Interview with Vadim Muntagirov, English National Ballet Principal

by Simonetta Dixon on August 22, 2011

Vadim Muntgagirov. © Sian Trenberth. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Vadim Muntagirov was born in Chenabinsk, Russia, 21 years ago.  His parents were both professional dancers, so he and his sister naturally began lessons very early in life.  At the age of 9, he went away to Perm to begin taking his ballet seriously, eventually spending the last 3 years of his training at the Royal Ballet School in London.  English National Ballet’s Artistic Director, Wayne Eagling, and Maina Gielgud attended his class’s end of year show, recognised his abilities, and afterwards  offered him a contract, promising him that he’d be dancing Albrecht the following Christmas… which he did indeed.  

What also happened is something that only happens to most dancers after years of searching:  he began his career by finding his perfect partner, in Senior Principal Daria Klimentova.  In less than two years they have established an artistic connection that has all the elements:  trust, understanding, technical parity and the pure joy of dancing together.  Vadim knows that with Daria’s 40th birthday around the corner he faces many professional years without her, and he can’t even bear to think about that yet.   But its not just all about a wonderful partnership and on his own, he has impressed many with his technical prowess and easy classical elegance, not least Eagling who has just made him a Principal – one of the youngest in the world.

Vadim and Daria in the dressing room. © Daria Klimentova.

You left home at the age of 9 to go to Perm Ballet School.  Did you think at this point that you wanted ballet to be your career?

I never really thought about it, at any age. It just kind of happened slowly, year by year. My sister is now a soloist at Chernabinsk Ballet, so it happened to us both. My parents never pushed us, so it was a natural thing.  When I started doing solos and bits of principal roles at school, around 15, I think I knew that this is what I wanted to do.

After the show. © Daria Klimentova.

In the recent BBC programme The Agony and the Ecstasy, about English National Ballet, you appear to have said that you used to get ‘beaten’ at ballet school in Russia.  Is this true?

No, not beaten.  Of course, we used to get yelled at a lot.  We were little boys, and little boys can be naughty.  But we needed that, to learn discipline.  You can’t be a dancer without discipline.  So although we got yelled at, one day we will thank those teachers.  Nowadays they don’t use sticks, just voices!

At 16, you left Perm to come to the Royal Ballet School in London.  What was that like, arriving here speaking no English, and having to learn a very different style of training and dancing?

Well, it was very difficult, not speaking any English.  But it was very exciting.  The School was very difficult;  a very different technique.  I’m not saying it was bad, just very different.  The dancing is much faster than we do in Russia, where it is slower and calmer.  But it is very good to know both ways.  For speaking English, I had a good friend at the school, Ben Ella;  at first we spoke in a strange kind of language, but he helped me a lot with my English.  I did miss my family, but having been away in Perm for 5 years, I was used to it.

Vadim Muntgagirov in Swan Lake. © John Ross. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

English National Ballet is a touring company;  do you enjoy that aspect of it?

Well, it depends on how busy you are.  It can be very boring, and usually we don’t have time to see anything, it’s just theatre, hotel, theatre, hotel.  I like seeing different places, but I like being in London because the stages are so big – the Coliseum, the Albert Hall…

Understand you like big stages! What is your favourite big stage role?

Hmmmm.  I think Romeo.  Not because I like it better than the others, but because of Daria, my partner.  She made it wonderful for me, and when I dance it with her I feel there is no-one else there, and that she IS my Juliet, and I AM her Romeo.  That’s why I’ve loved it.

Vadim Muntgagirov & Daria Klimentova in Romeo and Juliet. © Patrick Baldwin. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

What new roles do you lust after?

That is hard to say.  Each year I learn one or two new ballets, and I like each one.  Maybe two years ago I’d have said Don Quixote, but now I think maybe Des Grieux in Manon;  I like the dramatic love stories much more… but that’s because of Daria!

Do you have a dancer, past or present, who you particularly admire?

Baryshnikov.  When I was young I always watched dancers on YouTube, but he is the one I watched again and again.  I can see him do something a thousand times and it always inspires me.  He was very special, very rare; he had everything.  Then of course there’s Daria…

Please tell us a bit about your partnership with Daria… how did it start, and why it means so much to you?

Well, it was luck.  I am so lucky.  I was supposed to do Giselle with someone else, and when she got sick they gave me Daria.  At first I was so nervous;  what was she going to think?  I was a young boy, just out of school, and she is a prima ballerina.  I couldn’t concentrate on my steps, I wanted to make sure she was happy; I put myself under much pressure.  But, after a couple of rehearsals,  we felt good with each other.  We only had three or four rehearsals before the show, but afterwards she invited me to partner her in her gala, so luckily she was happy, and so was I!

Vadim Muntgagirov in the Nutcracker. © Daria Klimentova.

Then we danced other things together:  Cinderella, Nutcracker, and each show was better and better.  We laugh a lot;  she is so funny, and also she never makes me feel pressured.  When we dance together, I forget about everything and everyone else.  When I am dancing with her, I am confident, and never worried about ‘will it work’.  When we danced R&J, I didn’t even think about the steps (and Nureyev’s version is very difficult).  It was an unbelievable feeling;  she is Juliet and I am Romeo, and it was amazing.  I will never forget that.  And I will never forget that my first Siegfried was with her, in the Albert Hall.  Polina Semionova missed the first night because of visa problems, so they gave me Daria, and I was so happy, and so lucky!

