Principal Character Artist, The Mariinsky Ballet.
St. Petersburg – November 2013.
“St. Petersburg in the early nineties had a real atmosphere.” Islom Baimuradov’s glimmering eyes hinted at raucous times during his first couple of years in the city. “Classes didn’t start until one in the afternoon, so I would go out all night.” He was 18 years old, had just entered the Vaganova Academy and was on a rite of passage, that is, his first time away from family in Austria. He recounted nostalgically that time in his life, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. “You couldn’t buy anything in the shops, but you could buy everything on the black market, and beer and vodka from the ladies at the street-side stalls.” Baimuradov seemed to be from a different era. He had an old-fashioned, gentlemanly charm, held steady eye contact when he spoke, and with his deep, rounded voice, shared excitedly his life experiences. He had an impatient tenacity that bubbled beneath a conditioned discipline.
Baimuradov is a principal character artist of the Mariinsky Ballet, one of the few companies in the world with still dedicated dancers in these roles. They are the mazurkas, Hungarian csárdás and Spanish dancers; the lively interludes between principal dancers’ prolonged variations, and the comedic or foil characters that drive narrative ballets. In recent roles, Baimuradov shifted nimbly from the wicked Madge in La Sylphide to the conniving Gentleman of the Bedchamber in The Little Humpbacked Horse, then proved his stamina in the fiery Gypsy Dance in Don Quixote. At 40 years old, he jokes that he’s too busy to age. Though his performances are age-defying, the complex characters he portrays cannot be replicated in youth, rather, are developed through maturity and devoted practice. However, most companies today can’t afford to dedicate dancers for specialized character roles, especially when narrative ballets make up a shrinking portion of their repertoire. Further, dancers today don’t want to be confined to one type of role. They insist on gaining experience in diverse roles, even at the sacrifice of attaining true mastery at any one. Consequently, character dances in some performances have become a mere caricature of its intended form.
Baimuradov was accepted to the Mariinsky Ballet at 20 years old, upon graduation from the Vaganova Academy. Asked why he was selected, he replied, “maybe they saw a spark in me, I was always moving, always expressing myself.” Once in the company, Baimuradov remembers how one of the older artists took him under his wing. “He asked me if I wanted to work, and of course, I said ‘yes’. Any spare moment we had, when a studio was free, we rehearsed.” He wishes that sort of impromptu mentorship happened more today. “Young dancers today have less discipline,” Baimuradov opined in the manner of a seasoned veteran. “Kids have so many options; they don’t devote themselves to any one thing. That leaves only the crazy ones who do nothing but dance, and they are the ones who make it to soloist.”
“Dance is not a job, it is my life.” Baimuradov stated proudly, “The theater here, this is my life.” When Baimuradov inevitably retires, I hope there will be dancers in today’s generation who can pledge the same.