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Ratmansky Head Shot

Alexei Ratmansky. Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

As long as there are choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky around our hopes for the future of classical ballet as an art form are renewed. Now one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers, Ratmansky started his career as a ballet dancer with the Kiev Ballet in the Ukraine. Dancing soon took him out of Eastern Europe to various companies in the West where he was exposed to different choreographers and styles. Absorbing all these influences he started developing his own choreographic language, a personal mix of influences by Petipa, Bournonville, Ashton, Balanchine and Tudor woven into narrative or abstract choreography.

His achievements as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director and a winning streak of new works, including those for New York City Ballet (NYCB), put him center stage. This led to his recent appointment with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) as Artist in Residence, a role tailored so that Ratmansky can create new work for ABT whilst continuing to choreograph worldwide.

While we follow his ABT career with interest and keep crossing our fingers for more of Ratmansky’s work in London, we leave you with some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Alexei Ratmansky in a Nutshell

Alexei Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg in 1968. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine where his father – a former gymnast – worked as an aeronautics engineer and his mother as a psychiatrist.  At the age of 10 he was accepted into the Bolshoi Academy (Moscow Choreographic Institute) to train under the guidance of Pyotr Pestov and Anna Markeyeva. His classmates included former ABT star and current Berlin Staatsballett Artistic Director Vladimir Malakhov, current Bolshoi director Yuri Burlaka and Bolshoi star Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

From early on Ratmansky showed an interest in experimenting with choreography but despite his talents in performing and in creating dances he was not accepted into the Bolshoi. Instead, he joined the Kiev Ballet as a soloist, dancing leading roles in the classics. During this period he met his soon to be wife, fellow dancer Tatiana Kilivniuk and juggled his dancing career with studying at the Choreographers’ Faculty of GITIS (today, The Russian Academy of Theatre Art – RATI). There he had the opportunity to stage his first ballet, La Sylphide-88. Set to Shostakovich‘s music this was a short work given in one single performance.

In 1992 while on tour in Canada, Ratmansky and his wife were invited to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He continued creating small pieces, mainly for Tatiana, and became familiar with the works of Tudor, van Dantzig, Neumeier and Balanchine.

He quit The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and returned to Kiev in 1995 as a freelance dancer but left again to join The Royal Danish Ballet in 1997. During his seven years in Denmark, Ratmansky immersed himself in August Bournonville’s works. There he continued to create choreography whilst also becoming a principal dancer (2000).

Nina Ananiashvili soon spotted his talent and asked him to create short works for her international tours (the Golden Mask Winner Dreams of Japan, set to taiko drumming and flutes). The touring of these works boosted Ratmansky’s profile and led to his first commissions by the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi.

In 2002, he staged Cinderella for the Mariinsky and, in 2003, The Bright Stream, for the Bolshoi, as part of their Shostakovich celebrations. The Bright Stream had been originally created in 1935 by Fyodor Lopukhov to Shostakovich’s music but immediately discarded given Stalin‘s disapproval of “peasants on pointe”. Because of this Lopukhov was fired and Shostakovich never wrote a ballet score again. Reinventing the choreography on top of the original libretto, Ratmansky turned this “rejected ballet” into a great success.

Ratmansky full

Alexei Ratmansky Photo: MIRA / ABT ©

The Bolshoi Years

Golden Mask Prize winner The Bright Stream led to Ratmansky’s appointment as the Bolshoi’s Artistic Director in 2004. His mandate was to focus on modernising the company and reconciling the new repertoire with the classics.

The Bolshoi’s five years under Ratmansky have been celebrated as a golden age. The company rejuvenated and regained artistic credibility with new works. For Ratmansky it must have been a draining period with a lot of compromising and pacifying different personalities and artistic egos,  leaving him with little time and energy to choreograph. He has said in the past that Russia is not very friendly to choreographers given its emphasis on the classics and inherited traditions, with certains dancers limiting themselves to new opportunities and holding on to the belief that they can only be creative within the boundaries of the old repertoire.

During Ratmansky’s tenure 25 new ballets were acquired for the company including works by Balanchine, Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp and Léonide Massine. In addition to The Bright Stream he also successfully restaged lost ballets such as Class Concert, The Flames of Paris and a lavish and critically acclaimed reconstruction of Le Corsaire.

In addition to developing dances Ratmansky is also credited with nurturing and creating opportunitities for such new talents as Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, Ekaterina Krysanova, Nelli Kobakhidze and Denis Savin, while also showcasing the artistry of dancers Maria Alexandrova, Ekaterina Shipulina and Svetlana Lunkina, by casting them in new roles.

On the Dnieper 2

Veronika Part, Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in Ratmansky's On the Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

From Bolshoi to ABT

Early in 2008, rumours started circulating of Ratmansky departing to NYCB as resident choreographer, to follow in the steps of Christopher Wheeldon. But the terms of NYCB’s offer would have restricted his ability to create work outside the company so, instead, he decided to join ABT as an Artist in Residence, a role that gives him enough freedom to pursue other collaborations.

Ratmansky’s Ballets

For Ratmansky, classical ballet can be kept alive as long as its human content is relevant, narrative being a particular trait in his works. Ratmansky often mentions that while for George Balanchine, one of his influences, it was all about the steps and abstraction, for him the steps are part of a conversation that blends craft and passion.

