The Kirov Ballet and Opera are becoming almost as familiar as Deborah Bull, with yet another blockbusting London season to follow last year's. Will the recent gift of $50m for 10 annual visits to Washington, from the inexhaustibly rich Alberto Vilar, restrict future London seasons? Maybe not, as far as the Ballet is concerned, because with 200 dancers, they are numerous enough to split into two or even three; and they often combine foreign tours with simultaneous performances at home.
And what a lot of touring they do. After Mexico, now London. The Kirov's supremo and chief conductor Valery Gergiev drives not only himself, but the whole Kirov hard, perhaps too hard, with his headlong plans, projects and commitments. There's the new annual International Dance Festival in March, the annual White Nights festival in June, the Maryinsky Theatre's redevelopment, a possible open-air theatre in St Petersburg's New Holland area, the touring and more touring.
Critics accuse Gergiev on the one hand of underrating ballet in favour of opera; on the other of exploiting its ability to earn dollars for the overall cash-ravenous organisation. They also claim that with so much travelling the ballet doesn't have enough time to rehearse its new programmes, so that last month's Soviet triple bill to Shostakovich's music (Leonid Yacobson's The Bedbug, Igor Belsky's Leningrad Symphony and Konstantin Boyarsky's The Lady and the Hooligan), sandwiched between Mexico and London, was inadequately prepared.
The Kirov's dancers are radically sifted to meet a physical ideal. Like Russia's phenomenal musicians, they have had ingrained within their exceptional bodies a system of training that is the most rigorous, scientific and aesthetically sublime anywhere. But they still get tired and they returned exhausted from Mexico with its stressful high altitude. Then it was back to the tough grind of non-stop rehearsals, from morning to midnight if necessary, far longer hours than any Royal Ballet dancer would put up with.
Add to that the difficulty of working in an outdated theatre. The 1860 Maryinsky is one of the most exquisite opera houses in the world, but its backstage facilities are cramped, scruffy and antique. The redevelopment will build a rear extension across the Kurkov Canal to join up with the back of another theatre, the House of Culture, constructed in massive Stalinist style. This will not only create extra backstage space, but also provide a second stage, as big as the Maryinsky's and with an auditorium seating 2,000. There will be no problem about finding sufficient dancers for both theatres, but maybe ultimately it will lead to less foreign touring. "Everything depends on the country's general economic situation," says Makharbek Vaziev, the ballet company's director. If they can afford to stay more at home, maybe they will.
A former principal dancer, married to another, Olga Chenchikova (now a coach), Vaziev was born 40 years ago in Northern Ossetia in the Caucasus. His father died when Makharbek was a year and a half, and he, his brother and sister were brought up by their mother and grandmother. The family had no connection to ballet; in Northern Ossetia there were just folk-dancing troupes; he saw ballet only on television. He was mad about dancing. He heard about the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the famed St Petersburg school that supplies the Kirov, and, aged 11, decided that this was for him. "My grandmother was a very wise woman and never opposed herself to the ideas that we children had, even though sometimes they might look not very realistic." He passed the audition. "At the start the regime was a big shock. But after two or three months, my interest was gripped and after a year, I couldn't have imagined how my life could have been otherwise."
As a dancer, he was stylish if not notably virtuosic (which didn't stop him being regularly cast as the pyrotechnical slave of Le Corsaire). Does he miss performing? "You must never believe a person who, after spending much of their life on stage, says they are happy to be retired. Nothing in life can equal the emotions you feel during a performance. Once you experience this, you just wait for it again and again." But being director does have some compensation: he can now stand back and see the other dancers on stage. "When you have young people in front of you and you are responsible for them, it is a great pleasure to supervise their progress."
How would he like the company to progress? "I want new works. Of course, our basis was, is and will be the classical repertoire. What Petipa built on this stage has become a world treasure and it will remain here. But we don't have much experience of modern works. This is being developed and gaining more importance. And I'm sure that with the classical technique as our fundamental grammar, we can achieve a lot of interesting things."
What we tend to see in London are the Kirov's classics. Recently there has been a small shift to include works by Balanchine such as the dazzling three-part Jewels programme introduced last year. This time the big novelty is the Kirov's first British ballet, Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, which entered the repertoire last year and is performed by so many other companies it must come close to rivalling the ubiquitousness of Swan Lake. We know it well through the Royal Ballet's production (the original) so is it a case of coals to Newcastle? Or a tantalising glimpse of what a Russian sensibility can bring?
MacMillan's widow Deborah believes he would have been pleased with the Kirov. "Kenneth loved the set-up, the way older members stay on and become character dancers, which doesn't happen so much elsewhere now. It means the subsidiary roles are strongly cast." The Kirov Manon uses not the Nicholas Georgiadis designs but others by Peter Farmer, not yet seen here, which are easier to tour. "Peter made his designs for the Houston Ballet," says Deborah. "He had already shown Kenneth his ideas for the sets and was working on the costumes when Kenneth died."
The Kirov may still not have quite the versatile range of our ballet companies, but they are getting there. As well as Balanchine and MacMillan, they have danced Roland Petit, for example, and John Neumeier, as well as their own latter-day choreographers. Like every other ballet director, Vaziev feels the urgency of nurturing choreographers who can push ballet into the future. "But you can't do it overnight. We were a closed world for 73 years, so what do you expect? A new Petipa to explode on to the scene all of a sudden, after just five or 10 years? It can't happen like that. You have to analyse what's going on in dance, educate young choreographers, you have to work, work, work."
To those ends they encourage workshop pieces by novices such as Kirill Simonov, a soloist who created the steps for the company's new, design-led Nutcracker last February. And next month they will stage a young choreographers' evening at the Maryinsky. But that side of the Kirov is hidden away from us. So are their pieces by established contemporary Russian choreographers; and so is most of their huge Soviet repertoire. Delightful as it is to see Balanchine and MacMillan included this season, the fact is that we could get to see a whole lot more.
The Kirov Ballet, 020-7304 4000, 12 June to 21 July (auditorium seats still available)
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