An interview with Irina Zavialova

Former first soloist of the Maly and the Kirov Ballet, Former Principal dancer of the Peter Schaufuss Ballet
By Marc Haegeman

One of the highlights of the 1993 Kirov Ballet season at the London Coliseum - and for many ballet-lovers the most unforgettable performance of that year - was The Sleeping Beauty danced by Irina Zavialova. In the previous weeks Irina Zavialova (or Irina Shapchits as she was then known by her maiden name) had been seducing audiences with her exquisite plastique, her sparkling, lively style and her quicksilver precision. She was marvelous in several classical variations, and especially memorable as Gulnara in Le Corsaire. Still, it was her debut as Aurora that made the most enduring impact. She arguably possessed more of the right qualities for the role of Aurora than any other of the ballerinas who danced that season. Her ideal combination of nobility and remoteness in the Vision Act, her overall characterization, and her inspired treatment of the choreography were simply unequalled. All these confirmed her as one of the most interesting talents in the Kirov Ballet.

In 1995, however, Irina and her husband Mikhail Zavialov, also a remarkable soloist in the company, left the Kirov and Russia, beginning new lives and careers in the West. It hasn't been an easy way and success has been mixed for them. After dancing for two years in Bonn, Germany, the pair joined the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium.
This interview was done in February 1998, when Irina Zavialova was a first soloist with the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Between 1999 and 2001 she was a principal guest artist with the Kazan Ballet. In 2001 she joined the Peter Schaufuss Ballet in Holstebro, Denmark, as a principal, also acting as a teacher at the Peter Schaufuss Ballet School since 2002.

Irina Zavialova:
I was born in Gorky [now Nizhny Novgorod]. Ballet was not my decision, it was my parent's. My parents were dancers in one of the folklore groups. They decided for me that I had to do ballet. You can not properly consider it to be a family tradition, because they were the first in my family who had chosen for dancing, and it wasn't even real ballet. My mother's father worked in a factory, while my other grandfather was a photographer. My grandmother worked in the post office.

Did you attend the local ballet school in Gorky?

No, I had my first lessons in St. Petersburg. My parents moved there when I was seven, and at ten I entered the Vaganova Academy. I didn't want to go there. As a child I wanted to ice skate. I actually did for a while. I liked it a lot, but then my parents decided I had to stop, and they sent me to the ballet school.

Who were your teachers at the Vaganova Academy?

The most important teacher for me was my last teacher - Natalya Dudinskaya. The work I did with her was very important, because she was the first person in my life, including myself, who discovered my personality. I was never the best in class, I was always somewhere in the middle, between the bad ones and the good ones. Nobody really thought about me. I was just one of the girls. But she did it. Somehow she noticed me, and she started to work with me, and I enjoyed that. I made a lot of progress at that time. Before that I hadn't done anything special.

How was Dudinskaya as a teacher?

At the beginning we were all scared of her, because she was a great ballerina, and we knew she was a great teacher also. When we joined her class for training, we were really afraid. She started with a lot of technique from the first lesson. We were really lost. We were all flying around the studio. We couldn't do the steps. It was just too difficult for us. Little by little, however, she managed somehow to gain our confidence. She was friendly with us, though I can't say that we were working as "friends." She asked a lot from us, but in the end we weren't afraid to try anything she wanted us to do.

Did you also work with Konstantin Sergeyev?

Yes, he was our teacher for acting and stage presence for three years. As you know, we have to act on stage, and we get special training for this - how to behave on a stage, what to do, how to feel, and mostly how to show all this. Sergeyev was a very nice man, and he liked to work with children, I think. He loved to showoff, and he was a great actor. He could do anything. One day, he asked us to play a monkey. We were too shy, and we didn't know how to do it. But he did it - perfectly. He really could do anything.

Besides your teachers, were there other people who influenced you at the beginning of your dance career?

I don't remember that I had a favourite dancer at that time. I think I have never had one. But we had so many examples in the Kirov Ballet. The ballerinas of that time, like Irina Kolpakova, Gabriella Komleva, Tatyana Terekhova, Elena Evteyeva, Lyubov Kunakova, Olga Chenchikova - we loved them all. We went to see their performances. We liked Galina Mezentseva a lot. When I was still at school, whenever we had the chance, my friend and I always tried to attend her performances.