His works are considered musical and fluid, probably a direct influence from his experience with Bournonville. He considers his choreography to be instinctive, the product of an analytical reaction to the score and physical response to the music (he used to put on music and film himself to observe how his body reacted naturally). That explains his preference for a more naturalistic port de bras, open chested stands, patterns that are circling, dynamic and constantly shifting, with suggestions of folk dance, as is the case with his Russian Seasons.

Some of Ratmansky’s works

  • A Fairy’s Kiss (Tchaikovsky, 1994) – Kiev Ballet
  • Capriccio (Stravinsky, 1997) – Bolshoi
  • The Charms of Mannerism (Strauss, 1997) – Postmodern-Theatre
  • Poem of Ecstasy (Scriabin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Middle Duet (Hanin, 1998) – Mariinsky
  • Turandot’s Dream (Hindemith, 2000) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolero (Ravel, 2001) –  International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Flight to Budapest (Brahms, 2001) – International Ballet of Copenhagen
  • Nutcracker – Re-staging after Petipa (Tchaikovsky, 2001) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • The Firebird (Stravinsky, 2002) – The Royal Swedish Ballet
  • Cinderella (Prokofiev, 2002) – Mariinsky
  • Le Carnaval des Animaux (Saint-Saens, 2003) – San Francisco Ballet
  • The Bright Stream (Shostakovich, 2003) – Bolshoi
  • Leah (Bernstein, 2004) – Bolshoi
  • Anna Karenina (Schedrin, 2005) – The Royal Danish Ballet
  • Bolt (Shostakovich, 2005) – Bolshoi
  • Russian Seasons (Desyatnikov, 2006) – NYCB
  • Middle Duet (Hanon, 2006) – NYCB
  • Le Corsaire – Restaging after Petipa, with Yuri Burlaka (Adam, 2007) – Bolshoi
  • Jeu de Cartes (Stravinsky, 2007 ) – Bolshoi
  • The Flames of Paris – New staging with use of original choreography by Vasily Vainonen, based on original libretto by Nikolai Volkov and Vladimir Dmitriev (Asafiev, 2008. )
  • Pierrot Lunaire  (Schoenberg, 2009) – For Diana Vishneva as part of her show Beauty in Motion
  • Concerto DSCH (Shostakovich, 2008) – NYCB
  • The Little Humpbacked Horse (Schedrin, 2009) – Mariinsky
  • On the Dnieper (Prokofiev, 2009) – ABT
  • Scuola di Ballo – Restaging after Massine (Bocherini, 2009) – The Australian Ballet
  • Seven Sonatas (Scarlatti, 2009) – ABT
  • Don Quixote – Restaging after Petipa (Minkus, 2010) – Dutch National Ballet

Awards and Honours:

  • Golden Mask  for Dreams of Japan (1999)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, The Bright Stream (2004)
  • Knighted in Denmark (order of the Danish Flag) for his contribution to the arts (2002)
  • Benois de la Danse for Anna Karenina production for the Royal Danish Ballet (2005)
  • Golden Mask for Best Choreographer, Jeu de Cartes (2006)
  • Critics’ Circle National Dance Award for The Bright Stream after the Bolshoi’s London tour (2006)
On the Dnieper

Paloma Herrera as Olga and Marcelo Gomes as Sergei in Ratmansky's On The Dnieper. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Videos

The following short extracts should give you an idea of how rich and varied Ratmansky’s choreography is and how widespread it has become.

  • Extract of Russian Seasons as danced by Dutch National Ballet [link]
  • Pas de deux from Anna Karenina, danced by Gitte Lindstrøm and Mads Blangstrup from The Royal Danish Ballet [link]
  • Nina Ananiashvili in Leah, from Ratmansky Gala at the Bolshoi [link]
  • Le Jardin Anime scene from Ratmansky’s Le Corsaire, with Svetlana Zakharova as Medora and Ekaterina Krysanova as Gulnare [link]
  • Extract of Bolt, featuring Denis Savin, Anastasia Yatsenko and Andrei Merkuriev [link]
  • Diana Vishneva and Andrei Merkuriev in Cinderella [link]
  • A short feature on Scuola di Ballo for The Australian Ballet [link]
  • Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov in an extract of The Little Humpbacked Horse [link]

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of The Bright Stream:

The final offering of the season was The Bright Stream. In 1935, when Shostakovich’s sunny score was staged in Moscow with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov (and initially much liked), it drew down Stalinist wrath as “balletic fraud”, wholly irresponsible in portraying the nature of collective farming. It has been Alexey Ratmansky’s achievement to rehabilitate the piece, by rescuing the score and taking an amused look at its narrative and, most significantly, at the aesthetic and political conventions of ballet in the 1930s. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times (2007) [link]

Alexei Ratmansky, who completely rechoreographed it for the Bolshoi in 2003, didn’t have to worry about toeing the party line and was free to do whatever he wanted with Shostakovich’s jolly music and Piotrovsky and Lopukhov’s lighthearted libretto. His new production honours them both with wit and compassion, and a stream of wonderful — and very funny — choreography…All in all, the best new ballet to come out of Russia in years. Debra Craine at the Times (2006) [link]

Of Bolt:

