Feature: Galina Ulanova - a Russian Ballet icon remembered

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Vladimir Vasiliev As a star of the Bolshoi Ballet for 30 years_,_ Vladimir Vasiliev was one of the greatest male dancers of the late twentieth century. He shared one of the most enduring partnerships in ballet, being married to the ballerina, Ekaterina Maximova. Their joint 50-year service to the Bolshoi was celebrated by a special Golden Anniversary gala at the Bolshoi in 2008 (Maximova died in April 2009).

Nowadays, Vasiliev is still remarkably busy. He continues to choreograph (13 full-length ballets date) and is also a professional artist and stage designer. It is as the President of the Galina Ulanova Foundation that he talked to Graham Watts recently, ahead of the Foundation’s Gala in memory of Ulanova (who died in 1998) which takes place at the London Coliseum on 15 May.

When did you first see Galina Ulanova dance? **It was in 1949. I had just been accepted to the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow, aged 9. The first year pupils, including myself, attended a dress rehearsal of The Red Poppy with Ulanova in the main role of Tao Hoa and Sergei Koren as Li Shan-Fu. It made an unforgettable impression on me. I still feel the extraordinary atmosphere; the miracle of what we saw before our eyes, which was to bond us, little girls and boys, forever to the finest of all professions. Even now, it seems, they stand, as if alive, before me – Tao Hoa and Li Shan-Fu: Ulanova, touching, elegant, as fragile as a puff of wind, and Koren, her extraordinarily expressive partner.

For a long time after that dress rehearsal, the images these two dancers created would haunt my dreams. Later, I never missed any of their scenes during a performance. As the days went by I found the heroine Tao Hoa (one of the best interpretations in Ulanova’s repertoire) enchanted me more and more. And last year, the centenary of the great ballerina’s birth was, perhaps, the impulse leading me to create a new version of The Red Poppy.

Your career overlapped with that of Ulanova and you danced with her at the Bolshoi. Can you describe those memories? **I danced with Galina Ulanova only once when I was 18. It was in 1958 – the year of my graduation into the Bolshoi Ballet. At that time I didn’t think I would be a classical dancer, in the strict meaning of this term; I liked demi-character and character roles that allowed me to express emotions. I found such roles suited my physical potential. The Bolshoi was preparing *Les Sylphides*, in which Ulanova was to dance with Nikolai Fadeyechev. I was surprised to find myself in the second cast. I don’t know why, but Ulanova then chose me as her partner. She may have seen me in *Valpurgis Night* and thought I had a good jump or just thought that I was young and strong and could be a good partner. I don’t know the reason, even now, but she must have seen something in me. I was 18 and Ulanova was 48: I had just started my career and she was already a world icon. We danced only one performance which, surprisingly, was somehow filmed. I remember being very upset about this because I didn’t consider my work good enough and I always believed that such dancers as Fadeyechev, who had beautiful lines and poses, were more suited to the role of the Youth in Les Sylphides .

There was one more chance for me to dance with Ulanova. It was in Leonid Jacobson’s choreography for the famous triptych of Rodin. The Bolshoi was preparing a programme with three pieces by Jacobson made on Rodin’s sculptures especially for the Bolshoi’s first tour of the USA in 1959. Our piece was called Eternal Idol. We rehearsed a lot but had to show our piece to a special commission to get approval to perform it. Jacobson wanted to use new costumes just coming into fashion in the theatre, which would outline our figures. But because these costumes were knitted (not made of Lycra, as nowadays) they were thick and made our bodies wider, which was unacceptable to the commission, and they declared the work unfit for performance. So, alas, it didn’t happen.

When Ulanova started coaching Katya (Maximova) at the Bolshoi, she became my coach too, as we were rehearsing the roles together. I was lucky to have great teachers in my life with many great Bolshoi dancers of the past: Gabovich, Golubin, Ermolaev and Ulanova amongst them. We also became close friends. She was present at our wedding; and we celebrated all our birthdays together (including her professional birthday on 16th May).

It was Ulanova who persuaded me to dance Romeo as I didn’t think it was for me. When we broke with Grigorovich, I had to ask Ulanova to help rehearse Ivan the Terrible with me. At first, when I asked, she was surprised but then she became very involved – I’ll never forget how she demonstrated Ivan in his throne to me. It was very powerful. She was a great actress.

