Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 6 March 2008.
IVAN PUTROV LAST CAME to talk to The Ballet Association six years ago before he was promoted to Principal.
How had his promotion come about and how had Ivan heard about it?
2002 seems a very long time ago now, but Ivan remembered it being a very busy and exciting time for himself and for Marianela (Nuñez) who was promoted at the same time. Life and the repertoire was changing rapidly then. Ross (Stretton) left shortly after their promotions and Monica (Mason) took over. Prior to becoming Principal Ivan had had the chance to dance a lot of new roles as Soloist – he had just done Month in the Country when he last came to talk. “Becoming a Principal gives you lots of opportunities, a greater chance to explore the repertoire and also yourself as dancer. You find different depths within yourself.”
You were both very young to become Principals – how was it received in the Company?
A lot of people were happy for them. Ivan did say that a lot more came up to congratulate him when he was promoted to Soloist than to Principal “but that’s not a sign of anything! Inside, people are happy for you”. A lot of people left and new people came. Ivan likes the way now Monica mostly promotes people after a show “which makes it more special.” At that time, as when Anthony Dowell was Director, everyone was called into the office and he and Marianela were called in together. It was very emotional and all he can remember about it is running around celebrating afterwards.
What was your first role as Principal and what are your memories of that time?
When Ross first arrived as Director, Ivan was Basil in Don Q. His promotion came at the end of the season and around that time he did Coppélia. Ross left very quickly, a few weeks into the next season and Monica changed some of the repertoire. Ivan remembers it as a hard season “as it always is for everyone who is just promoted to Principal in our Company because you don’t dance as often as you used to. You have to wait for opportunities to dance a role and it may take some time.” David Bain remarked that at that stage, the casting for the first three quarters of the season is already out so there is less opportunity.
What about individual ballets you have danced that have had an impact on you, starting with Balanchine?
First was Prodigal Son. It was very hard work but memorable. “It was so close to me. I was very proud to be asked to dance it as it was created on Serge Lifar who was also from Kiev. It was a journey.” Pat Neary rehearsed it and taught Ivan the role. It was fascinating working with her. She had also taught the role to Misha Baryshnikov who had come to a show which he doesn’t do that often, so it was very special. “He came backstage and I lost my voice, I couldn’t believe it.” It was also one of the first ballets after which Ivan had felt emotionally drained, as he had after Month in the Country. “You feel empty after the show because you have given out everything.”
Some people find Prodigal Son difficult to watch. How does it feel as a dancer? Is it difficult to dance and to get into that character?
It’s not difficult to get into character as “it felt very costumey”. But it is difficult to dance.
When else have you worked with Pat Neary?
The first time was Apollo, after he’d become a Principal but before Prodigal Son. “I forced myself into rehearsals and Pat didn’t refuse me. I stood at the back learning it, or if someone wasn’t there I stood at the front. Even though someone went off I didn’t dance it then but the next time I did.”
Pat Neary works very differently to most others. She works intensely, in a very short time, which in a way is very good. “You don’t waste time, you know it is going to be a short rehearsal period so you give everything, every minute. You don’t have stretch time; if you want to think or talk about it you do it before or after the rehearsal, not during. I think it works, it puts people together. It’s also good for the memory because the counts in Balanchine are very complicated at times. It’s easier to do it quick rather than learn it slowly.”
How do you feel about Apollo as a ballet?
It’s a favourite, Ivan had always wanted to do it. Most of the Balanchine ballets he likes are from Balanchine’s early period. He had wanted to dance Apollo for a long time and did two shows, both with Alexandra (Ansanelli) who had done many Apollos and a lot of other Balanchine of course.
At that early stage of being a Principal, one of the problems is who you partner. Ivan had moved around a number of partners as at that time there were several regular partnerships .
Miyako (Yoshida) was Ivan’s partner for his first Swan Lake. “She is very generous with young dancers. It is very good to work with her.” Later, Roberta Marquez joined the Company and they became a partnership. “I do enjoy working with her, she is very feminine, very soft and very kind. She doesn’t have hysteria like some, so it saves on the nerves and in a lot of ways is more productive.”
Roberta had initially come as a guest to cover Leanne Benjamin’s maternity leave. She came to do Natasha Makarova’s Beauty and then did Giselle and Bayadère which Ivan had also danced with her. “It is always exciting to discover a new person. Our partnership has progressed quite a lot. I love Roberta in Giselle, she’s a very strong actress, it suits her so well, it is such a pleasure to dance with her.” Ivan is not sure if it had been announced that it is coming back, but he is looking forward to doing it. It is one of his favourite roles because it has dance technique as well as a lot of drama. Every time he does it he finds something new about Albrecht and about himself.
