Galina Mezentseva

The swan returns

By Chris Graeme.

A small and select gathering of well-known faces in the St Petersburg ballet world gathered recently to pay homage to one of Russia's lost stars.

The select few -- all members of the Mariinsky Theater's Diaghilev Club -- showered a delicate, frail and unassuming woman in her 40s with poetry, praise and presents.

Prima Ballerina Absoluta Galina Mezentseva, after five years in the West, had returned home to once again dance in the theater that catapulted her to international stardom 20 years ago.

Galina is undoubtedly the most famous classical ballet dancer in the world -- a living legend. For the new generation of young dancers coming up at the Kirov, Bolshoy, Covent Garden and other famous ballet theaters, she is like a diamond, a touch of class.

Of all the Kirov stable who appeared during the 70s and 80s, who turned out best? -- Galina Mezentseva. And now, 20 years on, who can honestly hold a candle to her?

She epitomizes Russian classical ballet and is still considered one of its most priceless jewels. Perhaps the last of the Mahicans, she is now anxious that the 250 year old tradition she has lived and breathed all her life, does not die with her.

To this end she is producing a set of videos which will reveal all her secrets, record every movement, every poise and every emotion, right down to the finest detail, lest posterity not forget the results of the finest classical ballet training in the world.

This training began at the age of nine at the revered Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. Born in the Volga region, Galina recalls, "My mother used to take me to dancing circles in my home town Kirz from the age of five.

"One evening, when I was eight, two ballet talent scouts showed up and told my mother that her daughter showed promise. They told her to bring me to St Petersburg the following year where I was immediately accepted into the prestigious Vaganova Academy."

The Vaganova regime is known to be extremely demanding and hard on its protegees and only the strongest get through the course which entails one hour of classical training each morning, pax- - de-deux training twice a week and character dance lessons. All this on top of the usual subjects every pupil in a normal school had to cope with.

On her days at the academy Galina said, "If you love something, like I loved to dance, half the battle is already won. It makes it less difficult. For me it was normal, like life.

"I remember that during the lessons we weren't allowed to turn our backs on the teacher. We had to leave the room tiptoeing backwards."

Galina was a top graduate with the highest honors and one of the few entered into the ninth class - "The Classe de Perfection." So ended a complete nine year schooling at the most famous ballet establishment in the world where Galina received the finest training.

As Galina progressed through the Vaganova Academy she learned etiquette from her teachers, had the chance to practice at the Kirov Theater and even had to learn make-up artistry. For part of her graduation exam Galina had to look like Mickey Mouse!

"We lived a luxurious and advantaged life close to that reserved only for the communist elite. At a time when eight families could be crammed into a communal apartment I, by the age of 25, had a three room apartment all to myself, as well as two cars and a chauffeur," she said.

So why, with everything any woman could want, did Galina Mezentseva defect to the West in 1990?

"I had the chance to defect, like Mikhail Barishnikov, well before then, when I was 21 and on tour in Italy. But at that time I loved the Kirov too much and had to ask the question, "who will replace me if I leave?" The answer was no-one. I wasn't ready at 25 to spread my wings," said Galina.

In a career that spanned 20 years, Galina danced every principal role in the Kirov's entire classical repertoire from Odette in "Swan Lake", Medora in "Le Corsaire", Aegina in "Spartacus" and Nikiya in "La Bayadere."

She picked up a clutch of awards including Honored Artist of Russia in 1978, Best St Petersburg Ballerina 1989, National State Prizewinner 1980 and the highest cultural award that Russia can bestow The People's Artist of Russia.

For ten years Galina Mezentseva was the brightest jewel in the Kirov crown and as its Prima Ballerina danced all the ballet premieres on the world's most prestigious stages such as Grand L'Opera, Paris; La Scala, Milan; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Royal Albert Hall; Metropolitan Opera, New York; Kennedy Center; Sidney Opera House and the Bolshoy Theater.

And then in 1990 she stunned the ballet world by deciding to leave the Kirov and join the Scottish Ballet Company "in search of artistic freedom" as magazine Aspects of Dance put it in 1992.

"I was shocked. Nowhere could I find a ballet training comparable to what I had learned in the Vaganova School. The West didn't have the masters to teach it. It suddenly dawned on me that classical ballet had died as an art form in the West," said Galina.

"I was frightened that I would loose my classical training, that my muscles would become weak and desperately searched the globe for someone who knew the Vaganova style," she said.

After months of exhaustive enquiries and hundreds of false leads, her manager Irena Mitze received a phone call from an obscure town in Texas, USA from an unassuming woman who offered to help.