Though I hope other choreographers will give sharper visual style to this unusual and instantly appealing music, I feel that Ratmansky deserves the highest credit here. He may not have produced a definitive new Bolt, but he has given the full ballet score to the world to play with, a marvellous gift. Ismene Brown at The Telegraph (2005) [link]

Of The Little Humpbacked Horse

This ballet is life-affirming and rich in humanity. Ratmansky’s choreography is masterly, and has a clear form and shape. His narrative is clear, and each scene is of the right length. The final transformation scene of Ivan into a young tsar is effective and witty. The two classical duets are full of heart-warming tenderness. The duets for Ivan and the Humpbacked Horse in Act I are spirited and lively. Kevin NG at The Saint Petersburg Times (2009) [link]

Of On the Dnieper:

Ratmansky, as always, produces lovely movement—the solos for both men are particularly telling. And he never loses his touch with groups of dancers, their extended passages both coherent and effective in themselves and reflecting the emotional trajectory of the story. Robert Gottlieb at The New York Observer (2009) [link]

Mr. Ratmansky gleans every bit of story possible from the Lifar-Prokofiev original and makes the most of it. (…) What Mr. Ratmansky captures beautifully with these characters (and less eloquently with Natalia, described in the program as “grief-stricken yet noble”) is what it is like to be torn by opposite emotional impulses. The choreography’s other felicities include some lovely subtleties of ensemble and striking instances of dancers standing or moving with their backs to us. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2009) [link]

Of Russian Seasons

His “Russian Seasons” finally received its world premiere on Thursday evening at the New York State Theater, and it was worth the wait (…) It would be too easy to say that the choreography owes its originality to its inspirations from folk dance, though it does make happy use of such dancing. Mr. Ratmansky is a fountain of movement ideas, with sweeping stiff arms and vigorous floor-stamping and clapping and every sort of catlike pose, from freshly funny to deeply tragic. Intimations of character and personality never get in the way of pure dance. John Rockwell at The New York Times (2006) [link]

Leaving the theater, I could have danced for joy, especially if I had been choreographed by Ratmansky. A new choreographer has come to light – and the dance world is a better place. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2006).

Of Concerto DSCH

Concerto DSCH is an endlessly suspenseful choreographic construction, with passages of breathtaking dance brilliance. Again and again, you find yourself thinking, “I didn’t realize this was going to happen after that,” and “What exactly were those steps that flashed by just now?” Better yet, it’s marked by tender pure-dance poetry. Alastair Macaulay at The New York Times (2008) [link]

Certainly “Concerto DSCH” seems at first glance – even second glance – a weird name for a ballet, but Alexei Ratmansky’s new work created for New York City Ballet on Thursday night is a gold-plated, copper-bottomed hit. Clive Barnes at The New York Post (2008) [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Bolshoi’s Website [link]
  2. Alexei Ratmansky’s Biography from the Benois de la Danse Website [link]
  3. ABT’s Alexei the Mild? by Robert Greskovic. The Wall Street Journal. June 2009 [link]
  4. Interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Natasha Dissanayake. Ballet.co Magazine. July-August 2004. [link]
  5. Freelance Freedoms. Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Marc Haegeman. Dance Now Magazine. Vol. 17, No. 4. Winter 2008/09.
  6. Ballet’s future Russian Ahead by Leigh Witchel. New York Post. October 2009. [link]
  7. Ratmansky Takes Manhattan by Marina Harss. The Nation. September, 2009. [link]
  8. Bolshoi Director May Take Job at City Ballet by Gia Kourlas. The New York Times. February 2008 [link]
  9. For Bolshoi Ballet, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back by Nora Fitzgerald. The Washington Post. February, 2007 [link]
  10. Alexei Ratmansky and the new Bolshoi by Margaret Willis. Dance Magazine, November 2004. [link]
  11. New Home, New Job and New Moves for Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times, May 2009. [link]
  12. The Bolshoi in Paris: An interview with Alexei Ratmansky by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, February 2004. [link]
  13. Alexei Ratmansky by Roslyn Sulcas. The New York Times. November, 2009 [link]

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Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

Leanne Benjamin. Source: ROH © Copyright belongs to its respective owners

As we stare at the Royal Ballet’s new season, what better way to start than with the company’s veteran, Leanne Benjamin, who has danced for 17 years now and is still going strong. One of their most accomplished Principals, Leanne is ready to impress the crowds with her portrayal of the minxy Mary Vetsera in the opening night of Mayerling.

With all the physical wear of tear caused by the profession, few ballerinas can be on the rise well into their forties, but this is exactly the case with Leanne Benjamin. Her technique is still solid and having been blessed with a cooperative physique, she has managed to keep growing thanks to old-fashioned hard work and discipline (she is known for rarely having missed class) and to a well-thought out choice of repertoire.

These attributes and the fact she carries on excelling at full-length roles such as Juliet, Manon and Giselle have won her the admiration, not only of younger colleagues but also of bright modern choreographers such as Kim Brandstrup, Alastair Marriott, Wayne McGregor and last but not least Christopher Wheeldon (Leanne guests in his company Morphoses) for whom she is always on demand.