How have you developed over the years?
Ivan pointed out that question was one for the audience to judge, not him! The more he does the same ballets, the more freedom he finds within the music and the timespan on stage.
Albrecht is the role in which you were injured.
It happened during Ivan’s fourth show that week, a gala. “What can I say? I went off. It was quite hard to come to terms with at the beginning but there was so much support outside and inside the theatre, from Monica, everyone around me, even on the streets. When I came back to London I was surprised, people would stop me and give their support. It helped me so much, I started to believe I could come back and dance again.”
It was a serious injury and you were off the stage from February for 11 months which must be extremely difficult for a dancer?
At the beginning it was hard. “Later you discover the world outside dance which many dancers miss out on. If you are a ballerina it is hard to find time to have a baby, there is always something coming up and it’s the same for male dancers. There’s always something just around the corner, there’s never a good time to stop.” Ivan had to stop which in a way was a blessing. He could see what everyone else was doing, how much dancers sacrifice for their art, “which I could see was not for nothing”. He went to galleries, films, met more people who are involved in other sides of art, for all of which a dancer normally doesn’t have time. It is difficult to get the balance right. It was the first gap of that length he had taken since he was 10 years old.
Have you brought this experience to performance?
The audience would be able to tell better than he himself whether he was different, but everything affects performance although we may not realize it; we become different.
What did you come back to?
It was La Sylphide, about which Ivan was very happy because it was a dramatic role. People wouldn’t just be watching his legs and technique but they’d also see his character portrayal of James. Johan (Kobborg) gave him a lot of support, Alexander Agadzhanov worked hard with him and had a great belief in him. His physiotherapist also worked intensely to get Ivan back on, as he did with Slava (Samudorov) who had a similar injury.
When you first came to the Company people talked of you as a classical dancer but the roles you have made your own are slightly different, Prodigal, Glen Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire. How had he liked working with Glen?
Ivan dismissed assumptions about himself being just a classical dancer saying that people form an imagined memory which they project onto the individual so then they are surprised when the dancer doesn’t fit it. Glen Tetley came to work with Ivan on the role two weeks before the first night. “He was an absolutely incredible person, somehow the way he talked about the role enriched it. It’d fill the empty spaces you’d had in rehearsal. He was so supportive, so encouraging, working with him was a very special time for me.”
When Monica first told you were doing Pierrot, what did you think?
Ivan had seen the ballet and he was not at all sure.
Who rehearsed you?
It was Bronwen Curry. “Maybe she was the one who chose me, so I owe her thanks. It was a treat to work with her.”
When did you change your mind and realize it was a role you could make your own?
When Glen came, or maybe it was just before when they began to learn the role, Ivan started to feel and understand it “and that’s when you start to enjoy it”. As a ballet it is very powerful. It was the first that Glen had choreographed, he’d spent a year thinking what he was going to do with it, listening to the music, researching, thinking how he would develop the character. It made it a hard ballet to fail. The music may be off-putting to some, other things about it might be too, but it depends what you like. It’s a ballet with a strong story, following the development of a young innocent creature into someone who becomes wise and accepts everything around him, most of all himself.
Very sadly Glen died before he could make a new work on the Company.
Ivan didn’t know how much he was choreographing in the last few years. It was a great shame that he didn’t choreograph for the Company as Monica Mason had been hoping. It was a long time since he had created for it. One of Ivan’s greatest memories is of Glen coming up to him after the show and telling Ivan that he had given him the best possible 80th birthday present.
What about other dramatic roles? We’ve just seen you in Different Drummer.
It’s a very difficult character. Ivan loves the story, it is very powerful and shows humanity. The ballet is a lot more violent than the book, but that’s the way Kenneth (MacMillan) wanted it. It was amazing to work with Roberta (Marquez) and Martin (Harvey), they put so much into it in the very intense rehearsal period. “I think Roberta discovered some new things in herself. Martin was very encouraging all the way through and was very excited about the ballet.” Ivan said he felt very privileged and fortunate to be getting such roles which don’t go to everyone and in ballets that most other companies don’t have.
How did you all go about getting into the characters?
