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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi's Exiled Prince Resurrects Lost Ballets

ST. PETERSBURG -- High up in Mariinsky Theater, in a sunlit rehearsal studio with cracked plaster ceilings, choreographer Andrius Liepa takes a veteran dancer and a prima ballerina through a pas de deux two days before they are to dance "Giselle." The dancer, showing off his powerful leaps, is gently scolded.


"Don't jump higher than Altanai," Liepa tells him. "Remember, you are a gentleman."


A few run-throughs later, Liepa gives the pair a breather. The pianist leaves for coffee, her high heels clicking in sharp contrast to the slippered tread of the dancers.


"In the West everything is different," Liepa says, gesturing down to stroke the old oak floorboards, worn and uneven in places. "There you dance on linoleum and everything must be perfect. But the spirit is missing."


Liepa, 32, speaks from experience. He began his career at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, where he spent six years as a quintessential principal dancer of the Russian stage, performing the role of prince in classical ballets like "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." His success came in spite of the longstanding open hostility of artistic director Yury Grigorovich towards his father, Marius Liepa, a magnificent dancer who was renowned for his performance of Crassus in "Spartacus," a role he was the first to perform.


The younger Liepa left Russia in 1986, abetted by glasnost and Gorbachev's relaxed policies. Once abroad, he did the requisite tour, dancing as a guest soloist with half a dozen major companies, including the Paris Opera and La Scala, with a longer two-year stint at the American Ballet Theater with Mikhail Baryshnikov.


But just as his career was being made in the elite ranks of celebrity guest performers who can earn small fortunes -- between $3,000 and $5,000 an appearance -- jetting from one concert to another, Liepa says he felt a summons to come back to Russia.


"What really brings me back is spiritual," he says. "A spirit which comes from the earth. I can do incredible things here. In the United States, I am a good worker, a talented boy, I can do things, usual things. But here I can create."


His time in the United States, Liepa says, taught him to take risks and act on his own initiative -- something he had never learned in Russia. This new self-reliance is what gave him the courage to come back to Russia and start work as a balletmaster and a choreographer.


Liepa has not come back empty-handed. He has brought the Russian choreographic heritage of the 20th century with him. Both George Balanchine and Mikhail Fokine, creators of some of the most spectacular works in contemporary ballet, were Russians from the Mariinsky Theater who went into exile after the revolution rather than serve the Bolsheviks.


This May, Liepa was able to realize Fokine's dream when two of the late choreographer's masterpieces, "Scheherazade" and "Firebird," went into the Mariinsky repertoire for the first time, in Liepa's careful recreation. "We're calling the project 'The Return of the Firebird,'" he says. "We're bringing back to the Mariinsky Theater the Russian ballets that were taken to the West at the beginning of the century, in the 'Saisons Russes' of Diaghilev." Impresario Sergei Diaghilev's annual Parisian extravaganzas, held from 1909 to 1913, are considered the beginning of modern ballet.


"This project is important for Russian ballet and for people too," Liepa says, adding that he sees the plot of "Firebird" as a parable for modern Russia. In this one-act ballet, Ivan-Tsarevich frees the Russian people from the terrible reign of Kochi the Undead with the help of the Firebird.


"No matter how difficult life becomes in Russia, everything will be all right later. It is a message of hope in difficult times," Liepa says.


Liepa himself brilliantly dances the role of Ivan-Tsarevich, a shining, fair-haired embodiment of the young and just Russian prince. But he dances less often now, because of a knee injury and growing responsibilities. It is a change he does not regret.


"When I got injured I realized that life has more in it than just dancing yourself. When I was dancing I didn't think or care about anybody else and was focused on myself," Liepa says. "Sometimes I was unhappy about what was happening on stage, but I couldn't do anything about it. As a director, artistic possibilities are much greater for me and I can share the knowledge I picked up in the West."


The studio door opens, and the mirror reflects on all sides a pretty 18-year-old who has come to Liepa for "Firebird" guidance. They dance together to music from a portable video player. Liepa is severe with her after what he sees as an empty demonstration of classical technique.


"Every movement has words, meaning. I talked you through every movement of this variation. You're not such a great ballerina to simply dance. You have to think to each movement," he says. The dancer leaves chastised but grateful, with a small curtsy.


In the empty studio, Liepa explains his teaching philosophy.


"I don't like to make people -- I like to make them find something in themselves, to express themselves better. If the teacher is too precise, the student is lost, always thinking, 'what movement should I do next?' I want to find the individuality in everyone."


Although Grigorovich's presence at the Bolshoi precludes any possible return to the Bolshoi stage, Liepa says he has been content since his return to Russia two years ago at the invitation of Mariinsky artistic director Oleg Vinogradov.


"All old theaters like the Mariinsky, the Bolshoi, the Paris Opera, La Scala have spirits," insists Liepa. "The energy of those who have worked inside of the theater. And Petipa, Pavlova and Nijinsky, Karsavina, Fokine danced and created on this stage. Absolute legends."


Liepa considers himself a patriot. "If I didn't love my country I would be another example to leave, like Baryshnikov, Makarova, Nureyev. They left the country and made a very good life for themselves. Lots of money, big houses."


But Liepa considers material advantage ought to be a secondary consideration. "I don't think the reason for life is just getting paid very well. Sometimes there is a call from above, higher than simple human decisions. Even if I am not being paid for recreating these ballets."


What drives him on through hardships, he says, is a firm faith in Russia's future.


"I do believe that we have a great future. Maybe after some difficulties, but I do believe we will have a good life. And what I am trying to do right now is create some possibilities for other dancers," he says.


Since his return to Russia, Liepa has done tremendous work. Last year he gave three performances of Fokine ballets on the Bolshoi stage to the shocked dismay of Grigorovich, who was on tour in London at the time. Since then, Liepa has directed a feature-length film of the same three ballets -- "Petrushka," "Scheherazade" and "Firebird" -- in the studios of Mosfilm. When he is not running rehearsals at the Mariinsky, he can be found poring over the archives in the Lunacharsky Theater Library, working on new decorations and staging for Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Kitezh."


He is preparing to shoot two more film-ballets, taking authenticity one step further. He would like to go on location in India to shoot "La Bayad?re" and to make a film-ballet of "Romeo and Juliet," shooting street scenes in Italy.


Andrius dreams of making his own ballets, but says that contemporary ballet choreographers all suffer from one problem: an absence of first-rate composers willing to work for ballet.


"They all go to work for film and television where the money is. And without music there is no ballet."


But Liepa still misses Moscow and his home, the Bolshoi Theater. He laments the present artistic problems.


"I don't like Grigorovich very much, but I was born as a dancer in his ballets. Though a very closed-minded person, a Stalin-era personality and a dictator, he is a rare choreographer, a sort of genius. But he is stagnant now. What is needed is a new artistic director, a younger person who could change things, someone dynamic who speaks English and knows the repertoire in the West."


For now, Moscow ballet's banished prince continues his work in Petersburg during his long exile.