Born in 1962 to a prominent Russian-Latvian artistic clan, Andris Liepa was already an established soloist at the Bolshoi under the direction of legendary Soviet choreographer Yuri Grigorovich in the 1980’s. In the heady days of perestroika in 1988, he became the first Soviet dancer to work officially in a foreign ballet company. In the United States, he danced for the New York City Ballet alongside Nina Ananiashvili before working with Mikhail Baryshnikov , Kenneth MacMillan and George Balanchine. In 1989, he returned to the Soviet Union to dance for the Kirov Ballet and star in performances in La Scala, l’Opera de Paris, Rome and Swedish operas. In 1993 he successfully revived in Russia The Firebird, Petrouchka and Scheherazade – three Michel Fokine masterpieces that until then had been performed exclusively in the West as part of Sergey Diaghilev’s Les Saisons Russes in the early 20th century. In 1997 together with his sister Ilze, also a ballet dancer, he founded the Marius Liepa Charity Fund in honor of their father, the legendary Soviet ballet star. Now he is gaining renown as a talented producer and director.
You were the first Soviet ballet dancer who was allowed to work abroad. How did it happen?
Many of our dancers had performed abroad, but I was the first to get official permission to work in the United States. Moreover, I was allowed to work in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s company. Don’t forget that in 1988 and before then, the mere mention of Baryshnikov’s name was forbidden. He, Nureyev, Makarova, the Panovs, Godunov – they were all considered traitors to the motherland. Their rights as USSR citizens were revoked and they were personae non grata. Once on tour in Vienna with the Bolshoi two of our dancers went to see White Nights, a film that starred Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Over the next two years these two dancers couldn’t leave Russia simply because they were spotted watching that film.
So how was it then that you were granted the right to work with Baryshnikov?
Well, the situation was rather unusual – it was the very beginning of perestroika. And as I remember it, this was the time when people feared not taking any action. During Soviet times everyone was terrified to make innovations. But when Gorbachev came to power they became afraid of not doing something positive or even progressive, otherwise they might’ve been considered stagnant and inert. In other words, jobs were lost for not doing, rather than doing certain things. So during those transition years those who took initiative became masters of the situation since they were the ones bringing changes.
Was there some luck involved?
I think it was one of those hit or miss cases. Life very often gives us various chances and opportunities, and if we don’t take advantage of them at the right moment, they rarely turn up again. In my life I always tried to grab those opportunities, even if I wasn’t sure whether I’d win or lose. By that time I was already well-established at the Bolshoi, could just cruise for the next decade and still end my career as the principal Bolshoi soloist. But as a Capricorn, I get bored when things come easy. I’d been working at the Bolshoi for eight years and throughout it all I’d been trying to achieve a certain status. This all came together in the last year and a half there. Maybe it wasn’t the best I could do, but the situation became very static and unlikely to bring anything new. More important, it was the right thing to do from the perspective of creative work. The era of Yuri Grigorovich was coming to an end and after that there was just an afterglow. His best productions were behind him and by 1988 I made the decision to quit. After that some revivals were held at the Bolshoi, like La Bayadere and Le Corsaire, but these were nothing compared to what they did in [celebrated choreographer Vladimir] Vasilyev’s time when my father was still working there. I faced a similar situation at the American Ballet Theatre. I joined it, as it turned out, in Baryshnikov’s last year there. The theatre was the best troupe in the US. I really liked Balanchine’s company, but as a dancer and as an artist I considered it very important to work with Baryshnikov. I tried hard to learn as much as possible from him. He mounted Swan Lake for me, his last project with the American Ballet Theatre. He helped me rehearse for Chopiniana.
‘Firebird’ Andris Liepa and Nina Ananiashvili
When you came back from the US, was your performance much different from before?
When I came back from the United States I was already a completely different person… There’s a maxim that American dancers often go to Europe, let’s say to England, and then come back after making a career overseas. To prove their talent the British do the exact same thing by going to the States. I guess when you leave, something happens in the minds of those who stay. If you achieve success in another country, you become much more appreciated at home. Something interesting happened to me when I was trying to obtain Latvian citizenship exactly 10 years after coming back from the States. A theatre in Latvia we were working with, the Latvian National Opera, nominated me for honorary citizenship. When I finally got it, journalists started coming up with all sorts of stories. At first they said that I decided to stay and then said that I’d never come back to Russia. I think something similar happened to Maya Plisetskaya when she left for Lithuania.
Michel Fokine, whose ballets you are now reviving, always went against the flow. What about you?
In general I do go against the flow. In 1993 everyone, including my mom, was telling me that I was completely insane to rescue these ballets from the dustbin of history. My mom herself has been involved with the theatre all her life, since she was an actress, but when I told her I was planning to bring Petrouchka, The Firebird and Scheherazade back to life I saw disappointment in her eyes. To be honest, I even wrote her a letter to explain everything… but told her to open it only after the premiere.
What is the story behind your revival of Les Saisons Russes?
