Premier Danseur

Icarus 1979
as Icarus, 1979 (photo: Judy Cameron)

Born: April 18, 1940 in Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Nationality: Russian

Occupations: dancer, choreographer, director

Avocations: poet, painter

Studied: Moscow Choreographic School, with Mikhail Gabovich, 1948-58

Married: Bolshoi ballerina Ekaterina Maximova

Professional Dance Debut: Principal dancer, Bolshoi Ballet, from 1958, becoming principal dancer, from 1959

Choreographic Debut: Icarus, for Bolshoi Theatre, 1971

Films: Narcissus (1971), Duet (also dir., 1972), Spartacus (1976), Gigolo and Gigoletta (also dir., 1980), The World of Ulanova (also dir., 1981), These Charming Sounds (also dir., 1981), La Traviata (dir. Zeffirelli, 1982), Anyuta (also dir., 1982), Dom u Dorogi (also dir., 1984), "I Want to Dance": Fragments of a Biography (also dir., 1985), Fouetté (also dir., 1986), Katia and Volodia (French documentary, 1989); "...And There Remains, as Always, Something Else" (director only. 1990)

Awards and Prizes: Gold Medal, Festival of Youth, Vienna, 1959; Gold Medal, International Ballet Competition, Varna, 1964; Nijinsky Prize, Paris, 1964; title of Honoured Artist of the Russian Federation, 1964; Lenin Prize, 1970; Marius Petipa Prize, France, 1972; State Prize of the USSR, 1977; title of Professor, State Institute of Theatrical Art (GITIS), 1989


In 1970, the Soviet choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky wrote: "Vladimir Vasiliev is not simply a dancer of rare talent, he is literally an outstanding phenomenon in the history of ballet."

Indeed, Vasiliev has been proving these words over the past three decades, delighting audiences with his remarkable talent, which is a unique blend of Russian refinement and detail with raw Soviet bravura. He has earned himself the right to be called one of the greatest male dancers of this era. His virtuosity reaches from superb technical ability to an inner understanding of both role and music, and his dramatic presence is both thoughtful and exciting. He possesses an artistry that commands attention whenever he is on stage, even when he is not in the spotlight.

The son of a Moscow workman, Vasiliev first appeared on the Bolshoi stage as a very young student in the Bolshoi school's production of Chapayev's Soldiers. At eighteen, he was chosen for the part of Giotto in Francesca da Rimini at the school's graduation concert, and proved himself to be not only technically proficient but a master of dramatic expression. He joined the Bolshoi company at a time when the image of the male dancer was undergoing a tremendous change. No longer just a partner, the male was becoming a force to take equal billing with the ballerina. In Yuri Grigorovich's ballets, Vasiliev was to become the main focus.

In 1959, Vasiliev was made a principal dancer and given his first leading role, in Grigorovich's The Stone Flower. As Danila, he danced with lyricism and refreshing vitality, catching the elements of Danila's quintessentially "Russian" nature in both manner and dancing style. His success led to leading roles in both the classics and the ballets of Grigorovich. Into the tapestry of each one of these new roles Vasiliev wove a blend of colourful characterization with individual and fresh interpretation, convincingly transposing himself into his part through ingenious uses of movement. In the classics he was a romantic and gallant presence, manly, yet refined. In contemporary works, he charged his roles with fire and passion, powerfully conveying the inner fervour of the character through outward action.

Vasiliev's most famous role is that of Spartacus. His outstanding portrayal of the rebel slave won him the coveted Lenin Prize and took his career to even greater heights. His lucid interpretation presented the slave as a noble character, imbued with the highest moral qualities. Exceptional acting, virtuoso dancing, and tremendous physical strength combined to create a complex hero. The ballet is also considered to be Grigorovich's finest creation, for it cleverly contrasts scenes of mass male action with "soliloquies", or quiet moments of reflection, for the soloist. For Vasiliev, this format was ideal. He had an opportunity to display both his physical skills - breath-taking leaps, rapid spins, and powerful jetés - and his dramatic prowess, shown through impassioned acting which depicted Spartacus's innermost torments.

In the classical sphere, Vasiliev will be long remembered for his Albrecht in Giselle. He first danced the role in 1964, coached by the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova and the great dramatic dancer Aleksei Yermolaev. Over the years, Vasiliev's count has never lost his romance, nor his nobility. Giselle, whenever danced by Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova, has taken on a magical, highly romantic quality. In May 1990, they performed the ballet, billed as their last performance in these roles together, with the American Ballet Theatre: the evening showed the depth and understanding that their years of dancing together have produced. The two, so familiar with each other's moods and movements, became one on stage, mirroring one another in lyricism and plasticity. Together their dancing flowed: Vasiliev constantly aware of the nuances of Maximova's balance, she so completely assured in his support of her. While some of his former elevation had disappeared, Vasiliev still presented intense and classically pure technique, and gave a compassionate and commanding interpretation. He once said that his Albrecht was the first truly to love Giselle.