Ivan had read the book and had an actor friend who helped him work on it. Monica Parker taught them and gave Roberta the book to read. They tried to find aspects for Martin to develop. Ivan saw it as Woyzeck slowly coming into conflict with way he is and what is happening outside, being unable to change the way society sees things – it’s tragic and a tragic end for him. “I don’t think he’s gone mad, he’s not crazy straightaway, society that drives him and he doesn’t know what to do with the world he lives in.”
The relationship with Roberta’s character is very different to everything else you have done with her.
Ivan’s interpretation is that at the beginning Woyzeck is in love with her, as he is the whole way through, but he finds it more and more difficult when he sees her betraying him and later praying to Jesus, feeling so free and innocent. It is something Woyzeck cannot come to terms with.
When you have worked on other ballets over the years, have you both always done a similar amount of reading and research?
Most of the time. Last year Ivan read Onegin, another very powerful ballet. Some dancers don’t read it, that’s the way they want to do it. The audience sees the emotion and thinks it’s the way it should be. Ivan thinks it is not written that way, but everyone has freedom of interpretation.
How much freedom is encouraged?
The research is encouraged. The poems would come up and some people would read them and some wouldn’t. As to interpretation, Ivan feels more and more free. When Anthony (Dowell) came to rehearse Month in the Country he left it free for him to interpret. In the beginning when you start in the corps de ballet you don’t have any freedom, you are told what to do, but later on it’s different, all Principals are given greater freedom.
What about dancing elsewhere? Royal Ballet Principals do a lot more away from the Company now than they used to.
Some do quite a lot. But there are so many Principals in the Company now that sometimes there are gaps when people don’t have shows for a while because of the rep that is coming up. Ivan has guested a bit but he is happy to be back and feels lucky he has had so many shows since return, Bayadères, Romeos at the beginning of the season and Nutcrackers, he has had plenty of work in the Company.
Romeo and Juliet?
They had started to rehearse for a few weeks then Roberta went off with an injury too. They were supposed to premier in 2006, so it is a ballet that is very close to both of them. This time they had no time to prepare. It wasn’t easy though a few people were preparing and teaching them. They had done three or four shows and Ivan felt that, as he had said before, the interpretation had progressed towards the end. He was able to discover for himself a few, new interesting moments. Sometimes ballet doesn’t make sense, and you try to make sense out of it. Roberta really likes Romeo and Juliet. “It’s not that hard for the girl – but that’s not the reason why she likes it.” It fits her perfectly, like Giselle. She steals the ballet with the last few scenes and she enjoys that so much. The same with Onegin, Tatiana is very emotional and Roberta is very happy doing that.
You’ve danced Lensky, is Onegin your next step?
Ivan would love to dance that role in a few years time. He’d also like to dance Rudolf in Mayerling as part of his progression into more dramatic roles. He feels more drawn to these now than he did when he last talked six years ago. A dancer can take on that sort of role with age and experience, he isn’t born able to betray such heavy emotions as Rudolf.
How have you been coached for Romeo and Juliet?
By a range of people, Monica Mason, Lesley Collier, Roland Price – everyone tries to put something in. It is very good as everyone has their own experience within a ballet and adds something. You internalize what you get from different people and then on stage whenever someone comes up to you, are able to react. The more choices you have, the fuller your portrayal will be.
Romeo and Juliet is an easier ballet for the girl. For the man it is physically harder, especially in Acts 1 and 2 which contain so many short dance pieces for Romeo when the girl does not have as much to do. During Act 3 Ivan likes to watch from the side of the stage, he doesn’t go back to his dressing room. “It is quite exhausting, but the first time I danced it, although I was tired I was so excited I wanted another act to dance.”
In Month in the Country you are developing the character with a different partner.
With Alexandra Ansanelli. It is a big step for her. She is from a very different background and not used to seeing what we do on stage. Ivan likes her. People Ivan knew who saw Month for the first time loved the story, and believed what happened on stage and it touched them. A lot of people who had seen it so many times maybe didn’t enjoy it as much because they’ve been used to seeing it in a certain way for years and are pre-judging. In Ivan’s opinion, Alexandra did very well, she is what she is, she showed her insights. Some of the things you can’t see during the show but in rehearsal when she did the last scene where she stands by the chair and discovers the flower it was very powerful, very touching and there was complete silence in the studio. It was a big step for her and Ivan hopes she’ll progress. A lot of people told Ivan he had grown and his performance was more powerful than before – after one show Monica had told him she’d fallen in love with him.