For all of Leanne’s consistency and longevity as a performer it is surprising that her name is not as recognizable for the occasional ballet goer as that of some younger Principals. Her recent Giselle was full of depth and the MacMillan heroines suit her immensely: few can match the intensity of her Mary Vetsera (Mayerling), the complexity of her Manon, her metamorphosing Juliet. Leanne can leap from mighty Firebird to more contemporary works, where she displays luscious extensions and a pliant body, and yet she remains very much a connoisseur’s ballerina.

leanne

Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling. Photo: ROH © Source: Danser-en-france

Leanne Benjamin in a Nutshell

Leanne was born in 1964 in Rockhampton, a small city in Queensland, Australia. To keep her busy, her parents signed her up for ballet at age 3, where she trained under the guidance of Valerie Hansen. During her childhood years she never put too much work into becoming a ballerina and it wasn’t until her sister Madonna entered the Royal Ballet School (RBS) that she felt she was up for the challenge. Two years later, aged 16, she followed her sister’s path and joined the class of 1980, at the same time as Royal Ballet’s Répétiteur (and former Principal dancer) Jonathan Cope.

Training with Nancy Kilgore and Julia Farron, Leanne won the Adeline Genée Gold Medal in the same year she joined and the Prix de Lausanne one year later (1981). She caused such an impression dancing Giselle in her graduation workshop that both Ninette de Valois and Peter Wright offered her a contract to join their companies (respectively, The Royal Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – nowadays the Birmingham Royal Ballet).

Thinking she would have more opportunity to dance soloist roles at the SWRB, Leanne accepted Peter Wright’s offer. She joined them in 1983 and bolted through the ranks to become a Principal in 1987. A  hard worker who admits she needs the right conditions to perform at her best, Leanne thought at that point she needed a change, with more time to focus on individual performances and  decided to go work for Peter Schaufuss who at the time directed the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet).

The Festival Ballet’s focus on high technique was the perfect environment for Leanne to flourish and take on new roles such as Juliet in Ashton’s Romeo & Juliet and in Tetley‘s Sphinx. In 1988 Schaufuss left LFB for Deustche Oper Berlin, taking Leanne with him. But she would not linger in Berlin for too long, accepting in 1992 an invitation from Kenneth MacMillan to join the Royal Ballet as a first soloist.

Leanne’s light jumps and long extensions (even though she is 1.57 m = 5 ft 2), along with solid interpretations of MacMillan’s female leads and other complex roles in general were a perfect match for the Royal Ballet’s theatrical style. She says she is a perfectionist and that she creates these roles by letting herself go with the music and reading the other dancers’s reactions to her own interpretation.

As she matures she has become more motivated by one-act ballets and new roles created on her by some of today’s most renowned choreographers. She  singles out her role in The Firebird as one of her greatest physical challenges but motherhood, she says, has been the biggest challenge of all and she considers herself very lucky to have been able to go back to her career and continue to bloom.

Leanne has been partnered by many great dancers, but her more recent partnership with Edward Watson holds a special place in her heart. Watson has acknowledged Leanne is helping him become a better partner and it is clear they have a great deal of admiration and respect for one another. Their chemistry is evident, especially when they are dancing in MacMillan or modern pieces.

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH © Source: Balletanddance

Leanne has said in various occasions that she would have loved to dance Tatiana in Cranko‘s Onegin and perform more of the Neumeier repertoire or, like many dancers, Mats Ek pieces were it not for the fact that a toe joint problem prevents her from dancing off-pointe (and soft shoes are a given in Mats Ek’s choreography).

As for the future, she has mentioned that she is not interested in choreographing and is more likely to pursue various interests outside dance.

Videos

Browsing through the YouTube maze, we found a number of videos which display Leanne’s wonderful musicality and versatility

Extract of Reviews and Praise

Of her role as the second soloist in Balanchine’s Emeralds

Leanne Benjamin found her own poetry in the dreamy cross-currents of Balanchine’s choreography; the slight hesitancy that dragged at her quick, bright jumps, the way her body yielded to gravity against the vertical lift of her leg both creating a paradoxical illusion of light and float. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link].

Of her Giselle

Benjamin, that gently brilliant dancer, that true mistress of her art, offers us a Giselle of illuminating physical and emotional grace. We see a delightful peasant girl whose madness is delineated with rare sympathy: deliciously clear dancing, an anguished pose, a heart-tearing moment with Albrecht’s sword, tell all about her. An exquisite pas de bourrée and the gentlest shaping of her torso, summon up the wili. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

She has been dancing the role for years but I can’t imagine she’s danced it better. Her peasant girl is bashful but eager, her dancing warm and graceful, impulsive too. The shock of her lover’s betrayal sparks a mad scene that’s effectively theatrical without being overwrought…A dreamy Benjamin, with the quietest pointe shoes and the slowest adage I’ve seen in Giselle, captures the “here-not here” allure that so confounds Watson’s passionately grieving Albrecht. Most important, there’s a real dramatic connection between the two of them that makes their story come alive so vividly, and there’s never a moment when their emotional intentions aren’t absolutely clear. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of her Firebird

Leanne Benjamin was superlative, never allowing the drama of the long, exhausting opening pas de deux to relax for an instant. Now in her mid-40s, Ms. Benjamin is a completely compelling artist dancing with the technique to be expected of someone half her age. Alastair Macaulay at the NYTimes [link]