After speaking out against Bolshoi policies at the end of the 1980s, Vasiliev and Maximova were no longer invited to dance regularly with the main Bolshoi company. They still give a few token performances in the Bolshoi Theatre, usually when the main bulk of the company is on tour. As a consequence, they travel extensively abroad, especially to Europe, where they perform as guests with many leading companies, often in interesting new roles and styles. In recent years, Vasiliev has become something of a cultural envoy for Russian, rather than Soviet, ballet. He seeks ways to promote it, not just as a dancer but also as an accomplished choreographer, director of ballet, film director, and spokesman for the arts. Feeling that the present trends of athleticism and pyrotechnics, evidenced at the Bolshoi and elsewhere, are stifling the very roots and traditions of the Russian ballet, he campaigns constantly to preserve ballet's purity and heritage. In the early 1980s he took a group of young Bolshoi stars to France to display this pure technique, and in 1989, he toured America with a group of dancers from several Soviet republics who epitomized the Russian style.

Vasiliev has also had much success as a choreographer, creating several works in differing styles. His first ballet, Ikar (Icarus), showed a clear understanding of characterization and included a long evocative adagio which began as two monologues. The plotless ballet These Charming Sounds was an exquisite set of pure classical cameos danced joyfully to the music of Mozart, Corelli, Rameau, and others, while his Macbeth returned to Bolshoi bravura and grandeur with emphasis on male dancing. Vasiliev offered an imaginative interpretation of Shakespeare's text - male witches on pointe and, for the ghosts of Macbeth's victims, stacked shoes and Kabuki masks. More recently he has transposed Anyuta, a Chekhov story, into a popular and successful ballet. As a film director, Vasiliev showed ingenuity and sensitivity, with touches of Fellini-type imagery, in the film Fouetté. Sadly, Vasiliev's most recent choreographic effort, Cinderella (1991), has not been as successful.

International Dictionary of Ballet, 2 vols. (St. James Press, 1993)


Year Role Ballet Choreographer Company (Venue)
1958 Poet Chopiniana Fokine Bolshoi (debut, with Ulanova)
1958 Pan Walpurgis Night Lavrovsky Bolshoi
1959 Danila The Stone Flower (Moscow version) Grigorovich Bolshoi
1960 Ivanushka The Little Humpbacked Horse Radunsky Bolshoi
1960 Benvolio Romeo and Juliet Lavrovsky Bolshoi
1960 Prince Cinderella Zakharov Bolshoi
1960 Ali-Batyr Shuraleh Yakobson Bolshoi
1961 Likash Song of the Woods Lapauri, Tarasova Bolshoi
1961 Andrei Pages from a Life Lavrovsky Bolshoi
1961 Basil Don Quixote Gorsky Bolshoi
1962 Paganini Paganini Lavrovsky Bolshoi
1962 Slave Spartacus Yakobson Bolshoi
1963 Bluebird The Sleeping Beauty Grigorovich, after Petipa Bolshoi
1963 Prince The Nutcracker Vainonen Bolshoi
1963 Principal Dancer Class Concert Messerer Bolshoi
1964 Petrushka Petrushka Fokine, staged by Boyarsky Bolshoi
1964 Frondoso Laurencia Chabukiani Bolshoi
1964 Medzhnun Leili and Medzhnun Goleizovsky Bolshoi
1964 Albrecht Giselle Petipa, after Coralli & Perrot Bolshoi
1966 Prince The Nutcracker Grigorovich Bolshoi
1968 Spartacus Spartacus Grigorovich Bolshoi
1971 Icarus Icarus Vladimir Vasiliev Bolshoi (Kremlin Palace of Congress)
1973 Romeo Romeo and Juliet Lavrovsky Bolshoi
1973 Prince Désiré The Sleeping Beauty (new production) Grigorovich, after Petipa Bolshoi
1975 Ivan the Terrible Ivan the Terrible Grigorovich Bolshoi
1976 Icarus Icarus (new production) Vasiliev Bolshoi (Kremlin Palace of Congress)
1976 Sergei Angara Grigorovich Bolshoi
1977 Petrushka Petrushka Béjart Ballet du XXe Siècle (Brussels)
1978   (with Maximova)   Ballet Royal de Wallonie (Spoleto)
1979 Romeo Romeo and Julia Béjart Ballet du XXe Siècle (Brussels)
1980 Macbeth Macbeth Vasiliev Bolshoi
1986 Peotr Leontevich Anyuta Vasiliev Teatro San Carlos (Naples)
1987 Professor Ratt Blue Angel Petit Ballet de Marseille (Paris)
1988 Pulcinella Pulcinella Massine Teatro San Carlos (Naples)
1988 Baron Gaîté Parisienne Massine Teatro San Carlos (Naples)
1988 Zorba Zorba the Greek Lorca Massine Ballet dell'Arena di Verona
1989 Nijinsky Nijinsky Reminiscences Menegatti Teatro San Carlos (Naples)
1991 Stepmother Cinderella Vasiliev Ballet Theatre of the Kremlin Palace of Congress