When renewing a role you have done some time before, or you have a different partner, do you consciously think about changing interpretation or does it happen unconsciously?
It changes every time, no two shows are the same. “I don’t think in that way. Perhaps I will try to find more details but not change the interpretation. I have more freedom with the music and feel I can give more rather than worry about what steps I am doing, which way I should go.”
You have changed partners in Faun?
Ivan had changed partners but he had only done one show before. Roberta was very upset that she didn’t do it this time. Ivan likes the ballet as it is very simple but powerful and strong. He thinks it works in certain theatres; even though Covent Garden stage is big and the auditorium too, it is a very intimate theatre and it works well on that stage. The Bolshoi had it in their repertoire but it didn’t work because their stage is huge and the distance between audience and stage is massive. It looked like a puppet show rather than something intimate.
Do you go back to Kiev?
Ivan goes back often, sometimes to dance, sometimes to visit his family to whom he is very close. His father takes a lot of pictures of him and ballet. He is fortunate to have a second career with which he is very happy. He is highly praised and virtually produces the history of dance in the Ukraine. There aren’t as many photographers in Kiev as there are in London and it’s important to have the life of a company recorded in pictures.
Ivan’s CV mentions his collaboration with film makers.
He has worked on a number of short films. He is making a short film about a painter, with Ivan as the painter. It is being done for a museum and uses two screens, one shows what is happening before the painting and the other shows the painter, about to paint what’s happening. It’s very fascinating and Ivan is sure it will capture the audience, it’s never been done before. He also worked on a small dance scene in a movie that Madonna had made which is not out yet. He can’t tell what will happen in the future but he doesn’t see film as a second side to his career at the moment, it just interests him.
Apart from Onegin and Rudolf in Mayerling, Ivan would love to do Manon and there are many others, some MacMillan ballets which have not been done for a long time which he hopes he will do if he is lucky enough to be cast. One very beautiful ballet he would like to do is Gloria. Ivan wondered why the First World War produced so many poets in this country and in Germany but not back home. He finds it is amazing that MacMillan did a ballet on the First World War.
What was it like dancing Prodigal with Zenaida (Yanowsky) who is so much taller that your normal partners?
That’s the way it should be in that ballet, with the difference in height. Ivan had no problems at all, it was sheer joy to work with Zen. Everything worked and they just enjoyed the dancing. Also, Zen is very emotional. There are some dancers, not in this company, that you wouldn’t really have interaction with on stage. But with her there was lots and it was a pleasure to dance with her. This company has a very strong tradition in the dramatic side of dance which is one of the things that attracted Ivan to it. Some here see it as more important that technique but Ivan does not consider one is more important than the other. In other countries it is mostly technique not so much the dramatic side.
Ashton? Ivan had been cited by a great Ashton critic as being the only dancer since Baryshnikov who captured the spirit of Rhapsody.
There are several Ashton ballets that Ivan likes, but the one he probably likes most is Rhapsody. Even though he had not seen Baryshnikov dance it “I could feel his spirit in it and it is an honour to be told something like that.” Month is the Country is also strong. Ivan’s parents couldn’t believe that a ballet on a Russian theme, very dramatic, is done in this country. MacMillan, not just Ashton, used a Russian theme, The Three Sisters. Ivan had rehearsed Marguerite and Armand a few years ago but he hasn’t done it on stage. He has danced Fille, but only one show, and would love to do it again. He enjoys doing comedy. At times it feels a bit silly but it is fun. He has started to think maybe Don Q should be taken as a comedy rather than a dramatic role. He had tried to make something dramatic of it but it is just a light ballet, it is just a comedy. He enjoys the technical side of the variations, as he does with Romeo.
Do you find Ashton choreography difficult because your training is Russian? Partners you work with, Roberta (Marquez) and Sarah (Lamb), also have mostly Russian-based training.
Ashton’s choreography is much more physical. At first it is not so comfortable to move as it demands so much physicality. Sometimes it may not look like anything to the audience but it is very difficult to do. It is his signature. In certain ballets it works so well which in other traditions it wouldn’t. Month in the Country is so exact, it is not easy to do. It is more intimate, it has more impact in theatres like Covent Garden. In his way of portraying different characters Ashton was very influenced by Anna Pavlova. He was fascinated by the way she used her upper body; he was so impressed he put it everywhere he could. It is something that Alexandra Ansanelli is discovering now, using her arms in a different way than she is used to. Ashton is much harder physically than other choreographers.
