Irek Mukhamedov - A Life Renewed

Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante in MacMIlan's Manon, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

As the stage lures him back once again, Irek Mukhamedov talks to Ballet Position about “performing, acting, interacting, being alive.”  

A dancer’s career is cruelly short. Actors can act into their 80s (look at Maggie Smith, Judi Dench), singers sing well into old age (Josephine Barstow currently hitting the top notes in the National Theatre’s production of Follies). Dancers, though? Theirs is the cruellest profession. And even years after leaving the theatre very few dancers ever stop craving the stage.

Irek Mukhamedov
Irek Mukhamedov

For 57-year-old Irek Mukhamedov, it’s “being on stage that’s actually quite rewarding; and it’s a kind of atmosphere, it’s a kind of the music, acting comes with the music and you live new life, maybe little bit renewed.”

We spoke in London at the end of a day when Mukhamedov had been coaching dancers at English National Ballet, where he is Guest Ballet Master. His modesty and courtesy are disconcerting in someone who reached the stratospheric heights of his career; his fluent, but accented English, peppered with the quirks of his Russian mother-tongue, is its own kind of music.

As well as coaching at ENB, Mukhamedov was preparing to return to the stage in a piece tailor-made for him by Arthur PIta for inclusion in the second iteration of Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion, a showcase for male dancing.

“It’ll be a one man show approximately 10, 12 minutes, me on stage talking, a little bit of playing music, a little be of dancing. It’s a kind of old man remembering the past. (…)

“It’s based on classical, but I’m not the prince anymore.”

Mukhamedov – The Royal Ballet Years

What a prince among dancers he was in his heyday, though! When he joined the Royal Ballet in 1990, fresh out of the Bolshoi, he brought with him the breathtaking technique required for the heroic Soviet roles in which he’d been typecast; but London added further depth to his dancing.

“I can act. I thought I could be romantic, but coming to Royal and working with Kenneth [MacMillan] on his ballets, it actually opens up even more, to become even more romantic, I understood even better Giselle after that, so I became even more dramatic, became real actor.”

Kenneth MacMillan immediately spotted his potential. The very year he arrived at the Royal Ballet, MacMillan created a pas-de-deux for Mukhamedov and another of the choreographer’s favourite dancers, Darcey Bussell, to mark the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday.

That was the genesis of Winter Dreams, MacMillan’s take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan's Winter Dreams, photo ROH
Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, photo ROH, Leslie Spatt

There’s a general consensus that Mukhamedov was the perfect vehicle for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets, in particular his darkest, most complex works, where depths of human behaviour were plumbed in roles such Mayerling’s unhinged, drug-addicted, mother-fixated Habsburg Prince Rudolf, whose life would end tragically in a murder-suicide pact. Rudolf is Mukhamedov’s favourite MacMillan role.

“It’s so demanding, demanding from beginning to end, and you had to be Rudolf, you cannot be yourself even one second, even in interval, you have to be continuing with Rudolf, otherwise you lose the plot, you lose the momentum, you lose that growing role – the role grows from beginning to the end. If you switch off, it’s very difficult to come back.”

Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan's Mayerling, The Royal Ballet
Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan’s Mayerling, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

Mayerling predates Mukhamedov’s arrival at the Royal, but one role that was created on him was that of the Foreman in MacMillan’s last – and most controversial – ballet, The Judas Tree. I wanted to hear Mukhamedov’s take on the piece and on the controversy itself.

“We talked to Viviana Durante, this work was created on both of us (…) when it was created we never ever went into a situation, ‘oh, because it’s rape we have to think about it.’ No.

“It was just simply telling the story, telling the story of one of the evenings, and the boys from a working site are enjoying themselves and this is the girl that destroyed all, but at the same time she had to be destroyed too. But she’s still alive! So, that’s kind of idea (…) and of course it’s a Kenneth MacMillan, we didn’t say, ‘well, we’re doing Romantic ballet’”.

Interviewed about The Judas Tree when first asked to dance The Foreman a few years back, Carlos Acosta said, “it messes with your head!” Did it mess with Mukhamedov’s head, I wondered?

“No, not really, it’s not messed, it’s just you go into the role, into the character. It’s very difficult afterwards to smile immediately, I can only be back to myself by next morning. With Prince Rudolf, that took even longer, because there’s even deeper to go.”

Mukhamedov – After the Royal

Mukhamedov was let go by the Royal Ballet in a staggeringly ungracious way in 2001. He seems not to bear grudges, though, and has returned to coach the current crop of Royal Principals, most recently for the programmes marking the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s premature death backstage, while Mukhamedov was dancing Rudolf.

Equally, he’s back coaching at ENB, even though his full time association with the company ended in the summer.

