Interview with Nino Ananiashvili“Last time I saw Nino Ananiashvili at La Scala, she performed the Swan Lake. I will never forget how her hands moved when she was exiting the stage at the end of the second act after the scene of parting with the Prince. The only advantage of my age is that I have seen many ballet dancers: [Maya] Plisetskaya, [Margot] Fonteyn, [Natalia] Makaraova, but I cannot recall anyone else being so poetic on the stage,” an aged and very demanding Milanese balletomane told me long ago.
When you mention Nino Ananiashvili’s name among ballet goers, everyone starts speaking with admiration about the roles she has performed and the images she has created. Nino Ananiashivli’s ballet career began 31 years ago, on one of the world’s most famous ballet stages, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, and since then she has performed on almost every famous stage worldwide. Several weeks ago, on 8 December, in Tbilisi, she performed one of the most distinguished pieces of her career – the third part of Raymonda, choreographed by Marius Petipa. Once again she made the audience wonder how, after so many years on the stage, she not only performs so brilliantly but is still the best Raymonda.
The world-renowned ballerina is the Artistic Director of the State Ballet of Georgia which has temporarily turned into a nomad troupe of dancers. It has been almost four years’ now since refurbishments began on the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre. She therefore invited us to join her in the loft of the Music and Drama State Theatre where the ballet company, under joint supervision with her Muscovite fellow dancer Alexei Fadeyechev, has rehearsals. Her dressing room is rather small and simple. Before starting the interview, she vacates her room so that Alexei and his wife Tatyana Rastorgueva, also a ballet dancer, can change their clothes. As they were doing so, she took us on a tour of the rehearsal hall:
“Look how we decorated the hall. To create spirit, we hung photos of our ballet company on the walls and made the hall look cozier. Ithas been almost four years now that we have had to work in such extreme conditions – we have to rehearse now here, then somewhere else. Now [the Music and Drama State Theatre director] Dato Doiashvili has provided us with this space and we are very grateful. It was same way before. When I was pregnant, I used to change my clothes in the hallway. The ceiling caved in in my office and I only just escaped. Even then, they used to say that I was reluctant to leave my office, not allowing them to repair,” she recounts with a hearty laugh. Meanwhile, Tatyana and Alexei have vacated her room, apologizing. “Have you ever met a world-famous star who not only doesn’t have a proper dressing room, but still has others breaking in to use what little she does have?” Tatyana asked.
We went into the room. Nino sat in her armchair, her back straight, poised for the interview. You couldn’t guess that she is tired. The rehearsal has just ended and she has still has much work ahead. She is sorry that she is too busy to spend much time with her child, although she worries no less about the state of the company:
“Georgia is not Germany. One cannot to come out and just demand good conditions for the company. We went through a war not long ago. Of course, our salaries are also very low; some of our dancers have two or three children, but we understand that almost half of Georgia has no jobs at all. I think we have escaped the worst. Luckily, we still manage to continue dancing. We are now preparing two modern ballet performances that have been staged by young choreographers especially for us. I am glad that they have given the opportunity for our young dancers to participate in their choreography.”
One often hears complaints about young dancers that, although their technical skills are much better, they look more like athletes than classical ballet dancers and that they lack individualism. What are your impressions about the dancers of today and how do they differ from ballerinas of Ananiashvili generation?
“The general level of ballet has risen significantly worldwide. One of the reasons for this is that many representatives of the Russian school now work abroad and have raised the younger generations. Physically, the dancers of the new generation are absolutely different; their proportions have improved. Looking even at our ballet company, you will see that the corps de ballet differs from what it was like 10 years ago, although we do not measure children in our school like they do in China – there, a child whose legs are shorter than their torso by more than 18 cm does not get admitted to a ballet school. Just imagine the choice China has compared to our country. Therefore, today, Chinese ballerinas have amazing forms.
