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Nikolay Tsiskaridze: No One Will Ever See Me Fall

Nikolay Tsiskaridze before graduating his first class at the Vaganova Ballet Academy – Photo courtesy Olga Malik and Our Russia
Nikolay Tsiskaridze before graduating his first class at the Vaganova Ballet Academy – Photo courtesy Olga Malik and Our Russia

Three months ago the name Nikolay Tsiskaridze only made this writer recall a shape and human form in motion, that ethos of ballet that the audience memorize automatically, the athletic appeal of the dance. Then were introduced, in a very roundabout way I might add, to the Vaganova Ballet Academy. The interview you are about to read has provoked in everyone here at Our Russia, a rejuvenated and genuine admiration for the art, and for the magnificent artists thereof. Our own co-founder Olga Malik’s interview with this amazing Artist of Russia, is a look inside a world where perfection is the ultimate, yet uncertain and hard won reward.

We hope you will enjoy learning about what the successful pursuit of perfection is all about. 

Nikolay Tsiskaridze with star students of his first Vaganova graduating class
Nikolay Tsiskaridze with star students of his first Vaganova graduating class

It is said that stars are born, not formed, but this is only a half truth. Tsiskaridze was born in Georgia, and nurtured as a shining pupil at the Tbilisi Ballet School there. Hand selected by the Bolshoi’s artistic director Yury Grigorovich, his star shined at the early age of 20. Seemingly moments later professionally, the subject of our story became the youngest person ever to be named an “Artist of Russia.” Of his early career and meteoric rise to fame, not even Hollywood epics outshine this reality.  

However mercuric Tsiskaridze’s artistic rise may seem though, his journey has not been without pitfalls. A first major one came in rehearsals in 2003 when he suffered a catastrophic knee injury. Nine surgeries later, after a life threatening infection, and having to re-learn how to walk, the star was back on stage. An injury that would have ended the career of most NFL football stars scarcely daunted this uncompromising artist. As it turned out though, Nikolai was to have a far more challenging roadblock to navigate past later in his career: the politics and machinations that ultimately try and control or steer artistic endeavors.

Nikolai Tsiskaridze Principal Dancer Bolshoi Ballet
Nikolai Tsiskaridze, Artist of Russia, the ballet prince who perfection will not allow to fall (Courtesy Olivier and Flickr)

Well-known for his idealism and uncompromising honesty, the star of the Bolshoi was embroiled in a conflict over the proprieties there. To make a very long story short, once again the artist’s patience, passion, and temperament won out, as he is now the rector at the world’s most prestigious ballet school, the 277 year old Vaganova Academy. It is ideally fitting that our re-discovery of ballet, as a pursuit of perfection, should be about this prince of the art and dance Russia is home to.    

A proud Vaganova Academy Rector with star students Eugenyi Kuznetsov (left) and Anastasia Lukina (right)- Photo courtesy Olga Malik and Our Russia

Here, in the interlude of Vaganova Academy graduation festivities, “Our Russia” magazine co-founder Olga Malik caught up with Nikolay Tsiskaridze, on the eve of perhaps, his greatest achievement to date, celebrating the presentation of his future shining ballet stars, and his first graduating class. Here is a portion of Mrs. Malik’s talk with Tsiskaridze in his offices at Nevsky prospect in St. Petersburg

Our Russia: Why was Russian ballet your chosen artistic course? Have you ever imagined yourself as a ballet star outside of Russia?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze: I believe that the Russian ballet school is one of the few (if not the only) school that keeps the traditions of the classical ballet art. It is the authentic source of all the ballet schools I'd dare say. And no ballet dancer trained outside of Russia can experience the same atmosphere and the spirit of the ballet art, as Russian ballet dancers do. That is why the Russian ballet dancers are the most famous, and the best, in the world. Honestly I feel pity when our ballet dancers leave the country.

