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    Irek Mukhamedov 2018

    Irek Mukhamedov

    Former Principal, The Royal Ballet

    interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, May 24 2018

    In welcoming Irek, who had left the Royal Ballet in 2002 with his last performances being in Mayerling,David asked him to tell us some of what he had done since.  Irek said life took over and although not yet finished as a dancer he wanted to progress further as choreographer, director or coach and it landed up being all three.  First it was Elmhurst Ballet School where he and his wife, Masha, taught, and where Irek created Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Then he was with Greek National Ballet for four years until 2010, then four years with the Slovenia National Ballet followed by two years with ENB.  Then and now he was travelling around the world and teaching in companies.

    With professionals you use a different vocabulary and you just say do something once and that’s it

    Irek said he prefers to work with professionals rather than students.  He knows what he can do with students to help them to spread their wings, but with professionals you use a different vocabulary and you just say do something once and that’s it.  With students you have to be very careful, more patient, more consistent and have a special way of speaking.   Sometimes your character takes over and you have to hold on to the chair to keep control!  Masha is different.  She’s straightforward and even with students tells them what must be done.   But she sees something deeper in the character and can explain how they can progress so if they are sometimes shy she can mother them or if they think they are doing something correctly when they’re not, she can help.    However, both he and Masha prefer not to work with little children as they are both a bit pushy!

    By chance Lynn Seymour called him while he was at Elmhurst saying she needed help with the Greek National Ballet.  He had thought of continuing at Elmhurst but said yes as it was better to be with a company than a school, so went to Greece and less than six months later Lynn left and Irek replaced her as Director.  In Greece there are 300 sunny days a year, it rarely rains, never snows and the sun shines even in winter when it’s windy which goes straight through you.  Then, because it’s sunny the dancers don’t want to push themselves harder - who wants to be inside when they’d rather be on the beach?  Looking back, it was a constant fight as it was difficult to be creative because there was no money but he did Giselle, Fille, and his own Onegin.  Culture and history in Greece goes back a long way and they always say ‘do we need to remind you it started with us’, so you can’t win.  Irek recalled an international dinner with Americans, Russians and French talking about what comes from where.  The US said we were first on the moon, and when the Greeks asked how did you get there and they said Apollo, the Greeks said so we were first!  The salary wasn’t big and although they would talk things up, Irek felt he couldn’t sit and wait for something to happen.  Also, contracts are permanent in Greece – you can’t get rid of people and they can stay till 60 or 65.

    Then the Slovenian National Ballet General Director called and asked him to go there - they had just refurbished their theatre and so he said yes.  The whole family moved and spent four years there.  Greece had better dancers and a better school. Slovenians are very angry when people say it’s a small country, and they have mountains and lakes and nature.  Driving to Ljubliana from the airport the Alps just appear in front of you.  Its nature is incredibly beautiful, there are old cities, and because it’s a small nation they have gone for preservation and maintaining their way of life rather than expanding.  Parents ask children to stay at home without letting them explore, working for the same business and not extending themselves so they become angry and aren’t open minded which Irek thinks is a problem.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were the first country to leave so were closer to Germany and Italy and, being the richest, thought they would be a second Switzerland, with their lakes, mountains and nature, but the government didn’t react.  Irek wasn’t involved in politics and learnt things through the media.  In Slovenia one man was demanding things for his son, who is still there because nobody could prove him wrong.  He remains but Irek left.  If he were director of the Royal Ballet or Paris Opera he’d find dancers with a different energy, and different understanding of their craft but he decided he didn’t want to be a director anymore because he’d rather be in the studio coaching dancers and sharing what he knows.  You need to understand what is best for you.  Choreographers are very special – a little bit cuckoo – they see further, not just a person but something inside the character.  Irek hears the music but doesn’t see deep inside.  Kenneth could see the psychological side of a person so he could put people together who might hate each other but the artistry grew between them.  That’s not Irek.  So eventually he became a coach and was with ENB for two years as principal ballet master, then he became freelance travelling around the world and now he’s in London back with ENB.

