Interview with Stanko Milov
Principal, Pacific Northwest Ballet
July 2nd, 2002
Sadler’s Wells Theatre Lobby
It took some time to track down Stanko Milov. I was wandering around the warren of corridors backstage at Sadler’s Wells Theatre asking anyone that might conceivably be connected with PNB where I could find the principal dancer. Company members wondered how I had managed to miss him at the end of morning class. Milov is statuesque – well over six feet tall – and, according to Margo Spellman, PNB’s Marketing and PR Director, you definitely know when it is him coming down the corridor. It’s hard to walk quietly when you weigh 200 pounds, he has told her. Any fears that he was avoiding me quickly dispersed when I finally collided with the dancer. He has the charm and looks of an aristocratic Bulgarian – square jaw, high cheek bones and proud bearing – and the openness and affability of your average American. Deliciously glistening with post-class perspiration, he submitted willingly to my line of questioning.
Milov joined PNB in 1999 just after the company’s first tour to London. He trained at Bulgaria’s top ballet school, named somewhat confusingly the State Choreographic School, which feeds into the National Theatre for Opera and Ballet in Sofia in much the same way as the Royal Ballet School feeds into Covent Garden. It was a logical first step for a dancer of Milov’s quality to join the one major ballet company in Bulgaria. The standard of teaching is high in Sofia and, not surprisingly, Russian in inspiration. “It’s a very Vaganova method of training – very much Kirov Ballet - and really a mixture of Russian and French styles,” Milov believes. Teachers are specifically trained for their careers at a special university institution. If he had stayed in Sofia he would have been largely happy dancing the traditional, classical repertoire but Milov’s hunger to experiment brought him to the US. Only now is the Opera and Ballet Company acquiring a work by the choreographer most frequently used as a measure of progress: Balanchine. “I don’t even know which one it is – I just heard about it. But I was very excited by it since it’s at least some kind of progress,” the dancer enthuses.
Soon after graduating from ballet school Milov happened to be standing in the US Embassy in Sofia and clutching a recording of his dancing when a visiting choreographer from Pittsburgh took an interest in him. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater had a strong connection with the school and Milov had made no secret of his intention to get to the States. “I like many choreographers. I have been trained with the great classical ballets with a very Russian influence. And that’s why I went to the United States – because I also wanted to learn Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato and ……things of this sort,” he explains. “I like a balance of the two – that’s the only way you can become a good and balanced dancer.” Added to that, as in many ex-Communist countries, underfunding has prompted many gifted dancers to go abroad. He was soon invited to join the Pittsburgh company by its then Artistic Director, the former New York City Ballet dancer, Patricia Wilde. He jumped ship in 1999 to join PNB. Co-Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell invited him to Seattle to dance Balanchine’s “Theme and Varitations” and he was immediately hooked on the company. “I saw that it was an amazing company. Pittsburgh was also a big company at the time but PNB was much more stable and much more recognised.”
So what does he think of his choice three years on? He’s content: Kent and Francia are “great people” and as a US citizen now, his future life is quite definitely going to be lived out in the States. “Kent and Francia are both the kind of people that create the nurturing environment that you enjoy being in.” He believes that this nurturing has made the company great and that: “ the greatness of a company is not only judged or gauged by the quality of its dancers – it’s important to have a good morale and very good atmosphere to work in. That’s what enticed me in the first place. It’s way too difficult to have to struggle, you know.” Plus he loves Seattle itself and believes: “we have one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” Of course, the other reason that he came to PNB was for the diverse repertory of the company. How does that square with the large number of Nutcrackers churned out by the company each year, I wonder? “Well of course there’s ‘The Nutcracker’. It’s a ‘must’ in America.” He is defensive but also self-mocking: “I know it’s nothing like that here [in the UK]. But there [Seattle] we have Nutcracker in June.” Of course, the average audience for ‘The Nutcracker’ is very different than for other ballets. “Nutcracker is Nutcracker and, as far as they are concerned, there is nothing else but Nutcracker.” That ‘The Nutcracker’ sustains the company financially is borne out by the figures. “That’s the way it is. It’s the moneymaker of the company. It’s….unfortunate…..but if it helps the company to survive and to strive towards new heights….then, why not?”
