MOSCOW (AP) — Just a few weeks into his job, the new artistic director at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater is making only one big promise — to keep doing what he says Russia does best — classical ballet.
But that doesn't mean that the illustrious ballet company will be stuck in the past, Makhar Vaziev told The Associated Press in his first interview with a Western media outlet since starting at the Bolshoi last month.
"Any young generation of dancers who come to ballet, in one way or another, they bring something new, modern," said Vaziev.
His first steps will be closely watched inside and outside the theater. The Bolshoi has a special status in Russia, where it is considered a national treasure and a symbol of Russian culture if not of Russia itself. And as a state theater, it has close links to the Kremlin.
Vaziev took over after a period of scandal and bickering under his predecessor Sergei Filin, who lost much of his sight as the result of an acid attack organized by a disgruntled dancer in January 2012. The attack shocked the international ballet world and exposed infighting within the famed theater.
Vaziev was brought in by the theater's new general director, Vladimir Urin, who after months of negotiation persuaded him to leave a flourishing career in the West at Milan's La Scala and return to Russia.
Despite breaking his contract at La Scala, Vaziev says he parted on good terms with a company that he says is still very dear to him. He has been credited with reviving La Scala's ballet company and his traditionalist repertoire was popular with Italian audiences.
Still, Vaziev insists it was time for him to return home to the tradition he grew up in as a dancer. He says he brings few lessons back from his time in the West, other than being firmly convinced there is nowhere in the world that ballet is danced better than in Russia. He says the success of the Russian tradition is based on its strict school and a performance repertoire where the company dances a lot of different ballets in a fast and frequent rotation.
"I know very few ballet companies in the world who are capable of dancing ballet at the highest level. Do you know why? Because if you only dance Swan Lake once a year or once every three years, I can tell you straight away — you have no chance of dancing it well. That's just the way it is," Vaziev told the AP.
Vaziev was trained in St. Petersburg's Mariinsky, not at the Bolshoi, and his outsider status may be a potential strength. Originally from Alagir, a small town in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, he was accepted in 1973 at age 12 to the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. After graduation, he stayed on at the Mariinsky, becoming a principal dancer before taking over as ballet director in 1995, a position he held until 2008.
He comes to the close-knit world of Moscow ballet without old alliances, which observers say may mean he can do what needs to be done to revive the company's confidence.
The company will be on tour in London this summer, where Vaziev says British audiences will not see obvious signs of a new regime. They will see what they came for — classical ballet from the Bolshoi.
Vaziev may represent a safe pair of hands, but he is keen to counter accusations of dusty traditionalism at the Bolshoi. His company will be open to all genres of dance, he says, on pointe or not on pointe, as long as the result is world-class.
And the fact that ballet is a young, athletic discipline means dancers bring a modern sensibility to the classics, a process he believes automatically refreshes the traditional repertoire.
All that is needed to ensure this is honesty and openness so the dancers can work, Vaziev said in a carefully worded reference that was the closest he came to describing his solution to ridding the theater of the rivalry, corruption and infighting that apparently characterized the past few years.
He says his main task is to create an environment at the Bolshoi where the most talented dancers can flourish.
"You must be honest, don't bully or humiliate anyone — and the rest is just hard work," he says.