An Interview with
Wednesday, April 8, 1998
It is an ordinary morning in Het Muziektheater, the beautiful home of Het Nationale Ballet, overlooking the Waterlooplein in the center of Amsterdam. The dancers have just finished daily class and are walking in and out of the dressing rooms, frequently scrutinizing the video screens in the gangways, trying to find out when they have to rehearse.
You hear many different languages here but remarkably little Dutch. Het Nationale Ballet, with some eighty dancers, is Hollands biggest ballet company and considers it a matter of prestige to attract artists from around the world. Wayne Eagling, head of the company and ex-principal dancer with the Royal Ballet of England, can say with pride that Het Nationale Ballet hosts dancers of 18 different nationalities. One of them is a Russian, Larissa Lezhnina.
In the early nineties, when the Kirov Ballet was touring in the West, Ms. Lezhnina was one of the company's eye-catching young ballerinas. Her performances in The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, together with numerous variations in the Petipa ballets, caused Western critics to praise her performances as ideal examples of Kirov classicism. Audiences admired her girlish, somewhat timid charm, her gentle, yet engaging and honest characterizations, and the purity of her style.
Yet, those who believed they would witness the successful growth of a new star within the Kirov were soon disappointed in 1994 Ms. Lezhnina left the company. Even now, five years after her final appearance in London with the Kirov, one occasionally meets ballet fans there who sincerely regret her break with the company. And there are many who still wonder why she made such a radical change after all, she seemed to be, to outsiders anyway, one of the most popular dancers in the troupe.
As agreed, Ms. Lezhnina appears in front of the women's dressing room at 12:15 sharp.
It is striking that she has hardly changed since I last saw her in 1993. Her youthful charm is still apparent. She looks much younger than her age, and her face easily brightens up with that disarming smile of hers.
Petite and well-proportioned, I cannot help thinking how out-of-place Ms. Lezhnina might look amidst the towering and lanky dancers who now rule at the Kirov Ballet.
Yesterday she danced a successful Romeo and Juliet in a choreography by Rudi van Dantzig, and today she is already rehearsing La Bayadère and Diana and Actaeon for the next program.
We make ourselves at home in the unoccupied video room of the theater, which turns out to be an excellent place for the interview. After some initial stiffness, Ms. Lezhnina soon becomes relaxed and confident. She has a well-considered view on things, and she is frank and outspoken.
Before we go to the interview, I would like to thank Ms. Lezhnina for doing the utmost to make it easy for me in Het Muziektheater.
April 8, 1998
[Note: The interview was in English]
So, I passed an examination and started to study at the Vaganova School when I was nine. I was in the Vaganova School for eight years. After I graduated, I immediately went to the Kirov Ballet as a corps de ballet dancer.
Was dancing your own decision?
Yes, I always wanted to dance. I also studied violin, but after three years I dropped it and just danced.
Who were your teachers at the Vaganova School?
The first four years I had a wonderful teacher, who has already died. Her name was Lyudmilla Komisarova. She had studied [in the same class] with Irina Kolpakova. A very strong, very nice teacher. We loved her much.
I wasnt an easy child. I was difficult. [laughing] But maybe thats why I can dance now.
Then, for another four years I studied with Inna Zubkovskaya.
Besides these two teachers for classical dance, I had a lot of teachers for other specialties. For example, for character dance I had Irina Gensler, an excellent teacher. For pas de deux class, Nikolai Nikolaievich Serebrianykov.
Who was the most important teacher for you?
When you study, each of them is very important. Of course, the teachers for classical dance are more important.
Were there other people who influenced you at the beginning of your career?
All principal dancers, the great ballerinas of that time. It was a great time, I think. Irina Kolpakova, Gabriella Komleva, Alla Sizova, Elena Evteyeva, Olga Chenchikova, Tatiana Terekhova, Lyubov Kunakova, Galina Mezentseva were still dancing, and Altynai Asylmuratova started to dance. There were so many wonderful ballerinas and so much to learn from them.
So it was important for you to see examples?