In the studio I’m told Mukhamedov is a very hard taskmaster towards both dancers and pianist. Is that true?

He laughs. “Well, this comes with the job. We can be a little bit relaxed, but when we do, we have to do, otherwise the body will never remember. The mind will understand probably, but the body must remember!”

"A hard task master" - Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB's Cesar Corrales
“A hard task master” – Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB’s Cesar Corrales

There is perhaps one grudge he bears. After his abrupt and rather acrimonious departure from the Bolshoi, amid the upheaval caused by the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he never went back.

“I think Russians are hard people, they probably ‘knew,’ like I ‘knew’ when Rudolf [Nureyev] left, I learned afterwards he is actually traitor, he defected, he betrayed our country, so probably the rest of the people think, me too, I’m a traitor, I betrayed the country and everything. But in the end we continued [carrying] the Russian flag of ballet up high, not hating Russia.”

Nor was he asked back. As he is keen to point out, when they left the Soviet Union his wife Masha was pregnant with their daughter, Sasha. So, Mukhamedov’s own family started in the UK.

Asked about Sasha Mukhamedov, now a Principal with Dutch National Ballet, he tries (and fails) to sound as though he’s not bursting with pride…

“I’m very happy for her success and her progress whatever she’s doing. A lot of things is in the genes. She’s just done Mata Hari, (…) she was very good acting, technician, dancer and all this, so it’s good.”

There’s also a son, now 21, being coached by his mother in her private teaching studio in France, where the Mukhamedovs now reside.

Mukhamedov – The Future

So, after an illustrious dancing career, and spells as Artistic Director in Greece and Slovenia, as well as the occasional return to the stage, what’s next for Irek Mukhamedov?

“So far I’m freelance, I’m enjoying myself, I’m travelling a lot. I started as a freelance from August, so I’ve been in Uruguay, I’ve been in Korea, I’ve been with the Royal Ballet and now ENB.”

Next it’s Amsterdam, where he’s looking forward to seeing his daughter. Any thoughts of retirement?

“No, no, no, no way!… I don’t know, [only] if somebody eventually say, I don’t need you anymore…”

They’d be fools to…

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Men in Motion is at the London Coliseum on 22nd and 23rd November at 19:30

Kim Brandstrup: The Marriage of Dance and Film

Kim Brandstrup photo Henrik Bjerregrav

Fresh from winning Britain’s National Dance Award for Best Modern Choreography, Kim Brandstrup discusses his love of dance and film.

Kim Brandstrup picks his words carefully. As carefully, in fact, as he lights upon the telling details that will bring his choreography to life.

It’s to do with his early training in, and continued love of film.

“My way of seeing is through a camera and probably I see close ups, how somebody attacks the music, where the gaze is, that slight hesitation before we move… All those little things are what I look out for.”

“Detail” is one word that recurs in our conversation, whether it focusses on dance and dancers, film, opera or theatre, where the Danish-born choreographer is in great demand.

We talk at London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre during a break in rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, for which Kim Brandstrup is Movement Director.

That choreography award, then. It was for his reading of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night for Rambert, a piece which The Guardian described as “superbly constructed, inventively musical, beautiful and profoundly humane.”

And yet, Brandstrup hesitated before taking up the commission.

“I was slightly apprehensive about the music’s emotional expressivity, I thought it may be hard to match. There are so many layers in it…

“But then I always found when you give yourself to these masterpieces suddenly they yield something completely unexpected. And it certainly did.”

He was uncertain, too, about the 19th century poem that inspired Schönberg.

“This woman who’s pregnant but she is terrified of telling her partner that it’s another man’s [child], but miraculously this man totally forgives her. And of course, I can see that being a beautiful idea at that time, but now it seems a little bit idealised.

“I think my take on it was (…) to try to find out the cost of that narrative, that it must not have been easy to forget, there must have been lack of trust, unfaithfulness.”

His narrative is, therefore, ambiguous; or, more precisely, the end…

“… is not completely transfigured.”

This commission from Rambert Director Mark Baldwin was special for Brandstrup for another reason:

“For the past ten years I’ve been working almost exclusively with ballet dancers. There’s something in that re-encounter with contemporary dancers that made it possible. I thought it was interesting to explore this territory with a contemporary language.”

Contemporary dance is where Brandstrup first developed his unique choreography. He moved to London in the late 1970s to study dance after obtaining a film degree by the University of Copenhagen, and took class at The Place – “where at that time they had formidable teachers” – before setting up his own company, ARC, in the 1980s.

“At that particular time, 80s and 90s, narrative work in contemporary dance was practically non-existent (…) And I wanted to explore that. And, of course, all those narrative works were much more related to my film training. At that time it was only through having my own company that I could do those experiments.”