“The technical skills of dancers have also naturally improved. If before only Pierina Legnani could perform 32 fouettes, today everyone can do that. But that does not mean that anyone who has good technical skills can be called a good ballerina. Individuality is very important in our profession. My teacher often told me: ‘I, as a viewer, am not interested in your technique or pose; that is the must for a dancer anyway. For me what is important when I watch you perform is that it either makes me laugh or cry and gives me the urge to come to see you again.’ For example, I have always been fond of Lucia Lacarra and Alessandra Ferri, who are not distinguished for their excellent technique, but they dance with such emotion that one cannot take their eyes off of them during their performance. There are, of course, also good contemporary dancers. For instance, I like Olesya Novikova very much, who performed Raymonda in La Scala. I did not watch her live, I just watched a recording, but her dance showed such a huge amount of inner refinement and her appearance is so attractive that I could watch her over and over again with pleasure.”
You are a representative of the Russian school and you have danced extensively in the West. Why is the Russian school regarded as the best and how does it differ from the European school?
“The Russian school is good because of its system. Children in Europe mainly learn to dance at private schools, which lack a complex method of teaching: for example, they are taught classical dance but are not taught a character role or duet. Children need to be taught those subjects in order to perform on stage. Therefore, much depends on individual talent and on the teacher there. The system according to which dancers are taught in Saint Petersburg and Moscow was not invented by Russians – the French and Danish also have that system. However, there are many different aspects in the method of teaching.
“I have a friend, a representative of the French school, who has studied in Europe and in Saint Petersburg and today, teaches at the Munich Ballet Academy according to the Vaganova method, who told me all about those differences. According to her, in the European schools those who fail to perform something are simply dismissed. In Russia, children get explained one thing that they are then begged to do correctly for hours, regardless of the extreme strictness of a school. Discipline is a must in our profession. That is why Russian school dancers have always been in high demand.”
You are considered a distinguished performer of many classical ballet roles, for example, you are one of the best performers of swan. How are characters created? And what, apart from talent, is necessary for an actor to make a role a success?
“In ballet, like in painting, the most important thing is to find a personal style and have your own signature. To that end, much reasoning and work is necessary. I am naturally happy when people say that I managed to create a unique signature performance in, say, Swan Lake or Raymonda, which does not look like that of any other.
“An actor must always know what he/she is dancing, who is the character he/she performs. For example, when I started preparing La Bayadère, I approached that ballet like an academic work. I read a lot of literature, including the memoir of Petipa, and got acquainted with Indian dancing arts. I read a lot about how the old performances staged in Moscow and Saint Petersburg differed from each other and what the critics of the time wrote about them. By the way, I found many articles with similar opinions that used the same phrases or words. It seems back then, like today, critics had the practice often just rewriting each other’s work – I laughed a lot when I realized this.
“My teacher in Moscow was Raisa Struchkova, a great ballerina. I adored her immensely, but I wanted to prepare La Bayadère under the instruction of Marina Semyonova because she was outstanding and, even more so, was the first performer of that role. I was preparing that part for the first time that, I wanted to learn as much as possible and, consequently, wanted to use the opportunity to work with Semyonova. However, it proved very difficult for me to take that step and it took me months to tell my teacher about my desire. I did not want to hurt Raisa. At the end of the day, my husband persuaded me that Struchkova was such a generous person that she would not be offended by my decision. He was correct. ‘Of course,’ Struchkova told me, ‘you must take classes with Marina.’ However, after I had made an appointment for classes with Marina, everyone who met Struchkova in the Theatre told her, in a mocking tone, ‘We’ve heard that Nina [Russian variation of her name] has moved on from you.’ That broke my heart and I tried to ensure that I did not hurt either of the two. So, on the very next day, I made appointments for classes with both teachers in two different rehearsal halls – for La Bayadère with Marina Semyonova and for Romeo and Juliet with Raisa Struchkova, even though I had my part in Romeo and Juliet already well prepared and, with the next performance scheduled two months from then, I did not need to work on that ballet at all.
