Vadim talks about his current dancing life as a Royal Ballet Principal and international guest
20 Jan 2020
VADIM MUNTAGIROV “IN CONVERSATION” with Linda Gainsbury
20th January 2020 at The Civil Service Club, Great Scotland Yard.
In welcoming Vadim, Linda reminded the audience that he had been a guest of the LBC in the autumn of 2013 when, if he was thinking about joining The Royal Ballet (RB), he wasn’t letting on. The following February, he “changed postcodes”, as he himself put it, and had now danced with the RB for almost six years. Therefore, although things prior to 2014 might crop up incidentally, Vadim had agreed to concentrate on more recent times and to do so in a thematic way rather than going through his roles chronologically.[These were listed in the programmes for the evening.]
The original idea had been for Vadim to come to the LBC fresh from his appearances in the full-length Raymonda in Paris and straight from his title role debut in Onegin, but it hadn’t quite worked out like that……..
Firstly, there were the Paris strikes…….Vadim had been very happy to be invited to dance in Raymonda, not least because it was his second attempt (the first had been in Vienna two years previously when he couldn’t fulfil the engagement because he was needed for extra performance at the RB). The invitation to Paris had felt well-timed because he would be “ready to go” after seven Act 3 shows in London and he would not have to take time to get accustomed to the raked stage of the Palais Garnier because Raymonda was being shown at the Opera Bastille. In the preceding weeks, his partner Valentine Colasante and their coach Irek Mukhamedov had rehearsed in both London and Paris but the strikes began in early December after the opening night and it was uncertain, on a daily basis, whether the show would go on or not. They carried on rehearsing on the assumption that they would perform and then they would hear, at about noon each day, that the performance was cancelled.
Nevertheless, Vadim valued greatly the time spent with Valentine and Irek and felt the he “learned so much”. He had worked with Irek at the RB but the contact had been fleeting (Vadim characterised it as being rather like, “Hello; correction; goodbye”) but, in Paris, there had been time to work intensively with him. Realising that Vadim was on his own in Paris over Christmas, Irek had also invited him for coffee so there had been the opportunity to talk together as well. “There was this legend inviting me out and also working with just me for 90 minutes every day. It is something which I will remember for the rest of my life”, said Vadim. Aurelie Dupont, the Director of Paris Opera Ballet, had mentioned to Vadim that Raymonda would be returning to the repertoire very soon and that she hoped he would be able to come back to Paris then.
Vadim apologised to everyone who had booked to see him dance in Paris. He continued, ”Thinking about saying sorry, I’m sure that you have questions about Onegin. I enjoyed rehearsing the role very much but I felt that I wasn’t quite ready for it yet. This was my choice and the good thing is that Reid Anderson, who is responsible for the ballet, was very positive and supportive. He really wanted to work with me and said “When Onegin comes back, you will definitely do it”. So you will see me in this role soon ……”
The performances which did happen over the past year included, with the RB, 10 different leading roles, five debuts and mix of classical and RB heritage works. Noting that people, including the critics, often commented that Vadim made things look easy, Linda enquired which of these ballets he had found most challenging when he had approached them for the first time. He said that it could be uncomfortable, especially in the first two weeks of rehearsal when it was easy to feel that something new was “not my ballet”, but, as time went on, and after many hours in the studio, he gradually found himself growing into the character. Even so, at a debut performance, there was always the risk of nerves causing him to over-think the basics when the most important thing was to “live the story”. Vadim gave the example of Manon which, at first, had been “a bit of a mental battle” but, last year, he felt fully able to go on stage and be Des Grieux.. Linda mentioned the film White Crow about the life of Nureyev in which his teacher, Pushkin, asks, “Why dance?”, refers to all the heavy emphasis on technique and then stresses that, if there is no story to tell, there is no reason to dance. Vadim said that he completely identified with that. His own motivation to dance was to tell the story. Indeed, because of its story, Month in the Country, about which he had had early personal doubts, had now become one of his three top ballets.
In fact, Vadim continued, one of the reasons why Raymonda Act 3 was difficult for the man was that there was no story. So, even though he held onto the idea of its being a wedding and a happy occasion, the jumps had been more like an exercise than was usually the case. Nureyev’s choreography was extremely difficult and full of moves such as pirouettes en dedans which gave dancers the feeling that, if they finished one of his ballets, they had got to the summit of Everest.
