In this new column, we will be spotlighting a teacher or other member of staff at the National Ballet Academy. We set the ball rolling with Grigori Tchitcherine. Grisha – as his colleagues and pupils call him – has been teaching classical ballet and character at our academy since 2001, as well as being a sought-after guest teacher with Dutch National Ballet, for example, and with the company where he began his dancing career, the Mariinsky Ballet. “It would be impossible for me not to pass on everything that others – teachers and choreographers – have ‘put into’ me”.
Anatoli Nisnevitch was the first male Russian dancer to perform with Dutch National Ballet, in 1966, as the partner of Natalia Makarova in Giselle. Many years later, this Anatoli – then a teacher at the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg – was to inspire the young Grigori Tchitcherine. “My love of teaching began with him. Right from the start, I was crazy about him and wanted to become just like him. In his classes, he was inexhaustible, never reacting with irritation or despair and never seeming to tire. He always gave you his full attention and energy – every second. And it was evident he was working towards something in his classes. The structure was very clear, and with no need for words you understood why he did certain things and how they were linked to the teaching material that followed. So as a young dancer, it gave you the confidence that things would be okay, that you were working systematically towards something and that you would get there. I’m incredibly happy I was able to experience that. It was fantastic”.
Nowadays, when Grisha teaches in St Petersburg, colleagues and dancers still tease him about it, he says. “They joke, ‘Oh, you’re just like Anatoli!’ I’m not, but I do still work according to his principles. A good lesson structure is essential, particularly in an academy. And that structure shouldn’t be kept secret. I try to involve every student in the process by continually explaining everything I do: ‘I’m doing this, so that two months later we’ll achieve that’. The road to becoming a professional dancer is a long one. So it’s good to at least understand why you do what you do for all those years”.
If it had been up to Grisha (born 48 years ago in St Petersburg), he would never have ended up in the dance world. “I wanted to be a first-class gymnast, but I didn’t pass the audition for the school I wanted to go to”. His mother, who in turn had once been turned down for a dance school, saw her opportunity. “Apparently purely by chance, during a walk, we came to Rossi Street, where she pointed out the Vaganova Academy. She said that I could also do very athletic movements there”.
At the age of nine, Grisha started pre-ballet classes at the Vaganova Academy. “At first, I thought it was very boring – taking ten seconds to do one movement at the barre. But I had a teacher who soon started to give me physical challenges, which really appealed to me. There were no artistic challenges as yet; that only came when I was eleven and could take part in the performances of the Kirov Ballet (as it was called then). That’s when I realised it was for me! Then I really understood why you had to do all those boring exercises”.
As he was quite short, Grisha could dance in the Kirov performances for several consecutive years. “During those years, I saw so many fantastic dancers. They’re part of who I’ve become. I’m a combination of what my teachers have given to me and what I’ve learned from all those special dancers, plus a bit of myself as well”.
It was natural he would end up joining the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky). “For me, it was the only option; the only road open to me”. And indeed, he spent five years with the prestigious company, where he danced soloist roles like Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty, in the pas de trois in Swan Lake and Paquita, and in the peasant pas de deux in Giselle. Until, at the age of twenty-one, one of his knee ligaments snapped completely. “Not many people come back after an injury like that, and especially not in soloist roles. It was an extremely difficult recovery process, also because I got no coaching and coped all on my own”.
Fortunately, the injury was not the only major event in that period of his life. “I fell in love with a Finnish girl, who was over in St Petersburg for a teaching course”. It turned out that this girl, Sari Hyväkkö, lived in the Netherlands, in Tilburg, where she still teaches at the Fontys dance academy. “We got married without knowing where we were going to live, but eventually I decided to follow her to the Netherlands. Also because I realised it was virtually impossible to return to my previous position with the Kirov Ballet. And I needed a boost; a professional challenge”.
From 1994 to 2005, Grisha danced with Dutch National Ballet in the rank of coryphée. “In the beginning, I was in shock. At the Kirov, there were always so many no-gos – ‘No, that’s not how you do it’ – but here it seemed that people did actually do things differently and move differently”.