VLADIMIR VICTOROVICH VASILIEV was born on 18 April 1940 in Moscow. In 1958, he graduated from the Moscow Ballet School, where he studied under Mikhail Gabovich. A blond man of medium height with a round face and brown eyes, Vasiliev stood out for his unique beauty of movement and, more importantly, for his selfless love of dancing.

After graduating, he was immediately accepted by the Bolshoi Theater as a soloist. He danced the lighthearted, mischevious Ivanushka in The Little Humpbacked Horse, a role characterized by humor and elements of buffoonery. At the same time, he danced the poetic part of Danila in The Stone Flower in 1959. Easily changing his appearance and way of moving, Vasiliev subordinated the dance to the charcter, thus combining the best traditions of the classical Russian ballet with the subtleties of modern choreography. he danced the love-possessed Medjnun in Leili and Medjnun, creating on the ballet stage a real oriental prince. In the part of Fokine's Petrushka, Vasiliev used groteque puppet movements to reveal a profound human tragedy. He was irresistible as Basil (Don Quixote), with virtuoso technique and an unusual combination of movements. The Prince Nutcracker was Vasiliev's greatest success. While he was still a toy nutcracker, his movements were mechanical, sharp, abrupt - then, when he was transformed into the Prince, they acquired elegance, romantic beauty and boldness. The purity of the dance pattern conveyed the character's purity of heart. As Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Vasiliev gave the part new meaning by demonstrating the inner development of the young man from his initial light-heartedness to the tragic revelations at the end of the ballet. As Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Vasiliev tried to get insight into a poetic character by treating him as a Romantic hero. The role of Spartacus, which was meant to be a symbol of heroic longing and action, is the dancer's most outstanding achievement. Manyh of these roles he danced with Yekaterina Maximova, his wife.

In addition to his brilliant dancing gifts and dramatic talent, Vasiliev has knowledge and intuition that enable him to understand the philosophy and the structure of the music that he works with. In 1964, Vasiliev won First prize at the International Ballet competion in Varna and the Vacslav Nijinsky Prize in Paris: he was proclaimed the best dancer in the world. Vasiliev performed in Maurice Béjart's Ballet du XXe Siècle and Roland Petit's Ballet de Marseilles, usually in duet with Maximova. Vasiliev graduated from the choreographic department of the State Institute of Theater Art in 1982 and started teaching the same year at the chair of choreography. He headed that department from 1985 and became a professor in 1989. He staged a number of ballets, including Icarus (1971), These Charming Sounds (1973), Macbeth (1980), Anyuta (1986), Romeo and Juliet (1990), and Cinderella (1991). Vasiliev is an accomplished painter as well, specializing in Russian landscapes. The Ballet and Music Festival was held in Moscow in May 1993 in his honor. He has won a number of prestigious national prizes and decorations.

- Paul André, ed., The Great History of Russian Ballet: its art and choreography (Bournemouth, UK: Parkstone Press, 1998)

MANY BALLET COGNOSCENTI in both Russia and Europe consider Vladimir Vasiliev to be of the same caliber as Nureyev and Baryshnikov, if not greater. In France and Italy, where he performs with his wife, Ekaterina Maximova, far more frequently than at his Bolshoi alma mater, he enjoys a reputation as the greatest Russian dancer since Nijinsky. His Western fame seems all the more legitimate as his career never benefited from the uproar of publicity that has accompanied the leap to freedom of so many Soviet dancers during the last two decades. To defection Vasiliev preferred a strenuous and at times self-destructive artistic struggle in the context of the Bolshoi's stagnant routine, survival among the everlasting hardships of Soviet life. Like so many members of the Russian intelligentsia, Vasiliev is determined to cultivate the heritage of Russian culture on its native soil, to prevent his homeland from deteriorating into a barren wilderness.