Yes, and I was lucky, because some of them later became my teachers, like Kolpakova and Terekhova. I was so happy to work with both of them.
How was working with Tatiana Terekhova?
I think, she is hard. I mean hard, if you dont know her. But she knows so much about the style of the Kirov. Maybe sometimes she cannot dance some ballet, but she still can teach you and say what it should be like, what its supposed to be. For me, shes a very sweet person, as a human being.
Do you still have contact with Terekhova?
Yes, I called her and a few months ago I worked with her. We have a warm relationship.
Who else from your class do we still see dancing?
Elvira Tarassova. Shes my very best friend. She dances a lot in the Kirov.
The Kirov Ballet was your first company. When did you start to dance at the Kirov?
Who was responsible for that?
When you do the last examination in classical dance, all the directors from the Russian companies come to watch and choose dancers. Thats how I was accepted into the Kirov Ballet.
This was an important event in your life, I suppose?
Yes, important. But when I finished school maybe I will say something wrong I almost knew that I would be in that theater. So it wasnt a big surprise. If youre one of the best students, you can feel you will be there. But I was very glad to work there, because sometimes I used to think I couldnt work anywhere. I think, thats why I just tried to study very hard, to be one of the best students to go to this theater.
How long did you stay in the corps de ballet?
Until 1990, so for three years. I danced everything. Corps de ballet, but also solos, pas de deux's.
What was your first major ballet role in the Kirov?
Theme and Variations and then The Sleeping Beauty.
I also did Maria in Fountain of Bakhchisaray early. But I think its wrong when youre too young. Its very hard to do it. I was glad to do it, but it wasnt as good as its supposed to be. The Sleeping Beauty was easier, mentally. She's a young girl I mean, its a very hard part technically, but the character is easier to play well than Maria in Fountain.
Its interesting that you admit that you were not ready for the part.
It depends what you want to do just dance or show something more.
How old were you when you danced Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty?
It was in 1989, so I was 20.
How did you prepare for an important role like Aurora? Did you watch filmed performances? Who helped you?
I didnt watch films, because I didnt have them. At that time in Russia it was very unusual to have a video player. But, I had the best possible example in my teacher Irina Kolpakova, the first Sleeping Beauty in Russia. She is like tape and much more than that, too.
How do you remember Irina Kolpakova?
As a teacher, she is really of the highest level. As a human being, its very hard to say, because when I started to work with her, she was like the ideal ballerina for me, and I was really standing in awe of her. For instance, when she showed me something, I forgot about myself and just wanted to be like her, because everything was so perfect.
When youre young, its the ideal beginning, you immediately get the feeling of what The Sleeping Beauty is about. However, once youre older you should be able to put something of yourself into your performance and stop trying to be like her.
Shes a friendly person never screamed or anything and extremely intelligent. When you are only 18 or 19, as I was, its a dream to be able to work with an artist like Irina Kolpakova. Even now, ten years later, I still remember the rehearsals with her. It was an important time.
Who else did you work with at the Kirov besides Irina Kolpakova?
Terekhova. I did class with Galina Kekisheva, later with Ninella Kurgapkina a very strong class. It helped me very well to get my technique stronger, and I improved a lot.
All the dancers in the Kirov were great to work with. I liked to see the performances of Altynai Asylmuratova, Galina Mezentseva, Tatiana Terekhova, and Olga Chenchikova. I enjoyed very much to be there, especially to watch the amazing corps de ballet of the company.
Who were your dancing partners - men and women?
Women: Tatiana [Terekhova], Lyubov Kunakova as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Angelina Kashirina always as the mother in The Sleeping Beauty or the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.
Men: My first partner was Farukh Ruzimatov, of course. Then I performed a few times with Konstantin Zaklinsky, with Sergei Berezhnoi, Igor Zelensky, Sergei Vikharev, with Andris Liepa once, with Alexander Gulyaev, and many times with Viktor Baranov.
Who was your favorite partner?
Thats very hard to say. I must say that Ruzimatov wasnt the best partner. Still he did something. [laughing] Almost everyone in the ballet world knows that hes not a good partner.