The initial inhibition disappeared when already in his first season he got to dance the role of Bluebird in Peter Wright’s Sleeping Beauty. “That was a personal victory; the fact that I managed that on my own after that period of major injury”. Now, with hindsight, he says, “I’m really happy I came to the Netherlands. I’ve been able to expand my horizons enormously, working with so many choreographers and dancing in so many new and innovative productions – also of the famous classics. Because of that, I’ve also been able to develop into a very versatile teacher. If I’d started teaching at the NBA straight after the Mariinsky, I’d never have known exactly what was expected of dancers in the West. It’s great to have explored both worlds”.
Grisha has now been working with the National Ballet Academy for eighteen years, where a few years back he also made an important contribution to the Vaganova Teacher Trainers Course, for classes 5, 6, 7 and 8. This training course was taken by dancers and ex-dancers like Nathalie Caris, Larissa Lezhnina, Nicolas Rapaic, Simona Ferraza, Chao Shi, Emanouela Merdjanova and Maiko Tsustumi. Grisha is also in great international demand as a guest teacher. When asked about the ten years he has now spent as a teacher at the International Mariinsky Ballet Festival, he makes a powerful arm gesture that expresses a certain sense of satisfaction, accompanied by a heartfelt ‘yes’! “It’s very special to be invited there for so many consecutive years. At the festival, dancers from the Mariinsky perform alongside star dancers from abroad”.
His other employers include Dutch National Ballet, the Youth America Grand Prix, the Académie Princesse Grace in Monte-Carlo, the Ballett-Akademie der Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich, Tanz Akademie Zürich and the Ballettschule Theater Basel. “After so many years, you know more or less what’s happening in the field of dance training, but it’s always interesting to teach at other schools. While one school might be incredibly well organised, another may have students who are extremely dedicated. Or you see pupils glowing with self-confidence at a very early age, because of the attention paid to that aspect. You can learn from all these things. Or rather we can learn”.
Grisha is involved in Dancers of Tomorrow 2019 as the répétiteur/assistant of Iva Lešic and as the répétiteur of Paquita and Bolero. You can rest assured that he was brought up on Paquita. “I was eleven when I first danced the children’s Mazurka in Paquita. For Russian ballet students, Paquita is a milestone that’s simply part of the furniture. There’s even a photo of Michel Fokine doing the Mazurka. It’s good that the National Ballet Academy has had excerpts from this ballet on its programme for years, and now for the first time is performing the whole work. As a young dancer, you can learn so much from it”.
Bolero, too, is in fact a product of Russian ballet, according to Grisha. “The choreographer, Larisa Dobrozhan, is Russian, and the other choreographer Gregor Seyffert, trained in the DDR, where the training was also very Russian-oriented, of course”.
Grisha knows already that the audience will love the choreography, in combination with Ravel’s iconic music. “The piece is constructed like a ‘class concert’, with each NBA class showing what it can do. But whereas other similar pieces often revolve around demonstrating training exercises, Bolero goes a step further. With regard to concept, staging and structure, the ballet is wonderfully constructed. Which actually makes it tough for us to rehearse, as even the youngest kids, who normally just appear in a character piece, now have to master a real classical ballet”.
Passing on the flame
Looking back on his teaching years, Grisha says, “I’m still amazed by the fact that my former teacher, Anatoli Nisnevitch, was so consistent and persevering”. He laughs, “He was like a machine, with that non-stop flow of energy he displayed. I’m still searching for a way to emulate that. At the same time, lots of the dreams I once had have come true, so I’m a fulfilled individual. Even if one day I settled down and won the lottery, I’d still carry on teaching. It would be impossible for me not to want to pass on everything that other people have ‘put into’ me. And I’m not just talking about the teachers and choreographers I’ve worked with, but also about all their predecessors. With regard to teaching dance, I firmly believe in the combination of tradition and innovation. And by tradition, I don’t mean that you keep stirring up the ‘old’, dusty ashes, but that you succeed in keeping that tradition alive. Or, as Mahler once put it so beautifully, ‘Tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame’”.
Text: Astrid van Leeuwen