    He loves coaching. He doesn’t prepare for rehearsals and classes, but gets from dancers how they feel

    He loves coaching. He doesn’t prepare for rehearsals and classes, but gets from dancers how they feel. How was the previous day’s rehearsal and there are always corrections because no-one is perfect, except maybe Misha Baryshnikov, but with others there’s always room for improvement and there’s plenty of criticism.  That’s so easy when you’re not dancing!  Asked how do you make dancers perfect, Irek said you have first to give encouragement, say what was good, acknowledge how much effort they were making and then help.  David asked whose idea it was that he should dance?  Irek said it was Tamara’s idea but he’d never said he’d stopped dancing and the idea of someone creating something new on him was appealing.  If she’d suggested Drosselmeyer he would probably say no, others can explore themselves in that role, but the creative process is a different way of understanding yourself through a choreographer and the way he uses music.  Irek has signed a contract as guest coach and dancer with ENB.  They will be doing Broken Wings again in 2019 and he doesn’t know if he’ll survive that.  Working with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was very nice and it was incredible to do Diego Rivera.  He knew who Rivera was but to understand more he began reading about him and realised that the first time he saw Frida Kahlo he fell in love and remained in love with her.  With Tamara it was nice.  Annabelle said don’t lose weight but when he said he was sweating she said OK we’ll put a fat suit on you.  Next time he doesn’t need to worry about losing weight and can keep on with the wine and cheese!

    The family now live in France, two hours outside Paris, and Masha is teaching.  They laughed when Masha said we always follow you around but after Slovenia she said now you follow me so they moved to Cyprus and then France and now moving within France.  They’ve been there two years and hope to stay as they like it.  The French are a bit more arrogant and don’t like it when people speak with an accent, you think you’re learning French but sometimes they are rude in restaurants even when you try.  These days if you start to speak in French, they come back to you in English and continue that way.  Very helpful!  

    They didn’t want their children to be ballet dancers, thinking why make them suffer like us?  Now their daughter, Sasha, is principal with the Dutch National Ballet and their son is starting to be a ballet dancer so they are like a dynasty.  Sasha has danced a long time.  She started at Tring, moved to White Lodge, then to Elmhurst and then to Greece where she trained with Masha.  Their son took up ballet late.  He has everything going for him to be a ballet dancer.  Right from the beginning he was there, he has coordination, hears the music, plays piano.  He was at Millfield while they were in Slovenia doing competitive swimming, with his size 47 feet like flippers!  He’s very turned out so breast stroke doesn’t work for him.  Afterwards they asked him again if he was interested in ballet and he said he’d try and he’s still trying at the age of 22.

    Why did they decide to come to London in 1990?  Irek had been here with the Bolshoi twice in 1986 and 89, first at the Opera House and then the Coliseum.  It was an enormous success.  The dancers loved what they did and thought of nothing else except dance, but with perestroika even in the Bolshoi people started having meetings and talking about changes which might come. Grigorovich was organising his own small company but didn’t mention it to Irek.  Irek was counted as hisdancer, the principal dancer who danced all his ballets and Irek thought he might not be needed any more.  Others might put him down and he didn’t want to do Spartacus and Ivan and The Golden Age, all for another nine years.  He was 30 years old and thought he had to do something.  Masha became pregnant and medical assistance wasn’t the best in Russia where they relied on natural healing and they had to think about the new baby.  He talked to people in secret because he knew if he told Grigorovich he had a contract with the Royal Ballet he wouldn’t let him go - he was the only one doing his big ballets.  They did a tour in New York and Italy and again it was Spartacus.  There began to be many small companies organising your travel.  In the old days you had a special passport to travel with and had to hand it back on your return.  He made sure Masha travelled with him and went on a private tour to Vienna Opera, then Helsinki and after to Madrid with Helsinki Ballet.  While in Vienna the Royal Ballet sent tickets and visa applications for the UK.    On 1 June 1990 they arrived in London and loved it.  Irek recalled looking through the window of the plane and thinking there’s no way back.  Someone met them at the airport and they were taken to a hideout for 10 days.  They didn’t know where they were but eventually were gob-smacked to discover they were staying in Frederick Ashton’s villa in the country which was wonderfully relaxing with a swimming pool.  Then they signed the contract.  So, there was nothing political about it but they were just thinking about the future of their new family.

