Only Atlanta Ballet’s fourth artistic director in the company’s 86-year history, Gennadi Nedvigin, arrived in Atlanta last summer after his retirement as a principal dancer for San Francisco Ballet. Although Nedvigin was hired in time to consult on the 2016–17 season, it is a mix of programs that still strongly reflect the more modernistic approach championed by former artistic director John McFall.
This weekend’s program, “Gennadi’s Choice” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, is heralded as a window into Nedvigin’s vision for Atlanta Ballet. Nedvigin was born in Russia and trained at the famed Bolshoi Ballet, and promises to steer the company back to a more traditional approach, with a mix of classical favorites and new ballets that use classical inspiration.
The program features a new work commissioned from rising choreographer Gemma Bond, Denouement. It also includes the North American premiere of Vespertine by choregrapher Liam Scarlett. In addition, Nedvigin went back into the dance studio to stage a portion of the Marius Petipa classic Paquita.
After a rehearsal session last week, Nedvigin sat down with ArtsATL for a wide-ranging interview about “Gennadi’s Choice,” his vision for Atlanta Ballet and his dream of a dedicated venue for the company.
ArtsATL: How does it feel to be back in the studio working directly with dancers as you stage Paquita for this performance?
Gennadi Nedvigin: My life in the past was in the studio pretty much. Most people spend a majority of their time sleeping or something; a majority of my time, I spent in the studio (laughs). It’s always refreshing to come back to the studio to work with the dancers, it’s like you’re getting back home. It’s like fresh air for me without stepping outside. I get motivated and I get inspired being with dancers and working with them and seeing them improving. Sometimes it hurts me to see them hurting or trying more, but that’s how you get things done and become stronger.
ArtsATL: You really seem to enjoy the teaching part.
Nedvigin: I do. That’s how I started to transition onto a different career path. I started teaching, working with my peers staging ballets. And I enjoy doing that.
Muscle memory is very important for dancers, it’s how we learn our vocabulary. When it gets in your body, then you receive that freedom of expressiveness. It’s so much in my body. I’m not exercising anymore, I don’t do any exercise. But at the same time, when I get into the studio I have to demonstrate something to the dancer because it’s easier to show than explain. And the body just does it because it has that memory. That precision of movement, that’s what I’m trying to pass on to dancers.
ArtsATL: You pay a lot of attention to small details, to being precise.
Nedvigin: Detail is the most important part. Of course, the audience sees it as a whole picture. But it’s like punctuation. Without it, you’re going to lose the sense of the phrasing.
ArtsATL: How has the transition from artist to artistic director gone for you?
Nedvigin: It’s totally different. It is stressful, there is a lot to learn and a lot to share. That’s probably the reason why I’m here, what I learned and what I experienced throughout my life working around the world. That’s what the organization needs in terms of new ideas and new ways to look at things, new perspective. That’s how the arts are moving in general. I’m able to bring in those new ways of looking at things, and I think that’s what I can really share with this organization.
ArtsATL: How is the program “Gennadi’s Choice” going to be a window into the future of Atlanta Ballet?
Nedvigin: It is a window into the future, even if you just look at the ballets that are in the “Gennadi’s Choice” program. We’re starting with purely classical 19th century ballet. It’s one of the first ballets Marius Petipa brought to the Imperial Ballet [of St. Petersburg, Russia]. And then there’s a ballet by Gemma Bond that she just created, but it all derived from classical training. Gemma trained at The Royal Ballet School. So we go from the start, from the beginning, and then here’s the growth and the evolution of dance. I think the audience can relate to both of them.
As a major company, Atlanta Ballet must have presentation of both worlds: the one that we started from and the one we’re moving towards.
ArtsATL: Tell us more about these pieces; what will people be seeing this weekend?
Nedvigin: For Paquita, [Ludwig] Minkus wrote the music. The music is really engaging and gives you chills even on its own. It’s based on a Spanish story on a war between the French and Spanish. This ballet is only performed as a suite, only the second act is performed. Petipa’s grand pas is sometimes left off of performances, but I wanted to bring it back and be a part of it. Classics, they’re hard. They’re very hard. We are very far away from where we were when we first started rehearsing. The dancers did a great big leap. I’m very happy to see that. I want to keep dancers growing and learning new things.
I was able to bring in Gemma Bond and commission her first work with Atlanta Ballet. It’s her first commission for a professional ballet company. We’re almost the ones discovering Gemma Bond and bringing her out there. She’s a wonderful person and a beautiful choreographer. I love working with her, and seeing how she works with dancers. It’s important to have new works choreographed on our dancers; it gives them a huge chance to work with a choreographer. That’s the most important part of an education for a dancer, to work with the choreographer face-to-face and be part of the creation process. Those are the times I didn’t just value, but treasured when I was a dancer. Those are the best times. The final piece, it shines and it’s great; but the process in the studio, that time of creation is priceless. It’s collaboration and understanding each other, or not, and finding these ways to speak the same language. And molding yourself into the figure this choreographer sees in their head, and now it’s coming alive.