Of her role in Alastair Marriott‘s recent Sensorium (read our review here)

The pas de deux are more inventive — Leanne Benjamin, such a compelling artist, can make any material she tackles look significant, even when it isn’t very. David Dougill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Manon

Leanne Benjamin and Johan Kobborg are among the finest in these parts: technically in complete command, so that every nuance, peak and twist of emotion is clear and eloquent, without impediment. Together, they take one’s breath away. David Dungill at The Sunday Times [link]

Of her Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling

Benjamin is sensational, metamorphosing from innocent child into reckless lover. With her astonishing physical spirit and wild, unfettered emotions, she embodies everything MacMillan’s choreography stands for, a Mary so dangerous that no reason can contain her. It’s all there in Benjamin’s gorgeously fraught dancing. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of Ashton’s Rhapsody

On Monday, Rhapsody was gloriously danced by Leanne Benjamin (unfailing musicality, brilliancy of step, a cascading pas de bourrée like beautifully matched pearls). Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Leanne Benjamin’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • Mayerling (Mary Vetsera) 8/14 Oct 2009
  • Romeo and Juliet (Juliet) 15 Jan/6 Feb 2010
  • New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra 19/26 Feb 1/2/4 March 2010

Booking for Mayerling, part of the ROH Autumn Season, already open. Winter Season public booking opens 20 October (Friends of Covent Garden priority booking opens 22 September).

Sources and Further Information

  1. Leanne Benjamin interviewed at the Ballet Association. By David Bain with report written by Graham Watts. Ballet.co magazine, December 2007. [link]
  2. Late Bloom is Simply Child’s Play. Leanne Benjamin feature by Peter Wilson for The Australian, November 2008. [link]
  3. Leanne Benjamin Feature in Dance Europe July 2009.
  4. Leanne Benjamin: Royal Ballet’s fearless young ballerina by Marilyn Hunt. Dance Magazine, April 1995. [link]
  5. Wikipedia Entry for Leanne Benjamin [link]
  6. Leanne Benjamin at the ROH website [link]
  7. Pas de Deux: Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin on The Firebird. By Chris Wiegand. The Guardian, May 2009 [link]

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Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

Igor Kolb. Source: Mariinsky.ru Copyright Mariinsky Theatre ©.

If you follow us on Twitter or Facebook or if you have been reading our posts here you will know that, balletwise, the past two weeks have been “all about the Mariinsky in London, their stylish dancing and the impressive array of performers they have fielded to wow us in the classics Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet and in sexy Balanchine.

We were particularly impressed with the very charismatic Igor Kolb, a 32 year old principal dancer, now in his 13th season with the Mariinsky. Igor’s artistry is remarkable, he’s blessed with an expressive handsome face, strong dramatic skills, effortless and fluid dancing and a beautiful line. His naturalistic Romeo left us at the edge of our seats and dying to know where all this dramatic juice comes from. We were delighted when he agreed to spare a few minutes between rehearsals to talk to us:

How do you cope with the mix of different roles on tour?

IK: It’s very interesting for me to dance a mix of roles on tour because they are all different roles from different eras. If I were to do Swan Lake every day it would be in some respects easier but psychologically, just impossible. Having said that, as a dancer you always want to make something more interesting out of the same role, even when you’ve danced it for a long time.

How long have you been with the Mariinsky and when did you become a principal dancer?

IK: This is my 13th season with the company. I started dancing principal roles very early, Prince Désiré from “The Sleeping Beauty”, the central adagio in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, and the poet in Chopiniana [Les Sylphides] so in a way the appointment to principal a few years later was a mere formality as I was already dancing all these big roles from the start.

You began your career dancing in the classics but how have you matured into a more dramatic dancer – the critic Jeffery Taylor said last week your Romeo was “heart-piercing” – lately?

IK: I really like the theatre, I go when I can in St. Petersburg, old plays new productions, I go see them all. I also like cinema and literature too [Igor is currently reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov]. Maybe it’s because I am a bit older now but I refused to dance Romeo initially. I had Zeffirelli’s Romeo in my mind’s eye and in this film there is a pretty girl and a pretty boy [Leonard Whiting]. I used to look at myself in the mirror and did not feel I was like that at all, the movie is like a beautiful fairy tale and I was definitely not like the boy in that film!

But then there was the [Baz Luhrmann] more recent version with Leonardo DiCaprio and I did not like him in the role. I started to compare both versions and that’s when I began to think maybe I could tackle the role. I understood that I just had to be myself, that I should behave as if I would behave in that situation. I am not as naïve as the boy in the first film, naivety is such a difficult thing to show on stage. For me it’s the tragic side that comes more naturally and I want people to believe in me. If you go onstage and you are not convincing then people can feel it, and as a dancer you can feel when the audience does not believe you, it shows in their reaction, in the atmosphere. Here I felt people were looking forward to seeing me as Romeo, as the London audience knows me already.

What are your favorite roles & your dream roles?

IK: I like everything that I do in the Mariinsky repertoire, I am very lucky because I haven’t had to dance things I don’t enjoy! Of course there have been roles that I have tried and did not like as much but then the Company is ok if I don’t want to revisit those.