Because Ruzimatov is a natural dancer, but not a natural partner. Its not easy to explain. Partnering should be natural. He just doesnt feel where a partner should be.
Konstantin Zaklinsky was better?
Yes, he is a very good partner, although I only did a few performances with him. And he is always wonderful in a role. A terrific actor.
I did my first Paquita with him, and he helped me enormously for instance, with the style. As you know, he was the famous partner of Kolpakova. I also danced Romeo and Juliet with him, his last performance.
Yes, very good. He is natural. Very, very good. I think, that with Viktor I had the same kind of person as myself. He was more like me. Thats probably why I liked to dance with him more than with somebody else. It was really a great pleasure to dance with him.
Baranov is not Vaganova schooled?
No, but Viktor caught up very fast with the style. Thats more important. The Kirov was very closed and you could immediately see if people came from another school. You could see if they had different schooling, but Viktor was very fast in catching onto the Kirov style.
Besides The Sleeping Beauty which ballets did you dance in the Kirov?
Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Legend of Love [the role of Shirin], In the Night from Jerome Robbins, The Leaves are Fading, Theme and Variations, Scotch Symphony....
At that time, it was great to do it, but after one or two performances you began to realize you wouldnt do it again. For instance, we did Theme a few times, and it was dropped. Robbins the same. Now they do them more often.
Can you tell me why you decided to leave the Kirov Ballet?
I had a very bad relationship with the director, with Oleg Vinogradov. I decided to leave, because its very hard to work with a director who hates you.
Hates you? why?
[laughing] I dont know why. Just ask him if you need to know. It was very strange.
Indeed, I always thought that you had a good relationship with Vinogradov.
It was a very strange relationship. At the end, one year before I left, I had a very long talk with him. And he was so rude. He told me that I was s--t and that I never did anything good in this company. Very bad conversation. Maybe he didnt think like that. Just because I went to ask him to continue to work with Tatiana [Terekhova].
He didnt give her anymore performances and he wanted her to stop working with her girls. When I said that I would still like to work with her, he grew very angry. I had my own opinion. Thats why he became so upset.
And I just said, if he doesnt like me and since I dont dance enough I dont mean "enough" I mean, not what I wanted to dance. He wanted me to dance in Coppélia and La Fille Mal Gardée his own ballets.
Okay, I could dance, but still, give me something else. But he didnt want to. So I decided not to do his ballets. Because this kind of ballet I knew I could do very well, and I wanted to try something else. But he didnt let me.
Thats curious, it seemed to me that you performed a lot, especially on tours.
Yes, I always danced very much on tours, and always well not always but most of the time, I got excellent reviews. Like in America sometimes better than others.
But when the Kirov was in Leningrad, I was doing much less.
Had this something to do with competition between the dancers in the company?
Competition will bring out the best in people, provided it takes place in a healthy atmosphere. But when the director has a favorite, this has nothing to do with competition, because for him his favorite will always be the best dancer. Having a favorite isnt good, but its normal. You cannot do anything about it. But still, I didnt feel like I was trying to be a big ballerina there no, I was just a dancer who wanted to do something.
So, you left the Kirov because of not having enough to dance?
If the relationship with Vinogradov stayed the same as it had been before, I would have never left the company. [emphatic] But there was this terrible conversation.
And then I got a wonderful opportunity. We went to Holland to see our friend Grisha [Grigory Chicherin], who was already there with his wife. We just came to see them in Holland, and we did class and Wayne [Eagling, artistic director of Het Nationale Ballet] offered me a contract. That was my opportunity. Maybe if this hadn't happened, I would still be in the Kirov not doing anything.
So you never had to do a public audition?
No, but Wayne knew me from before. We worked here with the Kirov, and he also saw me in San Francisco. So it wasnt the first time we had met.
What were the first things you did here in Amsterdam?
The first thing was Five Tangos by Hans van Manen, a completely new style for me. And the next program was Swan Lake, in a production by Rudi van Dantzig very different from the Russian productions of this ballet.
How was it different?
