‘Art is dead – but ballet lives on’

Modern technology has killed real art, and nobody can tell a fake from the original, believes Russian ballet dancer Nikolay Tsiskaridze. What you can’t falsify, though, is dance, says the renowned Bolshoi leading man.

RT: Hello, Kolya. Thank you very much for your time. I know it’s the end of the ballet season, and you’re very busy. How many hours a day do you rehearse?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze: Well, not many. Not as many as people may think. When you’re young, rehearsals take up a lot of time. But when you’re an experienced artist and have performed for many years, it’s just half an hour on your own, and 40 minutes with your partner. That’s it.

RT: Even if we love our profession, we often feel lazy going to work. Do you?

NT: I always feel lazy. And I've said many times that if God wished to punish me, he would make me a ballet artist. It’s a torment. I was a child when I was started. As a child, you can't understand what the profession really is like. You don’t realise how hard it is.

RT: Do you love your profession?

NT: It’s impossible not to, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s very difficult to give it up. When you get to the top very quickly, you learn what vanity is.

RT: So, it’s more vanity than the love for ballet?

NT: It’s a combination. Once you get into the world of theatre, you never want to leave it. What’s more, you are successful: you do it easier and better than others. And you don't want to part with that, either.

RT: When I was reading your biography, it looked as though everything went on smoothly. You were doing better and better. But it can’t really be this easy.

NT: It might seem smooth on the outside. But the road wasn't always easy, because, for instance, I was a Georgian boy in Soviet times. When I was about nine, I felt the call to join a choreography school, and my mother said ‘no’. So I told her, ‘you shouldn’t forget that you’re a woman, and nobody here will be interested in your opinion’. My mother was smart. Moreover, she grew up in the Caucasus, where the word of man has the priority. So, she took me to ballet school.

RT: What was it – absolute willpower that made you go through it?

NT: I tried three times. I was only accepted the third time. Later, when I finished school, I was not on the list of people admitted to the Bolshoi Theatre. I was told I would never make it, that it’s impossible to get in. In the end, Grigorovich, who was Bolshoi’s artistic director at the time, came to the exam. He said: ‘The Georgian gets an A. He’s got the job’. He couldn’t pronounce ‘Tsiskaridze’.

RT: Just as in any other creative sphere, the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle works in ballet. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes. How about envy – does it stimulate you or get you down?

NT: I’m used to envy. Even at my school in Tbilisi, everyone knew Tsiskaridze was the best. There were simply no boys or girls just as talented. And I was quite comfortable. But ever since I came here, I have tried to prove – ‘No, that’s what I really can do, and I didn’t get in here by chance.’

But no one wanted to… Not seeing that I was gifted is like being blind or mad. There’s this kid who has the longest legs, the straightest legs, the most flexible joints and muscles. In fact, boys usually don’t have all this. Girls do, but then, not all girls, only the chosen few.

And a boy like this is a child prodigy. He’s one of a kind. No, this can’t be true. There has to be something wrong here, we need to check it. Is he really a boy? And so on. I can’t even describe what I had to go through. And it was all very surprising, in the beginning.

RT: Did you ever envy anyone?

NT: You know, it’s a dreadful feeling, and I’ve always tried to keep it out, feeling how hard it was to be the object of envy. I had an interesting experience once. It was when I went to Jerusalem for the first time – some 10 years ago. I was standing in that long queue in the Church of the Hole Sepulchre. The guide told us we could make a single wish. And I knew what my wish would be, even before I went in.

And when I did, I started asking to be shielded from any kind of envy – either of me, or my envy of someone. That was overwhelming. It turned out that envy was a huge problem for me for so many years. So I asked to redeem myself – in any way possible.

RT: Can criticism make you cry?

NT: No, criticism can’t do that. I always record my own performances and watch them. Not that I like it much – I’m checking on myself. This way, I can see the things that my teachers point out to me and it makes it easier to correct mistakes. I try to look at things from my enemies’ point of view. I know what they’ll find fault with. I know what they will pay attention to. I try to never give reasons to cast stones at me, legitimately.

RT: Don’t you ever look at yourself and think: ‘That’s fantastic!’?

NT: It does happen. And it’s not simply fantastic. I know I can watch many videos and say – no-one else can do this. But it’s all thanks to nature. My contribution here is very small. And, throughout my career, I always got the best teachers there were in the Soviet Union. That’s destiny, like you were meant to take this road.

RT: Do your teachers still influence you?

NT: Greatly! To me, their opinion is always the most important.

RT: Dancing – what is it to you? Is it work?

NT: Many times, I’ve tried to analyse it. It’s much easier on stage than during the preparation. When you’re on stage, something just turns on. This is a thing that comes from lots of childhood training, like someone pushes a button inside you, and you’re ready to work. It’s very difficult at first, going on stage when you are all stressed out.

