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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ninochka Savors Life at Bolshoi

Having The New York Times routinely call you "wonderful," "delightful," "magnificent," "miraculous," "powerful" and "majestic" would probably persuade most performers to stick around the Big Apple.

But Nina Ananiashvili seems to prefer being called by the plain name she hears from the grey-haired babushkas who guard the back stage entrance to Moscow's Bolshoi Theater. They just call her "Ninochka."

Ananiashvili, who has remained at the Bolshoi Theater throughout a career that requires her to commute regularly to London, Tokyo and New York, is the most important Russian ballet dancer of her generation who has not emigrated to the West.

At 36, she is a principal with the American Ballet Theater in New York, the choreographic muse of Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson and the prima of her own troupe, performing chamber ballets around the globe with some of Russia's top young stars.

"Everyone thinks I don't live in Russia. Everyone thinks I live someplace else. But my home is in Moscow," she said in an interview in a backstage dressing room.

Why? Maybe because what may be "majestic" or "miraculous" in New York or London is never quite good enough for the uncompromising ballet masters at the Bolshoi.

"I always return home. I always return to my theater. And I always have my teachers, who tell me, 'Nina you have to do this. Go back and do it this way. This is not so good. You need to do better! Da da da da da!'"

She greeted this correspondent in a sweaty tutu after an all-day rehearsal for a premiere of works choreographed by George Balanchine, then quickly excused herself to change. She reappeared in a long black skirt, black boots and a black shawl. With jet-black hair, deeply set black eyes and the porcelain skin common in her native Georgia, she clearly knows that the color suits her.

Though she is beautiful, the overall impression is not of the glamour of a prima ballerina, but of grace, youth and a touch of whimsy f what the Times called a combination of "childlike charm with dynamic force."

Ananiashvili says she was lucky to be born at the right time. Previous generations of Russian ballet dancers faced a difficult choice f stay at home in the Soviet Union or defect. But she savors the opportunity to enjoy fame and creative freedom without giving up her ties to home.

But post-Soviet times have not been easy for the theater she loves.

The Bolshoi Theater is now perennially strapped for cash, even though most tickets are sold for high prices by scalpers and "agencies." They get the tickets through a byzantine allocation system and pay the theater a pittance.

A number of sub-par tours by ad-hoc troupes have used the Bolshoi name, tarnishing its image abroad. But most of the criticism has come from the Russian press for maintaining a conservative, some say stodgy, repertoire of classics.

The Balanchine premiere was a small step toward changing that. One of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, Balanchine was officially scorned by Soviet authorities. The Bolshoi's technical polish and dramatic flair are a fine setting for his austere, demanding choreography.

But Ananiashvili says those who expect an outpouring of experimentation from the Bolshoi are missing the point. Nothing can take the place of the great romantic classics of Russian ballet.

Part of the reason the classics may have fallen out of favor, Ananiashvili says, is that too many young dancers focus on athleticism and technique, rather than on passion and drama.

"If you see a performance, and it grabs you here, and you want to weep f something happens to you, and you get goose bumps and shivers crawling up your skin," she says. "Then you will sit and watch, and you will come back to the theater."