If you’ve ever wanted insight to the process of joining Vaganova, a dancer’s life in some of the world’s most sought after companies, and even what leaving Russia entailed for someone, then this interview is for you. Rinat shared so much profound wisdom that I know will give inspiration and courage to all who read. I found myself simply sitting in awe as he spoke, and it was an absolute honour to conduct this interview. Rinat truly has lived a life most could only read about. After gaining a coveted position in Vaganova Ballet Academy he continued on to the company. Rigorous efforts to leave Russia ensued, before finding a new home in Bulgaria and touring the world with his breathtaking dancing. After a career that spanned the globe, Rinat retired from the stage and began a teaching career, sharing his renowned wisdom with the next generation. All this and so much more is covered during his interview.
Disclaimer* all of Rinat’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of his answers have been condensed with their approval.
What has your career path been?
Whilst at academic school in my hometown I was selected to attend the Vaganova Ballet Academy, then located in Leningrad. My Aunt was a famous ballerina in The Republic of Bashkiria and she encouraged me to take the opportunity. In those times, once you entered The Vaganova Academy you knew you would be taking a professional path, and if successful you had the chance to continue onto the Mariinsky Ballet Company (formerly Kirov Ballet). Being a student at Vaganova meant you would be a professional dancer at one company or another, whether you wanted to or not. Dancers remain in their company’s employ until retirement; sometimes this meant spending your whole career as an extra/supernumerary. By taking the position offered to me at Vaganova I guaranteed my future employment and stability. After graduating from the school I began my career as a corps de ballet dancer with Mariinsky. Even as a corps member I was given the chance to dance many soloist roles as well as work on Basilio, the principal character in Don Quixote. It was an amazing experience, but a big workload on my body. One day I noticed my knee didn’t feel right and it turned out I had injured my meniscus and needed surgery. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that I had to stop so I kept dancing through the pain longer than I should have, until one day it was simply impossible to continue. I developed a blood infection during the surgery and remained at the hospital (in a full body cast) for a whole month. Usually, dancers that came from a Republic (as I did), had to return to their hometown companies to dance. However, in my case the then Director of Mariinksy, Oleg Vinogradov, fought to keep me in Leningrad. Everyone was also expected to spend time serving in the military in those times, but the director also saw to it that I was granted an exemption. In French we call this a carte blanche*, and it meant the military couldn’t touch me for 5 years, by arranging this the director had granted me freedom. After getting back to a full dancing schedule post surgery, I couldn’t find my name on any casting sheets for the soloists roles I had danced before and it was made clear I wouldn’t see my name for those roles on casting sheets again. At this point in time I was dating my Bulgarian sweetheart, so I decided to leave Russia to make a life with her in Sofia; that lasted 16 years and gave me a beautiful son. My departure from Russia was a complicated process, but upon arriving in Bulgaria I joined Sofia National Ballet and remained there for 9 years. I did a lot of international guest appearances around Europe and Japan during those times. After Bulgaria, my next job was freelancing with a Japanese company. I had a good relationship with Nureyev (a dance legend that was born in my hometown), whom I met in France while attending the First International Competition in Paris. When he staged Don Q on Royal Ballet of Flanders he spoke to the director there and encouraged me to join the company, I did so after my year in Japan. Retirement happened for me in Belgium, dancing Cinderella with my then girlfriend (now wife) Xiomara Reyes (Click here for Xiomara’s A&H interview). When Xiomara began dancing with ABT I would travel between Belgium and New York, spending time coaching her in the ABT studios. Some other dancers started joining us and after a short while I joined ABT as a company teacher, hence moving to New York. When my wife retired from ABT we were offered leadership positions at TWSB and moved to Washington, DC. I am currently a company teacher and senior faculty member at The Washington Ballet/ The Washington School of Ballet.