ARC Crime - Elegy - History
ARC                    Crime                                                           Elegy                                                                  History

A narrative thread runs through all of Brandstrup’s works.

“My way of watching dancers is always to say, where did they come from, where do they go now (…) Whatever somebody does will embody a kind of intent, and that’s what I’m sensitive to and what I look for – it’s that strange kind of poignancy and alertness of going or being on the move.”

“Coming out of the past and projecting into the future” through movement and stage presence, or “tridimensionality” as he calls it,  is what Brandstrup looks for in dancers. Favourite interpreters include Irek Muhamedov, Zenaida Yanowsky and Alina Cojucaru, on all of whom he’s created work. And since 2015 Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet principal.

A question about Mearns yields the first moment when words fail Brandstrup.

“ Well, Sara…. I just saw her…. and I mean, what can I say? …. She’s a theatrical being, who lives on stage; there’s a tridimensionality to her presence that is fantastic. And she’s fearless!”

They came together when Brandstrup was invited by the NYCB Artistic Director, fellow Dane Peter Martins, to choreograph Jeux on Debussy’s score.

Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sarah Mearns with Amar Ramasar photo Paul Kolnick NYCB
Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sara Mearns with Amar Ramasar, photo Paul Kolnick NYCB

“We think that Balanchine is the great purist of form, abstract, that it’s the technique and the music that guides it rather than the narrative; but, of course, what we sometimes forget is that they also have Robbins, and that made me think I could tap into that vein.

“I had a great time there and I was astonished at how quick they were. You had to step up your game; and they would give you something at the end of each period.

“You’d get half-an-hour for a solo, you’d get an hour for duets and you’d get, if you were lucky, an hour-and-a-half for full corps. But even at the end of half-an-hour calls somebody would perform something for you, so it made the whole process very quick and very playful.”

The dancers, too, relished the novel experience. Sara Mearns was quoted was saying she found the whole process “liberating:”

“We realised, we are out of our comfort zone, but we are really free. He is directing us, but he will let us go where we want with the movement.”

I’m beginning to get the essence of what makes a Kim Brandstrup work. A narrative thread. Powerful, though understated feeling expressed through movement, rather than “histrionics” (“if you start pulling faces, you really lose your audience”), immersion in the score. And, of course, “detail.”

That’s why he so enjoys working with the Danish Royal Ballet, for whom last Spring he created a full length work, Shaken Mirror (Rystet spejl) – his fifth for the company.

Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet
Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet

“Looking across the ballet landscape there is great subtlety in the Danish tradition. I suppose because it was a small theatre and it preserved that quality of detail in the dancing and especially in the mime that I felt I could tap into.

“Also, I think it’s very important that the mime and the acting is never detached from the music, I mean, it was part of the choreographic fabric.”

Shaken Mirror takes its inspiration from the poetry of Brandstrup’s friend and contemporary, Søren Ulrik Thomsens. Here, too, he hesitated before plunging in- “I am always reluctant!” – but finally took the poetry as a starting point for a reflection – a shaken mirror – on a myriad of relationships between men and women.

As in all of Brandstrup’s works we are left with a sense of yearning, a suspended breath.

“Things change, disappear and you remember them and you try and hold them. (…) Choreography is a way of trying to pin down a moment, to recreate it… but of course, it will go away… I mean, it’s not necessarily sad, it’s just how it is.”

Having just celebrated a “significant birthday” Kim Brandstrup is on a roll: last October, an award from Denmark’s Wilhelm Hansen Foundation joined a growing collection that includes an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, marking particular stages in a considerable body of work.

He has a major dance project underway for 2017, but so far we’re sworn to secrecy; NYCB are reprising Jeux in the Spring; Britten’s opera Billy Budd, on which he worked with Director Deborah Warner in Madrid last year, is embarking on an extensive tour; and he’s going back to his first love, film.

The film of Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan, created in 2014 for Britain’s Royal Ballet, received critical acclaim. Now he’s putting the finishing touches to another film.

“I’ve done what I call three small portraits of three dancers. It’s basically them listening, marking and doing a few phrases of something that I keep track of very closely. I’m editing at the moment. It’s exciting and I managed to get Carlos [Acosta], Alina [Cojucaru] and Zen [Yanowsky] to do it.

And, of course, what he is trying to grasp “is the detail of what the dancers do.”

In the end, Brandstrup feels, detail is what keeps the audience watching:

“You’ve got to create a particular kind of concentration and emphatic watching of the detail in the audience. They have to lean forward and say, ‘what is this? what is it?’  (…) I feel less is more and you mustn’t lose the depth of the image and the depth of movement.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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