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Classical Purity, Romantic Ardor.


Of the many striking images that Vladimir Malakhov has presented in his rocketlike ascent to superstardom this decade, the most symbolic may now be one from last season: In David Parsons's Caught, which he performed as a guest artist with the Parsons company at City Center, Malakhov hung suspended in midair, like a subject of a classic Eadweard Muybridge stop-action photo. At this point in his career, he is very much hovering--between classical ballet and contemporary dance, between being a dancer and becoming a choreographer. In the past six months, he has been working very hard at being all of the above, dancing a radically different Firebird in Stuttgart, choreographing his own Bayadere in Vienna, and preparing roles for American Ballet Theatre's current spring season at Lincoln Center in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Last December he starred in the Stuttgart Ballet's world premiere of Uwe Scholz's Firebird, a ballet that Malakhov describes as being "of modem, not classical, power but ... lyrical and beautiful. Uwe always knows where the accent is in the jump, where I should look, how I should extend my arms, move in space." Scholz, artistic director of Leipzig Ballet [see Dance Magazine, January, page 102], uses the great Stravinsky score but tells a modem fairy tale about a bird who lives on another planet. One day a prince arrives, dressed in a yellow-and-black leather-and-metal bicycle jacket, and he thinks it's funny to try to prevent the bird from flying. The thirty-minute ballet is filled with pools of dizzying white light that hits the stage from all angles so that neither the performers nor the audience know quite where they are or can identify the place or time. Far from confusing Stuttgart audiences, Firebird sold out every night and earned standing ovations for Malakhov in the title role.

Unlike Scholz's planetary vision, Malakhov's own production of Marius Petipa's 1877 La Bayadere for Vienna State Opera Ballet last March was original in a traditional style but unlike the earlier stagings of Rudolf Nureyev (1961) and Natalia Makarova (1980). "I wanted it to be new," Malakhov says, "so I went to the music archives in St. Petersburg with my pianist, Igor Zapravdin, and I found parts of Minkus's original score that had never been used. I added a lot to the fourth act: an entire dance for the male corps de ballet, extra variations, a new solo for Solor, a new waltz for the female corps. And I changed the female candle dance and gave it to the men. I wanted to make a Bayadere closest to the original conception of the music. I chose new ballads from Minkus's score that sounded like Bayadere and felt like Bayadere but had never been used before."

For him, Bayadere is a fantasy work. The entire ballet manipulates the audience into believing that it is somewhere else, in another time. Malakhov created a mental landscape, a dream, in which Solor, drunk and dizzy, sees multiple visions of his departed beloved--the Shades now represent thirty-two Nikias. Malakhov also tried to add holograms of her, imagined by Solor as he slept. ("It was as though he saw her ghost disappearing from her body after her death.") After spending $2 million on the production, however, he had to cut the holograms. There is another, more economical, personal touch after the collapse of the temple: Solor's soul leaves his body, and Nikia, wearing a long, trailing scarf, takes his soul to the next world, where he will inevitably find happiness.

Modest to a fault, Malakhov almost didn't stage the ballet and told the Vienna administration to use Makarova's version instead. "But I wanted to do something new," he says, "and this was my chance. I wanted the corps to be perfect, not fifty bodies but one shade; not twenty jumping men but one, all in a line of petit allegro." Emotions derived from color intrigued him; he insisted on greens, browns, orange, purple, red--all blended together in scenery and costumes from India.

Malakhov was born in the Ukrainian city of Krivoi Rog in 1968. His mother, Elena, a pianist, placed him in a children's dance collective when he was six. "By the time I was nine, I knew that I wanted to be a dancer," he recalls. "I must have communicated this to my mother, as she took me all the way to Moscow. It was a foreign country to me. And she had me placed in the Choreographic School of the Bolshoi Theatre, where I met Pyotr Pestov, my lifetime teacher."

Pestov was to Malakhov what Pushkin was to Baryshnikov. "He taught me everything," says Malakhov. "How to dance, act, hear music. On Sundays he took me to classical music concerts and museums. I saw all of the impressionist art with him." Advanced male students also attended a summer school, where Pestov worked on their jumps, turns, flexibility, and line. "He taught me how to concentrate on every minute detail of my body, to be aware of everything. It is the reason I have spent so many hours working on the hands of Albrecht as he walks toward Giselle's tomb."