Ulanova was, to her last day, a dear teacher and friend to me. Her last work at the Bolshoi was as a consultant for my production of *Giselle* in 1997. She couldn’t come to all the rehearsals as mobility was already very difficult for her but she gave a lot of advice to me, and to the dancers. I’m very grateful to her for all she gave me. In my home there is a special carved thing – a gift from her to Katya and myself with a signatureof Ulanova on it – saying “I gave you everything I had”. It is true!

Opinions vary on what may have been Ulanova’s greatest role – which role and which performance do you recall as the greatest?** **It is just too difficult to answer! Ulanova herself named Giselle, Juliet, Odette and Maria in the *Fountain of Bakhchisarai* as her favorite roles. Many people outside Russia consider Juliet and Giselle to have been her greatest roles. It is true that they were the most known throughout the world. When she went abroad with the Bolshoi she was already well into her forties. However she danced Juliet and Giselle so magically that everyone believed that they were watching a young girl. And she never tried to pretend to be a girl but gave a true performance – she became the character of a girl.

Ulanova did not have many roles in her repertoire when I came to know her. But, everything was different then and new productions took a long time to develop. No-one would think of making a production in two weeks’ or even a month’s time. Every role was scrupulously worked out both technically and, even more, dramatically. I loved watching Ulanova performing all her roles. I just simply loved her dance and how she interpreted music with her whole body. Every gesture, every pas she did on stage was full of meaning; her body was speaking. With minimum outer means she could express strong feelings and emotions hidden deep inside. And it was always clear to the audience – it went straight to them, into their hearts, making them grieve, suffer or laugh with her. And yet she and her art remain mysterious; there is something elusive, vague in it – like in the works of old masters. We lack it nowadays. The technique is much higher and stronger in dance but there is often no soul in it. She had what Pushkin called ‘a flight performed by soul’.

You are now President of the Galina Ulanova Foundation. What are its objectives and work? **A famous Russian singer of the first half of the last century, Alexander Vertinsky, was in awe after he saw Ulanova perform: he wrote: ‘God, what peaks and heights creativity can achieve! This is the Holy Spirit no less! How to retain, preserve this miracle on earth? How to pass on this Gospel for future generations to our descendants, so that they learn from Ulanova this supreme, divine art?’

That’s why we created this Foundation in her name immediately after Ulanova passed away in 1998 – to perpetuate the memory of her and to preserve her creative and spiritual legacy. In order to fulfill this aim, the Foundation has drawn up several programmes which it is steadily putting into effect. Among these are: annual grants for pupils at ballet schools (in 2004, one of the students who received the grant was Sergei Polunin, then a student of the Royal Ballet School); the presentation of the Galina Ulanova awards for selfless service to the art of dance, in the form of a porcelain statuette of Ulanova; and the organisation and presentation of the Homage to Galina Ulanova Gala Concerts with the participation of ballet stars from around the world. The Foundation has also promoted an international campaign in memory of Ulanova at theatres throughout the world; published booklets devoted to the great ballerina’s life and work; and is striving to establish a Galina Ulanova World Centre for the Art of Dance in Moscow.

Recently the Foundation focused on an event entitled The Mona Lisa of the Russian Ballet to celebrate Ulanova’s centenary with performances on the date of her 100th birthday, 8 January 2010, at the Mariinsky Theatre followed on 16 January at the Bolshoi Theatre. The Foundation also organized a large-scale exhibition on Ulanova’s life in St.Petersburg, organized a gala to Ulanova in Siberia and participated in bringing The Red Poppy ballet back to life again.

Ulanova had an enormous impact when the Bolshoi first appeared here in 1956, with queues of people stretching around the street to buy tickets or just to catch a glimpse of her at the stage door in Covent Garden. How important is this memorial Gala event in London? **It is so symbolic that London hosts the only celebration of Galina Ulanova’s centenary outside Russia. In 1956, the whole world discovered the Bolshoi Ballet and Galina Ulanova as its icon when the Bolshoi came to London for the first time. They gave their hearts to the Londoners and received their love in reply. The Foundation organised many things to celebrate Ulanova’s centenary in Russia and so having a project to commemorate Ulanova in London is very important for us.