I mean, I dont have to tell you. You can see it. [laughing] Nothing to speak about. How can I explain? It is different, the steps, the idea behind it. It cannot be the same in every theater. You can see the difference between Bolshoi and Kirov. Its always different, but I think that makes it interesting. It could be a very bad performance, of course. In 200 different theaters they cant give the same quality. I dont know how I can explain it. You may like it, you may not like it.
You have a preference?
Of course you prefer something you have very deep inside of you. When you study, and for twenty years you have only seen one production, when you see a different one you hate it at first. Then you get used to it, and finally you feel okay. But if you study in another school you like another production. Thats normal. Its not [imitating a spoiled girl] I dont want to do this I'm going to leave!"
No. If you want to change companies you cannot say what you want to do. You have to do what the company does. But its very pleasant to try something new which is unusual for you.
Were you immediately engaged here in Amsterdam as soloist?
Yes, first soloist.
Outside of ballet, whats it like to leave your home country and start a new life in the West? Was this especially difficult? Who helped you?
I was married, and I left Russia and the Kirov with my husband. Maybe thats why it was easier. [Ms. Lezhninas husband is Igor Beliaev, also a former Kirov dancer, now dancing with Het Nationale Ballet.]
I like to live in Amsterdam. I mean, I am that kind of person who likes it everywhere I go. Life is already complicated enough. If you do more, then you get crazy. You have to be more easy in life, I think.
I was different there, in Russia. In Russia there is a lot of pressure, and its hard to feel happy there.
Wasnt there a language problem?
Yes, sure. I didnt know any English at all, and I still dont know Dutch.
Youre speaking English now.
Yeah, now, after four years, you can imagine. I would be better if I started to learn it properly.
You are doing all right, you are already talking for 30 minutes in English and I understand you.
Thank you. Okay.
Living here in Amsterdam, is it what you expected it to be? What are the best things of living in the West?
It is much easier to live here. Especially now, because when I speak with people in Russia, like my friend Tarassova, its very hard, very, very hard there. So, Im lucky, in every way, because its not a pleasant situation out there anyway not in Russia, not in the Kirov.
Also, Im very glad because my mum can visit here, and she's happy here, too.
Here there are different problems. I like it better here, because there is more stability. Also, in Europe you find history and culture all around. You can go everywhere in Europe and still see something very beautiful. No, I like to live here very much. But also I like to go back to Russia for vacation, to stay there for one month. [laughing] Not more. Not too long.
My mum still lives there with my sister. Some of my friends are there, too. I miss them sometimes very much, as I miss St. Petersburg.
What do you know about the situation in the Kirov Ballet now?
For one year I haven't seen them. I dont know so much now, because in a year anything can happen.
You know of course that now in the Kirov there are many young people dancing?
Thats good. Ballet is for young people. Of course they should never forget about older people.
It seems that many of these new people have a different dancing style, based on hyper-flexibility and a strong technique, frequently at the expense of emotional depth. Was this already the case when you were there?
I think Yulia Makhalina was like that. For me it all has to do with your mind and what you want to be. Nobody else is going to tell you what you have to be. Teachers can correct you, but they cant put anything in your mind, in your brain. If youre clever enough to kick your leg, to raise your leg behind your ear, thats okay.
But in my opinion the problem is more difficult. Its not only the dancer. Its also the audiences. You know, if the audience is still screaming and clapping, then the dancers think the audience liked the performance style, so the dancers will keep on doing what they did.
Yet, I think now there is a difference. When the Kirov Ballet was in London last summer, dancers like Yulia Makhalina and Svetlana Zakharova were criticized, because they distorted the classical line, for instance, by raising their legs too high. So there is criticism against this tendency.
But thats not criticism in the Kirov. Its different. If they are criticized in the West, they still can say back in Russia, They dont understand anything, because in Russia they still like us."
But, okay, even in Russia I know people who used to attend all the performances in the theater, but they have become very selective now. They dont want to see all the performances anymore, because they prefer the real, pure Kirov style.