*Carte Blanche- full discretionary power; unconditional authority… meaning you can’t be forced in to service
Can you talk readers through the selection process you went through for Vaganova
During the time of the Soviet Union, recruits from Vaganova Academy would travel the country scouting kids. They only wanted the best of the best, and to give some perspective, for each place in the school there were approximately 350 candidates. Recruiters would check musical ability, physical potential, and the health of your parents. For the physical component we were assessed only wearing underwear so they could really see your body and check for things such as scoliosis. During this assessment we were stretched in extreme ways and also had our physical attributes such as the arch of our feet examined. Your parents were looked at as an indicator of your future aesthetic. If after all these processes the panel saw potential in you, then you were sent to an elimination class. If the staff weren’t impressed during that class you were sent home, others who had impressed them would be offered a converted spot in the Academy. The whole process was very intense.
What did the process of leaving Russia entail for you?
Though I managed to leave legally, it was a very difficult process. After applying to leave Russia I was thrown from the company, meaning I no longer had any money to live. The government tried to overturn my carte blanche and send me into military service, however I was still within my five years immunity so they were unsuccessful. I had no place to live whilst I waited, but Russian’s have huge hearts and a very kind lady at the Mariinsky dormitory granted me refuge. I was secretly living under her care for four months and losing hope of ever finding a way out. I was a persona non grata while waiting for the permission to leave, with no access to the company for training, and no way to earn money; all I could do was sit and wait. Eventually I was granted permission to leave Russia and went to join my sweetheart in Bulgaria.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art?
The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky.
I believe it’s about survival after a storm, and hope. I have experienced heartbreaking losses that could be metaphorically likened to a storm. I lost my mother when I was 17, and at times I felt like the sailors. The sun in the painting gave me hope. I also love it because it’s the sun and the sea, and I love both deeply.
Do you have a morning routine?
I do 30 minutes of Qigong with my wife every morning, consisting of guided exercises and a five minute meditation. I love cooking, so I also spend time in the kitchen preparing breakfast for the both of us. Other than that I don’t have a routine, it’s more a sense of going with the flow and doing what needs to be done at the time.
Did you always want to be a ballet dancer? What made you want to pursue it further?
I wanted to be an ice hockey player or a firefighter, ballet was of no interest to me as a kid. However my Mama was very unwell when I was offered the position at Vaganova, and she told me it would bring her a lot of peace to know I had a job guaranteed for my future. I went for her, and I’m very glad I did, I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.
What was your experience of language barriers when moving countries? Did you find ballet to be a universal language that helped you navigate new places?
I feel the only real way to learn a language is to be immersed amongst people who speak it, so the tiny amount of words I knew before moving places generally proved irrelevant. You go to a new place and don’t know if you will be able to communicate, but you do know you will understand the steps and be able to dance. It was very helpful having dance as my profession because it eliminated the need to be fluent in the language of the place you were gaining a job in. Therefore I have to say, yes, ballet was a very helpful universal language when moving. Over time I have collected a little knowledge of the languages of the places I danced and lived.
What are the biggest differences you see between Russian and American training? Do you strive to find a balance between the two in your teaching, or do you favour one over the other?
During my career, I tried to assimilate the best of what every school and modes of training had to offer. That is what I try to pass onto my students. Whilst there are of course different approaches and styles, I feel they are less distinct or different to what many people think. I believe it is also helpful to understand the influences behind a particular place’s approach or technique. For example, when Balanchine arrived in America, there wasn’t really an ‘American school/ specific style’. Balanchine had a Russian background, and though he bought that with him, he was working with different dancers in a different place, and was inspired by the fast paced lifestyle of New Yorkers. He experienced a different way of life in America than he had done in Russia, he felt New York moved at a very fast pace and up beat tempo, so he wonderfully reflected this in his dance style. In my case, I feel my technique was highly influenced by my curiosity to do/ create daring male steps which always inspired me to try and break the limits. As an artist I’m a product of my life experiences, and as a teacher I aim to share those experiences and what they taught me with my students.
Can you give an example of a tough moment in your career and what inspired you through it?