Vladimir Vasiliev in 'Ivan the Terrible'Photo: Francette Levieux What role in your own immense dancing career do you look back on with the most pleasure?__
__All my roles were very dear to me. Many of my fans consider Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible, Basil in *Don Quixote*, Albrecht in Giselle, Prince Charming in the Sleeping Beauty, Zorba the Greek by Lorca Massine, Professor Unrat in Roland Petit’s Blue Angel or *Petrushka* by Maurice Béjart to be my brightest roles. For me, however, even a small role was very important if I had to perform a character with a story and if I was to dance, which I loved so much. I’ve never been satisfied fully with myself and what I have done in this or that performance – my own ideal has never been achieved. But my work, my profession, no matter how hard it was, always gave me pleasure.

I know that the National Ballet in Greece has just performed your Don Quixote – you are very busy traveling the world setting your choreography. What other projects can we expect to see? **After my wife passed away, my only escape became work. I work ten times more than before. You can judge this by the things I did during the last jubilee year of Ulanova. It was my jubilee year too and special events were also organized for me in New York, Paris, Havana, Moscow and St. Petersburg. We have celebrated the tenth anniversary of the first and only school of the Bolshoi outside Russia – the Bolshoi School in Brazil, of which I am a founder and curator. During the celebration they performed two of my productions, Don Quixote and Giselle. I also staged Macbeth and The Red Poppy – all with my designs, and then there was a special homage to Maximova; exhibitions of my paintings; a photoexhibiton of French photographers; and a fairy-tale, Balda, based on Pushkin’s story which was staged in Moscow. As for Don Quixote in Greece, I agreed to work there only because the Director of their ballet company was so enthusiastic and put so much effort into it that I could not refuse! Soon, I will have the premieres of two more revivals of my ballets: Anyuta in Russia and Cinderella in Budapest.

*How do you find the time to paint? *

  • I have been painting since my youth, but ballet took up all of my time. So when I finished my dancing career, I became fully captivated by painting and it takes all my spare time now. Every minute I have, no matter whether at home or on my trips, I always have a sheet of paper, pencils, brush and watercolours with me. At home I paint with oil on canvas. I have made about 400 paintings over the past 12 years; and the result has been 14 exhibitions of my art in Russia and abroad.

Recently, I have also made the designs for my productions: Nutcracker, Giselle, Don Quixote, Macbeth, and The Red Poppy. Painting is a very important thing for me now. I just cannot live without it.

What is Ulanova’s enduring legacy to ballet?

  • First and above all, her sacred devotion to her profession. One can hardly find such attitude nowadays. She worked so hard in her profession through her whole life: first as a dancer and actress; and then, after she finished, as a teacher. She gave her whole self and her life to her art. That is why we called the award in her name “For selfless service to the art of Dance”. She was the best example of such service. And also an example of sacred attitude to the traditions passed over from one generation to another. She never stopped learning: from teachers, colleagues, actors, writers, composers. Always strict to herself and very disciplined in her work, she was simple, never star-like and yet her authority was such that she influenced several generations of people of absolutely different professions. Ulanova never fussed, did not seek a promotion for herself, and did not care about her name remaining in history. She knew her path, and followed it until the end of her days. Genuine Art does not go together with vanity. And with her whole life she is the best proof of it.

Are you optimistic about the future of classical ballet? **Yes, I am. Classical art will live long because it ennobles human beings, gives them beauty and goodness. Classical dance is a live art. New generations come and bring their diverse talents to develop, strengthen and make it go on. I only wish that they remember their predecessors; those who have made their contribution to this common treasure that is the art of classical dance. Among them, for sure, a very special place has to be given to Galina Ulanova.

Galina Ulanova

Russian Ballet Icons Gala – Galina Ulanova 100 anniversary
Includes performances from today’s stars of The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi, English National Ballet, the Marinksy & many more…
Sun 15 May, London Coliseum.
Tickets from £13 **”www.eno.org“:http://www.eno.org/see-whats-on/productions/production-page.php?itemid=1177

Vladimir Vasiliev appears briefly in this clip of Galina Ulanova teaching, probably in the 1980s…

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