In a television film about Vasiliev, the dancer, looking at himself in the mirror, evaluates - half-mockingly - his own qualifications: his feed are as unpreposessing as his overdeveloped body, which could be taller or better shaped to meet the criteria for a balletic Prince Charming. Nor is his peasant's face suitable to the romantic cavaliers crowding the realm of Petipa.

Nevertheless, Vasiliev's personality is unique, and his artistic development is truly unparalleled in Soviet ballet. I know of no other Russian dancer who has increased his technique and augmented his projection with such natural ease and audacity as Vasiliev. Moreover, with the years his dancing has acquired an intellectual dimension rarely achieved by Soviet artists. His unprecedented evolution has greatly enhanced his individuality. During the 1960s he established the new standards of male dancing that influenced his entire generation.

In his salad days (1958-1970) Vasiliev's technique was second to none. Fyodor Lopukhov in his essay on Vasiliev singled him out as the only dancer who was technically superior to Chabukiani and Yermolayev:
Vasiliev extends balletic limits because his mastery of both soft and hard pliés makes any step possible for him. He executes double tours en l'air perfectly in either direction; his beats are equally flawless in small and big jumps; his cabrioles are astounding and his double cabrioles put Chabukiani's to shame. His double ronds de jambe in the coda of the last act of Don Quixote are unparalleled, invariably arousing a storm in the audience. Usually this movement looks like a dangling of the leg. Vasiliev, however, gives his ronds de jambe an ellipsoid shape, graphically visible through every jump. In seventy-five years of ballet I never saw a dancer able to execute this step so nobly. His double tours en dedans with his leg impeccably held in attitude and his arms rounded at his waist like the knobs of a little samovar became a model to emulate.
During the 1960s Vasiliev produced a real revolution in male dancing by demonstrating his style to the entire pleiad of Bolshoi dancers, from Mikhail Lavrovsky to Alexander Godunov. In Leningrad Valery Panov and Mikhail Baryshnikov followed him extensively. One legendary example of his artistry is his manège in the Don Quixote coda: after two jetés en tournant Vasiliev would perform a tour en l'air in attitude followed by a tour en l'air with a rond de jambe. This novel combination, repeated several times en manège, still astounds both the Bolshoi habitués and Western audiences.

Vladimir Victorovich Vasiliev was born on April 18, 1940, in Moscow, and studied at the Bolshoi Choreographic School. But his first steps were far from making clear his unique potential. His graduation performance in 1958 was rather drab and went almost unnoticed. He danced the Nutcracker pas de deux with Maximova, and it was she who immediately became the focus of attention: her chiseled legs, soubrette charm, and brio had far more appeal to the public than her squat, slightly uncouth partner.

Vasiliev's first public recognition came at a concert performance just after his graduation in 1958. Garbed in black, with burning eyes and pale face, he placed the demi-caractère role of the jealous villain in Francesca da Rimini, Alexei Chichinadze's ballet to Tchaikovsky's music. His dramatic impact was so overwhelming that he withstood the competition of the tigerish young Nureyev, who triumphantly danced the Le Corsaire pas de deux with the exuberant Alla Sizova. Vasiliev's success seemed to point the direction his career would take: cahracter roles such as Tybalt, Hilarion, and Abdul-Rakhman. It was Galina Ulanova who discerned a natural classical dancer in the fledgling Vasiliev, selecting him as her partner for one of her last performances of Chopiniana.

His first seasons at the Bolshoi (1958-60) saw Vasiliev cast in accordance with his strongly pronounced Russian physique, as a classical dancer with a potent character strain. He portrayed the inspired stonecutter Danilo in Grigorovich's The Stone Flower (1959) and Ivan the Fool in Alexander Radunsky's The Little Humpbacked Horse with Maya Plisetskaya as the Tsar Maiden (1960). Both roles were decently choreographed, with a strong flavor of national folk dance that wonderfully matched Vasiliev's good-natured, slightly impish Russian face and his grand-scaled manner of dancing. The ease with which he mastered both the demi-caractère dances in The Little Humpbacked Horse and Grigorovich's neoclassical vocabulary, with its cascades of intricate jumps and acrobatic lifts, was truly amazing. Nevertheless, the critics still classified him a demi-caractère rather than a genuinely classical dancer.