Asked about the part that daily class played for him, Vadim said that it was one of the most essential aspects of developing and maintaining his technique. It was not just a warm up to prepare for the day but an opportunity to test himself, working on the different combinations the teachers set, and willing himself to go beyond his comfort zone. Although Vadim did not have any RB performances for a while, he could not take things easy because “the better dancer you become, the more you have to push yourself to maintain that level”. Also, his preparation for upcoming galas in Rome and Japan with three different partners meant that he “had to keep rehearsing and torturing” himself. Class every day was a part of that life, “like brushing your teeth”.
Vadim went on to talk about the part played in his preparation by his coaches, notably Alexander Aghadzanov. The approach he had experienced at ENB was one whereby a dancer improved mainly by constant repetition, in the studio and on stage, whereas Alexander went into every tiny detail. Vadim feels very grateful for everything he is learning from him all the time. However, he would never forget the first ever session when he moved into position ready to start his solo and Alexander said, “Stop!”. “How is this possible”, thought Vadim, “I haven’t done anything yet!” But, explained Vadim, Alexander wanted every move to be ‘clean’ . (Vadim demonstrated the difference between an arm movement and a body posture which was ‘clean’ and one which was not.) Sometimes, he would come on stage before the show with additional corrections and, needing to be careful that this didn’t have the effect of making him nervous, Vadim would circle round the stage so that Alexander couldn’t quite catch him. But, added Vadim, this only was because he cared so much about not letting Alexander down and respected him so much.
Vadim went on to give an example of the kind of corrections he had received from Dame Monica Mason (who was present!) after his recent performances in The Sleeping Beauty. These were not so much about his dancing, but about important details of mime, including how he should look at the Lilac Fairy. This not only made a difference to the audience’s understanding of the story but it helped him to build the character and make things flow. Working on “the artistic stuff” was a priority for the RB and that was a feature of the company which Vadim appreciated especially.
Noting that Vadim sometimes had a number of different coaches for one role, Linda enquired whether there were ever contrasting views as to how something should be danced. Vadim said that he always trusted the team working with him. There were occasions when he might be a little grumpy but that didn’t last for long and he hoped that his coaches were happy to work with him. He knew that his performances represented their work as much as his and he wanted what he did to reflect well on them.
As far as his own reflections on his performances were concerned, Vadim thought that he was probably hard on himself. It was very rare for him to go home, feel happy, sleep and say “good boy” to himself. The way he felt was probably an outcome of how he was taught as a child in Russia. There was an occasion when he did a sort of ‘monkey dance’ and his teacher asked him if he was happy. “Yes”, he replied. “Wrong answer!”, he was told. Although it might seem strange to other people, if there was always something a dancer wasn’t happy with, or even something which went well but was not fully enjoyable, it provided a basis for continuous improvement – and that was really important for Vadim
Noting that he was often described as a natural danseur noble but was someone who could also produce high emotion and be funny as well, Linda enquired as to how easy or difficult Vadim found it to rehearse emotions and comedy in the studio. Vadim explained that he needed to ‘perform’ in the studio to help him really bring out the drama or the comedy on stage. Winter Dreams was an example of where Vadim felt that, because all the emotion was inside him, he was also showing it to people who were watching. But he had found that he needed to do more to “get it out” to the audience. Irek Mukhamedov, who had created the role of Vershinin, told him that what he was doing was nice and classical but he actually needed to show the effort and to walk and jump differently in order to portray the character through all his movement. “Go for it; be over the top”, advised Irek. The next time he ran the role, Vadim almost fell over flat on his face and Irek’s response had been, “That’s exactly what I want to see!”. For Vadim, the rehearsal process needed to be used to the full so that he could be sure of getting across the drama in the way he wanted.
Turning from the new to the familiar, Vadim had performed in 14 different productions of SwanLake and the question arose as to how he avoided getting stale. The advantages, as Vadim saw it, were that it was possible to ‘play’ with Siegfried more and try out different approaches. Usually, the choreography in Acts 2 and 3 was broadly what he was familiar with but there were various versions of Acts 1 and 4. After he’d danced in about eight productions, Vadim thought that there couldn’t possibly be any more subtle changes. But he was wrong: there was always a new way – such as how the Prince should offer his hand to his mother. Swan Lake remained Vadim’s favourite ballet, up there with La Bayadère and, now, Month in the Country. The Tchaikovsky music was so beautiful and, sometimes, if he was dancing abroad with a nine hour time difference, just hearing the beginning of Act 2 being played gave him the “boost bounce” he needed to perform at his best.