Outside the Mariinsky repertoire there are very many dream roles, of course. I would like very much to work with Mats Ek’s wife, Ana Laguna. She came to see me perform as Romeo and I was so glad as I greatly admire the Ek piece she has danced with Baryshnikov. Other than Ana and Mats Ek, I would love to work with Jiří Kylián.

How about MacMillan roles?

IK: Yes, very much. Manon for instance is one of two ballets I only danced once in my life  [the other being Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony which the Mariinsky is set to perform again next season]. I debuted as Des Grieux at the Bolshoi theatre just as the Mariinsky’s performance rights for this ballet were expiring so that was a double tragedy for me, onstage and backstage, as I knew I could not do it again!

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Igor Kolb in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone ©. Source: geneschiavone.com

Do you think there is a right balance at the moment between old and modern repertoire at the Mariinsky?

IK: I think the old repertoire, ie. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, are like the calling cards of the Mariinsky theatre, they are the face of the theatre and that tradition should not change even though there might be other versions in other companies. It’s our tradition, like tea in London. When you look at Balanchine for instance, all companies around the world are expected to dance his works in exactly the same way as the NYCB. I think it’s fine if done in small chunks but if overly done it feels like everyone out there is eating the same dish over and over again.

How important is it to have new works created for the company?

IK: We’d like someone in demand like Christopher Wheeldon for example to come over to create new work for the company, original pieces of work tailor-made for us. I think that in England it’s very good that the Royal Ballet uses the smaller theatre, the Linbury studio to get new work tried and tested. There’s also a similar project at the Wiener-Staatsoper, you see lots of different choreographers, see what you want to do, try different things out. Over in St. Petersburg we don’t have anything like that or like choreographic workshops.

When Marc Haegeman interviewed you a few years ago you mentioned having auditioned for the Mariinsky 6 times within 6 months, what is about this particular company that made you perseve?

IK: I studied ballet in Minsk and was not planning to go anywhere then as I liked the city and because it’s my country [Belarus]. Then I was invited to take part in the Vaganova Prix in St. Petersburg [where Igor took third prize], after which I understood that if I wanted to do something serious in ballet I ought to leave Minsk. As a result of the competition I was also asked to consider joining the Royal Ballet so everything could have turned out very differently! But I wanted to be close to home and to me the Mariinsky seemed like the top.

Speaking of the Royal Ballet, you danced Swan Lake with Tamara Rojo last year, how did you find dancing with her?

IK: It wasn’t difficult for us to dance together. Right from the first rehearsal we understood each other immediately, so it was in a sense, very easy for us and we danced together again last April in Tokyo, we did Roland Petit’s Proust (“Proust ou Les Intermittences du Coeur”) as part of the “Roland Petit Gala”. There might also be future opportunities to dance with Tamara again.

Tell us about Tokyo!

IK: I adore Tokyo, it’s my favourite city, along with London and St. Petersburg. I had a gala there ealier this year, Igor Kolb & Friends, where I danced Christian Spuck’s spoof “Le Grand Pas de Deux”, [Ukranian choreographer] Radu Poklitaru’s “Two on a Swing” a one act ballet he created for me and longtime Mariinsky principal Yulia Makhalina, as well as some more Roland Petit.

And the Japanese fans?

IK: I am so grateful to them, they spoil me when I am in Japan, they keep sending huge boxes of food, coffee, tea, sugar, everything, to the hotel, but lovely messages too. I always make a point of writing back to thank them, it’s pleasant that people take the time and it’s nice to feel that people appreciate me as a dancer, that they appreciate what I am doing as an artist. In Japan and England fans are really polite, very gentle. There was this lady over here, a long time ballet regular from Oxford, who knitted two matching vests with the initials IK, one for me, and the other for [soloist] Ilya Kuznetsov.

It’s a sharp contrast to St. Petersburg, the most difficult place to dance, the coldest public. It’s not just my opinion but people who work in the theatre generally feel that the public has changed, become more jaded. The tickets are now very expensive and it does not seem to draw the real enthusiasts anymore, they have been driven away, the theatre may be full but it’s now a very different crowd.

What’s in your Ballet Bag?

IK: When I came into the Mariinsky 13 years ago I did not even have a bag, only a towel, I was so badly off! But now I do have one and I carry around some knee tape, towels, a stock of fresh t-shirts and some foot rollers, plus any goodies that people give me!

With a big Спасибо/Spasibo to Igor from two appreciative and admiring Bag Ladies & kudos to Alice Lagnado for her impressive simultaneous translation skills!

Igor Kolb in a Nutshell:

He was born in Pinsk, Belarus (then Belorussia) in 1977 and started dancing at age 13. He attended the Belorussia State Ballet School in Minsk where he trained with Alexander Kolidenko & Vera Shveisova, and graduated as part of the 1996 class. During his final years at school, he was already dancing for the company in Minsk and under the tutelage of Kolidenko, he participated in the 1995 Vaganova Prix, where he won the third prize.

The prize brought him some deserved attention and motivated him to audition for the Mariinsky. It took him several attempts to obtain a contract, which he finally did just as he was graduating.

Arriving in St. Peterburg, Igor worked with Yuri Fateyev (though his current coach is Gennadi Selyutski) who helped him adapt his skills to the company’s style. Soon he was seen in principal roles, making his debut as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty in June 1997, as Swan Lake’s Siegfried in 2000 and as Solor in Vikharev‘s reconstruction of Petipa’s La Bayadère in 2002. In 2003 he was promoted to Principal Dancer.