In 1960 Vasiliev began to take classes from Alexei Yermolayev. Their meeting was to be a powerful catalyst in Vasiliev's transformation into a great innovator. His revolutionary interpretations - Basil, Frondoso, and Albrecht - were all developed under Yermolayev's supervision. These three parts laid the foundation of a vital new style that influenced everyone who followed him in the parts.

By 1962 the twenty-two-year old Vasiliev had partnered all the leading Bolshoi ballerinas - Ulanova, Olga Lepeshinskaya, Plisetskaya, Timofeyeva - winning the taxing competition with them. He was universally acknowledged as an accomplished artist and virtuoso. To confirm his early maturity, in 1964 he overwhelmed Moscow in two major roles, Albrecht and Majnun in Goleizovsky's Leili and Mejnun.

Vasiliev's Albrecht blatantly challenged Soviet tradition and was the forerunner of Baryshnikov's portrayal ten years later. Disregarding hte prescribed sociological scheme, Vasiliev emphasized Albrecht's sincere love for Giselle and deepened the psychological dimension of the role. In his interpretation Albrecht's drama stemmed from the conflict between his social position and his inner self; in other words, Vasiliev revealed the human drama of Albrecht's identity.

His Act II was especially striking in its dramatic consistency. Rejecting the concept of Albrecht as a Romantic poet, Vasiliev orchestrated the encounter with Giselle the Wili as a vehicle for his expiation. He burst into his duel with the Wilis as if seeking death as an ultimate justification. To reinforce the feeling of frenzy, he choreographed his own variation, inserting dynamic double turns and rivoltades that would convey Albrecht's mental confusion. His amazing histrionics and ebullient dancing expressed a storm of feelings: biterness, remorse, self-hatred. In the finale he seemed spiritually transformed, shaken, and infinitely tormented. The Bolshoi had never seen such a profoundly intellectual approach to Albrecht.

It was followed by Majnun, the role that in my view constituted Vasiliev's greatest achievement at the Bolshoi. Goleizovsky's choreography appealing combined decorative Oriental poses with outbursts of fiery turns and swift jumps. Gosleizovsky seemed to challenge Vasiliev's established reputation as a classical virtuoso: in this ballet he had to be both picturesque and emotionally intense.

Vasiliev's ability to combine feral sensuality and subtle lyricism was revealed in Goleizovsky's Narcissus, aminiature set to the music of Tcherepnin (1970). Here the flowing or suddenly breaking graphic movements conveyed the half-human, half-savage aspects of a creature infatuated with his own reflection. Narcissus was one of Vasiliev's greatest roles, on a par with his Mejnun.

By 1964, Vasiliev had become a Bolshoi legend. The dean of Russian ballet, Fyodor Lopukhov, pronounced him "an unprecedented phenomenon with whom no one could be compared, including Nijinsky." Perhaps this was exaggerated praise, but in the mid-1960s Vasiliev in fact overwhelmed both Russian and Western audiences with his artistry and prowess. In every role, no matter how small, he invariably displayed the rare union of limitless technique and powerful projection. His range was truly breathtaking, and the gallery of his Bolshoi portrayals was strikingly divers: the tragic, oversensual Mejnun; the intellectually intense Albrecht; the epic, stalwart warrior of Jakobson's Shuraleh; the frenetic, pagan Pan of the "Walpurgis Night" bacchanale; and the grotesque, crotchety Emperor Paul in the film of the Olga Tarasova-Alexander Lapauri ballet Lieutenant Kije. In all of these roles his dancing was inseparably blended with his amazing projection.

Although he has captivated Western audiences since his first tour abroad in 1959, Vasiliev the perfect comedian is still to be discovered in the West. An effervescent sense of humor pervaded his prince in Zakharov's Cinderella, turning a minor, ordinary part into a true gem of wit and exhuberance.

With the appearance of Yuri Grigorovich as chief choreographer at the Bolshoi in 1964, Vasiliev's career took a new direction. This ambitious though unimaginative choreographer (a stage director rather than a ballet designer) made much use of Vasiliev's dance potential and theatricality; but his efforts to subjugate Vasiliev's personality to the needs of his cumbersome drama-ballets (Spartacus, Ivan the Terrible, Angara) were misguided and detrimental to the dancer.

By 1966 Vasiliev was at the peak of his unique technical brilliance, which was rivaled only by the magic of his persona on the stage. He could display his total maturity and control in Legend of Love and Swan Lake, but, in his words, "after Mejnun, the role of Ferhad lost its appeal for me, while my own concept of Siegfried would have required a total revision of the Bolshoi's Swan Lake.