Commenting that his Swan Lakes had involved Vadim working with many partners and that, even with the RB, he sometimes danced with two or three ballerinas in one production, Linda also mentioned that he had a good reputation as a partner with most of them making enthusiastic posts about him on social media. What, she asked, was the key to being a good partner? “Do what the girl is asking you to do”, quipped Vadim; “I think that’s why they call me Vadream”. Vadim explained that that he tended to be quiet, hopefully gentlemanly, and accepting of corrections (from his partner as well as the ballet master!) as that was the best way to make progress with a pas de deux. There was no point in getting upset because applying all the corrections not only made for a better show but also made him the better partner that he was aiming to be.
Asked what, for her part, the ballerina can do to assist the man, Vadim said that he was very lucky because everyone he worked with was very experienced and tried to help him automatically. One essential thing was for the ballerina to be ‘pulled up’ because, if she was relaxed and almost ‘sitting’, the lift became much harder at the start and in the air. [Vadim demonstrated what he meant.] With most lifts, the worst bit was on the way up as “once you are there with the full presage, you can be resting”. ‘Dead lifts’ with no jump from the ballerina and ‘half way lifts’ which Ashton uses a lot were very hard to present well.
Vadim went on to say that the way his partners interpret a role does, indeed, affect his own characterisation. For example, Marianela Nuñez, with whom he danced a lot, gave out so much towards him in all the “acting bits” that responding to her came easily, naturally and in character. On the other hand, if he was dancing with a less experienced partner elsewhere, it could feel ‘very dry’ unless someone helped both of them “shake it up” and begin to feel more comfortable with one another. Use of the word “chemistry” caused Vadim to say that, if partners were able to really relate to one another, it could make a crucial difference to their performance. He felt that getting to know his partners – chatting outside the studio, having a coffee, relaxing and enjoying a joke - helped to create a good atmosphere for working well together and producing the best possible performance.
Vadim was only too aware that, in addition to carrying his partner (!), as the leading man, he also had the responsibility of carrying the show. However, he preferred not to think too much about the fact that it might be, say, an opening night, a ‘critic watch’, or a DVD because he would then feel too much pressure. Rather, he tried to distract himself, even by playing games. Live relays brought with them some build-up activities but, even so, the best approach for Vadim was to “just get on with it”. So whilst he knew that he was leading the show It was best to avoid focusing on that as it could, so easily, bring on nerves which, in turn, could result in steps not working so well or his acting looking tense.
Galas were, however, rather different in this respect from full length ballets because a dancer only had a relationship with the audience for about 15 minutes of a “flashy” pas de deux. Vadim had danced in Lithuania on New Year’s Eve, was appearing in Rome in a few days’ time and was going to Tokyo with his RB colleagues for Hikaru Kobayashi’s show at the end of the January. In the course of a month, he would therefore have had several different partners, have danced something like five different pas de deux, and have been in four different countries. The only way Vadim knew how to approach this so that his body could cope and he could avoid injury was to prepare with his partners as much as he possibly could. He was once asked how it was possible for him to dance Swan Lake eight times in two weeks but, actually, he found was easier than rehearsing. In a show, a sequence of double tours only had to be executed only once and then the story moved on whereas, when he was rehearsing, he would practise every move like that many times.
The most challenging piece immediately ahead of Vadim would, he thought, be the Sylvia pas deux. The usual structure for a pas de deux was the adagio, which was calm and enabled him to “feel the stage and feel the girl” before running on for his solo. But, with Sylvia, the girl’s solo came first, then his, then the pas de deux at the end. This unusual order somehow made it harder for Vadim to make his entry for his solo.
Commenting on the “rehearse in London / fly in / do class / rehearse / do the show / go to a reception / perhaps sleep / fly back” routine that Vadim was into at the moment, he said that dancing galas gave him valuable extra stage time. They were also helpful in keeping him fit and in maintaining his technique, although they did not necessarily contribute to his dramatic development. However, dancing full-length ballets in a different environment could, and sometimes did, enhance his interpretation of a role. In that case, Vadim’s preparation would also begin in London, where he would ‘borrow’ Daria Klimentovà, who now worked at The Royal Ballet School (RBS), to be his practice partner. Currently, this was enabling him to get Manon back into his body so that, when he arrived in Japan, barely six days ahead of the show, he would feel more “ready to go”.
Asked why it was that he seemed to enjoy working in Japan so much, Vadim said that, largely because he didn’t understand the language, it felt very quiet there: his ears were not trying to pick up conversations and he could focus on what he was dancing. The audiences in Japan were very appreciative and that gave dancers a wonderful feeling, as was the case in London. Vadim mentioned that, after his Act 3 solo in The Sleeping Beauty the previous week, there was good applause with people clapping a lot (Linda interjected, “Applause? It was a massive roar”) and he had especially liked that because it gave him an extra four or five seconds of rest!