Igor is known for his impeccable classical style and admits feeling closer to the company’s classical repertory (Albrecht in Giselle, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried in Swan Lake, etc.). He was filmed in Fokine‘s Spectre de la Rose, which is available as part of the DVD The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (Arthaus-Musik 2004).

He does not have a regular partner at the Mariinsky, having danced throughout his career with Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Sofia Gumerova, Daria Pavlenko, Zhanna Ayupova. Some of his more recent partners include Alina Somova, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Yevgenia Obraztsova and Irina Golub.

Videos

  • Igor dances Solor’s Variation in La Bayadère (Vikharev’s Reconstruction) [link]
  • As the “poet” in Chopiniana, partnering Svetlana Zakharova [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Diana Vishneva in the Paquita Grand Pas. Links to parts [1] and [2]
  • As Romeo in Lavrovsky’s version of Romeo & Juliet. With Yevgenia Obraztsova. Links to parts [1] and [2].
  • Igor Kolb and Ulyana Lopatkina, perform in Christian Spuck’s “Le Grand Pas de Deux” [link]
  • Igor Kolb and Zhanna Ayupova in Fokine‘s Le Spectre de la Rose [link]
  • As Siegfried in Swan Lake, partnering Royal Ballet Principal Tamara Rojo [link]
  • As Albrecht, in Giselle, partnering Alina Somova. Links to parts [1] and [2].

Extract of Reviews and Praise:

Of his Solor in Vikharev’s reconstructed La Bayadère (Covent Garden, 2003)

They were, however, having to follow the superb act of Kolb. His huge jump and flaring line are pure Kirov, but it’s his unusual modesty that clinches his power. Kolb’s technical feats look all the more amazing because he never tries to juice up the audience before he whirls into action or hog the applause when he has finished. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Kolb is an immensely appealing Solor, a honey of a warrior who declares his undying love for Nikiya yet falls under the spell of Gamzatti, the Rajah’s beautiful, scheming daughter. So appealing, in fact, that you almost forgive him. His dancing, meanwhile, is splendidly realised, strong and flexible. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella (Kennedy Center, 2005)

Kolb’s dancing is strong, clear, pure to the point where it might provide textbook illustration, and yet informed with grace.  He does a dutiful job of creating a character, but you can tell that his real raison d’être is to display the abstract beauty of classical dancing, step by step. Tobi Tobias at ArtsJournal [link]

Of his role in Ballet Imperial (Covent Garden 2005)

Ballet Imperial, which closed their Balanchine triple bill, looks back to Imperial Russia, its grand sweeping contours matching the massive chords of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It demands huge and virtuoso dancing, which of course the Kirov delivers, led by Igor Kolb, who has perfect lines, amplitude, power – perfect everything. Nadine Meisner at The Independent [link]

Of his role in Steptext (Forsythe Programme, Sadler’s Wells 2008)

Steptext, a quartet, sets out Forsythe’s stall. Here is the essence of his drastic style: the provocative blend of nonchalance and intense commitment in the moves; the impatience with the strict rules of classical technique; the annoying eccentricity in presentation (switching lights on and off, playing games with Bach). Igor Kolb brought muscular grace to his dancing, while Ekaterina Kondaurova brought assertive glamour to hers. Debra Craine at The Times [link]

Of his Romeo (Romeo & Juliet, Covent Garden, 2009)

…the evening’s saviour is Igor Kolb’s Romeo. His performance is passionate and breathlessly enthusiastic; Kolb just dances the steps as Prokofiev’s music tells him to and pierces all our hearts. Jeffery Taylor at The Daily Express [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Biography written by Marc Haegeman, Igor Kolb’s Official Website [link]
  2. An Interview with Igor Kolb, by Marc Haegeman. First published in Dance International, Fall 2003 and reproduced at For Ballet Lovers Only. December 2002 [link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Igor Kolb [link]
  4. Interview with Igor Kolb by Cassandra, at Critical Dance. August 2003 [link]
  5. Danila Korsuntsev and Igor Kolb. Kirov Stars. Interview by Kevin Ng. Ballet.co Magazine, December 2000. [link]

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The Royal Ballet’s newest Principal dancer, aussie Steven McRae, charmed the hearts of these Bag Ladies since his first appearances in Covent Garden. At just 23, he has climbed through the ranks and made an impact on every single role he has been cast on. From his debut as one of the side soloists in Ashton’s demanding Symphonic Variations, his first big role and his outstanding Spirit of Fire, in Christopher Wheeldon’s re-reading of Homage to the Queen (Fire) to his unforgettably boyish Romeo opposite Alina Cojocaru’s Juliet, this strawberry blonde dancer has more than justified his fast rise.

His undeniable technical abilities to spin multiple, fast and very centered turns, soar high and “freeze frame” in the air, as well as his inherent musicality and charm are guaranteed to dazzle audiences and it seemed clear from the candid (some would say downright bold, see first video link below) way he spoke about his ambitions that he was never going to be a happy camper in the corps de ballet where he first started. As we look forward to Steven’s first season as a Principal dancer, here are some interesting facts & web notes on him.