Meanwhile Grigorovich, driven by the spirit of Bolshoi monumentalism, began ot work on Vasiliev as a new specimen of dancing superman for his Spartacus. What Vasiliev achieved in this redundant, fallacious ballet, so meager in its choreography, was nothing less than a miracle. Although he had to do a dance in chains in the best tradition of Soviet kitch, the dynamism of his split jetés and the genuine lyricism of his adagio with Phrygia were most eloquent. Without Vasiliev the ballet lost its vitality, revealing its eclectic, one-dimensional structure. Spartacus brought glory in the form of the Lenin Prize to Vasiliev and his colleagues, but the dancer was fully aware of the narrow confines in which Grigorovich sought to incarcerate him.

In the early 1970s the difficulties that had been simmering between the rebellious dancer and the autocratic chief choreographer came to a boil. The crisis was brought on by Grigorovich's very awkward production of Ivan the Terrible, or, more accurately, by its pronounced ideological apology for tyrannical power. The message aroused the indignation of the Russian intelligentsia, which Vasiliev shared: in a nation still recovering from the terror of the Gulag and enduring every day the KGB's persectuion of political dissenters, Grigorovich's attitude was perceived as unconditional surrender to the Sovient regime and a betrayal of the ideal of freedom. Despite Vasiliev's distaste for the role of the awesome Ivan, he performed it (in 1974) just to demonstrate that any tyranny is a perverse bigotry, fed by fear or self-destructiveness.

Vasiliev's dissent from Grigorovich's policy reached a climax when, as a member of the Bolshoi Art Committee, he openly attached the choreographer's full-length Angara, another specimen of balletic socialist realism. The scandal over Angara was the outbreak of a war. Vasiliev organized a small opposition group, subsequently joined by Maya Plisetskaya, another of Grigorovich's fervent adversaries. Their struggle continues even now.

Unlike so many of his great colleagues, Vasiliev's problems with repertory and artistic tyranny have not led to his defection. There are many personal and ideological reasons for this. Paramount among them is the fact that as a debuty of the USSR Supreme Council Vasiliev has enjoyed limitless artistic freedom in terms of his tours abroad and collaboration with Western choreographers.

In the summer of 1979 a group of Bolshoi renegades headed by Vasiliev and Plisetskaya startled the audience of Paris. Instead of the Bolshoi Giselle-Swan Lake routine, they showed three Béjart ballets and three works by Vasiliev himself. Vasiliev undoubtedly has potential as a choreographer, although his work is still an amalgam of heterogenous odds and ends, shifting from the monumental style of Soviet drama-ballet to pure dance. It is hard to predict the direction he will take. His inclination toward "pure dance for the sake of dance" seems unlikely to win the approval of the Soviet censors, who demand a definite social message from each choreographer. At the Bolshoi of today, such experimentation seems inconceivable.

At present, the most amazing thing about Vasiliev is that, according to all reports, his technique has not declined, although he as been on the stage for a quarter of a century. Roaring enthusiasm still accompanies each of his frequent appearances in Paris, Rome, Avignon, or Buenos Aires. Even if he soon curtails his dancing career in order to concentrate entirely on choreography, his greatest portrayals will rmain in the golden book of Russian classical ballet along with Nijinsky's Petrushka, Mordkin's Mato, and Nureyev's Slave in Le Corsaire.

- Gennady Smakov, The Great Russian Dancers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984)


Hauling the Bolshoi into the twentieth century - one of the great Russian dancers is now in charge of his home theater.
With his frank but wary gaze and piercing brown eyes, Vladimir Vasiliev looked like a man braced for important and delicate negotiations. Vasiliev, the former Bolshoi Ballet idol who last spring became the czar of the Bolshoi Theater, was in New York City last fall for a bit of ballet shuttle diplomacy. His mission: to snare ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for the Bolshoi, and allow that esteemed but calcified ballet company to catch up with the twentieth century.

Last March Vasiliev was named artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater after a power struggle that in its political complexity evoked the old Bolshevik battles for political supremacy in the twenties. The players were Yuri Grigorovich, artistic director of the ballet company since 1963; Vladimir Kokonen, its general director; fifteen leading Bolshoi dancers who, at the beginning of a performance of Romeo and Juliet, launched a strike protesting Grigorovich's resignation under duress; ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, who some said was jockeying to succeed Grigorovich's the office of President Boris Yeltsin; and Vasiliev, the long-time Grigorovich danseur noble who fell from the director's grace in the eighties. No blood was spilled, but Grigorovich was for all intents and purposes purged and was last seen in England, attempting to start a dance school.

