a cura di Cristian Arni
We have recevied this interview by Tatiana Senkevitch to Ballet Master of Opera Paris Ballet, Irek Mukhamedov; i knew Mrs Tatiana last year in Rome at Teatro dell’Opera, at press conference about an event at Teatro Costanzi di Roma. Than we met again at Don Quichotte Ballet at Teatro dell’Opera, so we found many contact points between us and we kept in touch. Mrs. Senkevitch its really gently woman who sent us her contribute about this interview that we shared with all of you dance lovers.
We appreciate Mrs Senkevitch’s courtesy to share freely with us her interview, below.
Tatiana Senkevitch is a historian of art and dance. Apart from her teaching work, Tatiana has served as Research Associate at the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Getty Research Institute; Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris, and the Canada Art Ballet Project, Toronto. She is the author of numerous journal articles. book chapters, and film-interviews. She currently lives in Paris, France.
Irek Mukhamedov OBE was born in Kazan, USSR and graduated from the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (Bolshoi Ballet Academy) in 1978 under teacher Alexander Prokofiev. In 1981 he won the Grand Prix and Gold Medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow and was immediately invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. He became one of Yuri Grigorovich’s favourite dancers and was the youngest man ever to dance the leading role in Spartacus. After 9 years with the Bolshoi he left the Soviet Union to join the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer where he soon became a favourite of resident choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, and was widely regarded as one of the finest dancers of the Royal Ballet. MacMillan created Winter Dreams (based on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters) and The Judas Tree for him during his career with the Royal Ballet. He was awarded the Prix Benois de la Danse in Paris in 1996, and in 1998 he received the Nijinsky Medal and was invited to become President of the Legat Society. In January 2000 he was awarded the OBE in the New Years Honours List. Irek also led his own small troupe of Royal Ballet Dancers called Irek Mukhamedov and Company, which performed in England and Spain. His last guest appearance with the Royal Ballet was in 2004 in the ballet Mayerling. Previously Irek has been guest ballet master at English National Ballet, and he is currently Maitre de la danse/ballet master at the Paris Opera Ballet.
Irek Mukhamedov, an international megastar of classical dance, arrived in Paris in August 2019 to take his new job of Maître de ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet. Soon after, I asked Irek for an interview-conversation focused mostly on his new role of maître de ballet in the oldest company in Europe, although it was clear to me while talking to Irek that one could not escape delving into his flamboyant dancing career in Russia and abroad.
When we met— it was already February of 2020—he was most eager to share his plans and aspirations for this new page in his artistic life. After a strike of two months’ duration that kept dancers in their studios, the company resumed performances on its two stages, those of the Palais Garnier and the Opera Bastille. The preparation of the Paris Opera Ballet’s tour to Japan (February 23 – March 9) was in full swing. Little did we know that the already menacing spread of Covid-19 would soon close the doors of all major opera and ballet theaters in the world. There was not even the slightest hint that the most unalterable routine in the life of dancers and their coaches, that of their daily training, was to be suspended for an unknown period.
We believe that this interview, taken during quarantine in France and elsewhere, assures that the evanescent art of dance will endure and prevail through this unprecedented moment.
How do you regard this invitation to work as Maître de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet, the art institution that stands as an epitome of classical dance? How does this invitation reflect on your previous dancing experience? I received the offer with gratitude and enthusiasm. Aurélie Dupont, Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, was the one who invited me, and I immediately thought that it was a significant opportunity that had come my way. This outstanding company is an emblem of the French tradition of classical dance with its technical rigor and stylistic purity. Today, the company consists of immensely talented, mostly young dancers, mastering a diverse repertoire of classical, modern, and contemporary ballets. I am delighted to work with the POB and truly hope that I can contribute my experience and knowledge to this world-renowned ballet theatre. I would say it is a welcome turn in my career. When and how did you feel that the moment came to switch from your active dancing career to the position of maître de ballet? I have not yet felt that the moment has arrived. I cannot admit fully to myself that I am done yet. I like performing. I like living on stage. Though I think that dancing full classical ballets, something like Don Quixote or Sleeping Beauty may be not necessary at this point, but I feel that I still can bring something to the stage. If there is a choreographer, who wants to create something for me, as I am now, or an occasion to perform something new, I will never say no. My last performance took place in August 2019, when Miyako Yoshida, Principal of the Royal Ballet, invited me to her farewell performance titled “Last Dance.” I partnered her for the final piece of the Gala, Peter Wright’s Mirror Walkers. Now, however, since I have started working for the Paris Opéra Ballet, I feel that I might transfer my hunger for the stage to the dancers I work with in the company. It is a way of looking at the stage with different eyes, through their performances.
