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The Washington Post

AFTER THE FALL; The Once-Elite Kirov Dancers Have Gained Artistic Freedom-but They May Have Lost Far More; [FINAL Edition]
Jeremy Noble. The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext). Washington, D.C.: Mar 6, 1994. pg. g.01
Full Text (2751 words)
Copyright The Washington Post Company Mar 6, 1994

Backstage at the Kirov Ballet in the Mariinsky theater, there is none of the glamour that the West associates with what is perhaps the most famous ballet company in the world. Here, all that glitters is sweat, and not only the dancers are perspiring. For the management, those supposedly bad old days of the Soviet Union when the Kirov was a propaganda weapon and money was somebody else's problem now seem more like the good old days. Today, there are neither enough rubles from the Russian government - nor hard dollars from the West - to keep up the standards of the past, much less pay for the future.

In Rehearsal Room No. 1, 40 or so dancers are lined up around the mirrored walls, preparing for the daily morning exercise class. Outside in the street there is snow, and the thermometer reads minus 12. Inside it is not much warmer. There is a damp unpleasant smell of the locker room, combined with an unexpected whiff of Shalimar and Eau Sauvage. An occasional creak of bone can be heard above the simultaneous slither of slippers on the sanded wooden floor. Everybody is wrapped in leg warmers, towels and scarves knotted around their necks. Gap shirts and Benetton sweaters blur in the air as 40 pairs of feet execute cabriole jumps.

Tatyana Serova takes her place at the end of a line, nodding to friends as she unpacks her sports bag. She takes out bandages and cotton wool, and sits down to put on her toe shoes. "Look," she says to fellow dancer Julia Kazankova, "I got them yesterday and they're breaking already. The glue doesn't stick." She stands on pointe and grimaces.

Serova is 18 and has only recently graduated from the prestigious Vaganova Ballet Academy here, and yet there are rumors that she is soon to dance the lead role of Odette in "Swan Lake."

She lives with her parents, a doctor and a military teacher, in a concrete high-rise block. To get to class she has to take a bus, a tram and the metro - a journey of an hour. She rehearses six days a week, and rarely returns home before 10 at night.

Tatyana Serova represents a new generation of dancers who appear to have all of the freedoms their contemporaries enjoy in the West - and yet perhaps they have lost as much as they have gained. "A Kirov dancer used to be a member of the elite," she says, "with subsidized apartments, holiday dachas. Of course, then, only five years ago, there was no inflation, so you could live well on 500 rubles a month. Now we have to survive like everybody else."

After class, at the small buffet at the end of the corridor, Serova queues up to buy juice and a Snickers bar. The voice of Freddie Mercury blares out from a loudspeaker. Serova joins a group of other young dancers who, like her, recently toured the United States: Misha Borisov is playing Nintendo, Slava Morozov is listening to Jon Bon Jovi on his Sony Walkman, Valery Voronin is trying to borrow a thousand rubles - about 70 cents - from Kazankova, whose Austrian boyfriend whats to know if anybody has yet found out how much they are going to make on the next tour.

In fact, money - not art - is what these dancers talk about most, especially as today is pay day. Serova makes 61,000 rubles a month - about $50, slightly more than the average worker's salary of 40,000 rubles. Yet, "it isn't nearly enough to live on," she says, "because prices always rise faster than the increases in salary. If it wasn't for the fact that I live with my parents, I probably couldn't afford to be a dancer. I need fresh fruit in my diet, yet oranges are nearly 3,000 a kilo. That's five percent of my salary. I wear out my exercise clothes very quickly, but how can I replace them when even an ordinary white T-shirt is now 10,000? And yet I count myself lucky. Some of us here make much less than that."

"We live on the cheapest vegetables - cabbage, beet root - and make soup with whatever else we can find," says Sasha Petrov. "We drink tea, because coffee is 3,000 a kilo, and a liter bottle of Coke is nearly 18,000 - 10 percent of my budget for a week."

"Male dancers need muscles," says Andrei Antonenko, "but how can I hold Tatyana up in the air if I've only had bread and potatoes the night before?"

For Anatoly Malkov, general director of the Mariinsky theater, money is also the biggest worry. "We do not pay our dancers enough," he acknowledges. "Even a soloist only makes 300,000 rubles - that's less than $300 - a month. I know that they could make much more in the West, and my dream is to pay them what they could earn there, but now I can't afford to, because a ruble is no longer worth a ruble."