Also, I think it may be the teachers. Altynai Asylmuratova never lifted her leg like Svetlana Zakharova does now, and yet, they are both rehearsed by Olga Moiseyeva. I hope that a famous dancer like Altynai can be a example for Svetlana. I mean, she doesnt have to imitate Altynai, but she can learn a lot from her.
Do you know whats happening in Russia today? The public in Russia has begun to like other dancers better than Altynai. Altynai is a huge star for the West, but, in my opinion, they should respect and like her more in Russia. The director can say bad things to her. And thats a pity. How can this be? In Russia, nowadays, it is said that Altynai didnt show her full potential."
Of course, it depends on taste. For instance, Uliana Lopatkina is special, but I dont think shes suited for every classical ballet. Shes extremely convincing in Swan Lake or La Bayadère, but I prefer another ballerina in Giselle or Le Corsaire. Still, people like her very much.
Have you seen Diana Vishneva?
Yes. She has talent and she is a hard worker. [hesitating] When she was very young, she was already dancing very nicely. But in my opinion there is nowhere to grow without deeper emotional commitment.
[ironically] Maybe Im very old-style, I dont know. I left the Kirov, and I have a different style in my memory. But somehow, I dont know why they dont like it anymore. They dont have to dance like before, but they should keep style in classical ballet.
You dont agree with the new style?
I cannot say its wrong. [laughing] Im probably very old-fashioned.
[seriously] I also saw Zakharova, and she disturbed me very much. But shes still very young. Maybe one day she will understand that its not good.
Do you think it has also something to do with the fact that they dont see examples anymore?
I think they dont want to see examples. I read one interview with Vishneva and she said, I want to do just what I feel." Of course, you have to do what you feel and nobody can say to you what you have to do. But still, you have to represent the Kirov style.
Moreover, theres a new generation of teachers and a new director. The dancers in the company are in an unstable position now that Vinogradov is gone. They are uncertain about their future.
Why is that?
I think it has something to do with Makhar, who is in charge now.
What do you think of Makhar Vaziev as head of the company?
[pensively] Russia... You never understand whats happening in Russia. Just for me, its a great pity. For such a wonderful theater, there should be a more suitable person. One has to be more than just a soloist for this job.
You can be very strong, but strong in a wrong way, like Makhar. Hes very strong, but in the wrong way, and then its worse.
Do you think Oleg Vinogradov was preferable to Makhar Vaziev?
I dont know how Vaziev is, I never worked with him. But I worked with Vinogradov. Of course, Vinogradov did so many bad things for the Kirov, but he also did nice things.
In the beginning he did something for the theater, like with touring. We went out, we lived in good hotels, had nice breakfasts, made a lot of money. This is something he could do, because he likes money so much.
And he also helped the theater. He brought the work of Balanchine to the Kirov. Okay, maybe without him it would have happened one day also. Still, he did something.
But then again, he did so many bad things like firing talented ballerinas such as Mezentseva, Kunakova. I mean, Mezentseva she was almost like a legend in the Kirov.
Vinogradov wasnt an open person. [hesitating] Very strong, and you had to know what to do with him. If you knew, than it was easier.
When I spoke with him, and he was very rude, I said to him, Okay, then I decide what Im going to do. And I was very strong. I didnt cry. Usually I would start to cry, because its very difficult emotionally. This time I said to myself, Im not going to cry this time!"
When he saw people cry, he was happy. He would start to smile. You may not believe it, but he was like that. But if you did not cry, and you started to be strong, then he got upset and very angry though hed respect you more.
And after I said that, he replied, No, no, Ill think about what I can do for you in this situation." But I just left his office, and, of course, he didnt do anything.
[pensively] He hated strong people, but he kind of respected them. He still could do very bad things for strong people. He was worse with people who crawled for him. He despised them.
But thats what a director is, you know. Did you ever see a nice director somewhere? [laughing] No. Its difficult to be a nice person, and at the same time be a director.
As a woman living at the end of the 20th century how do you approach a ballet that was created more than a hundred years ago? Do you feel that ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty still mean anything to us?