    When he decided to join the Royal Ballet he had never actually seen the Company dance

    When he decided to join the Royal Ballet he had never actually seen the Company dance.  When the Company came to Russia the Bolshoi were on tour elsewhere.  To prepare himself he watched a video of Prince of the Pagodas and then they said you’ll meet Kenneth and he wants to create something for you and Darcey Bussell whom he’d never seen either.  He recalls the day when a tall, grey-haired man walked quietly into class and someone said this is Kenneth and Irek said something like ‘hello’ in broken English.  Tamara Finch was his translator with the Royal and helped him learn English so he began speaking it and after six months he was able to speak for himself.  For the BBC Omnibus programme, initially, he was giving interviews in Russian but by the end he was already speaking English which was funny watching himself speaking in another language.  Meeting Kenneth was incredible and within a week they began working together.  He didn’t need a translator, it was so simple and straightforward.  Kenneth said the work he was creating was based on the Chekov play, The Three Sisters, which Irek already knew from school.  Everything with Kenneth was straightforward - with one word he would understand as they had a real connection.  Kenneth would say ‘I need this and this’ and Irek would do it.  They created the pas de deux with Monica Parker in the studio.  It wasn’t too difficult.  There was incredible communication with this very quiet, generous man who wasn’t pushy and strong but straightforward and simply said what he needed.  When Darcey couldn’t understand what he wanted, Kenneth would say to her ‘look at Irek, he’s doing it straight away and you are marking or not doing what I want’.  She always gives this as an example of how he worked.

    Because it was Irek who asked to join the Royal rather than the other way round, he always felt he had to prove he was worth it and, at the age of 30, could be a good member of the Company.  Often in interviews he has said looking back if he could change something in his life he would have defected earlier, and would have worked more with Kenneth and danced more with Lesley Collier, Darcey, Viviana Durante and so many great ballet dancers.  He learned a lot by dancing MacMillan and, because of his ballets, Irek became an actor.  He had never explored a role so much and surprised himself that he could go deep inside the character and understand every emotion, becoming that person and thus understanding himself even better.  He also made a couple of films and did The King and I, recalling the first review which said ‘Irek, don’t give up your day job!’

    The last ballet Kenneth choreographed for him and Viviana was The Judas Tree.  He recalled discussing this with Viviana last year when they were helping the Company put it on and trying to explain to the dancers, Melissa Hamilton and Benn Gartside, what Kenneth was trying portray during the creative process.  He never told them it would be so disturbing with a gang rape in a building site, but they were stories about Mary Magdalen, Jesus Christ and Judas who betrayed his friends with a kiss, described in a different way.  There’s a full moon over the set so you know it’s not really happening, it’s in the imagination.  Carlos Acosta didn’t like it because it disturbed him but Irek knew why he killed her so it wasn’t such a horrific thing for him as he knew that’s how it had to end because of the whole situation.  Life is so different now with many reported cases of rape and bad behaviour and the audience reacted differently this time. So, he and Viviana were trying to help the dancers see a slightly deeper meaning.  Irek enjoyed doing it, particularly one trick Kenneth asked him to do.  It’s his secret which has to go with him but one day someone will understand that it looks hard but is quite simple!  He really enjoys sharing with dancers and helping them to understand better and loves finding through others more than he already knows himself.

