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About the Change

Yuliana Malkhasyants

Principal Character Dancer,
Bolshoi Ballet

by Natasha Dissanayake

© I Zakharkin

Malkhasyants in reviews

Bolshoi reviews

Having danced short episodes in four performances of "Don Quixote", Yuliana Malkhasyants left London at the end of the first week but for many ballet lovers she became one of the highlights of the Bolshoi Ballet’s present tour.

Yuliana belongs to a special caste in classical ballet – she is a character dancer.

Although she excelled in acting roles, for example Madge in "La Sylphide" she is truly in her element while performing character dances based on dance folklore. It allows her to display the enormous versatility of her talents. In such character numbers as the Gipsy Dance in "Don Quixote", the Drum Dance in "La Bayadere" or Chaga in the Polovtsian Dances from the opera "Prince Igor" she has no equals at present.

In this genre she has reached that summit to which only a few have risen in the past. In my memory the most outstanding of them were Nina Anisimova from the Mariinsky Ballet and Nadezhda Kapustina, Valentina Galetskaya and especially Jadwiga Sangovich of the Bolshoi. Yuliana is not outside this exclusive circle but fittingly stands in their ranks. A Russian TV film about her was entitled: “The Actress Who Dances Fate".

On the last day of her stay in London Yuliana found time to give me an interview.

Yulechka, please tell me how long you have been with the Bolshoi and when you started doing character dancing?

I am 39 now and have been working in the theatre for 21 years. I have danced character dances since my school years. Although I graduated with top marks for classical dance, everyone always knew that I would do character dances. During our final examination Grigorovich arrived. I danced a Georgian dance “Lezghinka” in pointe shoes and a Gipsy dance, and Grigorovich invited me to join the Bolshoi for that particular line of business.

{At this moment somebody entered the dressing room where we were sitting and asked Yuliana to go to the Stage Door. She apologized and left the dressing room. After coming back in about ten minutes she looked visibly moved.}

Look, look at these photographs. This is my father. His fans that saw him here in London many years ago brought these photos for me. On the opening night of “Don Quixote” they gave me flowers and said: “It is for your father too.” I am so glad he is remembered here. Right, what were we talking about here? What’s your next question?

My next question is about character dancing. What is special about it?

Ballet as a form of art wasn’t born in Russia but in the West; however in Russia it reached its heights. The character dance as a specific genre was born in Russia, and there is no school of character dance anywhere outside Russia. This is entirely ours, we own this, and it is our duty to preserve it. We have to teach the new generations. The models remained and the programs have been expanded. However, success depends on personality. Sadly, there are not enough teachers. I have been teaching at the Bolshoi for 7 years. I work with Anya Antropova, Tim Lavrenyuk, Ilya Ryzhakov, Masha Isplatovskaya, and Katya Barykina.

Genuine character dancing exists only in Russia, because it is a unique form of art, and properly took root only in Moscow. There was a whole galaxy of character dancers in Moscow, almost a Golden Age, while in St. Petersburg they had only a handful.


Yuliana Malkhasyants in the Don Quixote Gipsy Dance
© John Ross

Why did it flourish in Russia and particularly in Moscow?

We have rich national dance. Our people have a dancing background, it is in our blood and we are an emotional nation. The Moscow school of dance is not too restrictive; it gives more freedom, therefore Muscovites allowed themselves to improvise, to move in a more uninhibited manner. Josef Kshessinsky in St.Petersburg danced mazurkas famously but a real grand Polish ball is danced only in Moscow. I mean the Polish ball choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov for the opera “Ivan Susanin”. I love to dance it. I also enjoy dancing the sparkling Polovtsian dances by Kasyan Goleizovsky.

Your father was an excellent character dancer. Do you think that it was predetermined for you to follow in his footsteps?

I am a daughter of ballet parents and took in theatre literally with my mother’s milk. Mum and dad danced in the City of Perm. Two months after my birth my mum danced Kitri. She was breastfeeding me at that time. I was lying on a table in the wings and she fed me in the intervals. The dancers joked: "This baby is condemned to dance".

My father’s name is Gennady, Gena. ‘Gen’ is Russian for gene. Obviously he passed on his dancing genes and some aptitude to me. He is a dancer, ballet master and teacher. Spanish dance was his element. I was the only child and grew up on ballet rehearsals. I was bold enough to dance in the street since the age of five. Loved to dance a Gipsy dance and expected to be given flowers. So those who watched me dancing would pick some buttercups or dandelions for me.

Why did you give up classical roles?

At school Yevgeniya Farmanyants was the first who told me that Goleizovsky’s choreography was for me. I did not know the repertoire then and will always be grateful to her.

My graduation ballet was “Coppelia” but I knew that it was not my cup of tea. At the age of 18 I decided that I would never dance classical roles. I said to myself: "I would rather be the best in what is mine, than mediocre in somebody else’s shoes”.

