The Mikhailovsky In London: An Interview with Mikhail Messerer

The Mikhailovsky Ballet kicks off its London residency this week. In its third appearance at the Coliseum (where it previously performed in 2008 and 2010) and with an impressive roster of principal dancers that includes Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev and Leonid Sarafanov, as well as guest artists Polina Semionova and Denis Matvienko, the Mikhailovsky is ready to show us ballets by modern choreographer Nacho Duato, as well as classics like Giselle, Don Quixote, and Laurencia.

Ahead of the company’s first Giselle tomorrow, we spoke to Principal Guest Ballet Master Mikhail Messerer, who was born into a legendary dancing family and is considered one of the world’s finest ballet teachers:

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TBB: We are very much looking forward to this visit. We could not help but notice the company is bringing back its production of Giselle. Why stage it here a third time?

Mikhail Messerer: Giselle had such a good reception on the previous two visits, both from the audience and from the critics. In the theatre we like this production very much, I like it very much myself. This time, we are bringing Giselle with some great dancers. They have danced it in St. Petersburg to great success and I’m sure they will be showing their best for the British audiences.

TBB: The company dances classics like Giselle and Laurencia, but also ballets by Duato. How important is to strike a balance between classical and contemporary at the Mikhailovsky?

MM: I believe today no ballet company can do only academic/classical repertory because we all live in the global world, and we cannot just close our eyes and pretend that contemporary trends are not here. They are here with us. The wider spectrum of repertory our dancers have, the better, and our audiences also love watching contemporary and modern ballet in addition to their love for the classics.

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TBB: You have been with the company for many years and have seen it progress. You were there before Duato became AD and he is soon to leave for the Staatsballett in Berlin. How do you see the Mikhailovsky moving forward?

MM: We were very fortunate to have such a good working relationship with Nacho Duato. He created a number of pieces for the company, he also staged for us some of his old works and the Russian audiences loved most of the contemporary works that were performed. Theatre tickets are sold out whether we perform 19th century classics, 20th century works or Duato’s repertory. Our house is always full. If you are in St. Petersburg, it is actually easier to get tickets for the Mariinsky, than for the Mikhailovsky: it is virtually impossible to get tickets for our ballet performances.

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TBB: And now that Duato is leaving?

MM: We will keep our eyes open wide. We are still committed to performing modern repertory and we will take good care of the classical productions. We need to be careful because we work in the same city as the great Mariinsky and in no way does the Mikhailovsky need to copy the Mariinsky repertory. We have stagings that do justice to our company and that meet audiences’ expectations, with plenty of tourists coming to St. Petersburg to watch us. We are going to keep the level of the company high and the ballets interesting for the audiences.

TBB: You have many famous guest artists regularly performing with the Mikhailovsky. How does that work?

MM: Yes, many guests performed Nacho Duato’s The Sleeping Beauty. Svetlana Zakharova from the Bolshoi Ballet danced Beauty, Natalia Osipova also danced it, Olesya Novikova, just to name a few. Nacho Duato himself rehearsed them. When those stars come to perform a ballet that I have staged or that I am looking after, say Swan Lake which Natasha [Osipova] danced for the first time ever in her life at the Mikhailovsky, and for which I coached her, or Polina Semionova who has come and danced Giselle and Swan Lake many many times since 2010, when she started guesting with the Mikhailovsky, I try to spend as much time as I can with those dancers. But more importantly, we have many good coaches and great teachers who work with our Principal dancers and Principal guest stars.

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TBB: You are a highly sought-after teacher. Are you still guest teaching elsewhere?

MM: Indeed. Last year I went to American Ballet Theatre several times, perhaps half a dozen times. It is always very difficult to find the time, last season was virtually impossible for me: I had to go to Rome where I staged my version of Don Quixote in December. That premiered on the 22nd, before Christmas, and it took me away from the Mikhailovsky for a month.

TBB: How do you manage to divide your time?

MM: Well between two cities is difficult.  I have my family in London, my beautiful wife and children who are in school in Britain. I really have to split myself in two for my work and my family life, and if I go somewhere to teach it is an additional complication, but I try to manage. I will probably go to ABT again later this season. I also went to Kiev this season and I staged Asaf Messerer’s Class Concert for the Kiev State Ballet directed by Denis Matvienko. Class Concert is a very difficult piece for any company and I had to spend a month there. But I enjoy teaching and the Kiev Ballet is a good company to work with. I try to be with my family whenever possible. Either they come to visit me in Russia – for instance when my children have holidays in Britain – or I try to come on weekends.

TBB: What are the biggest challenges dancers face these days? As a teacher, how do you help them overcome those?

MM: In the classical repertory there is a downside due the fact that all information is now available to dancers. There is YouTube and you have American dancers watching Russian dancers, Russian watching American, English dancers watch Chinese and so on. And by doing that, being coached – in a way – by “Mr. YouTube”, they are not always getting the best out of their colleagues. They do get some good pointers, but they also get some things wrong and my duty as a teacher is to direct them, so that the wrong stuff is cleared out of the way.

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TBB: You and your family have witnessed many turning episodes in the history of ballet. In your view, how do such recent events as the attack on Sergei Filin impact on the image of Russian ballet?

MM: It is a very difficult question. We are too near the event to be able to judge, but I think we will able to judge it better in a while. I have no right to speak for other companies, but at the Mikhailovsky we are a modest company, I keep saying that we don’t have the problems that larger Russian companies have. We don’t have petitions by dancers to the Russian president or attacks on our artistic staff, so we don’t have that problem.

TBB: What are your expectations about the company’s third London season?

MM: I wish that we show ourselves in our best. And that London audiences will be happy with our performances!


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Photo Credits: © Mikhailovsky Theatre

The Mikhailovsky Ballet performs at the London Coliseum, 26 March – 13 April 2013. For more information and booking, visit the ENO Website.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

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