Vasiliev now finds himself astride the ballet equivalent of a dinosaur. As Dance Magazine contributing editor Lynn Garafola expressed it in a review of the company's 1990 New York City season: "Twenty years of [Grigorovich's] impoverished, undemanding idiom have left the Bolshoi in a sorry state. Turnout, balance, strength, control, timing, clarity, epaulement - all have gone. Whether the ballet is Swan Lake or Ivan the Terrible or the Grand Pas from Paquita, what the Bolshoi offers today is a show of big jumps, big turns, big poses - and dancers with an advanced case of boredom." [November 1990, page 741] Not much had changed by 1995, if one is to judge by Sergei Bobrov's Infanta and the Jester, the athletic but artistically empty ballet the Bolshoi sent to San Francisco Ballet's "United We Dance" Festival last May.

While Vasiliev disparages some Grigorovich ballets, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Golden Age and his staging of Petipa ballets, he praises others, such as Spartacus and A Legend of Love. He also points out that if the Grigorovich canon were jettisoned light away, little would be left. "We are going to change the rep"' he says. "We just need time." The most ambitious repertoire change Vasiliev has in mind is the acquisition of works by such twentieth-century masters as Balanchine, Robbins, Jiri Kylian, and Maurice Béjart. The absence of their work (the exception is Balanchine's Prodigal Son) has left a gap in Bolshoi history, as well as in the education of its audience. "I want to fill that empty spot in the history of the Bolshoi Ballet with the names of today's world-renowned choreographers"' he says. "I don't want to have these works in order to bring them abroad on tour, but to show the masterpieces for Russian audiences at home."

While in New York City, Vasiliev met with Balanchine Trust executor Barbara Horgan and with Robbins. From the Balanchine repertoire, he would especially like to present Symphony in C (John Taras owns the rights), and perhaps Serenade. Of Robbins's works, he is most interested in 2 & 3 Part Inventions. The Russian was enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing Balanchine and Robbins to Moscow, but Horgan and Robbins were more cautious, saying only that the matter was under discussion. However, mounting a Balanchine ballet is a complicated proposition; you don't just buy it and stage it. The Bolshoi's dancers would have to be trained at least six months in the Balanchine style. When the Kirov Ballet performed Theme and Variations, Balanchine Trust repetiteur Francia Russell worked with the dancers for six months; Suzanne Farrell did the same in setting Scotch Symphony.

Vasiliev himself planned to stage Swan Lake in December and says he would also like to change the Bolshoi's production of Giselle. Also this season, he will direct a new staging of La Traviata at the Bolshoi Opera. But with Vacheslav Gordeyev and Alexander Bogatyrev actually in charge of the ballet company, Vasiliev, who with Kokonen is responsible for the ballet, opera, and theater companies, is looking at the big picture. Chief among hit tasks is instituting a contract system for the ballet's 220 dancers, and raising the money necessary to keep the Bolshoi at a world-class standard.

The government currently provides the Bolshoi Theater $12 million per year, Vasiliev says, and the Bolshoi needs it to cough up $45 million. "When we get this money, we will be able to live by the standards of the whole world," he promises. He is not just waiting for the government to come through; the company is soliciting support from Russian and international corporations. In addition to operating costs, $350 million is being sought to renovate the deteriorating Bolshoi Theater and add a second theater. When the Bolshoi's $1 million production of Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina opened in November, Vasiliev says, contributions came from corporations and some Russian banks. For its campaign to pay for renovating the theater, the company has received support from the Russian Elbim Bank, and newspapers Commersant and Commersant Daily, as well as KPMG, an international accounting and auditing firm. "Until we have the guarantee from the government that we will have a certain amount of money, we just look around for these sponsorships," says Vasiliev.

Of course, more cash is not all the Bolshoi needs. Vasiliev also wants to give the repertoire an infusion of youth: "I think we should give young choreographers an opportunity to start working, which they have never had before." He likes the idea of making a stage an dancers available for experimental work, agreeing that the stagnation of the Bolshoi arose in part because young choreographers were not encouraged to create work on the company.

He would also like to bring the Bolshoi school more under the wing of the theater. "The future of the Bolshoi is the school of the Bolshoi," he says, "and the closer the contact between the school and the Bolshoi, the better for the company, for the theater." Vasiliev acknowledges that to effect changes at the school, and to bring it under closer supervision of the company, he will first have to finesse longtime school director Sophia Golovkina. "She's like a fortress," he says.