Since the fall of communism, the generous government subsidies the Kirov used to receive from Moscow have disappeared into an inflationary black hole and a "free" market. (The official name of the theater, too, has been changed back to the czarist Mariinsky, although it's still popularly referred to as the Kirov.) Malkov explains how difficult it is now, with inflation at 25 percent a month, to plan a budget. "Every year we have always had to produce an estimate of expenses for both opera and ballet, and at the end of the year the books must balance. But unlike before, we can't go cap in hand and say, `Sorry, we overspent, give us some more' - because Yeltsin doesn't have any more either. And the 25 percent of our expenses that he does send us is worth virtually nothing by the time it finally arrives. I know that that is more than the 10 percent {from government funds} the Metropolitan {Opera} receives in New York - but they have a lot more experience than we of non-state funding."

Surprisingly, the city of St. Petersburg gives the ballet nothing, "and yet," Malkov complains, "along with the Hermitage, we are the biggest tourist attraction... . We charge {foreigners} $50 - which is much more than a Russian would pay but much less than a seat at Covent Garden." His biggest source of funding comes from recordings of live performances. "We have agreements with the BBC, Philips Classical and NHK of Japan. They represent about 25 percent of our income."

Sales of tickets to Russians bring in only about 5 percent of the company's income because domestic prices are still so low (about 2,000 to 5,000 rubles, or $1-$3 per performance). The balance of funding comes from foreign tours and private sponsors. "Every performance now has a list of sponsors at the back of each brochure," Malkov says, and proudly shows off a black-and-white folded sheet of thin matte paper, advertising - if that is the right word - "Swan Lake." "Just like in the West," he says. "Bank of St. Petersburg, the Kirov Factory, Volvo, Renault and DHL."

The Kirov has trained Tatyana Serova - but whose career is it? She has a loyalty to the Kirov, but it is not absolute. "In Russia it is possible to be a star and yet nobody in the West will have heard of you," she says. She wants an international reputation, and yet the Kirov management does not have the hard-nosed commercial experience to create one for her on its own.

Moreover, the limited number of classical roles are not now enough for a lifetime career. Would she therefore like to dance modern ballet? "I would give it a try. But I will still dance classical ballet. {Mikhail} Baryshnikov proves that you can do both." Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova - all ex-Kirov dancers - are often mentioned by Serova and her friends. But the defectors are discussed as dancers, not political subjects. It is generally agreed that it was good for their careers to leave Russia because they danced more varied roles; for Serova it is a secondary consideration that they also made a lot of money.

Certainly her view of classical ballet is particularly Russian. She agrees that the Kirov is an elitist institution because it accepts only the best, but for her this has nothing to do with the mass audience that it attracts. "Russians will always watch us," she says confidently. If they can afford a ticket. And this is the central issue for the Kirov management: the traditional, well-informed mass Russian audience cannot pay 5,000 rubles or more for a ticket - and the tourists who can do not want to see anything other than the old favorites.

Which is a problem for Anatoly Malkov when it comes to deciding what works to revive each year. The Kirov presents only two or three new productions of classical ballets per year; Malkov estimates the cost of each at about 300 million rubles. "We cannot hope to finance this on our own," he admits. "That is why we have to have joint ventures with foreign partners." He confesses, however, that what the Kirov would like to produce is not always what its foreign partners want: "They think of us as a Russian theater which should perform {only} Russian works. For me that is a problem when we have an artistic director who wants to put on a new work which might not sell well."

Artistic director Oleg Vinogradov, however, well understands the need to bridge the gap between artistic vitality and cash flow. His position is both traditional and forward-looking: "The Kirov is a living museum of choreography," he says. "At the same time we also have to be innovative, and we have to attract sponsorship. But we won't have a Kirov souvenir shop selling tea towels."

The official policy of the Kirov is to dance only classical ballet. Yet Vinogradov knows that without new ballets his troupe will be dancing in aspic for an audience of sightseers paying to see yet another Russian monument. Slowly, therefore, he is changing the repertoire. His own choreography for "La Fille Mal Gardee," which draws on the neoclassical tradition of Balanchine, is now in rehearsal. The classical ballets - "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Les Sylphides" - will, however, still remain at the core of the repertory - refreshed, perhaps, for not being performed quite so often. Perhaps, also, both Vinogradov and Malkov know that the only way to prevent their dancers from leaving is to make the Kirov's repertoire sufficiently challenging so that when dancers do go abroad it will be to only show themselves off - not to jump off.

Serova's face is flushed and moist; there are dark stains under her arms. The rehearsal is over, and she curtsies to her teacher. Then she announces, "I'm starving," and makes her way to the theater's food bar.

