We met with Vladimir Malakhov twice this summer: both times via Zoom to record interviews. These days, online ways of communication are becoming routine for most, but in case of dance field, platforms like Zoom, Youtube, or Instagram are the dancers' prime rehearsal studio, stage and mutual and financial support system.
Vladimir Malakhov is waiting out this quarantine at his home in Berlin and admits that this is the first time he's got such a long vacation in 34 years of his dancing-directing career. Still, Malakhov never descends from the top, even in such conditions. His daily Instagram classes are one of the best and most popular among similar projects. His students send him videos of their dancing and he gives everyone personal feedback.
I was eager to find out what an already established star can get from online reality and hear one of the best insiders' opinion on the fate of ballet in our digitized world.
You were not using Instagram until just recently, when you got yourself a page this winter. What made you do so out of a sudden?
I never use any social media and I have no pages there, be it Facebook or Twitter. But my niece once said, “Why don’t you try? Show the world what you do, let them know you’re still alive!”. And then she made a page for me.
Is she the one who’s running it now?
No, I am. But I do ask for help when I don’t understand something. I am not very good at all these technologies and I basically knew nothing when I had started. Now I can at least create, save and delete posts.
Did you expect the feedback to be so strong? The speed at which the audience increased was impressive, especially when it comes to your classes.
Oh yes, the classes are popular. I also started a Wednesday programme called “Barre with a Star”, where I host various stars and my friends, and we do barre classes online. It is interesting for the people of the ballet community to interact and ask questions there. Although during some classes, like the ones we held with Svetlana Zakharova and Vadim Muntagirov, I was asked to turn off commenting because it blocked the view of the legs.
You were among the first to start an online class. How did you come up with the idea?
This quarantine has put the dancers off their stroke which negatively affected the spirits of many. It is very important for them to stand on stage, to feel the presence of the audience, have all the costumes and the make-up on them. What I'm trying to do is to encourage them during these hard times, to tell them "Cheer up, this is just a transitional period, take it as a long vacation”.
You stay in touch with your audience as well, commenting the videos of your students.
It is important to motivate dancers, so they can really feel appreciated. I show them, I explicate, I teach. I could be an educator who explains an element and then watches everyone try, but people have to see it in order to do it. I know I’m not that young anymore, but I’ve got experience. I have performed on the world’s greatest stages with the world’s most famous ballerinas, I learnt from an exellent teacher (Pëtr Pestov in Moscow State Academy of Choreography –Ed.) and I want to pass on this knowledge. Every time, I share my little secrets with the audience. And I can see some of them making decent progress.
What is your motivation then?
I can feel the audience’s energy as I look at how many people subscribe to see the classes. And it warms my heart to see how many comments and likes they send.
I arrange classes daily, giving it my all, and it raises my spirits. My goal is to provide joy for both the dancers and the spectators, even though it is quite hard for me.
Where does all of your care for dancers come from?
Well, in reality, I am definitely not an angel. (laughs) But one thing that I know for sure is that every person needs a special approach if you want the whole structure to work properly. When I came into theatre, I said this at once, “No schemes or intrigues, we are a family. If there’s something you don’t like, you come to me and you say it”.
I was never interested in who they slept with, although any theatre is bound to have some issues with this. I always tried to maintain three different personalities in me: the one of a dancer, one of a friend, and one of a director. Thus, everyone knew when it was appropriate to joke around and when it was not. I was a director in my office, and once I stepped into the hall, I became a dancer; once I stepped out of the theatre, we could go drink coffee somewhere like buddies. One does not have to be the same person all the time.
Are you a freelancer right now?
You can say I am unemployed. All of my plans have fallen through.
Would you prefer to work for one theatre long-term?
Obviously. I would love to supervise a troupe and pass on my knowledge and experience which I had gathered over the years around the whole world. But as of now, I have to settle for being a free artist, and to be honest, I am happy with it. Directors are entrusted huge amounts of responsibilities nowadays: restructuring the system, watching the dancers’ health while keeping the group together as one mechanism...
This quarantine seems to have finally brought the dancers into the spotlight. While the theatres were panicking over how to avoid losing the audience, the performers simply took their phones and did the job.
Dancers have plenty of free time right now. It is the first time in my whole career that I get to spend so much time at home. Usually, I would return from a tour, repack the suitcase and be off to the next concert. I had only stayed home for winter holidays. And here I am now, stuck in Berlin since March 15th. I do find myself something to do: I like cooking, I look after my plants, I hold classes, I clean up. I even have a little garden where I grow vegetables. There is no other way except to wait out this whole situation.
Dancers now have a chance to rethink some things, to think about other new things, to reflect the changes in their lives. Once they return to work, they will be able to look at everything they had been doing so far from a new angle.
Do you think theatres will return to their usual regime? Or will they have to change after all?
They will surely return to normal. We survived world wars and plagues and so many other things, but have preserved this art anyway.
You have said before in some interviews that all you wanted for your career was to be a good classical ballet dancer. What do you mean by that?
The quality. It is the same with food – better less but better. A performer has but one chance: you come out, you perform, and what you perform remains in the viewer’s mind forever. In case you are a true professional, you can, obviously, skillfully hide your mistake, but you will have to aim for perfection. Younger generations are not used to this, they don’t have this wanting in them.What happens, happens, and that’s it.
When I was young, I wanted to do everything. Modern youth just looks at something and blatantly says, “Nope, that doesn’t work for me”. Before even trying! Everyone thinks they have to get from square one to square ten immediately, and no one realizes that by doing so they’d risk getting back to square one just as fast.
I cannot deny that I had always wanted for people to say things like “Oh, that is Malakhov’s thing”. For example, my strong suit was my jump. It was completely soundless and I tried my best to be remembered for it.
Do you think classical ballet will stay valid in theatres as an artistic language?
During my career, I danced 24 versions of “Swan Lake” and myself produced the 25th in Zagreb. Classical ballet to me is like antiquity, the price of which keeps increasing, and contemporary dance resembles falling stars. Only a genius choreographer can keep everything together, like Mats Ek, Roland Petit, John Neumeier. There have been various cases of whole companies built upon a couple of successful shows falling apart in only two or three years.
Let us imagine that the quarantine has ended and you are invited to make a new production. What would it be?
It depends a lot on what the director wants, on what I can get from it, on how it will make me look. After all, I’ve got reputation. Both the idea and the music have to inspire me to the point I’d crave to create. Besides, I am not a choreographer, but a reconstructor: I take the basis of a play and add something new to it. There are ballets that have simply vanished. For example, when I was producing La Peri, I had the music, the conductor’s score and three videos I got from my friend Yury Burlaka. Those videos were of Alicia Alonso, Carla Fracci and Lyubov Kunakova performing different versions of pas de deux. I also had lythographies and a book, and I combined all of it.
I also have to think about the audience and the generation – how will it look from their perspective and will it sell? I was lucky to serve as a director of Staatsballett Berlin and be able to watch and analyze everything for 14 years.
A choreographer is a living human too. If they produce a great ballet, there is no guarantee they’d do it again just as great. Our whole life is like a wave. If you stay at the peak for too long, you might suffocate.