Steven McRae in a Nutshell

Born in Sydney (Plumpton, in the Western Suburbs). Like many men in the dance world, he started ballet at 7 years old because of his sister. He also did gymnastics, jazz and tap dancing.

He won the gold medal of the Genée Competition in Sydney (performing Danses Concertantes) and scooped the first prize in 2003’s Prix de Lausanne, despite not having started full time ballet much long before the competition.

He joined the Royal Ballet School, where he studied for three years, before finally being offered a contract with the company. His first role was in the triple bill “The Wedding Bouquet/Requiem/Les Noces”.

His first big break was in Symphonic Variations, sharing the stage with Johan Kobborg and Federico Bonelli.

He has had work created on him by Wheeldon, McGregor and Marriott, among others.

Steven works closely with long time principals Johan Kobborg & Alina Cojocaru, having danced important roles in Johan’s productions of La Sylphide (as Gurn) and in Napoli Divertissements and more recently creating a role alongside Sergei Polunin and Cojocaru in Kobborg’s short virtuoso piece Les Lutins. At the time of his debut in Romeo & Juliet the press reported that it was Alina who had asked for him to partner her when Kobborg became injured.

Steven partnered Alina in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes at the ROH’s World Stage gala in Nov 2007, having also travelled to Tokyo with her that autumn to stand in for Kobborg in Ashton‘s The Dream (debuting as Oberon). They are due to reprise their partnership in Japan later this year dancing in The Nutcracker.

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper © Source: Dansomanie

Steven McRae as Romeo. Photo: Bill Cooper - Royal Ballet © Source: Dansomanie

Steven is ambitious, competitive and a perfectionist, placing major importance on developing his roles. His most embarrassing moment occurred when his trousers split open during his first Fille Mal Gardée. He is also a grateful student, taking  time to visit his old ballet school whenever he visits Australia (usually once a year) where he teaches and mentors new generations of dancers.

His dream role is Des Grieux in MacMillan’s Manon.

Videos

A quick spin through YouTube & a glimpse at McRae’s superb technique and musicality:

  • In the Swan Lake pas de trois, together with Laura Morera and Yuhui Choe [link].
  • Squirrel Nutkin from The Tales of Beatrix Potter [link]
  • A Tap performance for The Prix de Lausanne 2003 [link]

Extracts of Reviews & Praise

Of his debut in Symphonic Variations

What the future holds for Steven McRae I dare not guess, but if he is not spoiled by too much – or too little – attention, he must surely have a splendid career. His dancing was exceptional in grace and security. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Of his debut as Romeo (where he proved he was more than a technical whiz-kid)

Instead, and how sensitive this proved, his Romeo is younger, quieter than most in the early scenes, and then, when the fuse of his passion for Juliet is lit, burning with an inner fire that lights every step. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link]

McRae’s dancing is already polished by enthusiasm and an impressive classical technique and it holds nothing back. Debra Craine at The Times

Although only 21, McRae is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in the Royal Ballet and he brought an elegance and lightness of touch to sequences that have undone much more experienced performers. Luke Jennings at The Observer [link].

From his first minute on stage, you know his is going to hit the spot…his fizzing solo work cut the fastest, most deliriously buoyant turns I’ve seen in 15 years of balcony scenes. He also offered some uniquely nuanced character observation. Jenny Gilbert at The Independent [link]

If Covent Garden abided by entrenched Russian typecasting rules McRae would never have got beyond jester roles, which is essentially what happened when he played the Spirit of Fire (…). He’s fleet, slight, taut, acrobatically agile, extrovert, red haired and Australian. But McRae had already stretched beyond stereotype via Symphonic Variations and then partnering Tamara Rojo in Wayne McGregor’s monumentally successful Chroma. Yet none of these performances had really prepared audiences for his powerfully assured debut as Romeo. Allen Robertson for Dance Now (vol 16, n.4 Winter 07)

Of his role as the Spirit of Fire, in Wheeldon‘s Homage to the Queen (Fire)

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire is filled with furious allegro and nervy shifts of emphasis, driven by Steven McRae’s bursting performance as the Spirit of Fire. Debra Craine at the Times [link]

Christopher Wheeldon’s Fire has a demonic flavour, with a superbly athletic, explosive role as the spirit of Fire for the young and hugely talented Steven McRae. David Dougill at the Times [link]

and of his Nutcracker as the Sugar Plum Fairy Prince Cavalier

McRae is bright, brilliant-cut in technique, ardent in shaping a step or a phrase, and the role is his – and handsomely so. Clement Crisp at the Financial Times [link].

Steven McRae’s Upcoming Performances at the ROH

  • New work by Kim Brandstrup 21-26 Sep 2009
  • Agon/Sphinx/New McGregor 5/13/17 Nov 2009
  • Nutcracker (The Prince) 30 Nov/12 Dec

Public Booking opens July 14th. Friends of Covent Garden priority booking period currently open.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Steven McRae interviewed by David Bain. The Ballet Association. From the 2007 reports.  [link]
  2. The 7:30 Report. Ballet’s Star Spectacular Rise by Rebecca Baillie. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. January 2009. [link]
  3. Dance: Steven McRae. An editorial by Clement Crisp. The Financial Times, January 2007. [link]
  4. Rising Star by Emma Love. The Observer, January 2007 [link]

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