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About the Change

Nikolai Tsiskaridze
Principal, Bolshoi Ballet

by Natasha Dissanayake

© Vladimir Mishukov

Tsiskaridze in reviews

Bolshoi reviews

Nikolai Tsiskaridze website

The leading principal of the Bolshoi Ballet and the most decorated dancer in Russia Nikolai Tsiskaridze had to miss the Bolshoi’s tour in Paris last January and the forthcoming season in Covent Garden due to the knee injury sustained during his rehearsal at Opera de Paris in October last year. He gave his interview over the phone from Moscow.

Kolya, last year the ballet forums of Europe and America have long since reported your injury and they continue to discuss it. How are you now?

It is far from easy for me. I have begun doing jumps now but I am not happy with them, (he laughs) they are worse than in my first year at school. In general, after my injury everything began from anew, as if I was born again and was learning to walk. At first I did it with crutches, then without them, and then I was learning not to limp. I have the sensation of beginning anew to learn everything about body movements. When I came back to class again, I felt very grateful to my teachers - not to the coaches, but to those teachers who taught me in class: Pyotr Pestov at the Academy and Marina Semyonova at the Bolshoi, those who taught me classics. When I recently started doing the class, on the very first day my feet began getting into the same positions as before the injury. I was very pleased since this meant that I was taught properly.

How did the Bolshoi react to your misfortune?

Unfortunately, the theatre world is very tough, so people revealed themselves vividly during this period: those who were well disposed towards me, those who were indifferent, and those who, unfortunately, can not be called friends. I

Nikolai Tsiskaridze
© Vladimir Mishukov
was very pleased that our management showed great sympathy to my case. It responded immediately. We now have a board of trustees in our theatre, so the Directors made a representation to the board regarding my health. The governors board paid for all my treatment in Biarritz, a large sum of money. Immediately after this fall happened the Director Mr. Iksanov phoned me and said that my rehabilitation will be paid for in the clinic I chose. I felt very glad because I felt myself needed by the theatre.

What does it mean for a dancer of 29 to be off the stage for a long time? What thoughts were in your mind?

Well, to be honest... This happened in Paris. I was preparing for the role, which was new for me. Opera de Paris is one of the most desirable theatres for me. I worried a lot as usual. At first I learned this role on my own, from a video-cassette, spent a lot of time doing this and, naturally, felt some butterflies fluttering in my tummy. When the injury happened, my very first sensation was very strange. After having understood that I am not going to dance that week and there will be no debut for me in this role, I had a peaceful sleep for the first time in many days and finally did not have any nightmares about the forthcoming premiere. This is one side of the coin, but there is another one too. I was asked in the past about possible changes for me in the future, about reaching the stage when dancers think of retirement, and you have also frequently posed this question to me. I kept answering these questions as if it was something unreal. Now, in this new situation, I realized that such things are very real. However, it is not the end of the world, not the end of life. Nevertheless, some anxiety exists. Certainly, I started to look at many things in a different way.

I fell very ill after the operation due to the fact that they brought staphylococci infection into my body, and for some period I was in a critical state. I had to have nine operations, and there were severe pains each time. The very first operation, when they changed the ligament in my knee, went painlessly, but the rest was hard. The following operations were of a different kind, every time it took twenty-four hours to come around after the anesthetics, and my temperature was 40. After this I started to think of my profession in more placid terms.

When I was preparing for the role of Carabosse two weeks ago, I worried, of course, about the eventual result but was amazed that, when I was standing in the wings before entering the stage, I did not worry despite my 9-month intermission. I did not worry AT ALL, while generally I am a worrier and knew what fear is about. It does not mean that I became indifferent to my profession, no; I just changed my attitude after realizing that this is not the most frightening thing. I revalued certain things and began to value them more. I remember that when I started learning to walk, still with crutches, and went outside for the first time, this was in Biarritz; I went to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. After walking a little I sat on a bench, and there was a staggering sunset on that evening. I was just sitting by the sea, listening to Mozart on my headsets, looking at the sunset and thought: what a delight and joy it is! I never had time before to sit like this and to admire what I saw.

You have already started to answer my next question. I wanted to ask you if your attitude to your profession has changed due to such a long rehabilitation period.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze as the Blue Bird in Sleeping Beauty
© Kiyonori Hasagava, Bolshoi Ballet

Yes, it has. When I was very poorly at the hospital, with severe pains, felt despair and did not want anything, my surgeon walked in. He started reassuring me: “Have patience and you will feel better.” I said: “Better? What for? I am disappointed with my profession. If it can be lost so easily, then it is foolish. Here you are, a doctor - this is really a good profession, which benefits people every day, while my profession is thoughtless and never saves anybody. You do a real job, but my life is wasted: it doesn’t matter whether I dance or not, - who will feel better because of that? A ligament got ruptured - and my profession went through the roof. To sum it up, my work was nonsense.” He said to me: “You see, I am a great ballet fan. My work is difficult and stressful. I can relax only in the theatre. If your profession did not exist, I wouldn’t have a place to go to and to enjoy myself. My work seems easier to me when I think of going to the theatre. And after being in the theatre I feel my spirit is lifted.” He said this with such warmth that I thought that there is some sense in my profession if people need it. Suddenly, I wanted to recover and get back.

Has your attitude to life changed? Did you find life more cruel and unjust than you saw it before?

Yes, I felt annoyed. Here I am lying in bed, not dancing month after month, but others are fine, they are dancing and rejoicing, they count their blessings. Well, I am a normal person, and I had such thoughts. But I grew up in a very religious family, and I believe that nothing happens just like that. For some reason I had to go through this trial. I read somewhere that every person has to face as many tests as he can endure. If such fate is my lot, it means that I can, I must take it. On the other hand, I shouldn’t complain. Indeed, I spent twelve years on stage without any serious problems. There always comes a time to pay for one’s pleasures.