Were there other students in your class who are now well known dancers?

In my class there was Veronika Ivanova, now a soloist with the Kirov Ballet. Also in my year, but in a different class, was Yulia Makhalina.

When you graduated did you immediately get an engagement with a dance company?

I was eighteen when I graduated and I knew that the people from the Maly Theatre wanted me to join their company, but Dudinskaya preferred me to dance in the Kirov Ballet. She organized a performance for me. I made my debut in the Kirov Ballet when I was still at school. I did the variation in the 4th act of Don Quixote. It was a kind of audition for the Kirov company, but Vinogradov [then Artistic Director of the Kirov Ballet] didn't take me. Dudinskaya told me not to worry, since I had a place in the Maly Theatre. But in the end, when I was ready to sign the contract, the situation changed, and it seemed there was no place for me at all in any Russian theatre. So, I was free. I didn't have any job - not a nice start for a career. Then Dudinskaya did some wonderful things for me. We went to see the management of the Maly Theatre together, and after she spoke to the director, I got a place in the company. I had a temporary contract, then after three months it was prolonged to the end of the season. After that I joined the company as a permanent member, as an artist in the corps de ballet. Soon I danced solos, variations, pas de trois. My first principal role at the end of my first season was Columbine in Harlequinade.

How long did you stay with the Maly Theatre, and what happened afterwards?

For six-and-a-half years I danced with the Maly. My career with the Kirov Ballet started quite by accident. While I was still dancing for the Maly, I had already been refused twice at auditions for the Kirov. But then, at the Maly Theatre we danced Coppelia from Oleg Vinogradov. When Vinogradov decided to mount this production for the Kirov stage, one of our ballerinas was assigned to teach the role at the Kirov. One day she couldn't go to the rehearsal. She phoned me and asked me to go in her place. I went to the Kirov and I showed all the steps of the principal variation in Vinogradov's presence. The following day I got a call from the Kirov office, asking me to come over once more. Since I had a rehearsal at the same time, I had to decline. But they insisted that it would be better for me to come anyway. So, that's what I did. Vinogradov invited me into his office, and he offered me the opportunity to dance with the Kirov Ballet. It was totally unexpected - but since there is no dancer in Russia who doesn't want to join the Kirov company, I agreed. After one month, I was already working there permanently.

Was it different to dance in the Kirov company?

Very, very much. The quality of working, of dancing, were different. At the Kirov they ask more of you than just the steps. They want you to know exactly what you must do, how it should look like. They pay a lot of attention to the arms, which isn't the case at the Maly. All the people working at the Maly Theatre are very professional, but there is an aspect missing. The Maly Theatre ballet company was originally created as "the laboratory of new Soviet choreographers." Only much later in the theatre's history did they begin to perform classical ballet. Consequently, tradition is much less developed at the Maly than it is at the Kirov. When I began dancing in the Kirov, I had to go back in my mind to my school days, to remember everything I had learned, and to look at it with new eyes. I was already a principal dancer in my first company, and even a first dancer, if I may describe it that way. But in the Kirov Ballet I had a lot to learn again. And I was happy to learn. It's no secret that the level at the Kirov is much higher.

Who were the people you worked with in the Kirov?

I worked with many people there. I started with Gennadi Selyutsky. Because my first performance at the Kirov was the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, rehearsed by him. Later I worked with Gabriella Komleva for Coppelia. Finally, it was Ninella Kurgapkina, with whom I worked for four years. Kurgapkina is great as a teacher. If you want to learn something she knows, she is yours. She will tell you everything you want, she will explain every little step, she will care about your arms, your feet, really everything you do on the stage. She knows what to ask from you. She is so precise. After a performance, you feel great - you think you have done your best. But then she comments: "What was that? Where was your fifth position? What did you do with your arms?" I love to work with people who ask something that I really cannot do. But they know that I have to do it. And if I try hard enough, I will succeed. Were there other dancers in the Kirov company whom you were especially fond of?

I liked Altynai Asylmuratova a lot - even though she was frequently absent, doing guest performances. Altynai is special on stage. She does the steps like anybody else, but they look special. There is something unusual in everything she does - call it spirit, mystery, magic -I don't know. Everybody who sees her knows what I mean, but I can't explain it.

