Russian Seasons

February 27, 2011

When it was announced last summer that Nacho Duato would become artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, the most common reaction was: Huh? How could the choreographer who transformed Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza into a contemporary stronghold—and left because the Spanish government wanted to steer that company in a more classical direction—take on the oh-so-Russian Mikhailovsky, which performs almost exclusively big classical ballets?

“I know the news that I was moving to this company was completely bizarre,” says Duato, who was offered the position by the Mikhailovsky’s enterprising general director, Vladimir Kekhman. “Everyone thought, Is he mad? Is he crazy?,” says Duato. “And yes, I am crazy. But if you’re not crazy, you don’t move forward.”

Actually, Duato’s appointment is more in keeping with the Mikhailovsky’s history than one might think. In the 1930s the company, then known as the Maly Ballet, took an experimental turn under the direction of the forward-thinking Fyodor Lopukhov. He produced a string of innovative works, including the first incarnation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream. But during the past 20 or so years, the company has become a respectable, if second-tier, member of the more traditional ballet scene in Russia. The mainstays of its repertoire are now old-school story ballets—Corsaire, Bayadère, Swan Lake.

Although he has little classical experience himself, Duato isn’t planning to do away with the company’s recent focus. “The classics are important, and the company dances them beautifully,” he says. “I’ll update the lighting and the decor a bit, but I’m going to preserve the current classical repertoire.” In fact, he’ll add to it: One of Duato’s first major projects is a new Sleeping Beauty, to premiere in February 2012, which he will stage after Petipa.

But Duato plans to supplement that traditional base with new contemporary works of his own, as well as pieces by artists he’s worked with and admires: Jirí Kylián, Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin. “Hiring me is an indication that this company is ready to open up to the West, to stop being a museum,” he says. “My goal is to bring the company into the present by creating a balance between classical and contemporary.” He adds that eventually he’d like the Mikhailovsky to be comparable to an American Ballet Theatre or a Paris Opéra Ballet—yet his troupe’s repertoire will, unsurprisingly, include a substantial collection of his own pieces.

Don’t expect Duato’s choreography for the Mikhailovsky to look much like his older contemporary work, however. Though he will set some of his best-known pieces (Remanso and Jardi Tancat among them) on the company, this July he’ll premiere a new ballet whose vocabulary will be significantly more classical. “I have all these beautiful dancers with incredible Russian schooling and technique, so why not take advantage of that?” he says. “The bodies are different, the city is different, so my inspirations are going to be different. My choreography will evolve.”

That choreography will still be a shock to most of the Mikhailovsky dancers. “The biggest challenge I face is getting people to trust me,” he says. “They’re a little afraid of me right now, because they aren’t used to modern work—and they haven’t interacted intensely with a living choreographer since, well, ever! They’ve been doing stuff by Fokine and Petipa, people who haven’t been alive for more than 100 years.” Duato—the first non-Russian to direct a major Russian company since Petipa—is eager to “open their eyes to the world beyond Russia.”

Duato is counting on the enthusiasm of St. Petersburg audiences to ease the company’s transition. “St. Petersburg may not be the most modern city in the world, but the love is there, and it’s not going away,” he says. “Russians take their culture so seriously. It’s truly extraordinary: The company has 120 performances a year in St. Petersburg alone, and that theater is full every single evening.”

Duato also plans to amp up the company’s touring schedule in Europe and America to increase the Mikhailovsky’s international presence. He is confident that his reputation will ensure the company’s success abroad. “The name Nacho Duato will draw audiences,” he says. “I think people are curious to see what I’m doing here.”

Indeed, though just a year ago most American ballet fans had never heard of the Mikhailovsky, the company is already booked for a run at Lincoln Center in 2012. It will perform Duato’s Sleeping Beauty and a program of three new contemporary works.

“We’re going to jump right into the pool,” he says. “Why not?”

At A Glance
Mikhailovsky Ballet
Founded: 1933
Located: St. Petersburg, Russia
Number of Dancers: 137
Performances: 120 in St. Petersburg, plus approximately 40–50 on tour
Contract Length: Year-round