A premiere of Manon ballet, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, was held at the Astana Opera in April 2017. This choreographic masterpiece of the 20th century is based on the novel “Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” by Abbé Prévost, set to music by Jules Massenet.

Every ballet theatre wants to stage this ballet, but it was virtually impossible for a young Kazakh theatre to qualify for it. Only respect and trust for Altynai Asylmuratova, one of the best worldwide renowned ballet dancers, who is now artistic director of Astana Opera, allowed the ballet to be brought to the capital of Kazakhstan in its fullest author’s version. Altynai Asylmuratova, People’s Artist of Russia, the Mariinsky Theatre soloist and prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet (1989-1993) successfully danced Manon with consent of the ballet’s author. This is one of the reasons why Deborah MacMillan, widow of the choreographer, agreed to support such an audacious project.

OCA: Altynai, what criteria do you use when you choose a ballet for the Astana Opera and why did you prefer Sir MacMillan, rather than Sir Ashton or Robbins?

Altynai Asylmuratova: It is very likely that in the future we will see performances of Frederick Ashton or Jerome Robbins at the Astana Opera… As for the list of productions, Astana Opera is a great theatre conforming to the latest global requirements, including stage size, working conditions, technical equipment and many other criteria. This is why it is like a precious casket, which I want to fill with the treasure of ballet art. For the tercentenary history of choreography, Russian and foreign choreographers created great performances that constitute a “gold fund” of world ballet. I believe these are the performances that must become pearls sparkling in the necklace of Astana Opera.
We started from La Bayadère (music of Ludwig Minkus, choreographed by Marius Petipa), a masterpiece of Russian ballet. Then we had Notre-Dame de Paris choreographed by Roland Petit. It was chosen because our ballet company was equal to it, and the performance itself was new for Kazakhstan in all aspects. A bit later we held a premiere of Don Quixote (music of Ludwig Minkus, choreographed by Marius Petipa, staged by Alexander Gorsky), another jewellery of Russian heritage classics. The next step is Manon ballet by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, a distinguished British choreographer, who created modern choreographic masterpieces. Manon, as I see it, is one of the best and most difficult of his ballets.

OCA: But there is also Romeo and Juliet choreographed by MacMillan, the plotline of which is more familiar to our audience…

AA: I believe that his version of Romeo and Juliet, created just after the tour of the Bolshoi Theatre in London in the 50s, is one of the best… But if Romeo and Juliet was choreographed with greater or smaller success, Manon in this regard is a unique performance existing only in the author’s version. At that, the performance succeeded not only in terms of choreography, but also in terms of music. Sir MacMillan selected new pieces of music by Jules Massenet for the ballet, which had never been played in the opera of the same name. After all, this performance is still very common to the audience. These are just a few arguments in favour of Manon.

OCA: You danced the role of Manon at the Covent Garden Theatre, when Sir Kenneth MacMillan was the chief choreographer of the Royal Ballet. Could you appear on the Western stage?

AA: Thanks to Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and perestroika. The thing is that Farukh Ruzimatov and I were the first Soviet ballet dancers, who went abroad without any sort of official escort. Before this, only so called defectors could perform abroad, and it was prohibited even to commemorate them at home. According to unspoken instructions from those in uniform, in case of a casual encounter with such a ballet defector, one should have crossed the street! Then the “Iron Curtain” falls and yesterday’s public enemies suddenly become heroes… Even though ballet dancers managed to furtively communicate in spite of everything, still nobody was ready for such a flying transformation. This is why, even standing on one stage with yesterday’s dissidents, and legally working with them, seemed absolutely incredible and even funny… In 1987, at the invitation of an ABT production of Mikhail Baryshnikov we danced La Bayadère in the US, choreographed by Natalia Makarova, and later I was offered a personal permanent guest contract with the Covent Garden Theatre.

OCA: What was it like working with Sir Kenneth MacMillan?

AA: For one thing, each choreographer has people directly responsible for the transfer of choreographic material to the performing dancer. They are responsible for making sure that there is no detail left to chance. This is how we worked on Manon. Whereas I was in a special condition, alone in a foreign country, without knowing the language, it was different in the context of choreographic training. Naturally enough, the main task for me then was not to fail, quickly assimilate and not to miss anything important. And Sir MacMillan came every now and then to see how the work was going in terms of “yes-no” or “correct-incorrect”.

But then Sir MacMillan congratulated me after the performance for the premiere and said a lot of complements. And very recently, here in Astana, Lady Deborah MacMillan, the wife of the choreographer, told me that he emphasised me and liked the way I danced.

OCA: Many distinguished ballet dancers like the role of Manon for the possibility to gain approval not only for their technique, but also their acting skills. How well did the young ballet dancers from Astana Opera personify the character?

AA: The performance was staged within the shortest possible period of time. British choreographers were involved in the work, and they tried to explain to the dancers the history of the creation of the ballet, as well as the nuances of performance. For their part, our ballerinas did their best, but it is a little too soon to speak about full personification of the role of Manon. For me it is still a skeleton, which in the course of time should adopt more bright features. Today we have laid the basis for further work on this role, and I am certain that time and experience will add new colours to choreographic interpretation of the role of Manon by our dancers.

OCA: How did you work on the role of Manon at the Covent Garden Theatre?

AA: Natalia Makarova, for whom Manon was one of the most favourite characters, really wanted me to dance this role. Of course I read the book, thoroughly examined the scenario, generally did everything as was right and proper in such cases. However Natalia Makarova gave me some rather unexpected advice: “Speak French at home… Every language assumes its own special culture of movements, and even the pronunciation of French words will add plastic nuances to the role of Manon.” This really helped me.

OCA: Today you are artistic director of the Astana Opera, head of the Kazakh National Academy of Choreography, choreographer and ballet mistress… Which role do you prefer?

AA: I like most to work with artists in a rehearsal room. I just forget about time there… I am a practitioner: papers and reports are not my thing. However artistic leadership is vitally important for me: it gives absolutely different opportunities. I can fill up the list of productions, invite interesting choreographers, and help young talented people. The theatre is in the process of development, and this requires a coordinated work of not only ballet, but of all the people involved in its development. It is a living affair that requires total dedication, discipline and a professional attitude. It is essential for me that ballet dancers are not just performers, but are also passionate about their work as members of special choreographic culture.

OCA: What are your future ballet plans?

AA:I have a lot of plans and wishes… I want to surprise the audience with something new, like doing the choreography of Jiří Kylián, but his dance technique requires special training. We will work on this as well. I think our repertoire could be refreshed with some romantic ballet too. Robbins has interesting performances as well. I prefer time-proven performances that are popular among the audience though. We will combine the classic and modern. At that, I believe that even the most audacious choreographic findings must be justified by content. Moreover, ballet must include a sense and aesthetics, since everyone can see the beauty.

by Adam Kapanov

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