An interview with Larissa Lezhnina, 1st soloist with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam

It has now been a long time since, when Russian dancers decided to leave their company and country to try out their luck in the West, they made the headlines. Yet, even though the days of Nureyev and Makarova, who had to flee like thieves in the night, are mercifully over, choosing to leave for the West remains something of a gamble. Larissa Lezhnina, one-time soloist with the Kirov Ballet who swapped St. Petersburg for Amsterdam in 1994, knows all about it. She has made it to the very top of the Dutch National Ballet, the main classical ballet troupe in the Netherlands (headed by Wayne Eagling), but the feeling somehow persists that she is living between two worlds. I recently spoke to the Russian ballerina in Amsterdam.

Larissa Lezhnina - photo (c) Marc Haegeman
Larissa Lezhnina had been one of the eye-catching and admired young soloists of the Kirov Ballet during the early 1990s. At the time it undoubtedly took many by surprise, but Lezhnina leaves very little doubt as to why she quit her company: "I decided to leave because it's impossible to work with a director who hates you." As with many others who preceded and followed her, Lezhnina was, after initially having been promised heaven at the Mariinsky, gradually sidelined by the then artistic director Oleg Vinogradov. She was 25.

When asked how she experienced living and continuing her career in the West, Lezhnina replies without hesitation. "It was so different, especially in those days. Leaving for the West was facing a completely new world. It was really hard; I guess it still is. Although, perhaps, nowadays the differences are less transparent, because the working rhythm has changed in Russia, too, over the last few years - in fact, it changed quite a lot since I lived there. You used to have one performance a month, you rehearsed for two months, while now they have a performance almost every day. Before there weren't enough performances and principals really needed to fight for them. I hear they now refuse performances. What's more, the repertoire became more varied in the great Russian companies. When I was with the Kirov, the only modern works we had were a few rarely performed ballets from Balanchine and Robbins."

Lezhnina talked with Veronika Part, a young soloist from the Kirov Ballet, who recently decided to join American Ballet Theatre. "I stressed that she should be prepared to face a difficult time. It's not just fun. Of course, it's nice to live in another country, but it remains an awesome task, starting with the language and a completely different approach to everything. It's basically a matter of mentality; the world is not going to change for you; it's you who have to change for the world. In a way, you have to be prepared to break yourself. If you stick to your principles, you'll be making life very hard for yourself. Of course, you don't have to agree with everything in your new life, but you have to accept that you are not the only one out there. You don't need to change your ideas of ballet or work, but at the same time you have to be receptive. You see new things, you work with different people, you can learn, you have to try - it really depends on personality. And not everybody succeeds. Farukh Ruzimatov, for example, was not the right person for it. He was a famous star at the Kirov, yet he thought that everywhere he went people would react in the same way. It may be hard to accept, but it's not the case."

Of course, Lezhnina readily admits that joining a Western company like the Dutch National meant enrichment for her, mainly because it allowed her to expand her repertoire and satisfy her artistic curiosity. She danced ballets that she never could have danced with the Kirov and became acquainted with the works of leading Western choreographers like Ashton, Van Manen, Van Dantzig, Forsythe, and Tharp. "I think it's great to push yourself and try something completely different", she adds, although she doesn't conceal the fact that her preference remains with the great classics, the repertoire she has been studying all her life.

Larissa Lezhnina trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in former Leningrad, after having tried her first steps in a local school. "As I child, I just loved to dance. My mother wanted me to try ballet school. In the beginning it was nothing serious, just a place where children of four and five get their first dancing lessons. Still, one of the teachers told my mother she thought I was talented and should try the Vaganova School."

Thinking about her years at the Vaganova: "It was a great experience and I will always remember this as one of the best moments in my life. It was hard, but it really made my life different. I was lucky to have only two different teachers during my years there - Ludmilla Nikolayevna Komissarova and Inna Borisovna Zubkovskaya. It's very sad to think that both are already no longer with us. Komissarova died when I was still at the School, and Inna Borisovna passed away recently."