    His last collaboration with Kenneth was the revival of Mayerling.  When he started working with him a lot Kenneth said, be patient until Mayerling comes on and he began talking about it, showing him documentaries, books etc.  At the time there was a new book in German about Prince Rudolf and fortunately Irek had a German woman friend who read it and he was able to ask her questions.  Working on Mayerling was unbelievable.  It is so connected and you can’t be out of the role, your thoughts are all about what is happening and you become that person, otherwise it doesn’t work.  It’s difficult to understand why Rudolf is behaving that way, horrible to his wife and trying to kill his father.  It was on the opening night of the revival they learned that Kenneth had died.  The Prince finishes a little earlier having killed himself and when the stage manager told him the news it seemed as if something knocked his knees and the ground fell away.  Irek had found a choreographer whom he understood and who understood him and knew how to say things simply.  Imagine if he was still with us what he would be creating.  There was an idea of restaging Anastasia and making Rasputin a more leading role, as so much of the action happens because of him, and they’d talked about that and many other ideas.  So, Irek is very grateful to have known him.  Kenneth liberated him to become more than he had been.

    Partnerships:  Maybe ladies with whom he danced didn’t quite understand him but he admired them, and fell in love on stage, as with Viviana and Lesley in Mayerling.  He wanted to prove that he was the best partner for them and he did all he could so they would remember him.  Also, he’d had the experience of dancing with Grigorovich’s wife which was quite a responsibility and he learned a lot from her – if you made a little mistake it could be the end of your career.  So, he wanted to prove not only to them but also to himself that he was better than anyone else.  That was the whole idea during his career, perhaps even now, though he is calming himself down.  It gives him drive, to stand next to others trying to show he’s better than everyone else in the class.

    When Twyla Tharp was choreographing Mr Worldly Wise, were Irek and Teddy Kumakawa competing?  Irek said no.  Teddy was more egoistic with a more extreme way of proving himself so Irek said to him ‘remember, Teddy, when we are on stage together, don’t jump higher, or turn more, or act more, just behave yourself!’  But you cannot stop young talent progressing and for Irek he didn’t feel himself to be an older dancer, but rather an 18-year-old with his career beginning again. There were no barriers of age, etc.

    He’s worked with a number of other choreographers.  With Mara Galeazzi he did Ashley Page’s Fearful Symmetries. Irek recalled when Ashley said he wanted to create a ballet and all the time he saw two or four couples but no role for a leading man. So, trying to prove he was better than anyone else, he asked Ashley if he could make a solo role for him which he did with three girls dancing all around him.    It was wonderful for Irek and they won the Lawrence Olivier Award.  If you ask any dancer what it is like to have something created on them they say it’s totally different - an incredible feeling with different emotions, different ideas. The Lyceum asked him to present the award for dance and he didn’t know it would be for Fearful Symmetries so when they announced ‘the winner is Ashley Page’ it was incredible.

    With Will Tuckett he did Turn of the Screw when Will was trying to find himself and what he could say through his choreography.  Irek considered himself lucky to have it created on him and it didn’t matter that some people didn’t think it was a fantastic ballet.  He always says he prefers ballets where he kills someone or someone kills him or he kills himself!  Will has his own way of expressing himself through his choreography which was very nice.

    Irek also did some work outside the Royal with Kim Brandstrup in Arc Dance.  At the time Irek had his own little company which he started in 1991.  Not everyone in the Royal liked the idea but he saw Wayne Eagling and Stephen Jefferies and others had their own companies dancing in England or even abroad so he thought, why not?  He didn’t like the sound of Irek and Friends so called it Irek Mukhamedov and Company and they performed a couple of times a year doing divertissements.  Then he thought they needed to do more so he decided to do Othello using the Verdi score. He was listening so much to the music that he had headaches and thought his head would explode and could see himself dancing around.  Then when wondering how to express Othello he saw one of Kim’s ballets which he liked very much and, as Kim was a contemporary choreographer, he asked him if he could use his dancers with Irek being the only classical dancer in the work.  Kim decided to continue and they did Don Juan which was very good.  Most choreographers work with music but not Kim.  He creates the steps and the music follows afterwards.  He also did Sleeping Beautybut he did use Tchaikovsky.   Contemporary dancers are different from classical dancers, more down to earth and will change anywhere rather than wasting time.