The idea occurred to me in New York where I watched ballets from Diaghilev’s repertoire revived by Robert Joffrey, one of the unique ballet directors in the States, who I knew personally. One day I went to San Michele, an island in Venice where Diaghilev and Stravinsky were buried. There I became positive about reviving ballets not necessarily staged by Fokine, but simply from the age of Diaghilev. Incidentally, this year is the centennial of Les Saisons Russes. In 1906 Diaghilev brought the first exhibition of Russian portrait painting to Paris. Then there were a number of other exhibitions, which were followed in 1908 by Russian opera, symphonic music, and finally ballet. Shalyapin, Nijinsky, Karsavina and many other outstanding Russians took part in Les Saisons Russes.
Was it difficult to revive the ballets?
It’s impossible to imagine how many difficulties we encountered in 1992. In those years hardly anything could be bought in Russia. From a tour to Taiwan I bought all the necessary fabrics that were later used for Ilze’s shalwars in Scheherazade and a costume for the Golden Slave. I even bought feathers there. Artist Anatoly Nezhny and I had a lot of trouble with Scheherazade’s bed curtains. We decided to use parachute silk for them but it didn’t absorb any color. The paint was going through the silk but the fabric remained white. And then I remembered how we used to refill markers with ethyl green. So I asked my assistant to go the pharmacy and buy 3 boxes of the liquid. The poor girl almost got into trouble for that because people at the pharmacy decided that she had some clandestine dealings by getting so much medicine and then reselling it. She then burst into tears, started saying that she would get fired if she didn’t get the 3 boxes. In the end, everything turned out fine; we put all the liquid into a huge bucket, let the silk soak in it, and in 3 or 4 hours it acquired just the right color. These bed curtains are still used by Mariinsky when it goes on tour.
So how about last year’s ballets?
Everything has become simpler. You go to the store and buy all you need, or order it and it arrives in a couple of months. We got so much pleasure out of working on Dieu Bleu. We decided not to look into the materials that painter Leon Bakst himself used. Instead we scanned his works and printed them directly on the fabric. The result looks as if Bakst himself had painted it.
Rather than a precise portrayal, Scheherazade is more a product of Russian perception of the East. In your opinion, is this clear to all audiences?
Well, what you’ve said is true, but the irony is that if you ask foreigners for some oriental music, they very often suggest Scheherazade. Those who know the Orient well are also aware that the ballet and real eastern music are completely different. But nonetheless, it is an amazing processing of the material. Once I worked with Vasilyev to mount a tango performance…I was slightly nervous when we had to dance tango in Teatro Colon [in Buenos Aires], the biggest theatre in Latin America, to the music by [Astor] Piazolla with 3,500 people in the audience. After the first performance they clamored for an encore. We had 6 perfomances in Teatro Colon and we were doing an encore every single time. And these people do know what tango is about, they have it in their blood; but they were curious to see how we perceived it, how we adapt the classical tango to modern dances.
You worked both in the Kirov and in the Bolshoi. How are they different?
It is like red and black caviar. Both are a delicacy… In Russia we value black caviar more, but overseas red is just as good. And there are some people who don’t like black caviar at all. They say red caviar has a more refined taste.
But where did you enjoy working more?
Every place I worked was attractive in its own way. It was interesting to work in Helsinki with the company that staged The Nutcracker by Grigorovich, with Maurice Bejart, with the New York City Ballet, or to dance in Nureyev’s productions. I’ll use one quote from Baryshnikov which has become a sort of credo of some sort: commenting about one situation he said that he was at such age and in such a position that he could allow himself not to do something that he didn’t want to do. I think I’ve reached the same point too.
What are the projects you are working on now?
Saying that we have a lot of projects is like not saying anything at all. One unique project is organizing a New Year’s celebration here in Gostiny Dvor. The theme [for 2006] is Paris.
What about the theme for next year?
Maybe London. But maybe we’ll even do two separate parties: one in Gostiny Dvor, for the young crowd, and one in Manezh. But my most cherished dream is [a full revival of] Les Saisons Russes and taking them on tour to Europe. There are ballets, but there are operas as well. I would really like to work on Boris Godunov and even more on The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. We have already produced it in the Kirov. We used [Soviet illustrator Ivan] Bilibin’s design; it was an absolutely fantastic project. And the music is written by Rimsky-Korsakov, whom I consider one of the most unique Russian composers.
Model of the decoration scheme for ‘Blue God’
I have also heard about a project with Maya Plisetskaya.
Well, this is already my personal project. This was a year dedicated to her. It so happened that we took an active part in publishing a book ‘Ave Maya’.
What are your other projects for the year?
For 2006, it would’ve been my father’s 70th birthday. I really want to organize a project in his honor and to continue doing what he started with us. Maybe we should start passing some of our experience to the youth. A year ago we sent a letter to Luzhkov with a request to provide space for a school. I heard all the papers were signed. This school is not the most important goal, but all of us, me, Ilze and my wife Katya, would be happy to contribute to the raising of the new generation of artists.