When, by your "calculations", will we see the same Tsiskaridze that we are used to?

I do not know and I don’t want to guess the future. My previous life used to be planned and scheduled to the minute and suddenly everything was interrupted, and for a long time. Therefore, even if I wish to make plans now, I can not hope that everything will go according to plan. I do not want to divulge my plans at the moment.

When back on stage, will you be more careful and prudent?

Judging by my recent appearance on stage in the role of Carabosse, I will not. On stage I forgot all operations and any injury. I was running and jumping. In fact, I feared at first that I might be too apprehensive of danger but on stage I forgot about it completely.

Well, it was Carabosse after all, and you knew that a double assemble will not be required in this role.

That’s true but I was not allowed to jump yet. However I did jump. There is one powerful leap there, which could be skipped, but I did that leap.

As any other dancer you always dreamed of new roles. Have your dreams changed or remain the same as we’ve heard before?

I do not think of new roles now. I was thinking of those which I have already danced. I went to see several performances, in which I danced before, and understood that when I am back I will dance them in a different way.

Did you see those productions live or on the video?

At first I went to see them with other dancers in the theatre, and later at home I watched recordings of my own performances and realized that I will change most or them now.

How long have you been recording your own performances?

Since my first appearance on stage. My performances as a student happened to be recorded purely by accident. When I joined the Bolshoi, my mother was very ill at the time, her heart was very weak. If she attended my performances, she would have worried too much. She had to be protected from that stress. She always felt especially nervous on the day of my performance. Even when she was happy with my performance, nevertheless, she felt exhausted. I said to her: don’t go to the theatre, the performance will be recorded for you on video. I used to arrange that one of her friends would visit her on that evening. They would chat whiling away the time, and then I would appear with a video-cassette, and she could quietly watch the performance which had already finished. She was greatly pleased with this arrangement. This is how the ‘system’ of recording my every performance was borne.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze having fun at Hever Castle!
© Natasha Dissanayake

I watched with her and started examining every recording, to see my errors. Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova had already taught me how useful it is to work on my own. I was used to working on my own: after seeing films, plays, exhibitions, even after some conversations I would check something, trying to relate it to myself, no matter what it was - about life, about nature, whatever.

Looking back at the undesirable situation, in which you found yourself recently, can you see anything good that you learnt during this year?

I realized that health is the most important thing in life, not necessarily my health only but also the health of my close ones. Nothing can be more terrible than the loss of health. When I couldn’t walk, all grievances of my past career seemed to me childish and foolish. It’s a pity that in the past I wasted so much of my energy and nerves on emotional turmoil. When I was discharged from hospital, two nurses presented me with a syringe bearing their autographs, so that I could remember how they were daily giving me several injections for a whole month. I put it in the cabinet where I keep souvenirs given to me in different countries and those which I collect myself. This syringe is the most important and useful item in my collection: now, when I start worrying for some reason, I come to the cabinet, look at this syringe and recall all those droppers and how many bottles were pumped into me and I realize immediately that everything is rubbish in comparison with this syringe.

If another dancer found himself in the same situation as yours, what friendly advice would you have given to him?

Injuries, of course, can be different. I would told him that he is still young and that the injury is not the end of the world, that he has his entire life in front of him. However much a man loves ballet, however strong his grievances can be, nevertheless, life is much more than just ballet, life is wonderful and there are many excellent professions around. It is necessary to take care of his health and to try to make a comeback.

In fact, when I was in the rehabilitation clinic in Biarritz, I was the only dancer there. All others were athletes, young athletes. One of them, a rugby player, had such an injury – of the cotyloid cavity - which will not allow him to play rugby again. He will be able to run and jump but will never return to the top league. We chatted a lot and had some fun but I was afraid to talk with him about its future. He, on the contrary, said so light-heartedly: “Never mind, at least I can play tennis. My injury will not preclude me from doing it. I played it in the past and can improve my game now.” I liked his attitude.

Will you join the Bolshoi on the US tour this autumn?

No. Unfortunately, it has already been decided. Tours are always stressful. Apart from that, they don’t take many of my ballets there. The casting was announced early this time and several performances here in Moscow have already been assigned to me. But on the tour at the Metropoliten Opera, in spring I think, there will be "The Queen of Spades" in the repertoire, so I hope to go there. By the way, do you know what Alla Demidova* said to me: "Kolechka, it was the Queen of Spades that took vengeance on you". And this is true perhaps. Alla knows much about this story, she brilliantly read Pushkin's text in the "The Queen of Spades" film.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze
© Natasha Dissanayake

And finally, what is your dream role?

De Griex is the dream on my life, “Manon” is my favourite novel, and I adore Massenet’s music. I was preparing to dance this role at the Mariinsky. I shall always feel respect and gratitude towards Makhar Vaziev for the chance he gave me to work on this role but I was still young then and, unfortunately, there were people in the past who prevented me from dancing that role. Having learnt of my injury Makhar Vaziev said: “Kolya, all our agreements remain valid.” I was very pleased that when I met Maestro Gergiev he said: “Kolya, when you think you can make a comeback, we will always be happy to see you. You will be able to choose the production.” Brigitte Lefevre said the same: “When you can dance, Opera will allocate a performance for you.” I was so pleased to hear it from these people. It means that my work proves something if these great theatres invite me. It is a great honour to be needed.

* Alla Demidova is a very prominent theatre and film actress.

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