Nina the ballerina is nobody's pushover.
Sweet, doe-eyed Nina Ananiashvili stood up to the gargantuan Bolshoi Ballet--the 224-year-old Moscow company synonymous with both flamboyant dancing and immutable bureaucracy. She became one of the first Soviet ballet stars to gain worldwide celebrity and make lucrative foreign appearances without defecting.
Her courage has paid off--in some locales, she can command up to $30,000 per performance. So if you are her ballet partner and during a duet she strikes a balance, perching serenely atop one slender leg as if she could command even the laws of physics to do her bidding, don't even think of touching her until her music runs out.
The Bolshoi's reigning queen will dance the lead tomorrow night in "Romeo and Juliet" at the opening of the sold-out Kennedy Center engagement of the celebrated Russian company. Thursday night she will dance in "Don Quixote" and, if it is anything like a recent performance of that ballet she gave here with American Ballet Theatre (with whom Ananiashvili dances for its season at the Metropolitan Opera House), audience ecstasy may be felt all the way out to the Potomac.
There was a moment in that performance that showed both Ananiashvili's ephemeral ease and her spine of steel. It came at the end of the production, after nearly three hours of the technical fireworks for which the 130-year-old ballet is known. Whipping about the stage in the role of Kitri, the spunky flirt betrothed to Basil, Ananiashvili posed on one leg, the other held high behind her. And she stayed, and stayed, and stayed, not wavering, not straining, simply, perfectly, unflappably aligned from pointed foot to uplifted chin.
"I was looking at her to see if she started breathing," recalled her partner, ABT principal dancer Julio Bocca. "I was waiting for her to tell me when I can touch her, so I know it's my time to be there." A slight lift in her rib cage, a subtle feeling of release, and she was back in Bocca's arms. And there you have Ananiashvili's hallmark--spun-sugar delicacy combined with incomparable control.
Ananiashvili, born in Tbilisi, Georgia, started out on the ice, taking skating lessons to strengthen what her parents believed to be a weak physique. Weakness conquered, she was Georgia's junior skating champion by age 10. As her gifts for dancing became apparent, teachers persuaded her to study at the Choreographic School of Georgia, and a few years later the Bolshoi invited her to train in Moscow. Soon after she joined the company, the 18-year-old became a favorite of Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director and chief choreographer. Ananiashvili quickly drew notice for her secure classical style, virtuosic abandon and charismatic stage presence. She was soon given principal status, dancing the leading roles in such ballets as "Giselle," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Don Quixote."
"Her freedom onstage is what makes her a great ballerina," said Bocca, who met his future partner when both were gold medalists at the 1985 International Ballet Competition in Moscow. (Ananiashvili also won the top prizes at three other competitions.)
Other companies invited her to appear with them, notably the England's Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet, as well as the New York City Ballet, where in 1988 she and fellow Bolshoi dancer Andris Liepa became the first Soviet guest artists.
"It was a really big experience in my life," Ananiashvili said of learning the difficult neoclassic technique of fellow Georgian George Balanchine, NYCB's founder, whose works were little known in his native Russia. "After that, I thought, 'God, it's possible to do these kinds of things.' "
But she was wrong. What had been possible became impossible. While in New York, Liepa defected. And the Bolshoi, shaken and defensive, reined in its prima ballerina and sat on her, afraid she might slip away, too. The administration took Ananiashvili's passport (back then, one left it at the front office), severing her from the rest of the world, and sharply reduced even her Moscow performances.
"Really, I have a difficult time--it's difficult to explain," Ananiashvili said in a soft Russian accent. Dressed in a purple sweat shirt and sweat pants, with a black wool shawl drawn tight around her shoulders, the 37-year-old star is sipping tea backstage at the Met, awaiting her cue for a rehearsal. She has a gamine look, with glossy black hair cut in a short bob and delicate features, except for her large dark eyes, which now look quite sad. "Grigorovich loved me before so much, when I was younger. He gave me possibilities and chances--he made me a ballerina. Then, he turned his face away, and that's it. I really wanted to leave the company at that time," she said. She was talked into staying by her longtime partner, Alexei Fadeyechev--now the Bolshoi's director--and her coach, the famed Bolshoi ballerina Raissa Struchkova.
"There were some problems with her and Grigorovich," recalled Fadeyechev, speaking by phone from Moscow between rehearsals. "But she was born here--it is her home. And the Bolshoi was still in good condition--it was still the best company in the world. We had good teachers--the best in the world. The traditions, everything. Why should she leave?"
But Ananiashvili wasn't going to stay penned up. At the urging of her husband, Gregory Vashadze, she gave the company an ultimatum: Grant me my freedom and let me dance abroad, or I'm leaving.
She halfway expected to be sent back to Georgia. But the Bolshoi, aware of the scandal that her departure would cause, gave in, and the result was a new ballet superstar, a woman whose career rivals that of such iconic compatriots as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Though the others paid dearly for the privilege, cutting ties with their homeland, Ananiashvili's leap to freedom required no such rupture. And her celebrity status has brought added prestige to the Bolshoi.
In fact, she got the best of both worlds: seemingly unlimited performing opportunities, plus a home base from which to receive the coaching and guidance so vital to sustaining a ballerina's career. In addition to ABT, Ananiashvili has danced with the Houston and Boston ballets, among others, and tours throughout Asia and Europe with her own company, Nina Ananiashvili and International Stars.
"She has a very ebullient style about her," said Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, who first saw Ananiashvili dance in London in 1993. He quickly signed her up as a guest artist for two months of the year, and credits her popularity with adding luster to his then-financially ailing organization. "Nina is very forcefully athletic yet very feminine. . . . She added a little excitement to things," he said.
Ananiashvili swiftly became a favorite among both New York audiences and critics, who especially praise her classical portrayals, such as the leading Odette/Odile role in "Swan Lake." A pair of her worn toe shoes can fetch $300 at the Met's souvenir stand--the highest price charged for the battered satin slippers. (Most principals' footwear goes for $75.) In fact, people are known to line up for them.
Though she has achieved her own fame, Ananiashvili knows that the most priceless moments are those like that one time in in a quiet rehearsal studio tucked away in the vast pink Bolshoi Theater, where not long ago she and Fadeyechev watched his father, former Bolshoi star Nicolai Fadeyechev, and Struchkova demonstrate the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet." Struchkova was one of the original Juliets, learning the steps directly from the choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky, in the '40s. It was his production of the ballet, to Prokofiev's deeply dramatic score, that inspired Kenneth MacMillan to create his own version for the Royal Ballet. (This is the version Washington audiences know best, since it is in the ABT repertoire.)
"Alexei's father is so fat," she says, describing a barrel belly with her arms. "But when they dance together, and we got that feeling of the balcony pas de deux--oh, we didn't say anything. We just shut up. It was absolutely done the right way."
Ananiashvili has been witness to a rebirth of the Bolshoi--once seen as stodgy and bloated--under Fadeyechev's directorship for the past two years. He has restaged the company's production of "Don Quixote," reportedly bringing it closer to its original state when it was created for the Bolshoi by the seminal classicist Marius Petipa. A tour to London last year was by all accounts a triumph.
Fadeyechev sees both positive and negative aspects of the drastic governmental reforms of a decade ago. On the downside is reduced funding for the company. But now Bolshoi dancers can see the world, and the world can see them.
"Nina is still the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater, but her freedom can help her to go everywhere," says Fadeyechev. "She is a ballerina of the world, not only of the Bolshoi Theater."