The six-week-long Hong Kong Arts Festival, now in its 43rd year, is being ushered to a majestic close this week by the Bolshoi Ballet. I caught up with Sergei Filin, Artistic Director, the day after the company arrived in Hong Kong, over coffee next to the Arts Festival’s main venue at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon. Tickets for its six-day run have been sold out since their appearance was announced.

Sergei Filin at the Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong
Sergei Filin at the Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong
The week prior, Filin reminded me, marked his fourth year at the artistic helm of the Bolshoi Ballet. The past 20 years have seen a succession of artistic directors after the 31-year reign of Soviet standard-bearer Yuri Grigorovich (who at 88 still holds sway at the company as ballet master and choreographer). All were bedeviled by the intrigue and infighting that has marked Russian ballet, and the Bolshoi in particular, for over a century, but none have had to contend with the viciousness directed at Filin. Two years ago, he was attacked with acid and partly blinded by a hit man hired by a disgruntled dancer, whom some believed had the support of a wider circle of others with a political axe to grind. The unfolding of the grisly saga, the sacking of several key personnel at the Bolshoi, and over it all, Filin’s heroic determination to rise above personal agony and steer the company to higher ground, have held the ballet world spellbound.

The ballet company itself seems not to have missed a beat – somewhat sobered, and perhaps even united, by the trauma of the attack on Filin. The Bolshoi has continued to perform and tour the world to great accolades, exhibiting the grandeur and cohesion of style that is the envy of its rivals. Has the company truly entered into a new era of stability under the leadership of Filin and Vladimir Urin, its new General Director?

Here are the highlights of my conversation with Filin, facilitated by the remarkable interpretive skills of Katya Novikova, known to Bolshoi fans worldwide as the sparkling host of the Bolshoi’s live broadcasts in cinemas across the globe.

You bring a glorious program to Hong Kong’s Arts Festival this week: two works both modern in spirit, that celebrate Russia and the Russian style in very different ways, by two restless Russians – Jewels by George Balanchine, and Flames of Paris by Alexei Ratmansky. Neither of them is considered classic Bolshoi material; even though Ratmansky created Flames of Paris for the company. It has a distinctly modern sensibility. Do you feel that dancing these works has expanded the company’s identity?

Today, in many senses, we are expanding our identity and our consciousness; our daily life has become so dynamic that I don’t think we always notice the way we are expanding our skills, our range. We are daring; we are interested in it all: every work is a new experience.

Balanchine is so interesting to us because, in a way, he summarizes a history of world ballet; Ratmansky represents the new ballet, the innovations in tradition. As a big company, we are able to bring on tour both of these magnificent productions, which are very different from each other. Jewels is a pure icon of neoclassicism. Flames of Paris is a remix of a historical piece of art; it contains some original, historical choreography, including character dancing and the beautiful classical pas, mixed with Ratmansky’s own ideas, which have made this a more contemporary production. It has a vivid story, with colorful characters – each with their individual personalities, charisma, energy. In my view, this ballet creates for the audience special emotions.

Jewels, on the other hand, is purely a visual pleasure, a visual miracle. It is a ballet for the 'gourmet', for the refined audience, people who have a sensitive ear, who can hear the high pitch of art. We are living in a world where many people have lost this ability; they see only the surface. We have to be able to listen deeply, to hear the dangerous things, to be aware when others attempt to communicate with us. 

I think that Jewels is this – a ballet without fuss, without any conflict, without any contradictions, a ballet about beauty. It’s not just precious stones; there is a life in each stone, each stone has its own mission. One of those missions is to be held by somebody. Our dancers on stage are our Jewels, they are like precious stones, things of beauty, that embody their culture, their training. When watching Jewels, one must relax, listen, and enjoy the pure beauty.

Nina Kaptsova as Mireille in <i>Flames of Paris</i> © Elena Fetisova
Nina Kaptsova as Mireille in Flames of Paris
© Elena Fetisova
The Bolshoi is premiering two new works this season – Hamlet [by Radu Poklitaru and Declan Donnellan] and A Hero in Our Time (by Yuri Possokhov, former Bolshoi dancer and now resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet). From what I’ve read about Hamlet, it is very daring. It sounds like a work of dance theatre, rather than what we are accustomed to thinking of as a story ballet. It’s been called a political ballet, a comment on a dying empire. Do you agree? 

It was my idea to bring this work of Shakespeare to the Bolshoi stage. It was not our goal to tell the story purely through dance, through complicated duets or aggressive corps de ballet dancing. Thus, it is dance theatre rather than pure ballet – you don’t find movements just for the sake of movement. It’s a very powerful story principally focused on the characters, their strengths, their problems, their emotions. It is undoubtedly a tragedy – about loss, about death. Perhaps one thing which I felt was missing had to do with the storytelling about love.

