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Pop Star Dancer Too Big for the Bolshoi

The prima ballerina protests her firing, which the company blames on her weight.

September 18, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In the world of ballet, a grand stage often has been too small to contain the larger-than-life figures who pirouette across it. Over the years, the Bolshoi Ballet seemed to be an exception. The 227-year-old theater had its stars, of course, but in the end, the venerable Bolshoi -- whose name means "big" in Russian -- was larger than any of its dancers.

Then came Anastasia Volochkova, a dazzling young prima ballerina known to favor diamonds, rubies, revealing necklines and young, rich, often married patrons. In just a few years, the 27-year-old principal dancer became the Bolshoi's first genuine pop star, an artist many often called the Anna Kournikova of ballet.

This week, she became the star who finally was too big for the Bolshoi.

In an announcement that rocked the ballet world, Bolshoi officials announced that they have fired Volochkova. Officially, it was because the 5-foot-6, 110-pound dancer was too heavy for her male partners -- one had to be hospitalized recently with an injury after lifting her, company officials told her, and one by one, the company's men refused to dance with her. But it also appeared that Volochkova's sheer presence -- more Madonna than Anna Pavlova -- had come close to overwhelming the staid company.

"To me, Volochkova is the most beautiful woman in the country," Alexander Gafin, chairman of the Bolshoi Theater Fund's executive council, said Wednesday. "But she was fired only after the scandal was blown up and exaggerated so strongly. The Bolshoi Theater has its own pride."

Volochkova has her own explanation: The new executive council that runs the Bolshoi is undermining the ballet's artistic management and decided to get rid of her. "It's a pre-planned, organized attempt to remove me," she said in an interview at the headquarters of NTV Television, where she had just finished taping the Russian equivalent of "Crossfire" opposite Gafin.

"All of this erroneous information about my height and weight discredits my reputation and makes other dancers at other theaters afraid to dance with me, and it is only because they do not have any artistic reason to get rid of me," she added. Bolshoi directors, she said, have falsely put out the word that she is actually 5 feet 11.

In recent years, Volochkova has made as many headlines for her personal life -- she has been linked with actor Jim Carrey, a wealthy British lawyer and several influential young Russian businessmen -- as for her dancing. Despite numerous awards and favorable reviews, she has engendered resentment among colleagues for her many heavily advertised solo appearances around the world and her insistence on appearing in sought-after roles at the expense of other dancers, say those in the Russian ballet world who know her.

"She is not a team player. It is difficult for her to adjust to any collective, because she just doesn't want to follow the rules of a collective effort," said Alexei Fadeyechev, who headed the Bolshoi until 2000 before taking over the Moscow Dance Theater. "She is an ideal soloist in her own solo concert. But what she did in the Bolshoi, she tried to turn its stage into her personal concert arena."

"Volochkova is a so-called pop ballerina," said Tatyana Kusnetsova, a ballet critic with the daily newspaper Kommersant. "She is beautiful, strikingly spectacular, and she leads a very active social life.

"But for her partners, she is very difficult to dance with. She lacks a proper high jump. And that is why a partner has to spend a lot of additional energy to catch, hold her and raise her. She just sags down into the arms of her partner, and doesn't try to help him carry her."

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who had been scheduled to partner with Volochkova this month in "Raymonda," said he had agreed to Volochkova's request to dance the part with her only after refusing her initial proposal, "Giselle."

"I said, 'No, I don't think I can do it. You see, in 'Giselle,' I need to carry you all the time on the level of my chest, and create the illusion that you are weightless and ephemeral.' I realized I just couldn't do it. Because she had gained some weight."

Volochkova has alienated her fellow dancers, at the Bolshoi, Tsiskaridze said, with her attitude. "I had no problems with her. But you understand that a successful, beautiful and popular artist almost always causes envy among colleagues. And that was extremely the case with Nastya. You see, you need to behave accordingly, and soften this somehow. The big problem with Nastya was, she just didn't care."

At Wednesday's taping of the debate show, "To the Barrier," Volochkova showed up with jewels glittering from every appendage, flouncing dramatically onto the stage in a shimmering copper cape.

As the Bolshoi management made its case, she often collapsed dramatically in derision; occasionally, she would rise en point in irritation and flutter her wrists.

"Yesterday, I was not even allowed into the theater when I came there to collect my training suit," she told the audience. "The same people that used to smile at me two days ago were standing there with their hands at their sides, blocking my passage."

But it was, after all, a story told by many ballerinas over the years.

"The thing is, no one has left the Bolshoi with honor yet," Vyacheslav Gordeyev, the company's artistic director from 1995 to 1997, noted wryly. "Every star of the Bolshoi has been down this thorny path. And the principle, 'The higher you rise, the lower you fall,' works almost every theater season."

*

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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