    Anthony Dowell was director for most of Irek’s time at the Royal.  He was followed by Ross Stretton and Monica Mason.  Irek said he was very grateful to Anthony.  When he asked if he could come to the Royal, Kenneth said yes definitely and Anthony listened to him.  Otherwise it would have been a different story.  Maybe in the end Irek wasn’t what Anthony saw as a company dancer.  While Kenneth was there, he was doing 80 performances a year, the season after Kenneth had gone he did 60 performances and his last year before Ross Stretton arrived he did seven.  Maybe he wasn’t in good shape but the director could have told him. When it came to Ross Stretton not giving him a contract he could see that Irek wasn’t doing much dancing.  But the worst thing was that he couldn’t face him himself and sent someone else to say they wouldn’t renew his contract which at the time was horrible.  This isn’t the norm for Western companies.   After Ross left, he had hoped that Monica would bring him back as a member of the Company.  This didn’t happen but he did return as a guest and thanks to her he was able to dance with the Bolshoi in the MacMillan programme and in Mayerling with the Royal in 2002 and Bolshoi in 2004.  So, he could show off again.

    Irek said he felt he was born to be a ballet dancer

    Back to Russia, the Bolshoi and how he started in ballet, Irek said he felt he was born to be a ballet dancer.  His mum was always talking about it, he was listening to the music and she put him into a figure skating class which was very popular in Russia and he understood the music.  Then he began ballet and the teacher said your son has to do ballet. All dancers will say there’s an element of luck because no matter how much energy you put into your dancing in the studio or on stage you need someone to spot your talent.  Dancers become stars because one person said they were incredible and should be given a chance.  From Irek’s home town of Kazan people normally went to the Mariinsky school so they sent in his papers which were returned saying ‘no good’ because he only had a 3 in mathematics (the grades were 1 to 5) and they don’t take people with that grade.  Then his aunt moved to Moscow and she said what about the Moscow Academy, so he went for an audition, no papers needed, and was taken in and then he met his teacher Anatoly, who taught him how to dance.  It may be different now but at the time in order to stay in Moscow you had to be a resident.  His first company was Moscow Classical Ballet where Alexander Gudunov, who went into the Bolshoi and eventually the US, came from.  They gave him residency and after three years he went in for the Moscow International Competition and won the Grand Prix and a place at the Bolshoi.  One of his Moscovite classmates was Alexei Fadeyechev, who expected to be principal immediately but after three years he was still in the corps and Irek became principal.  He joined the Bolshoi as a principal having never been in the corps de ballet standing for hours, awaiting his turn.  This comes back to him now as a staff member rehearsing Sleeping Beauty with ENB.

    Questions from the audience:

    What went through Irek’s mind in portraying Cyranowhich moved an audience member so much?  He said he’d danced Cyrano with the Bolshoi so it wasn’t the first time he’d come across the character on stage.  Each performance is different but it was more about the sense of humour and the realisation he’s loved Roxanne all his life.

    What does it take to transfer from being a dancer to a director?    Irek didn’t do any managerial courses but he understood that in becoming a director you needed to dance with the company and you have to start thinking for the company rather than yourself.  He’s always believed himself a leader.  The first strike in the Bolshoi happened because of him.  He organised the dancers to stop performing in order to deliver their message.

    Do you think anyone dances Des Grieux as well as you?  Irek replied there are a number of talented dancers who have done it and there will be more.  Kenneth said after his first performance in Manon ‘now you can say you are an English dancer’ which was great for him.  He lived his life on stage being at that moment Des Grieux.  Now he helps the younger generation to be like him – but not better!  That’s the greatest reward for him - that his career in the ballet didn’t go for nothing.  What’s important for him is that his name is in our hearts and memories, even if he himself forgets how he danced.

    In thanking Irek so much for being our guest, David said he had summed up what we feel.  He has been in our hearts from his time in the Bolshoi, the Royal and afterwards and we’re very grateful to him for coming this evening.  We look forward to seeing him in a fat suit (or not?) next season and hope it’s not such a long time until he comes to talk to us again. 

    Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Irek Mukhamedov and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2019