Vadim Muntgagirov & Daria Klimentova in Romeo and Juliet. © Annabel Moeller. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

The build-up to that first night was the subject of the first instalment of the Agony and Ecstasy TV series about English National Ballet.  Did the programme accurately reflect what happened?

Well… I think it was made with TV viewers in mind, to make it more interesting for them.  Yes, it showed Derek yelling at me, and Daria crying, but it was just once or twice, but they didn’t show us laughing and joking afterwards;  we support each other.  It didn’t upset me at all, in Russia teachers always yelled because they wanted more out of me, so I never take it personally.  In ballet, you have to be tough or you don’t survive.

How do you prepare for a new role, and do you get stage fright?

It depends on the ballet.  When I was learning Albrecht, I watched videos of Baryshnikov many times.  I concentrated on learning the steps and my solos, but the drama and emotion I never think about because with Daria it is just there, it is natural.  I don’t really get stage fright.  Maybe a little, everyone gets a little, but for me it is just at first.  After a little while, I am fine, and if Daria is next to me I am confident and comfortable and never worried.

Vadim Muntgagirov in Giselle. © Daria Klimentova.

I hate to ask this, but have you given any thought to what happens when Daria retires?

No, I don’t want to!  I just hope that we can dance many, many shows together before that happens, and that it will be unforgettable for her and for me.

And by that time you will be a stronger and even more confident dancer?

Yes, each show gets better, and my stamina improves, and I find the partnering getting easier…and I will be more experienced with all the roles, so I suppose I will be dancing with other girls…but for now, Daria and I both hope that Wayne will let us dance together a lot.  I am always fighting with myself to find better ways of doing steps, or for preparing for an entrance, so yes, I have much still to learn.  I think the older you get, the better you get technically, but for acting, I don’t know if age matters, I think it is inside you or it isn’t, and I think a lot of that has to do with the partner.  If you don’t feel it with your partner, it will show….it doesn’t really matter how old you are.

Vadim Muntgagirov by Daria Klimentova (©). Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

You danced  in Strictly Gershwin at the Albert Hall.  What is that like? 

Well, I like the big stage.  But you only feel it’s big during a pas de deux or a solo.  In Gershwin, there are many people onstage much of the time.  It is quite difficult for me to learn all the steps because I am in two or three different pieces, and it is very different for me.  You can’t concentrate on one dance;  we rehearse one, then 10 minutes later we are doing another one;  it’s complicated.

I often wonder how dancers remember every step in so many different works?  How do you manage?

Every dancer is different I think.  In some roles, I wasn’t really taught them;  I’d just seen them so many times that I knew them.  Of course I needed coaching, but the steps were just there inside me.  But in ballets such as Giselle, each company has its own version, so the steps are different, so sometimes if I am guesting somewhere I forget that I am doing their version instead of English National Ballet’s, and I forget some of the steps or do the wrong ones….it is a lot to remember!

Daria Klimentova & Vadim Muntagirov rehearsing Tchaikovshy pas de deux for the June 2011 Ulanova Gala. © Dave Morgan. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Have you tried contemporary dance, and do you enjoy it?

Mmm.  Well, I have tried it a little bit, and I suppose I enjoyed it, but it is very difficult for me because I never trained in it at all, and my body finds it very hard to do those moves.  Maybe if someone really rehearsed with me I would like it more, but classical ballet is what I love… especially if Daria is next to me.

Time off in Hong Kong. © Daria Klimentova.

And when you are not dancing ballet, what are you doing?

Oh, I have so little free time.  I call my family, talk to them, talk to other friends on Skype, organise guestings.  I would really like to just go somewhere and rest, and forget about ballet for two weeks.  When I was at school I would go away to a nice beach with my family, but for three years I haven’t had a holiday.  There is always something happening.  This summer Daria and I are guesting in Capetown in Swan Lake, so I have to be in shape, so no rest for me!  But maybe I can go to the beach there…

Has your family been able to come and see you dance yet?

No, it is difficult with getting visas, but I am working on it, writing letters of invitation.  Also, it is a time problem…either we are touring, or I am guesting.  I’ve started guesting this year, mostly with Daria.  My first year in English National Ballet no-one knew me, and I was learning, but now I am getting known, and my partnership with Daria means people trust me so they invite me to guest… mostly with her. But I hope they will come soon.

Vadim Muntgagirov. © Sian Trenberth. Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window.

Of course, you are at the beginning of your career so haven’t thought about life after dance yet, but if you couldn’t dance anymore, or when you reach retirement, what might you do then?

Hmmm.  I think I would like to teach.  I really feel it inside of me, and I want to give something back.  It is so important to keep teaching the next generation, and it is not always easy to find a good teacher.  In Russia, a principal will have one teacher who prepares them for all the principal roles.  He is like a second father and you can be very close.  Here, you move from teacher to teacher.  If a dancer is clever, they will take good things from everybody and use them.  But the teacher has to be able to give you those things.  Just because you can dance, doesn’t mean you can teach, but I hope I can.

Vadim and Daria in the dressing room. © Daria Klimentova.

And if you weren’t a dancer now, what would you be doing?

Well, I can say that I love basketball.  I always watch highlights on the internet, and always check what’s happening.  I love the energy, the stamina, I love the way they jump…

Sounds just like a ballet dancer…

Ah, ha, ha that must be why I like it so much!  Yes, I think I would be doing some sport if I didn’t dance.  But not basketball, I am too short!

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