Our Russia: What is your best advice for your students or followers, for those intent on achieving the same level of excellence on the stage that you have?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze: For those who try and become the best of the best in this sphere, the art simply must become their priority. It is very important to create an artistic image too. Each artist must create something interesting, something attractive. Unfortunately many ballet artists focus only on the athleticism and count the steps and pirouettes while they dance.

Our Russia: It is no secret that teachers play one of the most important roles in one's professional growth. What are your motives when you, as a teacher, explain ballet to small children?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze:  First of all I explain the difference between art and athleticism. Any ballet artist must put meaning into his or her movements, otherwise the ballet becomes absurd. Another essential aspect of ballet is to understand the music. I try to foster an appreciation of music in my students from the very beginning, when they enter our academy at the age of 9. I must say however, that without a strict discipline ballet ceases to be art. This is why, like the teachers who taught me, I train my students to be self-disciplined. I train them as if they are in the army, and I am a very strict teacher, I must admit.

Our Russia: What is the source of your personal inspiration and happiness?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze:  The greatest thing that can happen to a ballet dancer is to experience the pinnacle of being a top performer on stage. I am very lucky to be remembered for the moments at the crescendo of my ballet career. Nobody has ever seen me fall down. Nobody will ever see this, for I quit the stage at the right time. I feel sorry for those ballet dancers who have to dance at the age of 40 and older.

Our Russia: Now that you are the Rector of the Academy what should be done to preserve Russian ballet? Or, in your opinion, does the art needs reforms?

Nikolay Tsiskaridze:  I do not think that anything has to be changed at all. The Vaganova Academy is very unique and distinctive. Unlike other higher education institutions, the Vaganova Academy diplomas are the most coveted in this sphere of arts both in Russia, and around the world. I am not only talking about the ballet, but music and the other aspects we teach. We are one of the oldest and most recognized academies worldwide. I would dare to say that we are considered the “lawmakers” in the sphere of arts. Our academy is a veritable “Alma Mater” of Russian ballet, and it is an honor for me to be a rector of it. Consequently, I will do everything to keep the traditions of classical Russian ballet preserved and in place.

Tsiskaridze awarding diplomas to the graduates of the Vaganova Academy at a reception at Catherine Palace – Photo courtesy Olga Abramova and Vaganova Academy
Tsiskaridze awarding diplomas to the graduates of the Vaganova Academy at a reception at Catherine Palace – Photo courtesy Olga Abramova and Vaganova Academy

By way of a conclusion here, it seems important to let the reader know the significance of Tsiskaridze, and this particular graduating class. This first group of graduates since his installation as rector by the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky back in 2013, their passage signals an even greater magnitude of stardom for Tsiskaridze. The beloved dancer who once graced stages worldwide has taken center stage now as the conservator of the near sacred nature of the essence of Russian ballet. Quizzing my colleague on her meeting with him, I found a breadcrumb as to why Medinsky and Russia chose him for this starring role. I’ll share her insight owing to my disappointment at not being able to conduct the interview myself. Of Nikolay Tsiskaridze she said:

“I have a very good impression of him, indeed. He is very polite, yet he knows his value and shows it. This is totally normal and reasonable. I was especially impressed at how a person caught up in filthy political scandals and unfair media hype managed to emerge without losing one speck of his dignity. He is quite a remarkable person.”

Vaganova graduation 2015
Nikolay's ultimate legacy will be, he ensured the dance would go on

In leaving off, I am reminded of something from one of Tsiskaridze’s many profiles, a sentiment expressed by his mother when first he insisted on attending the ballet school in Georgia. Nikolay's mother was against his professed dream of ballet stardom. However, both his parents finally relented; “But you have to be the best,” his mother told him. “Otherwise, I will pull you out.” How appropriate it is that such stars are born and then so shaped. 

So, who better left as guardian of the world’s greatest dance heritage, than the Vaganova’s strictest teacher, someone the world will never see fall down?