At the buffet she orders thick black coffee with three sugars, a chocolate bar and a cream cake. "For energy," she says, and then explains that there is a cafeteria on the floor below where soup and a meat course are offered. "But you can't dance on a full stomach," she says. Somebody jokes that dancers have to be thin, that's why the food is so bad. Like any other Russian cafe the buffet here offers a plate of bread and cheese or salami, meatballs heated up in a microwave, egg mayonnaise. There are no green vegetables and no fresh fruits.

Serova says that every morning Ryan Martin, her American boyfriend from Virginia Beach, makes her swallow a pile of vitamin tablets. (Martin, too, is a dancer; he has "defected" to the East because, he explains, "this is the home of classical ballet.") "I was always sick at first, and my parents asked me why I was putting chemicals into my body," Serova says, "but when we ran out of them I felt low, so I guess they have to be good for me. Ryan says that I should also drink milk for bones, but I hate it." She smokes, "only socially." But around the room, almost everybody is smoking. "We're going to call our next ballet `Marlboro,' " quips Sasha Petrov.

There is a sudden mass exodus when Misha says that he has been paid. Tatyana joins the queue upstairs in the small cashier's office.

Ina Zubkovskaya, a famous former Kirov ballerina who now teaches, gives Serova a few moments to catch her breath. It is 5 o'clock in the afternoon and already dark outside. Serova is in rehearsal again - this time for "Swan Lake" - and it is not going well. Her partner, Alexander Gulayev, waits patiently while she gets her thoughts together. She spins diagonally across the room and topples over. She swears and buries her head in her hands. The photographer clicks his camera. Serova immediately looks up, puts her hands on her hips, then starts again. This time, triumph: She keeps her balance.

In the Kirov either you have made it, or you haven't. There are only two positions - corps and soloist - with nothing in between. How a dancer makes the transition from one to the other is something perhaps only Oleg Vinogradov can say. However, in such a closed, incestuous world, with more than 200 dancers crowded together, gossip and intrigue are inevitable - and if you want to know why somebody was made a soloist, or what they have to do to become one, you will receive many different answers, of which talent is a word used less frequently than such ambiguous phrases as "casting couch," "influential teacher" or "her face fits." When Serova's name is mentioned as an up and coming soloist, another dancer sharply replies, "She already acts like one."

After rehearsal, Tatyana returns to the buffet, this time with a bundle of 500-ruble notes - her salary. "I'm rich," she jokes.

While the Kirov's new open-door policy means a foreign correspondent can freely move around backstage asking questions, the dancers themselves still have little or no access to information. Serova, for example, would like to read Dance magazine. But the one copy available is reserved for management.

What, though, would Tatyana do if she did see an advertisement for an opening with an American troupe? "Ask me another question," she says, but adds, after a pause, "It won't happen." But if it did, would she leave the Kirov? "I would always want to be known as a Kirov ballerina. Perhaps I might spend some time with a foreign company, but it would be like a short-term loan to them. That way I help both myself and the Kirov." (Anatoly Malkov and Oleg Vinogradov must be hoping that all of their dancers think the same way.)

Perhaps, however, Serova also recognizes the dangers and insecurities of moving outside the comforting cocoon of the Kirov. She has traveled - to Greece, Japan and what was then East Germany - but, except for a holiday with Martin in the United States, it has been a cossetted view, seen mainly from the window of a guided tour. She understands the need for publicity, but after a week of being constantly photographed she has felt some of the pressure that fame might bring - she knows now not to blow her nose in front of the camera.

From the wings she watches Martin perform his number. She is still pondering the concept of having two careers, one Russian and one foreign. "We" - meaning herself and the Kirov - "would need a manager," she decides. "Somebody hard and clever, definitely a lawyer. He would have charged you for my pictures." It is the first sign of her loss of innocence.

Jeremy Noble is a writer and playwright living in St. Petersburg.

PHOTO,,V. Potapov For Twp CAPTION:Serova washes dishes in her apartment, an hour's commute from the Kirov. "If it wasn't for the fact that I live with my parents," she says, "I probably couldn't afford to be a dancer." CAPTION:Tatyana Serova warms up. Despite the cash crunch, "I would always want to be known as a Kirov ballerina," she says. CAPTION:Ballerina Tatyana Serova, who grew up under Communism but now dances in the "free" market, at the Kirov Ballet School: "Only five years ago, you could live well...Now we have to survive like everybody else."

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Dateline: ST. PETERSBURG, Russia
Section: SHOW
ISSN/ISBN: 01908286
Text Word Count 2751
Document URL:

© 2005 Jeremy Noble