Interview: Andris Liepa - Interview

Thursday 26 June 2014

Andris Liepa Artistic Director of Les Saisons Russes

Born in 1962, the son of legendary Bolshoi ballet dancer Maris Liepa, ANDRIS LIEPA attended the Moscow Ballet School at 10 and joined the Bolshoi Ballet Company at 18. He quickly rose up the ranks and in 1988 became the first Russian dancer to work officially with a foreign company when he moved to New York to perform with New York City Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre.
Together with his sister, ballet dancer and teacher Ilze Liepa, Andris founded the Maris Liepa Charitable Foundation in 1996 to restore and produce many of Diaghilev’s early 19th century ballets. This summer, with his company Russian Seasons of the 21st Century he brings two programmes of work by Diaghilev and Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed Le Coq D’Or

Andris, you grew up surrounded by ballet. How much did this influence your choice of career? Did you ever consider any other profession?
Not really, no, although for a while, when I was a kid, my father Maris Liepa – who was so talented – used to sculpt when he wasn’t rehearsing or performing with the Bolshoi and I used to copy him. For a while I thought I could become a sculptor; after all it’s not that far from dancing as dancing is live sculpture. But ultimately it was ballet that was my first love; I joined the Bolshoi school when I was ten and the company when I was 18th – and I think it was the best choice of my career.

You were the first Russian dancer allowed to work with a foreign company – how did your experiences abroad (with NYCB and ABT in the US and Bejart Ballet in Switzerland) impact your work? How was performing in America different to performing in Russia?
It’s an interesting story; I used to share a dressing room with Mikhail Lavrovsky, one of the Bolshoi’s most principal dancers – he was about 45 in the 1970s when I was just starting my career with the Bolshoi. He said it’s such a strange feeling when you’re at the age of giving up performing and you realise you’ve only ever danced the work of one choreographer; that you’ve never tried Macmillan and others and I thought to myself well I don’t want to spend my whole life dancing Yury Grigorovich.

In 1988 I was 27 and the first Soviet dancer allowed unlimited travel and official permission to work in the West…when I got to New York they called me Perestroika Kid! It was ironic that I went to work with American Ballet Theatre which was directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, a defector, who was absolutely persona non grata in the USSR along with other names such as Nureyev, Makarova, and others.

There were huge differences working in the two countries; for instance when I performed with the Bolshoi, we only did three Swan Lake‘s in rep while ABT staged no less than 48 Swan Lake‘s in three months! It was fantastic – performing in Swan Lake every night to a different audience gave me a totally different feeling of the work and how you could really develop it the more you performed.

While I was in New York I went to Broadway shows, musical theatre, other ballet shows – it was amazing. One of the shows I saw was Robert Joffrey’s version of Petrushka and Afternoon of a Faun and I wondered why these ballets hadn’t been performed by Russian companies. Russian dance was being performed by foreign companies but not in Russia so I decided to return to Moscow and bring Petrushka and Scheherezade to Russian audiences.

When I left New York in 1990 I joined the Kirov in (now) St Petersburg; we were performing in Paris when I was invited to see The Ring and I realised I wanted to work with Maurice Bejart. I asked if I could work with him – in America I learned you have to deliver your thoughts direct…you have to do your own promo!

I learned so much about performing in the States; my father Maris said you can’t be in shape if you’re only dancing four times a week (the Bolshoi was alternating opera and ballet of course). But ABT was preparing a season for two months and then going on tour – we toured everywhere, all over the US and then we were at the Met for two months; in Russia you never toured.

Tell us about Le Coq D’Or – what excites you about it?
The people who brought Le Coq D’Or to life 100 years ago delivered great ballet and opera and great set designs which made a huge impression on audiences with its orchestra, colours, actors, singers, dancers and its folkloric story. Nobody had ever seen opera and ballet together like that. At that time you had to buy a ticket to see a music and dance performance; there was no youtube or advertising; it must have been just like a 3D experience!

When we deliver Le Coq D’Or to today’s audience, it has a similar impact and for me to deliver this production is a great opportunity and one I’ve been thinking about for at least twenty years. It’s also the first opera/ballet collaboration between Russia and the UK. We will be bringing two Coq D’Ors, two Dodons, two queens and a 68 piece orchestra; actually Le Coq was originally a girl but I cast a boy because male dance has grown so much since then and by translating the Coq, we decided not to follow the story and we decided to keep the singer a female and have the boy as Coq. The only original choreography that exists is about four minutes of rare film footage of the Ballets Russes performing Coq D’Or in Melbourne in 1938 which choreographer Gali Abaidulov and I had seen. From that and from my knowledge of doing the restoration of Fokine’s work we developed a new choreographic language for this production of Le Coq D’Or.

And what are the other highlights of the programme you are bringing to London this time?
We desperately wanted to do the original version of Petrushka with a full orchestra and conductor; nobody had done Petrushka like this for 100 years. It had been performed mostly in the 1947 revised version which is for a smaller orchestra. It was difficult for Diaghilev to bring an orchestra and ballet on tour and must have been very expensive because you have to bring 150 people together for one performance.

It was in 1992 that I decided to revive Firebird, Petrushka and Scheherazade, three Michel Fokine masterpieces that until then had been performed exclusively in the West as part of Diaghilev’s Saisons Russes. Russian audiences had never seen them. Everyone told me I was completely insane to rescue these ballets from the dustbin of history and it’s impossible to imagine how many difficulties we encountered. Only 20 years ago hardly anything could be bought in Russia; from a tour to Taiwan, for example, I bought all the fabrics that were later used for Scheherazade; and we had a terrible time finding the right paint. London audiences will be able to see our wonderful restoration of Scheherazade in July.

Which ballets would you like to stage in the future and why?
I’d really like to do a new production of Narcisse with music by Nicholas Tcherepnin who was a great composer and who conducted for Diaghilev’s first Paris season of Les Saisons Russes. It would be a ballet about the life of Nijinsky who originated the role of Narcisse and we would start it towards the end of Nijinsky’s life when he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and institutions.

What do you enjoy about London when you visit? What are your top tips for visitors to the city?
I love Covent Garden and I always walk around a lot when I’m in London, it’s always a pleasure to be here. The other evening I had dinner at Joe Allen – a taste of London and New York combined! My agent took me there the first time I came to London. I also love going to the theatre and retain my passion for musical theatre.

Les Saisons Russes du XX1 siècle present Le Coq D’Or at the London Coliseum, 8 – 10 July
as well as Diaghilev Festival of Ballet Programme 1, 11 & 12 July
and Programme 2, 13 July

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