Russia's Most Famous Swan Comes Home Again

ST. PETERSBURG -- A small and select gathering of insiders of the St. Petersburg ballet world gathered recently to shower a delicate, frail and unassuming woman with praise and presents.


They were paying homage to one of Russia's lost stars, Prima Ballerina Absoluta Galina Mezentseva, who had returned home after five years abroad to dance in the same theater that had catapulted her to international stardom 20 years ago.


Perhaps the ballet world's most famous swan for her magnificent performances in Petipa's "Swan Lake" and Mikhail Fokin's "The Dying Swan," Mezentseva is regarded as one of the world's great classical ballet dancers. After one performance at the Mariinsky in July, she is performing, along with other stars of St. Petersburg ballet, at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Theaters until the end of August.


After the gathering at the Mariinsky Theater's Diaghilev Club, where Mezentseva was praised in a series of flowery speeches, the ballerina, now in her 40s, reminisced about her life in ballet over a cup of coffee at the Grand Hotel Europe. Far from the arrogant diva, Mezentseva, who lives in the fashionable Kensington area of London, was relaxed and unpretentious, patiently recounting the highlights of a life that took her from ballet classes in a provincial Russian town at the age of five to the world's most prestigious stages.


"One evening, when I was eight, two ballet talent scouts showed up and told my mother that her daughter showed promise," she recalled. "They told her to bring me to St. Petersburg the following year where I was immediately accepted into the prestigious Vaganova Academy."


The Vaganova regime is known to be extremely demanding. Only the strongest get through the course, which entails an hour of classical training each morning, pas de deux training twice a week, character dance lessons and, of course, a full academic schedule. "If you love something, like I loved to dance, half the battle is already won," Mezentseva said. "It makes it less difficult. For me it was normal, like life."


In St. Petersburg, Mezentseva was taken under the wing of Vaganova coach Olga Moiseyeva.


"It was Mikhail Barishnikov who pointed me out to her. I was shy and lost and he noticed me and said, 'Look, this girl's got what it takes.'"


From that moment Moiseyeva became like a second mother to Galina. She herself was a student of Vaganova and passed on what she had learned to the young dancer.


Upon graduation, Mezentseva immediately became a principal dancer at the Kirov, now the Mariinsky Theater, where she quickly became one of the theater's stars.


"We lived a luxurious and advantaged life close to that reserved only for the communist elite," she said. "At a time when eight families could be crammed into a communal apartment I, by the age of 25, had a three-room apartment all to myself, as well as two cars and a chauffeur."


Though she said she had the chance to defect while on tour in Italy at the age of 21, she loved the Kirov too much to leave. She stayed with the theater, winning a series of awards including Honored Artist of Russia in 1978, Best St. Petersburg Ballerina in 1989, National State Prizewinner in 1980 and the highest cultural award that Russia can bestow, The People's Artist of Russia.


And then, in 1990, the Kirov's Prima Ballerina stunned the ballet world by leaving the Kirov to join the Scottish Ballet Company.


"I had done everything in the Kirov's repertoire, the borders opened up and I wanted to expand my own personal borders. It is so exciting when you learn there's a completely different and new world out there which had been closed to us for so long," Mezentseva said.


Since 1990, when Mezentseva made her debut as guest artist with The Scottish Ballet, audiences around the world have seen her dance works by choreographers Peter Darell, John Cranko and George Balanchine. In 1991 she returned to Russia to dance Balanchine's ballet "Who Cares."


For a guest appearance with Askold Makarov's St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theater, she danced a new ballet choreographed by Peggy Willis-Aarnio, a dance teacher and choreographer from Texas. Mezentseva had discovered Willis-Aarnio after searching exhaustively for a teacher in the West to train her in the Vaganova technique.


"I was frightened that I would loose my classical training, that my muscles would become weak. I desperately searched the globe for someone who knew the Vaganova style," she said.


After hundreds of false leads, Mezentseva's manager received a phone call from a woman in Lubbock, Texas, who offered to help. When the ballerina spoke with Willis-Aarnio, a teacher at Texas Tech University, she realized that she understood the principles of the Vaganova method.


"I canceled two performances and flew out to meet her," Mezentseva said. "My manager thought I was crazy. Peggy gave me a lesson and I said, 'Thank goodness I have finally found a choreographer who can train me.'"


Having learned so much from ballerinas who danced before her, Mezentseva is eager to pass along her techniques to a new generation of Russian classical dancers. She is producing a set of videos that will reveal all her secrets and record every moment, right down to the finest detail, to preserve the results of what she believes is the finest classical ballet training in the world.


"All those who could have passed on this information went to the West," she explained. "Most of them lost it and the chain was broken. Now, I have to preserve 250 years of tradition and keep it alive in the West and pass on what I have learned to those who will follow me."


Still, she has not turned her attention away from her own dancing.


"Someone once asked me if it was easier dancing when I was 25 than it is now at 40. I can say it's easier now because I have grown emotionally and know better how to interpret a role. At 25 I didn't know how to reserve and got exhausted. Now I save my energy, its all about balance."





Galina Mezentseva is performing with stars of St. Petersburg ballet at the Hermitage Theater, 34 Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya on August 1, 6, 8, 15, 17 and 19 to 21. For information, call (812) 264-5870 or (812) 311-0314.