And we can expect something very different from Yuri Possokhov’s Hero, which premières in July?

I can say Possokhov’s new creation is like the other side of a mirror. Our goal is to make more of a pure ballet, to tell the stories clearly through the dancing. There is a tremendous amount of new music and very challenging dancing – that will be front and center in this work.

We are taking three of the five stories from Lermontov’s novel: the stories about Taman, Bela, and Princess Mary. It should turn out to be one of the most challenging and interesting pieces in our repertoire, and all our leading dancers will be in it.

Who will dance the lead role of Pechorin in Hero?

In each of the stories, the role of Pechorin will be danced by a different dancer! The idea is that all the stories take place at a different time in Pechorin’s life; his age, his attitude, his senses, his character have evolved in each story. And around each of these Pechorins, are different sets of characters. So we will have three different dancers interpret the role.

In your tenure as Artistic Director, you have strongly committed to bringing new work, including work by foreign choreographers, into the rep, and you have also, controversially, brought in at least one foreign dancer. Can you tell us if David Hallberg will be back with the Bolshoi in the spring? 

David has been injured, but we are always eager to have him back, anytime – whenever he is ready. In April, I am going to New York to see him and discuss this further.

Are you continuing to open the door to foreign dancers?

Well, we’re not standing by the door opening and closing it! We just opened it once, and it remains open.

Recently the United States and Cuba announced that they would be normalizing relations, and many ballet-lovers are anticipating that more Cuban dancers will filter into companies overseas. Do you see that happening at the Bolshoi?

Though we are a big company, maybe we wouldn’t draw in as many as American companies might. After all, we have so many ballet schools closer to home from which we can draw our talent.

Nevertheless, great dancers come from all around the world, and if they are truly ready to take the risk, if they have the strong desire and are ready to take the leap, to become a part of the huge organism that is the Bolshoi, we are always interested. But there are not a lot of dancers like that. David Hallberg, for example, is a unique talent. I can tell you that I have invited one graduate of the Bolshoi academy in Brazil, a very talented young Brazilian male dancer, David Soares, to join us next season. 

Vladislav Lantratov as Philippe in <i>The Flames of Paris</i> © Damir Yusupov
Vladislav Lantratov as Philippe in The Flames of Paris
© Damir Yusupov
On the topic of scouting dancers from schools around Russia, a very special dancer you invited not long ago from the Vaganova school is Olga Smirnova. I understand she has been injured. When is she expected to return to the stage?

It’s with great pleasure that I am able to say that, while Olga has had a very difficult time recovering, she is regaining her health step by step, and is now embarking on a physical training program that will, hopefully, enable her to come back to our repertoire. I would like her to come back in the first cast of Hero, in the role of Bela.

In an interview less than two months ago, Bolshoi General Director Vladimir Urin was quite frank about the political pressures on the company – to focus more on the Russian classics, less on new modern work, and less on ballets by non-Russian choreographers. This seems to go against your own philosophy of programming since you became Artistic Director and commissioned new work by choreographers like Jean-Christophe Maillot and the team that created Hamlet. How does one of the world’s greatest ballet companies keep its reputation under this kind of political pressure? And how do you personally handle this kind of pressure? 

Frankly, in my four years as Artistic Director, I have never experienced any pressure from the outside. Whatever I wanted to do artistically, I would propose to the Director of the Bolshoi (at that time it was Anatoly Iksanov – he was the one who brought me into this job). We always discussed my wishes, my ideas for experiments. And I was able to fulfill them. Not even once was there a sense of outside pressure on my shoulders.

And today?

Perhaps the situation has changed inside the theatre, but I don’t feel the pressure from outside the theatre – certainly not political pressure.

Yet I would say the overall situation has changed. There is a repertory policy – a sort of strategy for the development of the Russian Bolshoi Theatre. You understand, in a sense, the Bolshoi is the face, a reflection of the whole country, and surely we have a mission, a serious cultural mission. This heritage, these traditions have accumulated over many decades inside the Bolshoi theatre – when I speak of the Bolshoi it’s not the physical theatre, the columns, the walls, it’s the people inside the walls who have preserved the traditions, the ideas and the knowledge.

Today for us, the classics are really very important. And thanks to this mastery of how we can use our bodies in classical dance, the purity of classical dance, we have a tremendous base which permits us now to dance contemporary works.

But this pressure you’re asking about partially arises from the fact that when you represent Russian ballet and culture, other countries which invite the Bolshoi to perform want to see the grand-scale, classical ballets. Why? Because none of the great companies worldwide, who have their own great traditions and culture, can do these works the way we do them, on the scale that we do them – these are the ballets which are mostly in demand.

