Rules of Dance: Leonid Sarafanov

In “The Rules of Dance” column, famous dancers share their secrets of success and reveal details about the difficulties of their profession and self-improvement. Moreover, they give valuable advice to future generations of ballet dancers. Our today’s guest is the world-famous principal ballet dancer of the Mikhailovsky Theatre and a third generation performer – Leonid Sarafanov. He told Balletristic why he thinks classical ballet can be called both dead and living now and why the Vaganova method might have gone out of date. Leonid also shared advices for working your body properly, whilst comparing a good dancer to a pizza, and revealed the secret of his signature jump.

My parents (Dmytro and Natalia Sarafanov, P. Virsky Ensemble dancers – Ed.) helped me a lot in my studies, although at that time I used to think they were simply being cruel. My dad was very strict, but eventually, that helped me in my career and taught me to be demanding to myself.

I took up classical because when I was enrolling in 1992, the situation in the country was horrible. So my parents said to me frankly: “You dance folk – you’ll end up staying in Ukraine. You dance ballet – you’ll be able to go to any country, wherever you would like to work.”

Classical was hard for me. I had got used to folk dancing, I grew up watching it from the backstage, people performing wearing shorovary, with their hearts on their sleeves. That jumping and that technique in general seemed very manly to me, so the idea of suddenly switching to tights was completely wild. And the learning process itself was difficult and dull. I wanted to give it up, but once again my parents managed to persuade me not to. It bore fruit and soon I started making some progress, at times even better than the others. That is how I got my motivation.

I do not regret my choice. A dancer’s job is beautiful, it’s full of purity and sincerity, you have to put a lot into it, but you get a lot from it as well. I agree, there is a big disadvantage, that is, it’s extremely short. But so packed and eventful instead!

As for my children, I’d like to involve them in ballet as well. Maybe not all three of them, although they are all very artistic.

You don’t learn everything at school – most people master the stage after 5 or 6 years upon graduating. You have to put your skills to use in order to learn properly. For instance, when I had just joined Mariinsky, after having worked in Kyiv for two years, I seemed completely out of place there. It took me some time to “sophisticate myself”.

You always have to be hungry for art, you have to look for different areas to express yourself in. You’re learning new things throughout your whole career.

 I am currently learning to work for an excellent outcome without struggling too much, meaning that I have to concentrate on the working process better and put exactly as much effort as needed. The thing is, I might be considered young by most people, but from the perspective of ballet, I am quite mature already, some may even say old. Before, I could repeat a combination as much as 25 times in a row, now I do not want, need or have the ability to do that, so I have be rational. You always have to be rational when you’re a ballet dancer, but it’s more important to me than ever now, because alas, my body is wearing out.

As for injuries, I’ve never had anything super serious, but I’ve been getting plenty of minor ones instead. After the last time I got injured I wasn’t performing on stage for 5 months. However, I kept practicing with Gyrotonic, going through massage therapy as well physiotherapy and kinesiotherapy. You always have to find what works better personally for you, find yourself good doctors, physiotherapists and coaches – this is the only way you can manage to stay in shape.

Having ballet classes and rehearsals is not enough. It’s important to take up something else apart from those. Some of our muscles aren’t worked out enough, so you need something to compensate that. This way it will be easier to get back in shape and avoid muscle pains; consequently, a dancer can stay healthy longer.

Old school teachers who keep saying a dancer must not do anything but classical mainly used to perform once or twice a month and stayed in ballet until 50. On the contrary, we perform up to 15 pieces a month.

I used to constantly run out of breath on stage, it was barely possible to keep performing at times. I do breathing exercises now, you can find them on the Internet and they are very easy to learn. Proper breathing can help you warm up and get prepared on the inside.

The ballet stretch technique people follow here, the “put your leg on the bar, now split”, is extremely injurious. You cannot stretch or improve your steps like that. They are breaking the children and you only realize it when it’s too late.

Vaganova’s methods are almost 100 years old. Back then, both bodies and tasks were different, the dancers weren’t performing anything but classical. But times change, such things as evolution and acceleration are happening – we won’t be able to use the old techniques forever.

There is no such thing asthe single plan meant for everyone. Each person has an individual technique and learns things in their own way. You can attend a general course to improve your overall development, but from then on you’ll need an individual approach.