And we also have Liam Scarlett’s Vespertine. It’s the North American premiere. Liam created it for Norway Ballet, and we’re the first ones to bring it to the United States, and I find it really beautiful. It was great having Liam here for a week staging and working with dancers; I think it had a huge impact on everyone: his energy and attention to detail. I started seeing in dancers how they began to move like Liam. I worked with him on two ballets in San Francisco. I learned so much from him, and about him. Working with him was very, very enjoyable. We became friends as well, and I was able to snatch him from his tight schedule to come here and bring his ballet here. And I know how fortunate the ballet is to have his work in its repertoire.
It’s very sensual. He has a great sense of motion. Liam pays great attention to the movement, and it’s all based on the classical movement. It’s a great way to take the movement to the next level and to the future, based on the movement and the technique we learned when we were young. Obviously, it is the future of ballet as well.
ArtsATL: You trained in Russia at the Bolshoi Ballet, and danced with San Francisco Ballet for most of your career. What parts of that are you bring to Atlanta Ballet?
Nedvigin: I wouldn’t say I’m bringing a change. I’m bringing a variety. And I’m bringing a level of quality that I’m accustomed to. That’s what I’m looking for in dancers, I’m trying to bring them to another level where they can grow as an artist technically, artistically, spiritually, emotionally. All those components are very important to bringing a good level on stage. That’s my goal. I want to have a high quality company performing in any type works I will be bringing in during the future. I want them to be able to enjoy, to learn and to share it with the audience.
ArtsATL: You’ve been here now over seven months. What are your impressions of the company?
Nedvigin: That’s a tough question in a way because there’s a lot of things you learn, and every day brings you something new. It’s just so packed with so much information. I’m learning about the people, the organization, the supporters, the board, the city. Here, there’s a lack of theaters. For me, I spent my whole career where we had our own theater basically [the War Memorial Opera House]. Yes, it’s rented from the city but only San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera have access to the stage. You move into the theater for half of the year and that becomes your home. Atlanta Ballet, unfortunately, does not have its own home. I would like to bring more performances for the audience so they have more choices; if you cannot come this weekend, then you can come next weekend. But we’re unable to do that simply [because] there are no dates available. And that’s a pity in a way. I don’t want to have dancers spending months working on something [when] they have only two chances to go on stage. That’s a shame. Even in a big company, it’s a challenge to go on stage more than twice. Sometimes you do all this work for one performance.
We do the best out of it, but it takes time to really feel and explore yourself from who you are inside as an artist, to really deliver it on stage.
ArtsATL: The more you do it . . .
Nedvigin: . . . the more you learn about yourself. Your technique gets firm, so it allows you to concentrate on different things and you try to find new ways. When you bring a ballet back a few years later, you go, “Oh my god, this is totally different.” Because over the couple of years you had in-between, you grew as an artist. You come at the same thing with a completely different approach.
ArtsATL: Is there any way out of that, or is that just the nature of the beast here?
Nedvigin: (laughs) The city donating a theater? It’s a dream, it’s a dream. But if we don’t dream, nothing will happen. That’s a start.
ArtsATL: Five years from now, where would you like this company to be?
Nedvigin: I want it to grow in size in terms of the number of dancers and in terms of its impact on Atlanta. I don’t know if it will be in five years or 10 years, you can’t put a time-frame on it, but I want Atlanta Ballet being recognized nationally and internationally. To get there, it’s going to be a long road. It’s a long distance destination. It’s not just the number of dancers, it’s the number of people who support ballet in Atlanta. We need to bring the audience. We need to show them, we need to share with them what we have to offer. A majority of Atlantans don’t know what ballet is about. I’m not sure how many have heard about Atlanta Ballet, that there’s a professional ballet company in Atlanta. So expanding those borders is very important for us.
ArtsATL: How different is it here versus San Francisco in terms of the visibility of the ballet company?
Nedvigin: I’m still looking at it because we just got into the season. Our season here in Atlanta is very similar time-wise to San Francisco Ballet. The only difference is that San Francisco Ballet has about twice as many programs. But the visibility, I’m learning, is not as wide or as approachable. There is a way to grow that. Of course, being inside and learning how an organization functions, there’s a lot of financial restrictions and finances, they dictate a lot. We are four, five, six times as small as San Francisco Ballet in terms of finances. Obviously, that’s a huge difference. But we need to find ways to reach out to our potential audience. And stay in touch with the one we have who have appreciation for the ballet.
ArtsATL: I’ve noticed at performances, there’s sometimes only half a house.
Nedvigin: That’s not unique to Atlanta Ballet. It happens in San Francisco as well, depending on the night. Here, for example, we’re not going to dare to have a performance on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, when San Francisco does. But they’re able to do that because there is an audience interested in ballet, interested in spending quality time in the evenings whether on weekends or during the week. They love arts and they want to see and to explore. As an arts organization, that is our goal. Ballet brings together a lot of different art forms. We definitely should be able to attract a lot bigger audience.
ArtsATL: My own experience is once I saw the ballet, I immediately connected with it.
Nedvigin: Right. There are so many people who are in love with ballet. They just don’t know it yet.