Who is your favorite partner?

My favorite partner is my husband [Mikhail Zavialov]. It is always a pleasure dancing with him. We know each other well. We know what to ask from each other. We may fight during the rehearsal, but when we dance, the result is there. You have to feel secure in the hands of your partner - that's important.

You were dancing in a German company, and now you are working with a Belgian company, the Royal Ballet of Flanders. Can you compare these western companies with the Russian ones?

They are very different. The repertoire for instance. I think the repertoire is much more attractive in Russia. In Russia, they have thirty or more ballets in their repertoire, and sometimes they perform fifteen ballets a month, all different. Here, in this company, they make one program and do thirty performances of that same program - then, the next program, and again twenty or thirty performances of that same program, and so on. I don't really like this system. The working rhythm is also different. Here at the Royal Ballet of Flanders we start at ten o'clock. Then we have the training, followed by a fifteen-minute break and then we work until two o'clock. After that we have a one-hour break, and we finish at six. In Russia it's quite different. You always have your own rehearsal time. For example, here we have a one-hour rehearsal for all three casts in Romeo and Juliet. This means that you have about twenty minutes rehearsal for yourself, with two other couples dancing behind you. You rehearse to learn the steps and get a few corrections, but you rarely have private reheasals just for yourself. Time is planned here in a different way. It's much more difficult for a dancer. In that very short rehearsal time you must do a lot of work. But, of course, I can only speak for this company, where I'm working now.

You have danced The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet in Russia as well as in the West. Can you compare the Western versions with the Russian ones?

They are different. I never danced Romeo and Juliet in the Kirov, but I did in the Maly Theatre, and I loved it a lot. It was very difficult, one of the most difficult roles I have ever done. The choreography was by Nikolay Boyarchikov, director of the company. It was very hard technically and difficult to get into the role. Actually, it was my favorite ballet. The music was left intact. But here in the Royal Ballet of Flanders, much of the music is missing. They edited so much beautiful music, and I miss it. The choreography is different. It's difficult to compare the versions because they are so dissimilar. It was nice to do it, that's all I can say.

You danced Don Quixote both in Bonn and at the Kirov. Were these productions also dissimilar?

In Bonn Don Quixote was a nightmare for me. Everything - choreography, stage design and costumes - was unattractive and tasteless. The costumes were designed by a woman who had never worked for a ballet and refused to see the ballet beforehand. It was a classical version - if you want to call it that - choreographed by Valery Panov, director of the company in Bonn. He said he wanted "to return Petipa to the stage." Of course nobody knows what Petipa ever did - his steps were never recorded or written down. But Panov's effort didn't look like classical ballet at all. It looked more like some fantasy around classical ballet. I didn't want to do it. I adore the combination of choreography, stage design, and costumes in the Kirov's Don Quixote. There is soul in that production, and that was completely lacking in the production from Panov.

How were your other experiences in Bonn?

Only the Don Quixote was a bad experience. It was the first production Panov mounted when I was in the company. He put me in first cast. I also danced The Three Sisters from Panov, which I liked a lot. I also performed in some ballets created by the other ballet master in the company, Yuri Vamos, who is working in Düsseldorf now. He is a man who knows what to ask from a dancer, and he knows how to get it. It's hard to work with him, but at the same time it's a pleasure to work with him. He made A Midsummernight's Dream and a ballet consisting of a Valse Triste for three boys and Le Boeuf sur le Toit for three girls. All in all, working in Germany was an experience, but I can't call it a good experience. You have to suffer to survive as a dancer. What I'm really grateful for is that I met fantastic people and wonderful dancers there. It was really a dream to work with them.

Did you have a different relationship with your fellow dancers in Germany than in Russia?

Yes, we were closer in the company in Bonn. We were more friendly. The company was of course was much smaller in Bonn, and we were in the same situation - we all had to survive. There were a lot of good dancers just staying in the corps de ballet. When Panov started this company he wanted to have only stars. He brought many excellent dancers together, but he was unable to create a choreography for all of them to dance. So star dancers had to stay in the corps de ballet, and they suffered because of this. That's why we had to help each other a lot. And there were people from various countries. I can only say good things about them. I really had a fantastic time with them.