The youth lacks uniqueness and understanding towards the meaning of a dance. Everyone’s technical elements are amazing nowadays. When I look at the younger guys, I realize they are capable of simply phenomenal things that I can only dream of. But it’s boring to see someone perform by only showing a good technique. What’s important is what happens before and after that.

Why is everyone still crazy about Baryshnikov? Have you seen his muscles and his moves! You’d think it’s easy – a pirouette and a jump sequence, but I doubt everyone can do it the way people won’t be able to take their eyes off them! That is the very difference between a real star and a simple boy who knows technical elements. It’s like pizza – everyone can cook it, few can make a delicious one.

Is classical ballet dead?Both yes and no. Objectively speaking, it is. But everyone keeps dancing it, it stays in demand and with that – alive.

People keep watching classical ballet because they are accustomed to it. I mean, what else would you watch in an ancient academic building? Led Zeppelin? Although they did perform with an orchestra…

When it comes to classics, you have to either revive it completely (like Sergei Vikharev did and like Alexei Ratmansky is doing it now) or make it look appropriate for the present time.

At Mariinsky Ballet they mistake stereotypes for traditions.

At Mikhailovsky Ballet the whole piece is choreographed and directed by one single person, so every play has its own style and doesn’t look eclectic. When you look at the plays at Mariinsky you can always tell: this part was conducted by one coach, and this one – by another coach, and so on. All of those coaches say, “That is how it used to be”. But the thing is, in the first case, it “used to be” 50 years ago, while in the second one – 60 years ago. And a lot of things changed during that span of 10 years.

It’s not good when a dancer has to work with the same coach their whole life. Roughly speaking, it’s as if you come to a theatre and are forced to marry them, and no one really cares how you will be getting on with each other. Plus, a coach gets used to your dancing with time and stops noticing certain things.

Our ballets should be produced according to the Western system, in my opinion. Two coaches are in charge of the whole piece – the first one takes care of the male parts, the second one takes the female parts. And you have two different coaches for another ballet as well. This way the plays look more consistent.

I am left-handed. Sometimes it really helps: some dancers can only perform certain elements well if they do it to a certain side, for example, saut de basque to the right, jeté en tournant to the left, etc. I, however, always do everything to the left. It indeed appears to be difficult to dance Nureyevs choreographies because there are a lot moves both to the right and to the left. Fortunately, I don’t work at Paris Opera.

In Russia, you can alter the technique for yourself if you want. You can move the way that is more comfortable for you and no one will really pay any attention. You can’t do that in France though, because they have different methods: they don’t need you to do 10 pirouettes, they need 3 of them, but each has to be performed to a different side.

I always liked the dancers who can jump lightly, not necessarily high, but as if they are floating in the air. I’ve been always aiming to jump like that.

You cannot treat the approach to the jump in the same way as the jump itself. The approach has to be faster, this way you create an impression of a higher jump – create an illusion.

Ballet is all about skillfully concealing your flaws. A very clever dancer said this to me once and I keep sharing this with everyone now.

Contemporary choreographies were hard for me at first, I would strain myself and strive to work in the “classical” way. When I was meeting with mentors of Nacho Duato’s for the first time, they asked me: “Can you do it without all that effort?” I did as they said and they were like: “This is much better than when you’re trying hard”. It was unusual for me to learn how to take it easy and use concentration rather than force.

One of the worst things is when your partner can’t hear the music – she just disorderly waves her legs around. It’s really difficult to work like that.

When a theatre invites a star guest performer, it often turns out that the troupe is far behind the guest’s level in terms of dancing. Mariinsky is different. They hold an annual ballet festival which features the best and most brilliant contemporary guest dancers, who end up fading among the others.

Maryiinsky’s troupe is very serious – not because they are hostile, they are just tired.

When you’re working in a theatre, you are constantly told that you owe someone. So you should be rather selfish, independent and give a leader-like impression.

I never had time to come up with any goals for myself, I have too much work.

I’d love to dance a ton of different parts, Neumeier and MacMillan, for instance – I never danced to any of their pieces. If you need a contemporary example – Alexander Ekman. Justin Peck is my absolute favorite and I even follow him on social media. His choreographies are so full of everything: both the Balanchine vibe and Broadway jazz aura, and he has a good sense of humor, which can rarely be seen on stage.

Humor in ballet is usually either grotesque or a complete nonsense.


Photo: Nastya Tempinskaya