Linda recalled that Vadim had been dancing professionally for more than 10 years, he was hugely appreciated by his audiences, he’d had a standing ovation for the first night of DonQuixote the previous year, he had garnered rave reviews, he had won many prestigious awards in the UK and abroad, he was on the front cover of international dance magazines, people from all over the world were travelling internationally to see him dance, he’d featured in many live cinema relays and on subsequent DVDs and he had thousands of followers on social media. He always came across as very modest and she wondered how all those accolades felt to Vadim? He said that he was conscious of “all that” but thought he would probably think about it more in the future. For the moment, it was best for him to put it to one side and concentrate on what he needed to do – “after all, whatever all “that” is about, I have to go back into the studio each day and work”.
Vadim agreed that the contrast between how things were now and 20 years previously when, aged nine, he was sent to Perm Ballet School could hardly be greater. He had been a very ‘parents’ person’, sleeping between them in their bed. Then, suddenly, he was alone at night, needing to wash his own clothes and learning to survive within a very strict training regime. The situation he faced on his arrival at the RBS in London was not dissimilar insofar as he couldn’t speak English and had no friends around him but he felt that he was able to cope with that largely because of his childhood experiences.
Although Vadim’s career had, in effect, been selected for him by his parents, he did think that, now that he was living it, it was perhaps something that he would also choose for himself. He was less certain as to whether, if he was a father, it would be something that he would like his son or daughter to do. But, for his family, it was as if there was no other choice: Perm was where his father had trained and Vadim’s sister had also been there some 10 years ahead of him. He himself had had no idea of what the training would be like and, even though both his parents were principal dancers, no real concept of what being a ballet dancer would involve for him. However, at around 13 years of age he began to get a sense that that was what he really wanted to do. By then, he was enjoying mastering the steps and also remembers that, once, when his father came home carrying his costume, Vadim immediately tried it on and thought that it “somehow felt right”. “Luckily”, by that time, Vadim had a very good grounding as a result of all the tough teaching. “You have to put the base there early, otherwise it can be too late”, he added.
Vadim was now doing some teaching himself and enjoyed working with young people who seemed so happy and eager to learn. It was proving to be a bit of a lesson for him too as, when he found himself saying, “Use the left side”, it also caused him to ask why he wasn’t doing that himself.
Dancers were now very much in the public eye via social media as well as when they were performing and Vadim agreed that his posts were a mixture of him dancing and him ‘off duty’. He said that, after all, he was not just a dancer but a person with various aspects to his life. For example, the relaxed dressing room relationships he enjoyed were essential in balancing a day which was made up of a lot of serious hard work. In fact, if he went back to his dressing room feeling really tired after a ‘full out’ rehearsal, Alexander Campbell’s presence could be like a ‘charger pack’ for him and that was just what he needed.
At home, he was experimenting a little with playing the piano but he was impatient and expected more instant results than would ever be possible. He was learning the hard way that, in order to make a tune beautiful and be able to vary the tempi and the rhythm, he had first to master the basics, In other words, the discipline required was very similar to that needed in ballet.
Looking ahead beyond the gala appearances in Rome and Tokyo, and Manon in Japan, in March Vadim (with Marianela Nuñez) was due to represent the RB dancing Don Quixote in Johannesburg and a pas de deux in a gala celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Queensland Ballet in Australia. He was especially looking forward to South Africa as he had danced a few times in Cape Town and it had become one of his favourite destinations. He knew that Johannesburg would be different but, whenever he went to Cape Town (for example in summer 2019 to guest in The Sleeping Beauty) he imagined himself buying a villa there and sitting out on the balcony looking at the sea. But, so far, he had always needed to come back and face the reality at home.
As regards the longer term future, Vadim wanted to remain focused and injury free. Being happy in what he did – which he was despite always being self-critical – was a good reward. Also, he was pleased to know that there were young dancers who wanted to do well because of what he is doing now and he hoped that that would continue to be the case.
As a final comment, Linda drew Vadim’s attention to the recent vacancy up the road at Buckingham Palace. Given his track record as a sublime prince, she wondered whether he might consider offering his services!
More seriously, she thanked Vadim not only for giving up his time but for his openness and honesty which had given everyone there a little window into his world. The gratitude of the LBC and best wishes for the future were reinforced with a loud and prolonged round of applause.
Written by Linda Gainsbury and approved by Vadim Muntagirov