Outside of ballet, what's it like to leave your home country and start a new life in the West?

It was very difficult for the first three months. Life in Germany was not easy in the beginning, because we didn't know any English or German.

But you did learn English.

Yes, that was the language most people in the company spoke. Everything was new for us. We didn't know anything about the bank system, for instance. We didn't understand all the different documents you have to fill out before you do something. We had to be careful with every paper we signed. There is also a lot of paperwork in Russia, but we understand what we are reading, and we know how things work there. Once we had friends in the company - and it is really difficult for me to get close to somebody, I need time to know a person - life became easier for us. After the first three months it went better and at the end of the season I could say that I was really happy there. Happy to have friends and happy to be living a different life.

Are there things you miss about Russia?

I don't really feel that I terribly miss something. I feel good, because I know that every time I want to, I can go back to Russia. I still have my home there in St. Petersburg. I don't have family anymore, which probably makes it a lot easier. Sometimes I miss my friends, because I miss talking in my own language. I can speak Russian here, since there are Russian-speaking people in the company, but they are still not my real friends. I like them a lot, but my real Russian friends are still in Russia and sometimes I like to see them, to talk to them. Also, I miss my books. I don't have enough books here. I need to visit the library.

How do you feel about the present situation in the Kirov Ballet? Some people argue that a lot of the tradition is lost?

About tradition, I don't know. When I joined the company, people were already saying that the tradition was in danger. So probably I am part of the generation who is responsible for that. I don't know. About the dancers: they are very young, very talented, as far as I know, but I haven't seen them enough to judge them. The only thing that I can add is that it's a great pity that they don't have enough experienced dancers in front of them as examples. When I started there were always the ballerinas who were older, who had more experience. You could observe them, study them and learn a lot of things from them. For example, how to behave on stage, how to take steps easier, how to make steps look better. That was also part of experience. Maybe now they learn all this in a different way, but for me it was very important to be able to see somebody dancing, somebody with more experience on the stage. Because the things I knew, were not enough to dance. I don't know if they still have this now. Pity if they don't.

How do you approach a ballet role that was created more than a hundred years ago? Are you still inspired by stories like Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty?

First, before you start to dance it, you watch a lot of dancers in that role, so that you already have an idea about what you have to do and, also, what you want to do. Then your teacher tells you exactly what is really good for you, what you should accept as a dancer and what is required to make it look like a classical ballet. For that, Kurgapkina really did a great job for me, because I never had done anything like Sleeping Beauty, and I was convinced that part was not for me. I was really sure of that. Of course, I couldn't refuse when Vinogradov told me to dance Sleeping Beauty. Also I dreamed of dancing it. I didn't have much time for Sleeping Beauty, but we worked hard, and Kurgapkina helped me a lot.
As for Giselle, I never feel uncomfortable dancing this part. I don't think it is really old-fashioned, or that I was doing something in this ballet which doesn't exist nowadays. You have to think differently about certain things happening around you, but you can easily find a reason to do all the things in the first act of Giselle, for example. You will never feel uneasy about it. I had my difficulties with it, because I had to be very careful with all the acting parts. Giselle for me is a ballet where you need to be really pure. If you do not explain yourself clearly to the audience, the things you do will look faked to them. That is were I had to be careful: I had to do some things in a specific way, different than the way I wanted to do them, because my way would have been wrong. You work, you suffer at first, but it starts to become your own. And there is where I needed somebody to help me, because I could never do this on my own.
Swan Lake? Well, I danced it many times at the Maly, though never at the Kirov. I had great pleasure working for this ballet. It was my first real classical three-act ballet, and I was intrigued by the fact I had to play two roles. I prepared the part with Anatoly Nisnevich, who was a teacher at the Maly Theatre at that time. I had to work a lot on my feet and arms, the most difficult part of it.

Some people argue that these ballets are strange and old-fashioned. Do you agree with this?

If somebody can say that Rubens or Rembrandt is old-fashioned, then Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty are old-fashioned as well.

18 February 1998

Copyright © 2003
First published on in 1998. Photo of  Irina Zavialova Copyright © 1997 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.