PNB continues to maintain his interest because he is allowed to experiment. He recently choreographed for senior pupils at the PNB School – a fully orchestrated piece for two couples, set to his own music, which he describes as “neo-classical, minimalist music.” Will he be choreographing more in the future? He would like to do more but it takes so much out of him. His reticence is hardly surprising since it seems that he was practically banging nails into the scenery himself for the production. “It had my name all across the work,” he laughs. One can imagine the programme for ‘Eclipse’ – ‘Choreographed by, directed by, staged by and designed by Stanko Milov with music by Stanko Milov.’ Is he maybe moving that way as his career progresses? “I feel very much [just] a dancer now but you have to be well-rounded. I cannot tell you exactly what I am going to do in the future but I am way too involved in dance to go in a different direction completely. I mean, I like all aspects of the [dance] business. I am fascinated by it.”
Milov doesn’t believe that he choreographs in a PNB style. In fact he is not convinced that PNB has a distinct style. “A lot of companies in America, and PNB is one of them, have been influenced by Balanchine, producing dancers with nice feet and legs. But other than that, I think PNB is a group of very good dancers and every single person has something to offer and not just a uniform style. Nowadays everyone comes from everywhere and the style is just to enjoy what you’re doing and give of your best.” It’s a recurring theme in the interview that Milov wants to give every performance his best shot and, mixing his metaphors somewhat, he wants to “please the audience to the end…till the last straw.” The audience is all important. Eventhough many of the UK critics panned the opening night performance of Stowell’s ‘Silver Lining’, Milov thought the night was a great success because from where ‘he’ was dancing, the audience was having a good time and that’s what counts the most. I wonder how much he really knows about the audience’s immediate response during a performance. “Are you kidding? I can feel it. That’s the most important thing. When the audience gives a good response you get energy. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why you’re dancing – to make the audience jump on their seats afterwards.” It is no surprise, then, that one of his great inspirations is that consummate crowd-pleaser, Irek Mukhamedov.
Unfortunately the critics in the audience were not jumping on their seats during ‘Silver Lining’ and certain critics (who shall remain nameless) did not even clap. But then those critics never do. He tries to be generous to the damned souls who do not clap – “audiences express themselves differently in different places” - but I pointed out that the critics and the rest of the audience frequently differ in their respective levels of appreciation of any one production. Milov is amazed that Nederlands Dance Theater received the same froideur in London from the critics. (He would have been proud of other members of the audience that were ‘almost’ jumping on their seats.) “Oh, they’re beautiful dancers and Lightfoot and Kylian are, well, geniuses. What didn’t they [the critics] like?” We really didn’t have time for me to expand on the topic. I was more interested in what dancers think of the critics. “It’s always interesting to read the opinion of a single person,” he tells me before returning to his favourite theme, the audience: “but I know that does not represent everybody. I think a dancer should just concentrate on doing his best and to try to entice as many people in the audience as he can.” He admits that reviews can help the company: someone might be drawn to see a production they might not otherwise have known about if they read something interesting in the newspaper. Does that mean that there is, in his opinion, a duty on critics to write positively to bring audiences into the auditorium? “There has to be some kind of connection between what you guys write and what we do on stage because it is very much about sponsorship. You guys have the right to say whatever you want though. But it has to be backed up by the facts. Why do you hate it? You cannot just say it is horrible – that is not, in fact, a review.” Milov thinks that the choreographers, because they are artists trying to communicate their vision to the audience, are unlikely to be swayed by the negative opinions of critics. Their vision is their vision!
Picking up on the sponsorship theme, I asked whether the poor opening reviews for PNB in London would, in fact, register with another important sector of the audience, the sponsors. Could the reviews cause a problem for PNB raising money for future tours? Milov thinks the poor reviews will make the task of introducing potential new sponsors a good deal more difficult. “It’s going to be much harder to convince them to watch the [video] tape. So it’s important for you guys to support the companies that come here. That helps them in the future with their PR and marketing.” When I interview Milov we have not had round 2 of the reviews – those for the mixed programme. It seems that our reputation in the UK precedes us, since Milov believes that: “in Europe people like the full-length ballets. It takes time for people to get used to, to find excitement in, a short piece ie to find excitement in the energy of the dance rather than just in specific steps and the technical aspects of the piece.”
A touring week is a tough week for any dancer, with classes and rehearsals crammed into each day before the evening’s performance. Margo Spellman soon appeared to whisk Milov backstage to rehearse that evening’s excerpt pas de deux from ‘Le Corsiare’ and, as I watched his long legs stride away, I speculated that he would have to circle the stage at least twice as many times as the Kirov’s Farouk Ruzimatov in order to notch up the same number of jumps.