Early in my career I was given great opportunities, and many had very high expectations of me. After my knee surgery, all that seemed to disappear. I had given everything and worked as hard as I could to return, but the company life I had experienced seemed to change whilst I was lying on that hospital bed. I went from rehearsing Basilio, to being the last member of the corps de ballet. Please understand that for me, because I trained to be a dancer, I couldn’t imagine anything else. Knowing that, meant I was facing the potential reality of spending the rest of my working life standing on stage holding props… that was a tough reality to face. The thought of quitting never really crossed my mind though. If an astronaut is sent to space, they can’t decide part way through the voyage they want to quit. I had the same mentality for ballet, I was in the profession (I was already in space), turning back or quitting wasn’t possible for me. I had to keep going and dig deep to find a way around the blocks in my path. That’s when I decided to leave Russia. Placing all my focus on the task at hand (getting back to performing) is what saw me through that period.
Where did you find the courage to keep working through any feelings of homesickness you may have experienced? What advice would you give to others struggling with these emotions?
I left home at 11 years old, so homesickness became a part of my reality very early in life. There were only 2 months a year where I could return home and in the other 10 months the only way to talk to my family was to go to the post office and wait for your allotted 5 minutes of phone time (they were very strict about it only being 5 minutes, down to the second).
I believe humans are very resilient, and they will adapt to the situation at hand. Homesickness is very painful, but I want to remind everyone that they can survive it. The best advice I could give for the hard times is to focus on the end goal. Keep the big picture in mind, and remember why you are doing what you’re doing.
How did you approach the balance between technique and artistry in your performances?
I don’t view those two components of dance as separate. You are trained to dance and to do so you need both technique and artistry. You have to ‘swim’ in the feeling of movement, and know your technique is there to enhance the impact of your artistry. Being cohesively technical and artistic is how you truly give to an audience. Your profession is an artist, and you need the technique to support that artistry.
Does your art influence your day to day tasks and visa versa?
Art is simply the way you approach whatever you’re doing. You can be a dancer or a cleaner, but both can be done with a sense of artistry. Art is a state of mind; it’s a state of being that you bring into everything. I feel my art does influence my day to day tasks and visa versa, because with the right mindset everything is art.
What is the most important quality you feel young artists need to develop?
Discipline dictates everything in life. Discipline is how you wake up, it’s how you take care of yourself, it’s how you learn, and how you behave. It’s everything. Only after you find the discipline can you then find the freedom. It may sound boring, but discipline is the foundation for everything.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
Every dancer will have ups and downs in their career, but to be honest I don’t like to focus on the down parts. Although, my last season as a professional dancer taught me a great lesson. After being informed it would be my last season, I noticed my name disappearing from the casting lists. I was barely performing, and was not seeing eye to eye with the director. I was nearing forty and ready to stop dancing so I didn’t complain about the casting and just kept working hard. Before the end of the season I saw they added an extra performance that was not previously planned, and that was to be my final performance. At the end of the show, the director gave a speech in front of the audience and acknowledged his gratitude towards me and what I brought to the company. I was shocked to learn how much esteem he had for me, and it was a good reminder that you never really know what other people are thinking. I think sometimes we make up stories in our mind about what people think of us, but we really don’t know. We don’t know the impact our life is having on other people, and sometimes we think we’re not appreciated when that is not the reality. There’s so many things to take into consideration and deal with when you’re in a position of power. I think a very good reminder for everyone is that it’s not always personal, it’s not because they don’t like you, it’s not because they don’t appreciate you. Just keep working hard and focus on yourself, rather than attempting to guess what other people think about you.
One funny thing about that last show was that I received a lot of best wishes for my birthday from audience members. They couldn’t clearly hear the words, and thought the garlands of flowers were a birthday celebration! In a way they were right, as it was the birth of the next chapter in my life.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
Sometimes periods of life just seem dark. When you are going through those times that just feel like a dark black page, you have to look for where a small crack where light can come through. Life can be very difficult if you don’t choose to find that light.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
I hope that this interview encourages people to keep moving forward whatever they face in their lives and keep looking for that small crack of light. If reading this interview puts a smile on the reader’s faces I count myself happy.
You can find Rinat on IG @rimaev
Featured pic credit: xmb photography