Some might think that it is not a prestigious line of business but I think we changed the attitude towards it.

Did you have any idols in ballet?

No, I did not worship any idols.

Then from whom did you learn?

I am terribly interested in my genre. I have films and videotapes of all existing recordings of character dances. All “Polovtsian Dances”. I learnt from the best. From Plissetskaya I learnt the Persian Girl in “Khovantshina”. Natalya Kasatkina also advised me. I remember her advice when I was learning the dance of a young Gipsy girl. She said: “You have to be as a silver birch tree in the wind”. The Gipsy character dance is usually about a ruined life. However, Gypsies can be various. A Gipsy dance by Grigorovich is similar to a Russian love song. And the girl has two plaits interspersed with coins. I watched all performances, it was very hard continuous work. I was ‘stealing’ some movements and gestures but I had a different coordination, different amplitude of movement.

A partner is very important for a classical ballerina. How important is he for a character dancer?

He is equally important for me. There are lifts. By the way, when Mark Peretokin and I were doing our adagio exam at graduation, I did a double fish dive. However, in character dance the partnership concepts are different: it is important how he holds my hand and how he leads me. If he holds me correctly and leads doing a correct circle on stage, I feel that he is competent, his schooling was right. It gives me the sense of physical happiness. Even more important is the atmosphere, the aura, his eyes, his emotions. You just look into his eyes. I did not have many brilliant partners but some were. My first torero was Sergei Radchenko who was 40 and I was 19 at that time. Another good partner was Stanislav Yelagin; we danced Kuman and Chaga in “Polovtsian Dances”. Vladimir Moisseyev was my permanent partner in the mazurka in "Ivan Susanin".

Who were your teachers?

At the Bolshoi Theater I had three remarkable teachers. Anatoly Simachev did the Gipsy Dance and Mercedes in “Don Quixote” with me. Then he left the theatre. With Rimma Karelskaya I did Chaga and the Persian Girl. With Nikolai Simachev I did my entire repertoire including Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" and Young Gypsy in “The Stone Flower". 7 years ago, when Nikolai Simachev died, the Bolshoi’s character dancers felt orphaned and turned to me. I undertook work with all the young dancers and brought up a new generation, so there will be no vacuum after I leave. It is necessary to grow a new generation. Now my father comes to the theatre to help. I did my degree in teaching and got a so-called “Red diploma”.

All critics commented on your fiery temperament. Where did it come from?

My father descended from Turkish Armenians and another half of his blood is Russian and Ukrainian. My mother is half-Russian and half-Bulgarian. So they produced a quite explosive mixture.

You have been with the Bolshoi for 21 years. Is anything now difficult for you? On tours for example.

It is difficult when on tours we have to change places very frequently. But I don’t get tired easily. Everyday life is not a problem. I pack and unpack quickly. As a dancer I warm-up quickly. Fortunately, God gave me exceptionally soft muscles and I have not had any injuries in all those 21 years. One famous surgeon said to me recently: “That’s unique. I have never seen such soft muscles. You have 20 years left to dance.” While on tour I miss my parents. They are the most important people for me. I also miss my friends: singers, artists. I also regret that I cannot carry a painter’s case with me to do watercalours and have to resort to making small sketches.


Yuliana Malkhasyants in the Don Quixote Gipsy Dance
© I Zakharkin

You have been on tour in England before. Any interesting memories?

Actually I remember one English person but she came to our performance in Moscow. That was Princess Diana. She saw “La Sylphide” where I was Madge. After the performance the Princess came backstage and we were introduced to her. She stretched her hand towards me and saw my hands with long extended fingers covered in dark make-up. In fact, they were made of a radiator hose. I apologised: “Sorry, I cannot give you my hand, it will leave a mark.” The Princess looked at my crooked fingers and said: “You know how to handle men.” “O yes”, I replied. We smiled and I thought we understood each other.

Do you have any regrets?

Well, every dancer’s dream is to have something choreographed especially for her. I have only had small pieces choreographed for me. Vladimir Vassilyev kept promising: “I will bring Ek’s “Carmen” for you.” However, in Russia everything depends on circumstances. The stage, an orchestra, a corps de ballet, - everything is needed. It would be such happiness if something was produced for me.

I also wanted to become a stage actress. Our famous director Andrei Goncharov invited me to join his course but I was too scared.

What are your plans now?

My immediate plans are to fly to Moscow tomorrow and then to a new assignment in Turkey. I worked recently in the USA, produced a show there and also “The Nutcracker” with an American company of ice dancers in New Orleans.

Now together with my father I will stage a ballet, “Emrakh & Selvi-khan”, in the Istanbul Opera House. My father and I wrote the libretto, he knows Eastern folklore very well. The main character in that ballet will be ‘Ashoog’ - a folk singer and saaz-player. However, dancing will be on pointe. Yes, on pointe!

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