Who are you tutoring in the company now and what ballets are you preparing with them? Currently, I co-coach with Clotilde Vayer two leading couples: Amandine Albisson/ Hugo Marchand and Ludmila Pagliero/ Mathias Heyman in Giselle that is running on the stage of the Palais Garnier now. We are also preparing Dorothée Gilbert / Hugo Marchand and Amandine Albisson / Mathieu Ganio for John Cranko’s Onegin. Both ballets are on the bill of the Paris Opéra Ballet’s tour to Japan in early March. It is so instructive for me to work in a team with Clotilde as we have different but complementary approaches to these ballets. She is a carrier of the French tradition, she knows the repertoire in depth, and is able to give the dancers many specific corrections in regard to details and musicality, while I try to catch the bigger technical glitches and, at the same time, focus on how the dancers’ bodies carry the narrative, the dramaturgical meaning of these ballets. I learn a lot in this team process. I haven’t danced Onegin myself, I should add.
Yet you were regarded as an outstanding Albrecht in Giselle on the British stage. Do you try to pass your secrets of making this signature role of yours to dancers here in Paris? I can explain to them certain technical aspects when it is necessary but both couples—Hugo and Amandine, and Ludmila and Mathias—are already excellent dancers. Mostly I try to awaken their own sense of being organic on stage and to encourage them to bring into the studio the results of their own research on their characters. In the second act, for example, there is no specific choreographic notation of how Albrecht puts flowers on Giselle’s grave. It can be done in a variety of ways, such as a kneeling position or in a deep stretch forward. Every artist performing Albrecht should find these little details for himself. My role is to see how one detail or another fits into the larger dramaturgical and choreographic canvas of the ballet. I am fortunate to work on Giselle with these talented dancers, each of which has achieved different interpretations of the leading roles on stage. In the last performance of Giselle, for example, Mathias (Albrecht) added one more anguished step towards Giselle before her disappearance in the grave. It was a sort of impromptu moment that made Ludmila respond with an anguished gaze back to her beloved. It was a pinnacle moment of the performance that had not been prepared earlier in the studio, and the public was completely transported. Not only the public – Ludmila and Mathias moved Aurélie Dupont, who had herself shined in this ballet, to tears.
What is the next ballet you will work on with the company? After the tour to Japan, the company will throw all its energy into the production of Mayerling, a legendary dramatic ballet by Sir Kenneth Macmillan. I will be rehearsing with the company’s male leads selected for the role of Crown Prince Rudolf. It will be a real challenge for them and for me, as their coach. I know from my own experience of working with Kenneth [MacMillan] what exertion this role demands. Rudolf had a neurotic, mesmerizing and compulsive personality. This role requires more than simply executing the steps. A clean, impressive pirouette does not decide much in MacMillan’s choreography, one that goes beyond mastering any technical difficulty. When you dance this ballet, you cannot step out from Rudolf’s skin for a split second. The role of Rudolf allows the dancer to explore this unusual character in depth, to act, and to discharge oneself from any real, practical world. I am looking forward to this challenge. [Due to the closure of theatres in Paris, Mayerling is transferred to the season of 2020-21 at the present.]
The work in the studio and the performance on stage are deeply linked for a dancer. How do you see your responsibilities of the maître de ballet in preparing the soloists for the stage? Perhaps now, after years of my own performing career, I see the studio work–an endless process of finessing the links between the choreography and meaning– differently. It is extremely important to harness every detail, to help dancers to embody the choreography completely in technical sense, and to make them feel organic in expressing themselves. We work hard in the studio but the stage—the real performance-space—rarely repeats the studio routine exactly. Now, I try more to look at the dancers by occupying the place of the public that needs to grasp the dramatic aspect of the steps more fully (if we think about a narrative ballet). At times, I am too soft in the studio work, as I do not want to dictate, beside some technical corrections, how it should be done. I would like—ideally—to turn my work with dancers in the studio towards their internal growth into their specific roles and further into their art. Dance is art to me and dancers ought to awaken emotions in the public.