“That is how I turned out to be the only ballerina in the Bolshoi Theatre who managed to work with two instructors and not enter into conflict with either of them. As a result, I learned a lot of things from Marina that I had not heard or seen before. She treated me exceptionally well and, when she realized that I was truly interested in the role, she helped me to stage a Raymonda that differed from any other performed, either by her or her students. She used to tell me that as I was from an Eastern country I would understand that character better than others.”
The change of generations is a painful process in theatre. When you went to the Bolshoi Theater there were great dancers there. When you were a very young ballerina and started performing leading parts, how was that received by your elder colleagues?
“Erik Aschengreen, a Danish dance critic, once told us about the change of generations: ‘I have seen very many people coming into our theatre, but have never seen any leaving it happy.’ Of course, actors perceive it painfully. I personally tried to be on good terms with everyone. But to say that nothing bad happened in the Theatre would be a lie.
“There was, of course, some jealousy on the part of representatives of the older generations. Imagine the situation when those stars of the Bolshoi Theatre such as Pavlova, Semenyaka and Bessmertnova performed the leading roles in evening performances, and yet where the print media wrote more about me than about them – even though I was not in a premier role and was mainly only allowed to appear in day performances. That did not always make me happy - on the one hand, receiving positive assessments from the people who saw my performance for the first time was very valuable for me, but, on the other hand, it made me nervous because it could have dire consequences. I was often unable to dance because, for example, a more influential ballerina would declare that she wanted to dance on the day that I was scheduled to perform. When this happened my name would simply be crossed out and another’s put down instead. Therefore, I danced little in Moscow. That is life in theatre.”
In answer to a question as to whether she thought she would be as an acknowledged a ballerina as she is today if she had been allowed to dance a full schedule in Moscow, she replied:
“No journalist has asked me about this before, but I have thought a lot about that. In general, I am a very obedient and law abiding person. I always performed everything I was told to. Therefore, if I had had the possibility to regularly perform on the Moscow stage I would probably not have found myself on the international stage, I would not have danced pieces choreographed by Balanchine, MacMillan or Ashton; I would have not got to the American Ballet Theatre and would have finished my career like so many Soviet ballerinas did. Fortunately, it came to pass that I was in great demand abroad. What else was there for me to do with my life but dance? I never worried that I was paid much less and lived in worse conditions than many of my foreign colleagues. I did not consider that a problem. I only wanted to dance and, for me, it did not matter where. My problem was the lack of being on stage, nothing more.”Today she is the head of the ballet company. She arrived in Tbilisi eight years ago and since then has done a lot: staging 41 performances, inviting foreign choreographers and colleagues to collaborate, enriching the ballet’s repertoire with performances by classical and modern choreographers… At present, she rarely performs abroad alone: when she gets a personal invitation, she extends the offer for prestigious theatres to work together with the Georgian ballet company. But still, one hears criticism of her approach.
Critics often say that your repertoire is chosen incorrectly. Some want classical ballet, others like modern choreography. They also say that many have left the company because you did not allow them to dance. You have never answered these allegations…
“I do not know how to answer these people; I do not know who they are, because I was never asked that question directly. I would only advise them to come and see that those very people, whom they say I do not allow to dance, have danced in most of premieres. I myself never danced in a premiere of a full-length ballet except for Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, and I was personally granted the right to dance that performance.
“As regards those who left the theatre because I did not allow them onto the stage… there are those who were good, and are good wherever they are now, for example, Lasha Khozashvili – a gifted person and my student. I am, of course, sorry that he is no longer with my company and now performs in Boston. I can say the same about Ana Albutashvili who is in Birmingham now. I do not know what to say about the others who are unhappy. If I were the problem, then why cannot they be seen, wherever they are now? You know, I have always tried to keep everyone, irrespective of their talents and qualities. It is bad that many of them fail to correctly evaluate their own capabilities. As regards the repertoire, I have never wanted our ballet company to be something like a provincial theatre. I spare no effort to avoid that. That’s why today we have choreographies by Kylián and Bournonville as well as many classical and modern ballets. Some do not like that. However, there is no theatre or company in the world where everyone is happy about everything.”
