A New Breed of Kirovian:
by Catherine Pawlick
2006 -- Mariinsky Ballet, St. Petersburg, Russia
Change in Russia is slow to take place. This is true as much in politics as in any other area of society, and ballet is no exception. It is not news that the past 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union have slowly fostered a growing openness to Western influences and ideas, both positive and negative, some quicker to take root than others. In the realm of art, and ballet specifically, the free exchange of choreographers both to and from the West continues to influence the Maryinsky theatre and its dancers. In fact, the new atmosphere has become fertile ground for a new breed of dancer that is only now appearing in the theatre: dancers unconstrained by classicism, open to modern choreography, absorbing all of it like thirsty sponges, and excelling in the latest models of dance and movement. Anton Pimonov, currently a member of the Maryinsky corps de ballet, exemplifies the new variety.
Quietly going about his daily work in the theatre, Pimonov has already been singled out to dance Forsythe works in St. Petersburg and abroad. On June 8, 2005, he was called to dance “Approximate Sonata” in a gala benefit in Israel, as well as “Nanou”, a piece choreographed by Maryinsky resident choreographer and repititeur Alexei Miroshnichenko. “Nanou” is set to catchy, clockwork-like music by Aphex Twin that sounds like a new-age music box doll, with slowing and speeding tempos within the short piece.
Watching him at work in the studio for “Nanou”, Pimonov’s abilities are readily apparent. He has a strongly centered torso, allowing him to perform isolated arm or leg movements and then be pulled in another direction altogether in a span of a few seconds. He has a capacity for fluid, unbreakable line, speed and high coordination. The four minute “Nanou” is an exhausting, constant battle to complete steps that demand precise timing, balance and musicality. He ends the piece lying down, flat on the floor, breathless.
"This is a hard solo," he says, afterwards, a bit breathless and still sweaty from the run-through. "It's hard on the body, it's an issue of strength, you're constantly moving positions." Not to mention that this rehearsal takes place at 4 p.m. on a holiday, after last night's performance, yesterday's rehearsals, and another full day in the studio already behind him.
Does he ever relax? "I don't have free time," he explains. "If I do, I usually sleep." But somehow, his energy doesn’t end.
Nearly a year after his "Nanou" efforts, I spoke to Pimonov during a break between rehearsals in the back halls of the Maryinsky theatre. This time he has been chosen to dance the leading role of Akaki in Noah Gelber's "The Overcoat" -- part of Valery Gergiev's year-long ode to Stravinsky, whose works are used as the score for the innovative ballet. We sit on the couches on the second floor outside the two largest main rehearsal studios. Dancers pass by as we talk, frequently checking the ever-changing rehearsal board for the latest updates. Pimonov is downing water in between breaths as we begin the interview.
Unassuming, friendly, and easily approachable, without any of the diva-like behavior that may be known to plague some of his colleagues, Pimonov explains that he was born in Volgograd, far from St. Petersburg. His dancing career was not his own idea. Rather, it was spurred by his mother’s choice, hoping for a solid job path for her son. She took Pimonov on the long journey to Leningrad to audition for the Vaganova School at age 9, where he was accepted and remained until graduation. He lived apart from her, in the school dormitories, and she later relocated to the city to be near him. Of his early school days he says he has few memories. In fact, he didn’t even expect to join the company.
”Because it’s so competitive, so challenging, I just didn’t think it would happen. I wanted to be accepted into the Maryinsky, certainly, but didn't think I would end up here. Another company yes, but not here.”
In addition to his polite, friendly manner, what separates Pimonov from some of his counterparts is his style of movement and even his choreographic preferences. This young dancer, surrounded each day by the birthplace of classical ballet, in fact prefers modern choreographers, stating that he will dance the classics “just to stay in shape.” His first taste of Forsythe was akin to the forbidden fruit. His face lights up at the memory, as if we were talking about one's favorite childhood toy. “It was perfect, I loved it,” he says with a sparkle in his eye.
When asked about what he would like to dance, he emphasizes that his greatest desire is to continuously learn and dance new roles, though he is less quick to mention anything concrete. However, several pieces have caught his eye – Mats Ek’s “Apartments” and Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake”. “I’d just like to try new things,” he explains. “In school I wanted to try everything, always something new.”
He mentions that while the company had Neuemeier in the repertoire at one point, it was only for a brief period. "With time I am sure we will have other modern choreography aside from Forsythe. I hope we will – not just to experiment with them, not just for a few performances, but as a permanent part of our repertoire," he says. It is an issue for the Maryinsky that not every new ballet that is performed stays on their annual program lists.
Typically, leaving one's company to dance elsewhere is a one-way trip. Even in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, one feels hesitant to raise such a subject within the halls of the Maryinsky. But if there was an invitation to dance in another company, Pimonov he says he wouldn't be adverse to the idea. "It's possible to discuss it with the administration. To take a year off, or two, dance with another company and return," he explains, matter-of-factly.
It is evident that Pimonov is content with things as they are now. So I ask him what, if anything, he would change about the internal processes of the Maryinsky theatre. He is quick to reply: the salary inequalities. "Often you have a dancer who dances twice as much, who works harder, and receives the same salary. I would iron that out," he says with a half-smile, as if one could wave a magic wand and change a centuries-old system.
Pimonov is aware of dancers' short careers, especially in Russia, where the options for a transition into other professions or other types of dance after age 40 are limited. Pimenov has dreams of his own. "It would be wonderful to have my own company some day," he says. "But there is little demand in this city now for that."
Fifteen years ago, we might not have imagined dancers such as Pimonov as resident artists within the Maryinsky theatre. Fifteen years from now, perhaps we will be able to say we would not have imagined such a man, a classical dancer with a bent for modern choreography with his own St. Petersburg company. Time will tell.
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