27 July 2015 at 11.04am | 3 Comments
A year is a long time in a young dancer’s life. I first met the Russian Principal Vadim Muntagirov late spring in 2014. He was in transition, getting ready to leave English National Ballet (where he had danced since 2009) to start a new chapter with The Royal Ballet. ‘When I join The Royal Ballet almost every single role I do will be new to me’, he told me at the time.
Vadim is no stranger to challenge, change and motion. He was born into a ballet family (both his parents and sister are professional dancers) in Chelyabinsk – a central Russian town that came to international attention in 2013 as the location of a spectacular meteor fall. He studied at the Perm Ballet School from the age of nine. At 15, having been a prizewinner in the Prix de Lausanne competition, he was offered a handful of international scholarships; he picked London and The Royal Ballet School. He arrived with only a smattering of English, planning to stay for a year. But the School’s then Director, Gailene Stock, persuaded him to remain for the rest of his training. The resulting dancer now describes himself as a combination of ‘Russian blood and English school’.
He joined English National Ballet at the age of 19, as a Principal. There he formed something of a dream partnership with the Czech ballerina Daria Klimentová. Their on-stage chemistry and 19-year age difference naturally invited comparison to Fonteyn and Nureyev. However, Klimentová retired in 2014 and it was time for Vadim to move on.
His first year with The Royal Ballet has certainly kept him busy: so far he’s made his debuts in Onegin (as Lensky), Manon, La Fille mal gardée, Don Quixote, Symphonic Variations and The Four Temperaments, to name a few, as well as returning to known favourites like Swan Lake. It is repertory that ranges from classic to contemporary to abstract, plenty to challenge a dancer hungry to broaden his experience. ‘The repertory at The Royal Ballet changes quite fast. Sometimes you are rehearsing and performing two or three ballets a day, while at English National Ballet I had just one production over one or two months’, he says.
‘It has been really good for me’, he explains. ‘At ENB I danced very technical repertory, like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, so it has been very nice to explore ballets and characters that are not only about solos, pirouettes and jumps, but have more narrative: like Lensky in Onegin and Des Grieux in Manon. Here you get to do lots of pas de deux and you are wearing boots, so you can walk on your heels and don’t have to point your feet all the time. It makes you feel more like a normal human being in the character, rather than only a ballet dancer.’
He admits that he has found some roles challenging too, particularly in the ballets of Frederick Ashton, whose notoriously lightning-fast style of choreography isn’t something Russian-schooled dancers usually prepare for.
‘It’s the steps’, explains Vadim. ‘I have a Russian base in me; most of my training was done in Russia and at school we didn’t practise the steps that Ashton uses. It’s not like in Swan Lake where you have cabrioles, double tours and pirouettes, which you practise every day in class. They used to say in Russia that the school prepares you for the company. But with Ashton, some of the steps I had never seen before.
‘For example, Fille has to be fast but it has to be light too because it’s a comedy. I found it hard to smile and act as well as to do a double tour and hold a stick in one hand. Symphonic Variations was one of the most difficult ballets I’ve ever done, even though it is only 17 or 18 minutes long, because there is no story, it is abstract. But I did enjoy it, particularly the coda at the end. It’s a challenge, but that’s one of the reasons I came to the Company, to be challenged and to learn the English repertory.’ Such a modest statement is typical of Muntagirov’s quietly thoughtful off-stage presence – what he doesn’t mention is how the dance critics unanimously praised both his Colas in Fille and his turn in Symphonic Variations with such adjectives as ‘gorgeous’, ‘effortless’ and ‘scintillating’.
There’s much to look forward to in the 2015/16 Season too. ‘You would think because I learnt all that new repertory this year, maybe next year I’d take it easy, but there are even more new ballets to learn’, he says with a smile.
In the autumn, he makes his debut in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – where he is partnering fellow Russian Natalia Osipova, another first for him. ‘I have danced the Nureyev and Derek Deane versions of Romeo and Juliet, but never the MacMillan. Natalia has danced it already, so she will help me.’
Further help and coaching has come from Alexander Agadzhanov, The Royal Ballet’s senior Répétiteur, whom Vadim was very keen to work with. ‘Sasha prepares you for the roles step by step, in detail; he works on the quality first. He has shown me how to pace myself, when to breathe, how I can use less energy but make a step or a jump look twice as good. This really helps me with stamina and pacing in ballets that are new to me.’
Not all his repertory is unfamiliar though. In February 2016 Vadim will perform Albrecht in Giselle. It’s his debut for The Royal Ballet, but a role that he knows very well.
‘Albrecht was the first role I danced with ENB’, he says, ‘although I haven’t done it now for two or three years. I remember my dad telling me that it was one of the hardest ballets for men, but I really enjoy it; the second act especially is very nice – there’s a lot of drama and passion. It’s technically difficult, but somehow it just inspires you to dance.’
Will his approach to the role have changed over time? ‘Perhaps technically it may feel a little easier. The big change will be the partner I am dancing with; I’ve only performed Giselle with Daria before, so this will be the first time with someone new. But when I’m on stage I don’t think about these things any more – it’s too late to worry. I’ve had my time to prepare. Now is the time to enjoy it – I just go for it, and dance.’
This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.