"My first teacher, Komissarova, had been in the same class as Irina Kolpakova - both were pupils of Vaganova herself. I will always remember Komissarova as an outstanding teacher; she liked me a great deal, notwithstanding I was such a stubborn student, but maybe that helped to pull me through. But then came Zubkovskaya, who was first of all a great woman and a beauty to the very end. She gave me so much for ballet, but also, as I understand it now, for being a woman. She was an example to all of us: how you need to behave and how you need to be in life. She had such good taste, always appeared chic and distinguished, and went exquisitely dressed. Even in midwinter with dirty streets she would never have arrived in the studio with muddy boots or anything. We actually thought that she didn't have to do anything at home, but it turned out she was also a good housewife who cooked and cleaned like anybody else. She invited us to her home several times - that's where we first saw a video of Baryshnikov; in those days we didn't have any video recorders at home.

"Everything about her, even as I remember it now, was special. The way she entered the class was already something that stirred our imagination. It's hard to explain this, you really needed to see it. It was just amazing; she made such a strong impression on us. She usually was very kind, but if something was really wrong and she raised her voice slightly, then you knew you were in trouble. Yet, most important of all, Inna Borisovna taught us how to be ballerinas, not just girls who dance. She knew precisely how to bring it out of us.

Zubkovskaya also introduced Lezhnina to Irina Kolpakova, another Kirov legend. "I met her while I was still at the school, during the final months of preparation for our graduation performance. Zubkovskaya always thought I would be a good Aurora and since she was such a perfectionist, she invited Kolpakova, who was the best Aurora of that time, to work with me. Zubkovskaya had danced the role herself, but she just wanted the very best example for me, so she asked Kolpakova."

She would work again with Kolpakova after she had joined the Kirov, preparing Sleeping Beauty and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai with her. "In those days there wasn't such continuous collaboration between teacher and dancer as now. It depended more on the ballet you needed to prepare. It's great to have your own, almost 'private' teacher, but in some cases it's more instructive to work with different personalities, especially when you are preparing the roles for the first time."

When I mentioned that many observers favourably compare her with Kolpakova, Lezhnina replies modestly, "When it comes to stature and style, maybe yes. Some people also suggested that I talk like her, although I haven't spoken to her in ten years. But I guess it's just the influence. When I worked with Zubkovskaya people said I talked like her, too. It's definitely not conscious imitation."

Lezhnina has now been living and dancing in Amsterdam for almost 8 years. She has grown quite fond of the city and appreciates the stability of life in the West, but her links with her native St. Petersburg haven't been completely severed. Her mother and sister still remain in Russia and she regularly returns to visit them. Although she never danced with the Kirov again, she still follows the development of her former company with interest. About the new look of the Kirov ballerinas she remarks: "I recently was in St. Petersburg, doing class with the Kirov. It's incredible. When some years ago Diana Vishneva first appeared in the theatre, everybody was raving about her - 'those legs' etc. Then the following year Svetlana Zakharova came - again 'those legs, those feet'. But now they are all like that! Tall, skinny, with long legs - it's a completely different standard now. No trace of a Kolpakova-type ballerina any more. I understand it's their idea of how a ballerina should look today, and if you want to be in that theatre, you need to be like that. But ballet is about much more than physical appearance."

She puts the finger on definite flaws. "They don't seem to pay that much attention to certain things any more. The mime for instance, an essential part of ballets like La Bayadère, as it is done by these young girls just doesn't work. They just don't seem to feel it."

Lezhnina remembers performances with older ballerinas like Tatiana Terekhova or Olga Chenchikova. "They stick in your mind forever; those were performances. But now you see a girl and the next day another, and you can hardly tell the difference. It's interesting and it's still beautiful - legs, movements. But when I get home, I have already forgotten who danced."

Funnily enough, when she was last in St. Petersburg some soloists from the Kirov went out of their way to praise Lezhnina for the purity of her style and the beauty of her plastique, as if she were some survivor of an old, almost forgotten school. In this respect, too, Lezhnina seems to be living between two worlds.

August 2002.

Interview with  Larissa Lezhnina Copyright © 2010 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance International Fall/Winter 2002, pp. 42-43 and reproduced here with permission.

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