While winning Golovkina's loyalty is important, securing the support of the dancers is even more critical. According to Vasiliev, there is little bitter residue remaining from last spring. On March 10, following word of Grigorovich's resignation, Bolshoi balletgoers expecting a performance of Romeo and Juliet were met by an astounding sight: when the curtain rose, it revealed a group of dancers in jeans and T-shirts who announced they were go on strike to protest Grigorovichi's ouster.

"Most interesting in that strike vote," says Vasiliev, "was that nobody said they were against Vasiliev - they were very careful. All of them said they were against Kokonen. They said they wanted Grigorovich to stay with them. Some of them, maybe about ten or fifteen, understood that with Grigorovich leaving the theater, their artistic fate could be ruined. These dancers did stay against Vasiliev." Vasiliev pauses and adds with more than a bit of knowing cynicism: "But, you know, that is always going on with a big troupe, and I absolutely did not worry about that because I knew that those people who were against me will be for me after I come to power." He concedes that "a lot of people do not like that Gordeyev is the artistic director of the ballet troupe, but I believe that he is the necessary person for the theater now." Gordeyev, he reports, is a good organizer who used to have his own company, Russian Ballet. Vasiliev concedes that the Bolshoi has not seen the end of dancer discontent. "We will have a lot of problems in the future, I believe, because by our transferring to a contract system a lot of people will lose their jobs."

Not likely to lose their jobs are several dancers who Vasiliev points to when asked whom to watch in the Bolshoi's future: Nadezhda Gratcheva, Galina Stepanenko, Andrei Bubarev, and Yuri Gritsov. "Right now the male cast is stronger than the females," he says. He also says the corps has become more disciplined than it was a year ago.

The repertoire those dancers have recently danced or will soon dance includes John Cranko's Taming of the Shrew, a new production of Leonid Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and Winter Storm, a one-act ballet by Gordeyev based on a Pushkin short story and set to the music of Georgi Sviridov. Vasiliev would also like to produce an evening of masterpieces of Soviet choreography, including the works of Vasily Vainonen and others. Asked if he might consider reviving the work of Leonid Jacobson, lately neglected by Russia's major companies, he mentions that this year is the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, a good occasion to revive a Jacobson miniature set to Shostakovich.

The company will not bring its repertoire to North America before 1998, Vasiliev says. "If we come here we should bring a completely new repertoire. We should bring new quality. I want to bring back the image of the Bolshoi which used to be, but which has been lost." That image, he says, is of "first of all, great artists - not sportsmen. The great artists are not the dancers who can make sixty-four fouettes. And of course to bring ballets having some plots behind them - more powerful, more able to reach people, more visually rich ballets."

The classics will still be represented among those ballets, but Vasiliev would like to modernize them. He contends the Kirov Ballet's Oleg Vinogradov is interested in preserving classics as museum pieces: "I would like to breathe new life into them. He's for the classic but in preservation; I'm for the classic but in development. If we keep, say, Don Quixote like it used to be in the last century, it would be dead theater, it would be nonsense." Vasiliev also maintains that "the technique of male dancers has never been developed by the new ballets. It has always been developed by bringing the new technique into the old ballets."

Indeed, dancers say working with Vasiliev on a ballet like his staging of Don Quixote is exciting. "He's so different, it's great to work with him," says American Ballet Theatre principal Paloma Herrera, who performed in Vasiliev's Don Quixote at the Kremlin Palace last fall. "He's always adding another detail here, another detail there. Maybe he'll say, 'In the pas de deux, instead of offering this hand, offer the other hand, it makes more sense.' Little details like that. It was an incredible experience to work with him."

Asked about his long-range plans for the Bolshoi, Vasiliev says he would like to foster more international exchange of dancers. "I would like to increase contacts between the companies - American, French, British - like it's never been before."

Besides bringing American and other foreign dancers to Russia, Vasiliev, the ballet diplomat, would also like to take more Russian work abroad: "I want that the Russian classic and even Soviet classic works will appear again on the world stage, and recapture that place which they had thirty years ago. I want to create that image again. That is the ideal, which may not be created but which I want to try".

Paul Ben-Itzak, Dance Magazine, (Feb 1996 Vol70 No2 p74 - Copyright © 1996 Dance Magazine, Inc.)


Vladimir Vasiliev (official website)

Wikipedia's page on Vladimir Vasiliev

Vladimir Vasiliev Community on Facebook

A (Photographic) Celebration of Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova

Videos of Vasiliev in performance, on YouTube

Photo Credit: Judy Cameron 1970

Back to Karen Mercedes' Main Page