After he graduated from the Bolshoi Theatre in 1986, Malakhov began competing nationally for ballet prizes. In 1989 he became the first Russian to win gold in the Serge Lifar Ballet Competition in Paris where he danced the solo Narcissus, which Kasyan Goliezovsky had made on Vladimir Vasiliev and which Vasiliev had performed in a 1971 film that he had directed. Narcissus, the son of a Greek god, is a handsome young man who despises love, although he is adored by the nymph Echo and the young man Ameinias; because he refuses to love anyone but himself, Narcissus stares at his reflection in a stream until he falls into the water and drowns. Malakhov--like Vasiliev--had the pliant muscles, deep plie, and high, sustained jumps to be both expansive and sensuous. Flying high above the water in magnificent backward leaps, he expressed pathos and egoism so magnificently that he immediately gained international recognition as both an actor and a great jumper.

Natalia Kasatkina and V. Y. Vasiliev, artistic directors of Moscow Classical Ballet, soon asked him to join their company. Working with V. Y. Vasiliev greatly enhanced the creation of a personal dance style, utterly in tune with modernist themes of expression. He remained with the company as a soloist until the end of 1991, when he decided to remain in the West while on tour in Los Angeles. "I wanted to learn everything I could about new choreography," he says. Another reason for defecting was the fact that, after the collapse of the USSR, Russian gangsters were patrolling the streets of Moscow and controlling the black market. For Malakhov, a hungry young dancer eager to learn, a country in economic and political chaos was no place to grow as an artist. "Unlike America," Malakhov says, "Europe gives its ballet companies almost total support. And I wanted to work in a company where I could play a diversity of parts and not worry about money."

One of the first offers he received came from Alexander Ursuliak, director of the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, and that city has become his home base in Europe. Malakhov danced as a guest artist with Stuttgart Ballet in Fokine's Spectre de la Rose and Cranko's Onegin, in which he made Lensky a complex, somewhat surreal character; watching him dance has been described as like reading Pushkin's words. (Malakhov's jumps and his turning attitudes in the air are powerfully delivered pieces of character development.)

James Kudelka, director of National Ballet of Canada, also extended an invitation, and Malakhov danced in Canada until he, Robert Tewsley, and Margaret Illmann followed NBC's Reid Anderson to Stuttgart Ballet after he became its artistic director in 1996. Malakhov is now a permanent guest artist with the company. Subsequent triumphs in Vienna as Albrecht in Giselle and Romeo in Cranko's Romeo and Juliet earned him the honor of being made--like Nureyev before him--an Austrian citizen. (Fittingly, Vienna was the city he chose for Bayadere, his most ambitious project so far.)

In 1995, Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, invited Malakhov to be a guest artist for ABT's Lincoln Center season. McKenzie considered his dancing "the perfect balance between classical technique and the modem interpretation" of the Russian dance vocabulary. McKenzie believes that at present the "heart-beat of the ABT organic ensemble" is original, individual dancing, which Malakhov, with his dazzling technique and androgynous sensibility, can certainly supply. Malakhov accepted the invitation because, he says, "It is a repertory company, and in Russia, as artists, we are isolated." This spring his Lincoln Center roles range from classic danseurs nobles (Albrecht and Solor) to Balanchine (Symphonie Concertante) and MacMillan (Romeo and Juliet and a pas de deux from Manon).

Blessed with the powerful discipline required of Russian classical dancing, Malakhov can go beyond a given character to reinvent or create a new one from scratch. Because he feels deeply and moves deeply, he injects male dancing with both exquisite grace and a Nijinsky-like animalism. Nacho Duato's 1997 all-male pas de trois for ABT, Remanso, in particular, allowed Malakhov to continue his exploration of sexuality. Using his highly expressive turnout, he created a nameless character who was neither exclusively male nor female but, rather, animal. (Ironically, Malakhov wants to become a veterinarian when he retires from ballet.) And it is a powerful, predatory animal emotion that he evokes onstage, even in minimalist choreography.

After ABT's New York City season, he flies to Brazil to prepare for John Neumeier's new version of Hal Ashby's 1972 cult movie about a May-December romance, Harold and Maude. Marcia Haydee will dance the part of Maude, and throughout July they will work near her home in Rio de Janeiro, then premiere the ballet in Europe. "I am excited to dance with Marcia," he says. "She is one of the greatest ballerinas. I am so happy to dance a simple, unclassical role after Bayadere." But, ever suspended between two styles, he plans to complete this 1999 season dancing his favorite role, Albrecht, in a new Giselle for Stuttgart Ballet.

Ninotchka Bennahum is a contributing editor of Dance Magazine.
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Title Annotation:dancer Vladimir Malakov
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1999
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