How did you discover this trajectory towards the freedom of performance, that desirable symbiosis of dancing and acting yourself?
As a young dancer in the Bolshoi, I followed the advice of my teacher (Nikolai Simachev) and the choreographer’s demands (I worked very closely with Yuri Grigorovich) but used to search for the content of roles myself. I learned my real freedom of interpretation, my chance to explore the dramatic side of dancing with Kenneth Macmillan. He launched me on understanding his choreographic patterns in depth, in relation to the development of the character, be it Des Grieux in Manon, or Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, or Colonel Vershinin in Winter Dreams. Macmillan opened the possibilities of multilayered interpretation and of living the life of the character on stage. I knew that in order to dance his choreography, including something controversial, such as in Judas’ Tree, I had to convince the public and carry it with me, on the path of discovery of my character. England has a strong theatrical culture. I was very pleased that my interpretations of Macmillan’s choreography spoke to the public.
At times, I had to convince myself to discover something new in the already familiar ballets. I happened to work with Ann Hutchinson Guest on her staging of Nijinski’s L’aprés midi d’un faune after the restored notations by Nijinski. Trying to understand her ideas, or rather those of Nijinski, I came to realize why his original performance remains so powerful, despite of many later iterations by famous dancers. I literally tried to make my body not to perform the steps or positions but to absorb the idea of being a rustic semi-beast, existing in the archaic world. I feel I became that beast when I look at the photos from that performance
Beside reaching the enviable heights in your dancing career, you have also worked extensively as ballet master with several leading companies in the world, you have managed your own company between 1992 and 1998, while you were still dancing. Do you prefer multitasking in managing your professional life?
No, not at all. I need to stay focused on one point to accomplish it. In this respect, I am a distinct “male” type. I think only women are fully capable of doing several things at once—they are better managers than we are. When I coach dancers with my wife Masha [Masha Mukhamedov was a soloist of the Bolshoi, the couple left Russia in 1990], I am instantly surprised at how many details she is capable
of seeing and correcting at once. I am usually concerned with more general phrasing, partnering and obvious technical glitches, while she is capable of keeping a big perspective and, at the same time, she is attentive to polishing every detail, even minutiae, particularly with pointe work.
Do you have more dancers in your family?
Our daughter Sasha (Alexandra). She danced as principal with the Dutch National for 10 years. Recently, she moved to California to work as soloist with the San Francisco Ballet. My son Maxim is also in the artistic world; he studies photography and the visual arts in Paris.
Do you consider yourself a dancer – and now teacher – of any specific tradition or training? I do not think of myself as a Russian dancer, though I recognize how much my Russian training saved me through the years. As an artist, I am more British, because I learned a different manner of expressing myself on stage there. I went through and absorbed several schools and languages of dance. When I worked as a ballet master with the English National Ballet or the Royal Ballet, I felt that I could make a difference, while here, in Paris, the dancers are not yet fully accustomed to understanding my language – and not only linguistically – I am a bit of a tourist for them. In a way, we are in a stage of adjustment. The dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet are still questioning me, while I am still trying to grasp them better. But we will get there, I believe. I remember what Rudolf Nureyev said to me when I worked with him on his version of Sleeping Beauty: ”We graduate from ballet school with the title of “artist of ballet” [the title awarded to graduates of the Russian Academic schools] then we may become soloists, coryphées, or étoiles, in accordance with our motivations or talents, and then we still need to acquire our individuality, and only after that we might become a personality. Not everyone grows to that stage. But if one does grow to become a personality on stage, the dancing style or school that you profess becomes irrelevant. Then, you are no longer the Bolshoi, or the Royal dancer, because you dance in your own style, the style of your personality. My task as a ballet master is to let young and talented artists grow technically and artistically, but mostly to open them to a way of rising into personalities on stage.