Nino is a great improviser. She always changes something from performance to performance, be they movements, costumes or hairstyles, and, by so doing, she never stops amazing her devoted audience who never miss any of her performances:
“Improvisation is good so long as it does not go beyond accepted limits. It indicates that you are not afraid and feel free on the stage. That is very important for dancers in general. For example, MacMillan, with whom we were on very friendly terms, told me that, despite his excellent capabilities, he failed to become an established dancer because he had a fear of the stage. He did everything perfectly during rehearsals but spoilt everything once he stepped onto stage in front of the audience. That’s why he decided to stage dances for others and became a great choreographer.
“I have never had a fear of the stage. I was a first year student at a choreography school when I improvised for the first time. A third-grade student hurt her leg and I replaced her. I had just arrived in Moscow and had not yet performed anything on the stage. I had danced a lot in Tbilisi, but in Moscow only during classes. I was missing the stage so much and was so glad about the opportunity to dance that, when I went out in front of the audience, I was overwhelmed with confidence and deviated from the movements – I swirled faster than was needed and finished those movements earlier than the music. I instantly realized that there was some music left and that I had to do something. My teacher, seeing that I had made a mistake, thought that I would finish dance early and became nervous. However, I suddenly made a turn and invented some movements myself, finishing the dance on cue. I got the applause, but then I ran into a dressing room and started crying. I thought, ‘that’s it. I will never be allowed to dance.’ I nearly started packing my luggage to return to Tbilisi. But then my teacher came to my room and calmed me down by hugging me and commended me on finding a solution. Years later my teacher recounted that, after that performance, the other teachers thought that she modified the piece a little, ‘I did not give you away’, she told me ‘I told them that I modified the piece as it was your first dance on the stage.’ Even the other teachers did not realize what had happened. If you make a mistake on a stage, the ability to save the situation is very important and, as my teachers say, I have always had that quality.
“Otherwise, freedom and, consequently, improvisations come with the age. At the onset of my career I did not do what I do now. I was more strained on stage, mostly thinking about how to perform the task I was assigned. Once, Tatiana Terekhova, who danced until the age of 46, told me: ‘Of course it is painful, of course it is more difficult physically, but it is with age, and after you turn 30, that the freedom comes which helps you control the stage better.’ I was always surprised at how she managed to dance at that age and thought, ‘why to wait until I turn 30 when I can do it well right now?!’ But Tatiana proved to be correct. It is not as if I am never nervous before going onto stage, I still get nervous today, but the experience I have accumulated, allows me to better control the situation and make changes so that the audience will never guess if something goes wrong.”
Despite stiff competition for the accolade, she is often named the most significant ballerina of her generation, even though there are other great ballerinas of her generation such as, for example, says Sylvie Guillem. When I ask her about that appraisal, she smiles shyly:
“There were indeed many good ballerinas in my generation: Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri, Elisabeth Platel… Of course, it is very pleasant when, after some time, you are named the most famous dancer. But, on the other hand, the most valuable appraisals have been the evaluations of my teachers and the audience – the ordinary people who pay what little money they may have to come to a performance and watch you on the stage. Imagine, I have not danced in Moscow for so many years and yet people still call me up in tears to tell me that they miss me on that stage – there is no higher appreciation than that.
“In recent times, there have been so many negative emotions towards me in Georgia that I often reexamined my decision to return here, thinking that people might like me more from a distance. But then, when I go out and people stop me in the street and say very warm words, I understand that not everyone thinks the same way. It is such meetings, feeling the affection of ordinary people, that makes us performers stronger, that enables us to live as we do and to continue doing what we love to do.”