Then you get used to stress, you never notice it, whatever may happen, you’re standing in the wings and, say, a house collapses.

You just go out and do your job, you’re used to it – hearing your music and that’s it, it’s your call. I haven’t heard you say ‘pleasure’ even once. You say words like ‘merciless’ ‘work’, ‘interesting’…Pleasure… I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that for a Georgian, pleasure is lying in a hammock, preferably by the sea, and do nothing.

RT: What makes a good partner? Can she be a genius dancer, but a bad partner?

NT: First of all, a good partner has to be smart.

RT: I was recently speaking to Galina Vishnevskaya. We came to the conclusion that there can be no man like Rostropovich. How about ballet?

NT: I think there’s a general crisis in art, not only in ballet. Do you know why? It’s because of all this new, mind-boggling technology – the Internet, amazing video and audio recordings, the quick transfer of information anywhere. Art is dead, because ideas can now be stolen very quickly. Everything’s getting stolen.

Today, you don’t need a great voice to sing, because the whole world lip syncs. The only thing which remains untouched is ballet. Only ballet and circus do it live. Everything else is a fake. And it has killed art.

RT: Are there new ballets being produced?

NT: No. There’s nothing new and original, because everything is getting stolen. What’s happening is that there are several people in the world – not here, not in Russia – who take what has been done and use it to develop the idea. On the other hand, there are many great performers now. The human body has developed to the level of perfection which simply didn’t exist even in the mid-20th century. But you need to make something for them, produce something, so that they can develop.

RT: Are you a part of the Russian ballet school?

NT: Absolutely.

RT: What makes it special?

NT: I’ll explain. The Russian school is the closest thing to perfection in ballet. At the end of the 19th century, there were three geniuses working in Russia at the same time.

Marius Petipa, a representative of the French school, although there were other Frenchmen before him. There was also Ioganson representing the Danish school, and Chequetti, the Italian school. The Russian school absorbed all of that, mixed that and added that special Russian splendour. And then, every ballet master – I’ve seen that in choreography – is genetically part of his national culture and national dance. In all ballets by Bournonville, who was a Dane, you can see how he uses dance movements of the northern peoples of Denmark.

Balanchine grew up in Russia and was part of the Russian school, but he was Georgian, and he used a lost of traditional Georgian dance co-ordination in his ballets. The Russian element is smoothness, amazing arm control, the inclination towards circle dance. Combined with technique, it results in a fantastic fusion. You can instantly see any artist who has learned from the Russian masters. He will have beautiful arm and head movements, beautiful back posture, and, of course, a very special kind of chic.

RT: Could you dance somewhere else, apart from the Bolshoi?

NT: I’ve had different periods here – good times, hard times. But I’ve never wanted to leave Russia.

RT: So it’s more about Moscow and Russia than the Bolshoi Theatre?

NT: Yes, yes. It’s very much about Moscow. I’m very comfortable here. It’s absolutely my city.

RT: You’ve had a very serious injury in the knee. Backstage, people said it would be a huge achievement if you could simply walk straight again, let alone dance.

NT: There were two elements to it. One was that after all this, the muscles in my left leg simply atrophied. They just weren’t there. But it turned out that muscles have an amazing memory. You have to jump and, say, land on that leg. You manage to do it, but you can’t feel the leg you’re standing on. It’s very uncomfortable, psychologically.

So I went down the corridor heard my colleagues say: ‘He’s never going to dance again! I’m going to dance. He’s over and done with’. That sort of added fuel to the fire inside me. I thought: ‘No way, I’m going to be dancing at your funeral’, as the saying goes. And I just went on. Like someone turned me on.

RT: Are you afraid now when you think about what you’ll do when you stop dancing?

NT: No. First, I have been working as a teacher at the Bolshoi for a long time now, and I work at rehearsals. My television career is progressing quite nicely, too. I don’t know how things will develop, but I made up my mind long ago. There’s nothing worse than an old ballet dancer playing young princes.

RT: You’re not old yet, and you’re a star. You’re dancing, and you’ve had every success, is there anything else you want?

NT: Yes, there are many things I still want to do. I want many new roles, new and interesting ballets. I want someone’s ideas to ignite me and my colleagues. I want to see more creativity in the theatre. I miss it greatly. Not because I have to learn my parts quickly and become a part of the performance. I’m bored with that.

RT: What’s more difficult – reaching the top or holding on to it?

NT: Holding on! The way up is quick, but staying there… Everyone just keeps climbing up and wants to push you down, and you have to sit there and fight back. And you can easily fall down on your own, because it’s very hard to stand there. This spot is very small, and you can only be there alone…

RT: If you could go back, would you choose the same profession again?

NT: No. I’d never choose it.

RT: What would you do?

NT: In any case, I would make my way into theatre. I don’t know what I’d have been doing, but it wouldn’t have been ballet. Even with my talents.

RT: In a nutshell, what kind of dancer are you?

NT: Unique.