I like classical ballet very much. Of course, I studied for this kind of ballet. Its hard for me to do other styles. Not "hard" its very interesting, and I can do them. They are especially interesting, because in Russia, most of the time, I only did classical ballet.
I dont like modern dance better, but I like to do different styles. Still I love classical ballet, because it has something to do with soul, you know. Modern is so cold for me. It can be very interesting, but still it doesnt touch me. In modern dance, quite often they use beautiful classical music, but the steps dont match the music, and thats why it doesnt work.
Do you think that Giselle, this old love story, has anything to say to present-day audiences?
Of course. Love will always be here.
Still, here in the West you hear all these different voices, saying that these ballets are old-fashioned?
Yes, here its the same. Still, yesterday [the performance of Romeo and Juliet], the audience liked it. You can always say that its old-style, and that its old-fashioned, but people keep coming to see it. Twelve performances and every one a full house. With a modern program, you do two performances and nobody comes anymore.
Some dancers are saying classical ballet is boring, because its very difficult. You have to work hard, you cannot do what you want to do, because its supposed to be different. Like the corps de ballet is supposed to be together, and still it must be beautiful and in line.
But, in modern dance, I sometimes dont understand what the choreographer meant when he created it. Dancers are often just doing the steps which the choreographer showed them, but without grasping the idea thats behind them at all. Thats why sometimes it doesnt work.
I like Kylian very much. Its very beautiful, they move exquisitely. I think hes my favorite. But still if you think about the person who is dancing, it doesnt matter who it is.
On one day, I might see Sylvie Guillem in Herman Schmerman by William Forsythe, and the next day I might see another dancer, maybe Darcey Bussell, both doing the same role. And I really cant see much difference between them, interpretation-wise.
Yet, when I watch five different ballerinas dancing Giselle, I will immediately see five different characters and interpretations.
Also, [thinking about Herman Schmerman] I dislike naked people on the stage. It disturbs me. Its like you dont have enough fantasy to make it interesting, so you put people without clothes on the stage.
What do you think about somebody like Mats Ek who recreates the classical ballets in his own personal way?
I cant say hes my favorite when he is doing Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty. Its very interesting, but once again I feel too much discrepancy between music and steps. I prefer by far the original productions. Classical ballets like The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker were the result of a close co-operation between the choreographer and the composer. Can you imagine the Prince dancing a variation on the music for the "Chinese dance" in The Nutcracker? It wouldnt work, either. However, I have enjoyed watching Mats Eks productions.
These modern choreographies also leave the audience with a different feeling.
Thats always the case with modern. Many modern ballets in Amsterdam are very depressing. [laughing] Or you start to fall asleep. Even when its a good production, you still have to prepare yourself to see something unusual.
What have you been dancing this year in Amsterdam?
I have done Giselle, Etudes, Violin Concerto, Concerto Barocco, Apollo, Serenade, Nutcracker, Five Tangos, Romeo and Juliet, and I will dance La Bayadère and Diane and Actaeon later this season.
Whats your favorite music?
Thats very hard to say. I dont know, I dont have a favorite. I like beautiful music that has something to take with you.
Whats your favorite ballet?
To dance: I love very much In the Night by Jerome Robbins, and Legend Of Love.
To watch: In classical ballet I prefer to see a person, not a ballet. It could be a very bad Giselle or an excellent Don Quixote. I dont like Don Q at all, but if the dancers are good, I prefer watching Don Q than Giselle with a bad dancer.
What are your plans for the future?
No plans. Well, I have plans, but I never speak about them. Who knows what's going to workout?
You mean it's "bad luck" to talk about them?
Not bad luck I dont believe in it. I just don't like mentioning something, because then, if it doesn't work out, you feel very upset. But if you think, it could be or it couldnt be, then you can have your private hopes.
Just to live very happily is most important, but hoping is a nice feeling. If you hope and it works, than its okay. Than youre more happy. But if it doesnt work well. Life is black, white, black, white....
Thank you very much, Larissa. I wish you all the best.
Additional biographical information for Larissa Lezhnina:
Born March 17, 1969, Leningrad, U.S.S.R.
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Interview and text Copyright © 1998 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
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