The Man In Charge

November 28, 2001

It’s morning in a booming, revitalized Berlin and the principal’s class at Staatsballett Berlin is just starting center. Even in a studio packed with the company’s most accomplished dancers, artistic director and dancer Vladimir Malakhov stands out. At 39, he moves with lightness and authority, extending his elegant line while working just as hard as the other company members to perfect turns and jump with ever more precision. To look at him, one would think that this fine-boned, blond Adonis is too fragile to run a company, but looks can be deceiving. In its second year, Staatsballett Berlin is doing very well, partly because he is an artist at the top of his form, but also because he is determined to create a world-class company. 

Malakhov readily tells you he is not the only ballet star directing and dancing with a major ballet company (Julio Bocca and his Ballet Argentino come to mind, and Marcia Haydée directed and danced with Stuttgart Ballet). While leading a company both on the stage and behind the scenes is not unique, Staatsballett Berlin is.

Ballet has a long tradition in Berlin, but making it work in the 21st century has been an uphill battle. Until 2004, the city had three opera houses, each with its own ballet company. To streamline the state-sponsored cultural institutions, the city of Berlin combined the three ballet companies into one, selecting Malakhov to lead the new company. Now the 88 members of Staatsballett Berlin are an international mix from 26 countries, some invited to stay on from the previous companies and the others hired from annual auditions.

As the debate about how to finance three opera houses and one big ballet company continues, the company gives more than 100 performances a year in two opera houses and in the 2007-08 season it will begin performing in the third.  “[Berlin] is big,” says Malakhov, “but I don’t know any city in the world that has three opera houses and three ballet companies. To keep three companies was impossible. [Now] interest is increasing because there is only one.”   

A graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet School, Malakhov was the youngest principal at the Moscow Classical Ballet and won gold medals at the big competitions before leaving Russia for a glittering career as a guest artist in the West. None of which especially qualified him to be an artistic director, but the Ukrainian-born ballet star is not a novice. From 2002 to 2004, he directed the Staatsoper Ballet, one of Berlin’s three former companies, and, drawing on Russian traditions absorbed at the Bolshoi School and his own keen artistic sense, he has staged several classics to great acclaim. In addition, his ideas about programming, audience development and fundraising indicate that his years of guesting with major Western companies have paid off with savvy practicalities about running a company. Now as “intendant,” as he is called in German, he has the opportunity to make an even larger mark on the world stage. 

Yet even with a company to direct, Malakhov still jets off regularly to guest around the world. He manages to get it all done by planning far ahead, juggling schedules and budgets—and relying on Executive Director Christiane Theobald, General Manager Georg Vierthaler, six ballet masters and a handpicked staff. 

“It’s a matter of organization,” says Malakhov. “I try to make a different repertoire in the two opera houses, so that the sets don’t need to go from one opera house to another, but you also have to plan ahead not to have a big première when you have a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty, and to organize the rights and schedule the choreographers. You also have to think of things like how to go from the classic to the modern, or from classic to neoclassic.”

Malakhov has a more “dancerly” approach to planning a rep and begins by telling you that he is a dancer first. His concern for the well-being of the company centers as much on the dancers as the product of their mutual efforts: “I am very close to my company,” he says. “There are many beautiful dancers, all of them with a very big interest in becoming better. I have to lead them and control everything that is going on, but I am the same as they are. I try to make them happy and also to make the quality of the performances better.”

To keep the dancers content and properly challenged—and to feed his audience new delights—Malakhov is amassing a broad repertoire that is stocked with classics, as well as such novelties as last year’s Ring Um Den Ring, Maurice Bejart’s five-hour ballet based on the series of operas by Richard Wagner called the Ring Cycle, and the “Robbins Evening” that premiered three works by Jerome Robbins in the fall.

A special marketing push to 20-somethings drew as many jeans-clad first-timers as elegant ballet aficionados to the “Robbins Evening,” creating a huge hit. The Staatsoper audience rolled with laughter during The Concert, was held captive by a luminous Afternoon of a Faun (which Malakhov danced with the young and exquisite Polina Semionova) and was charmed by a fresh Fancy Free.    

“It’s nice for the company [to dance a range of ballets],” says Malakhov. “That’s why I am keeping a balance between classical and modern.” In December, along with the Robbins, the company danced a mixed bill (David Parsons’s The Envelope, Leo Mujic’s Out of 99 and William Forsythe’s The Second Detail), Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.

“I like this mix,” says Nadja Saidakova, one of five principal women; she has known Malakhov since they danced together at Moscow Classic Ballet. “You need both [classical and contemporary],” she continues. “In the classics, your control must be so sensitive, down to the last muscle. But in the modern style, you can be so free. You get an absolutely different feeling in the body.”

The mix may to be right for Berlin as well, although the public seems attracted as much by Malakhov’s status as an international star as by his efforts as director and choreographer. “There is not doubt that his name is a draw,” says dance critic Volkmar Draeger. “Audiences admire him, and his evenings are completely sold out, especially when he is dancing the main parts. He is opening doors for the ballet in Berlin, [but] he is also modest and very popular in the city.”

Still, the dual role is punishing. “He’s a world star and he’s a director, ballet master, choreographer—so many different jobs,” says Saidakova. “He is very concentrated in class and rehearsal and onstage, then, half an hour later he’s in [business clothes] on his way to a meeting.”

Making the most of his time and what he’s been given—both in terms of talent and opportunity—seems to come naturally.

“I enjoy it,” says Malakhov. “Of course, I am almost dying, but it is okay. I’m busy, and it makes me happy. I am lucky to be here in this company, to see the people with so much feeling and enthusiasm, working for everything.”

Enthusiasm aside, directing a company of young, ambitious dancers is not easy. “It is a big company, and everybody is very sensitive,” says Croatian-born principal Ronald Savkovic, who was a principal at the Staatsoper Ballet as well. “I think it’s not that easy for him. As the next principal after him, I try to be helpful.” Which means he is a sort of unofficial sounding board for the dancers to complain about roles or other issues like rehearsal time.

“For example, we had some problems with some soloists,” says Savkovic, “but I told them [that] we have a responsibility. We have to be good because they are going to say, ‘[That’s] one of Vladimir Malakhov’s dancers.’ We have to show respect toward his work and for the company.” That sense of respect and shared responsibility binds them together as a company, but ultimately success or failure rests on Malakhov’s shoulders. Planning the January gala to celebrate his 20 years of performing, he mulls over what the program might be. “We will invite some new guests and some of my old friends. Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño will come, and also Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre, from Munich, and another couple from Tokyo Ballet, because I spend lots of time dancing there. They will present classical and contemporary pieces. Of course, I will be doing Romeo and Juliet, because they haven’t seen me in that here,” he says. “I always want to surprise the public.”

For now, retirement goes unmentioned. To watch Malakhov in class or onstage with his company, Staatsballet Berlin seems more like a way to dance forever. 

“Everybody is watching, suffering, taking care of each other,” he says. “That’s why I come two and a half hours before the performance to put on my makeup [and] do a warm up. Then, I go [to the wings], and I watch. A dancer said to me, ‘I see you all the time watching the performance. I think you don’t need to watch every day.’ I told him, ‘But this is my energy. I want to be with you—I am nervous, and I am laughing at the same time.’”