growing" companies, returns and talks guardedly about his protégée. With utmost politeness, the Old Etonian denies that Volochkova has wrecked his marriage; that she has been cited "in any divorce proceedings"; that his influence with the ENB helped Volochkova land the part of Carabosse; and that he has applied for a permanent visa for her.

He is clearly struck by her. He vigorously agrees when I mention her good looks, and it is easy to believe part of him is flattered at being romantically linked in the press to a beautiful woman less than half his age. Why does he think the rumours started? "I've no idea," he says, smiling his closed mouth smile. When pressed, he admits to having "a very clear view" but refuses to elaborate. Kerman unconsciously wiggles his feet when he talks, sometimes paces round, and at times breaks into a smile.

He says he had a powerful reaction the first time he saw Volochkova dance, in La Bayadère at the Coliseum in July 1999. By autumn, he was her patron. "She had enormous grace, wonderful technique, and quite breathtaking speed. Ballet is either gymnastics or it hits you in the stomach, and that was one of those occasions."

Why did he decide to be her patron? "We were friends and I wanted to help. As Cole Porter said, she's 'the tops'. I think she has the possibility of being one of the great dancers of her time. In the right role, she's wonderful."

He is not bothered by the bad reviews as she is enormously popular with audiences. Her two concerts this year at the Octyabrsky concert hall in St Petersburg, a 4,000-seater venue, both sold out. "If Anastasia was no good as a ballerina, you have to ask why Yuri Grigorovich, who was invited to come back to the Bolshoi and re-stage Swan Lake this March, and had the option of using any of the ballerinas in the Bolshoi, and indeed Russia, why he chose Anastasia from everybody and created new choreography on her. He ran the Bolshoi Ballet for 30 years. If he isn't a good judge of a dancer, I don't know who is."

Despite being sell-outs, Volochkova's two London showcases failed to make a profit. The gala at the Palladium alone is said to have cost £50,000. Some of the costs of the shows were met by a trust that supports Russian art. At the moment, however, Kerman alone is bankrolling next month's five-day extravaganza. I ask him again why he does it. "Why indeed?" he says smiling with his mouth shut, his eyes impish as he walks around in circles. I point out that he's pacing again. "I'm impossible," he says, making me wonder how many women have told him that.

"It gives me enormous pleasure," he says of his patronage. "I'm doing something for her, I think I'm doing something worthwhile, and one day, of course, it may become profitable."

Contrary to what has been reported, however, he is not risking £4m to hire the Albert Hall for a month next spring and fly over the Bolshoi Ballet to perform with Volochkova. He refuses to deny, however, that he considered it.

Despite all the denials, it is likely that Volochkova will continue to court controversy. As Kerman says, it is people's envy of Volochkova's beauty, talent and financial support that provokes such bile: "When you've got it all, you can find yourself in deep shit because people don't like it much."

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1 (020-7863 8000)