"At first I thought it's another crank, why bother, tell her I'm busy. Then, when Galina began to talk to choreographer Peggy Willis-Aarnio, she realized that this woman understood the principles of Vaganova training.

The Prima Ballerina Absoluta with her friend Peggy-Willis Aarnio.

Peggy Willis-Aarnio had, since 1972, been a teacher at the Dance Division at the Department of HPER at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. So Galina flew to Texas.

"There were many who professed to use the Vaganova method but they all turned out to be fakes. This lady called us, we couldn't be serious about this little town in Texas. But after a few words I realized this lady is a professional, she knows the language.

"I cancelled two performances and flew out to meet her. My manager thought I was crazy. Peggy gave me a lesson and I said thank goodness I have finally found a choreographer who can train me," said Galina.

Galina says its a question of proper, balanced lessons in classical ballet. "If you think of the human body as an aeroplane. There's no French, German, English or Russian way to land a plane, there's just the laws of physics.

"Classical ballet died outside Russia in the 20s but Vaganova preserved it and expanded it. She formulated a unique and perfect system and so preserved and saved classical ballet," she added.

Galina, who today lives in fashionable Kensington, London, is surprisingly ordinary. Sipping coffee in the lounge at the Grande Hotel Europe, I was confronted by a relaxed and modest woman, dressed in a simple track suit and trainers. I had been expecting an arrogant diva to draw up in a black limousine, give me 15 minutes of her time and then be whisked off to another pressing engagement.

She enjoys life and eats what she wants, although she believes in healthy living. Plenty of exercise, relaxation, whole wheat spaghetti, honey, not too much fruit and no caffeine.

Does she get homesick for Russia? Galina said, "When you have a circle of Russians around you, and there are enough living in London, you feel quite at home.

"You don't miss a country, you miss the people that surrounded you, your friends. And then I make a point of returning here each summer to recharge. The West is fast, materialistic. Here I find myself doing more spiritual things, like sitting in beautiful churches and being at peace.

"People ask if I'll ever return to Russia for good? I answer, only for love!"

"People have asked me will I ever come back to Russia to live. What will make me return. I joke that I'll only come back for love. People misunderstand why I left in the first place. It was not because I quarrelled with the Kirov's artistic director Oleg Vinogradov.

"I had done everything in the Kirov's repertoire, the borders opened up and I wanted to expand my own personal borders. It is so exciting when you learn there's a completely different and new world out there which had been closed to us for so long," Galina said.

Since 1990, when Mezentseva made her debut as guest artist with The Scottish Ballet, audiences around the world have seen her dance works by choreographers Peter Darell, John Cranko and George Balanchine. In 1991 she returned to Russia to dance Balanchines's ballet "Who Cares."

Galina Mezentseva and Emyl Faskhudinov in "Rhapsody on a Love Theme"

Galina also turned her hand to a new ballet choreographed by Peggy Willis-Aarnio "Rhapsody on a Love Theme" to music by Rachmaninoff for her guest appearance with Askold Makarov's St Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theater.

"Someone once asked me if it was easier dancing when I was 25 than it is now at 40. I can say its easier now because I have grown emotionally and know better how to interpret a role. At 25 I didn't know how to reserve and save my energy. I would do 30 fouettes (twirls) and come off stage exhausted. Now I save my energy, its all about balance."

For most people, Galina Mezentseva is recognized as the world's most famous swan, whether as Odette in Maurice Petipa's "Swan Lake" or as Mikhail Fokin's "The Dying Swan."

She is one of the few ballet dancers today who can make death and suffering look terrible and tragic and at the same time look graceful and beautiful. There is a way to carry yourself in life and there's a way to carry yourself in death and Mazentseva takes to the role and interprets its with her inner soul and makes it look as easy as water running off a duck's back.

She has learnt much of her technique from Vaganova coach Olga Moiseyeva, who took her under her wing in the lonely days when she first came to St Petersburg.

"It was Mikhail Barishnikov who pointed me out to her. I was shy and lost and he noticed me and said, "look, this girl's got what it takes."

From that moment Moiseyeva became like a second mother to Galina. She herself was a student of Vaganova and passed on what she had learnt from her to Galina.

"All those who could have passed on this information went to the West. Most of them lost it and the chain was broken. Now, I have to preserve 250 years of tradition and keep it alive in the West and pass on what I have learnt to those who will follow me."

Galina Mezentseva in "The Legend of Love"
*NB Performances can be cancelled and changed at the last minute and are subject to booking through agency Russian Fair, tel 264- 5870/311-0314. Performances usually start from 6.30pm.

© 1995 St Petersburg Press