When we try to move with the times, and propose our own contemporary work to those countries which invite us, they are less interested. Because all these modern choreographers, all these new movements and ideas, we share with everyone else. China, Japan, the U.S., Italy, France, Germany – they are all making contemporary work with many of the same choreographers.

All these great works that we preserve from our traditions, therefore, are not only for Russia, but really for world heritage.

And at the same time, some critics ask: “Why isn’t the Bolshoi doing modern work? Why are you not dancing naked? Under the rain? On ice? On a bed of nails?” These things are so much in fashion nowadays; this is what spectators want to see, we are told. So, from Russian ballet, at the end of the day, everyone expects something different. But we are truly ready – after all, we just did Mats Ek, Maillot, McGregor, Lacotte. And for those who ask for Swan Lake, we will give them Petipa.

Alexei Ratmansky just premièred a new Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, in which he followed very closely Petipa’s original choreography and the overall sensibility of the time in which Petipa was working. Are you interested in this type of reconstruction for the Bolshoi?

 It is interesting. Today, more than ever, it seems audiences want to see ballets that tell imaginative stories. What Ratmansky did with Sleeping Beauty was to recall the rich heritage and traditions which I was speaking about, through a simple, well-known story and characters that are wrapped in the beauty of an entire culture, a beauty that is readily appreciated.

 On the other hand, we continue to search for new ideas of self-expression through dance, and we will continue to experiment; we will continue to work with foreign choreographers, in order to capture and try to illuminate the contemporary breath of the time, but, at the same time, we will maintain a balance by preserving our best classical ballets.   

For the 2015-2016 season, have you planned other experiments, and commissions for foreign choreographers?

For sure, we will have foreign choreographers. And we are not afraid of experimenting – we will have one new full-length story ballet. We will bring back a work of Alexei Ratmansky’s as well.

Which Ratmansky ballet will that be?

On the 29th of May, we will have a press conference to reveal the plans for our new season, but right now I don’t mind sharing with you that we will be reviving Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons.

I have students of ballet who have not seen very much ballet in performance, and who ask me which ballets to go and see, both live and on film. Often I’ve encouraged them to go see Esmeralda, rather than a more typical choice like Swan Lake, for the way ballet communicates human passion and the deepest, rawest emotions. 

When someone asks you about ballet, why it was created, and why you must go and see it, I think the most essential thing we are selling – not in a material sense, but in spiritual sense – are emotions.

What ballet does is take all the inherent differences between human bodies, in all their complications, and when you put them onstage – all these people of different nationalities, different histories, with their own inner worlds – and transform them through ballet so that they all move as if with the same breath, they combine, they breathe as one, to transmit this incredible wave of emotion, even from a very simple movement, a simple turn or twist. Everything becomes bigger on stage through ballet, it’s as if the dancers have put their soul into the movement.

Ballet is an organic form of art – that’s why it’s so important: it combines the music, the choreography, the plasticity of the movement, the visual experience, these human bodies moving in a fantastical harmony. The spectators do not have the mastery of their bodies in this same way, they cannot achieve the same effect. When they watch the dancers, the amplitude of their movement, the power of their projected personalities – in this the spectator can partly see themselves reflected, as a hero, or even as an anti-hero. And they want to keep coming back, for this experience.

In my mind, one of the major goals of ballet is to make the spectators forget everything outside the theatre, to forget this crazy world we live in, and to be swallowed by this incredible, miraculous world.

Your energy and capacity for work is astounding, particularly given what you have been through, and all the surgery and treatment you have so bravely endured. May I ask if you have finally put the surgery behind you?

All this treatment has been very tiring: 32 operations so far, and they were each a big step, none of them were easy. It has been a huge effort just to achieve the stability and the possibility of my continuing to work. The rehabilitation after each surgery is tough. That’s why I need to build up more strength. Like an iPhone, I have to be recharged 100% before I restart! Right now, I am just taking a pause to re-accumulate my energy, and to achieve as much as I can in this interim period. These next operations will be more complicated and difficult, will demand a lot of courage from me – and also very difficult for the doctors. It’s not an easy decision. So I need more time.

You have earned much support and admiration.

You know, it doesn’t matter how crazy the world is; still, life is beautiful. You really have to find the will to love what is given to you today, what you have right now, in your daily life. You cannot always be prepared, your life cannot be made into a preparation, you have to live fully in this moment. Otherwise when you live solely through expectations, it’s not always a real life. Actually, real life can be much more wonderful and beautiful than we often assume. Of course, in order to see this beauty of life, I do dream that I will one day have a chance to make this picture a bit clearer!

 

Interview conducted in Hong Kong, on the 24 March 2015

Further reading:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/03/18/danse-macabre

http://dancelines.com.au/russias-infamous-ballet-acid-trial-ends-brought/