The first Beauty you danced in this company was Makarova’s version. Some people watched Lesley Collier in a masterclass trying to make Roberta into a more Royal than Russian Beauty.
Most of the difference is for the girl; for the boy there is not much change apart from the solo in Act 2 created on Anthony (Dowell) which is very different. The pas de deux are mostly the same. The Sleeping Beauty is a Russian ballet and that is the way people are used to seeing it.
Do you have a view of it being made into a non-Russian production? Do you have a preference?
Ivan has only done one show of this production so he might yet discover things. He liked Natasha’s version, she had experimented, some things didn’t work. There isn’t a ballet that’s perfect, people will find a drawback about the production that’s on now. It’s a personal view. Anthony (Dowell)’s version was extraordinary. He hadn’t been in the country long and it was fascinating for Ivan, it was such a spectacle, very different.
You have worked on all the classics, you have an enormous repertoire. You are discovering some of the more dramatic roles in the MacMillan repertoire, but as yet you have not done a lot of new work.
He would love to do a lot more. He very much hopes a choreographer will chose him soon. As he understands it, it depends on what you are doing as to whether it comes to you. Currently there is the new Brandstrup which Ivan is not in. He is quite upset about that but he sees that he has a lot of work on right before the ballet comes up. Brandstrup is choreographing all day and Ivan is rehearsing Different Drummer, Month in the Country, Faun and before that Nutcrackers, a lot of work, so he doesn’t have enough time. Leanne Benjamin, for instance, is only in Different Drummer, so she has more time so he could choose her. Just before Ivan went off, Wayne McGregor took him into Qualia which he enjoyed.
Who would you like to work with?
Ivan had asked Liam Scarlett to create a piece for Roberta and himself which they danced in Paris. He has seen Ratmansky’s work growing stronger and stronger and he would love to work with him and with Wayne again.
Did he enjoy Jewels?
He likes the ballet and thinks Diamonds is the most powerful piece of the three. Emeralds has its own quality and it was fun working with Leanne as always. It was the second time he had, the first was Spectre de la rose. Dancers have a short career and want to use their body to the maximum. Emeralds does not exploit the dancer a lot. In a lot of other companies it is danced not by principals but someone new, coming up which is very interesting for them and they love to do it. It’s different here and Ivan understands that Monica wanted to put the strongest cast on which of course she has the right to do. “I did enjoy it although there was not much for me to do.”
Referencing the new Wheeldon ballet with the dancers’ voice-overs describing what dance means to them, what does dance mean to you?
“It’s my life. I am very lucky to have a life where dance is my job at the same time. I can’t separate dance and job from normal life. I live it. At times it is very upsetting, at times very exciting. It is how I live, I can’t see myself without it. Those 11 months I was off I was taken away from dance but not quite, I exercised all the time, dance was in my head all the time, even then I didn’t stop dancing. 20 years ago if someone had had my injury it would have ended their career. I am lucky to carry on as dance is my life.”
Would you like to do Shadowplay again?
“I did it a long time ago and would love to do it again. It was the first big thing that I did. Misha Baryishnikov danced it too. Misha is someone I look up to, Ashton created on him, he danced in this company, he made an impact, I have friends who are friends of his, he is a strong, powerful artist, not just a dancer.”
In all roles one can see how much you have thought about them, the strength of that preparation, mental and physical, come through in the role. Do you share those inner thoughts with your partner to try to enhance their role or do you wait to see how they react to your performance?
“I do share and I do react to them, sometimes I wait for their reaction to me and shape mine to them. If that doesn’t happen then the show won’t be alive. Some dancers have a greater dramatic gift than others. I enjoy Roberta’s reactions. I don’t know how much comes across but I can see her feelings in her eyes and I react to that. Often I see a principal dancing by himself without reacting to his partner, or sometimes the partners only react to each other, not to others on the stage which I find odd. I think we should react to everyone on stage. Because of that you prepare as much as you can but then on stage you sometimes find it completely different. If you set yourself in right mood you can make discoveries on stage, it will be unexpected, if you are alive and aware of those around you, these discoveries will come to you.”
David Bain concluded by saying that when Ivan had come six years ago everyone knew he already was and would grow further into a great classical dancer. But Ivan’s development as great dramatic dancer has been a journey we have all enjoyed watching.
Report written by Belinda Taylor, corrected by Ivan Putrov and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2009.