Kuban Cossacks' ballet icon

The fans of the wilful Anastasia Volochkova are so much accustomed to her name being surrounded with high-profile scandals that they may have missed one important, if lower-key, event in her life. The ballerina has signed a contract with the opera and ballet theatre of Krasnodar, in the southern Russian province of Kuban, famous for its large Cossack community. The person to have invited her here is Yuri Grigorovich, a choreographer who won global fame as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet.

This is both good and bad news to Russia's ballet lovers. Volochkova is a star, and she is at war with the nation's two leading ballet companies, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky (Kirov), in St. Petersburg. What are the reasons behind the conflict and which of the parties is the loser? The above two theatrical companies, Volochkova herself, or all of them? This remains to be seen. But the theatre-going community of Krasnodar is certainly standing to gain, no doubt about that.

Police at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport stopped Volochkova from taking an international flight on March 15, because of the travel ban imposed on her in connection with the Mariinsky administration's suit. The former employer accuses the ballerina of failing to return, after she left the Kirov company, the flat offered to her in St. Pete as temporary lodgings. She claims that she has heavily invested in the repairs and redecoration and therefore cannot give back the apartment just like that.

Litigation now forms an essential part of her life. Legal proceedings are underway in Moscow as well as St. Petersburg, on a suit lodged by her against Anatoly Iksanov, Director General of the Bolshoi. As is known, Iksanov sacked Volochkova last year, but then had to take her on again in keeping with a court ruling. She is now back on the Bolshoi payroll, with a pathetic salary of 2,800 roubles (100 dollars) per month. But no parts have been offered to her since she was restored on the staff. All that gives Volochkova grounds to claim that Iksanov owes her 1 million dollars in damages.

But is there any room for art in Volochkova's life these days? That's where Grigorovich comes in. The celebrated choreographer was also forced out of the Bolshoi, ten years earlier. Vladimir Vasilyev replaced him as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet, but admittedly, Vasilyev's performance in this capacity was quite mediocre. Grigorovich, in the meantime, retreated to Krasnodar and put on several successful productions with the city's ballet theatre. His recent world tour has shown that the choreographer may be past his prime already, but he still has enough creative potential to produce high-quality ballets.

Here is one important episode in Grigorovich's biography. A few years ago, his name reappeared on the Bolshoi billboards for a short while, raising hopes that he would be re-appointed as Ballet-Master-in-Chief. Grigorovich was offered to revive his Soviet-era production of "The Swan Lake"-the Bolshoi's hallmark ballet. The maestro accepted, but on one condition-that the part of Odette/Odile should be given to Volochkova. By taking the controversial ballerina under his wing as a protege, Grigorovich openly defied the Bolshoi management, who had refused her lead parts in other productions. But the theatre accepted Grigorovich's terms and then had to face the humiliating truth that his vintage show was still fresh and potent and that Volochkova was not all that bad as a dancer.

Grigorovich then left the Bolshoi for a second time, lamenting that "the ambitions of the huge ageing company stand in the way of creative experimentation." In January 2004, young choreographer Alexei Ratmansky took charge of the troupe and tried to get rid of the trouble-making ballerina.

Luckily, Grigorovich came to Volochkova's aid once again. He invited her to join the Krasnodar Ballet. This offer of his, however, seems to be based on pragmatism rather than sentimentality. In the years he spent as a freelancer, Grigorovich gained enough managerial experience to realise that the (in)famous ballerina would make any ballet company's trump card, for performances on foreign tours as well as at home. And besides, she is still in quite good shape.

Volochkova has accepted Grigorovich's invitation. And with it, a prospective monthly salary of 30,000 roubles (a little more than $1,000, on current rates)-peanuts for a top-rate dancer that she is. The contract with the Krasnodar theatre obligates her to show up for at least one performance per month and to attend essential rehearsals. She won't have to take permanent residence in Krasnodar--the theatre has pledged to cover the costs of air travel from Moscow and back and of accommodation in a five-star hotel. So far, she has been cast in two productions-of Pyotr Tchaikosvky's "The Swan Lake" and of "La Bayadere," by Ludwig Minkus.

But that's not the whole story. Its most interesting part is yet to come. Kuban audiences have ushered Volochkova in with standing ovations. Tickets to the ballet shows starring the ballerina sell at an average 1,500 roubles, against the regular price of 300 roubles. Every time she graces the Krasnodar stage, the house gets packed. Once, when "La Bayadere" was being performed, the scene where the High Brahmin offered to a snake-bitten Nikiya a cup with an antidote prompted a man in the audience to cry out: "Nastia, take it!" A burst of applause followed. To the Krasnodarians, she is Nastia Volochkova, not some obscure Nikiya.

As for the ballerina's physique, which the Bolshoi administration uses as a pretext for not giving her any parts, it has become the subject of serious debates in the media of Krasnodar, a province where big size is seen as a woman's asset rather than her drawback.

Volochkova's homepage on the Internet reports her height-171 centimetres. Well, high enough. Until recently, her weight has been in the public domain, too-47 kilograms. That's somewhere near a ballerina's top limit.

They say that Volochkova's normal breakfast consists of a cup of water with honey. She does not eat any sugar or meat. During breaks between rehearsals, she usually has an orange and some tea. Her evening meals include fruit and vegetables, raw fish and, occasionally, cheese. Her favourite foods are nuts (especially almonds), spinach, and beetroots in olive oil. Ice cream is known to be the only non-dietetic product she lets herself indulge in.

Covering the premiere of "La Bayadere" at the Krasnodar Opera, local media report that the back and arms of Volochkova's partner trembled as he was raising her overhead. But he made it eventually, didn't he?!

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