LAST EDITED ON 20-09-01 AT 08:43 AM (GMT)
“I want you to do a pirouette in attitude like that – dadda-dadda-yee-da”.
Irek Mukhamedov is rehearsing three male dancers in the Fonteyn Studio on the fifth floor of the Royal Opera House. The room is flooded with natural light; all of it amplified by mirrors and white studio walls, so that for the dancers there is no hiding place. While it is a big space, the dancers use it all, and every now and again I sit well back as one of them comes pirouetting towards me. The piece they are rehearsing is called “Four Horsemen”. Mukhamedov, who has choreographed it, has set the ballet to a sequence of tangos for orchestra. It is positively saturated with machismo.
“Balancés everywhere, everywhere balancés”
It is midday. Martin Harvey of the Royal Ballet is first to arrive. He has grown a slight beard during the summer break. “May I keep it?”, he asks. “No”, says Mukhamedov. The atmosphere in the studio is friendly and collaborative. I have never seen dancers in rehearsal at close quarters. What is striking is that while a choreographer may have a broad concept, a considerable amount of fine-tuning takes place on individual dancers’ bodies. Mukhamedov talks Harvey in great detail through a solo: “There are balancés everywhere, everywhere balancés”. They reach the final steps. “I’m going to be knackered by then, aren’t I?” Harvey realises.
Others arrive. Yohei Sasaki, also from the Royal Ballet, stretches his right leg at the barre. Irek asks, “Where’s Chang? Chang is trouble!” “He’s good when he’s here though!”, Martin Harvey ripostes. As if on cue, Yat Sen Chang from English National Ballet arrives. There is something roguish about him. But what’s also striking is his very obvious musicality. Mukhamedov talks Chang through a solo. Martin Harvey meantime stands very still, detached almost. But an occasional flash of movement betrays the reality that he is completely absorbed, and alert to what is happening across the studio floor.
Taking it apart, putting it together.
Next Martin and Chang begin a duet, moving in unison in front of a mirror, carefully synching up with each other’s bodies. Irek watches, very much the sculptor. Occasionally he demonstrates. As he propels his entire frame into a jump that takes him virtually parallel to the floor, one forgets that here is a dancer in late career. He can still push his body to great limits. But what utterly differentiates him is his conviction as an actor. There is a knowing quality about his dancing and I am mesmerised by the number of moods he can strike in just one step. Even here in the rehearsal studio he is acting. There is an audience of one – me.
Irek’s mobile phone rings. It is Masha his wife. While they chatter animatedly in Russian, the three other dancers deconstruct the movement they have recently rehearsed, each one of them in a solitude.
Irek is off the phone now. He tells Chang that his turns should not be “too classical”. Next he asks him to mark the closing jumps from his solo. The movement is being slowed to its finest detail, here how a hat should be held to the heel. The atmosphere is incredibly focused. Irek constantly rewinds the tape. Martin pirouettes in the corner nearest the door, while Chang whips through his turns, assimilating the character of music and movement.
The dancers don Argentinean gaucho hats. The steps have been marked. Now it is a matter of digging deeper, and breathing theatricality into the performance. The four line up together for the first time and face the mirror. The horsemen ride into town and pay their respects to a pretty senorita before riding away again. Irek peels momentarily from the group. He wants to talk about how the ballet should begin. Meanwhile Chang sets up a small video camera on the grand piano and selects a wide shot. One of the other dancers says he has a camera just like it; it is clear that this is part of the way that dancers rehearse now. At home Chang will spool the tape backwards and forwards on his video, as he works on the fine detail of his part.
These dancers can take much for granted in each other; the flashes of sheer intelligence are very striking. Watching them, one is struck by the realisation that there are human follies and pretensions that only dance can mock with quite such precision. While Irek is most definitely the master, and his fellow dancers respectful, there is an atmosphere of reciprocal trust. The boys are very willing to make the ballet work, and there is a growing sense that it is finally taking shape.
Irek talks about how he likes to teach. Actually he says ‘cheat’, and begins an amused wordplay on the sounds of ‘cheat’ and ‘teach’. He is good in the classroom and hugely attentive to detail. “It’s just that I know so much” he told me. “I have had the experience of working with the Bolshoi and the Royal Ballet, and I finished at the best school in the world. I enjoy using my brain to explain to dancers or students. I hope dancers enjoy it too. We should not kill ourselves – just enjoy”.
“We’re all left turners!”
Earlier the dancers had marked how the horsemen dismounted their steeds. It is time now for them to remount and to ride into the sunset. While the boys have already seen a video of the ballet, not every detail is completely clear. Irek asks them to rotate on a stamping foot, with the trailing foot sweeping the ground. Yosei Sasaki finds the move a little disconcerting. “This is strange!”, he protests. Irek demonstrates. “Is very easy step! You step on one foot while shaking the other. It’s an Argentinean character step – easiest step I ever made!” Yosei tries again. He’s got it. But when all four try it, it doesn’t synch up. Irek begins to think he must drop the step. The boys suggest a pirouette as an alternative. “OK - pirouette to the right!” says Irek. “But we’re all left turners!” comes the reply.
Irek spins like a top, pausing every now and again to replay the music. The performance becomes cleaner with each take. Occasionally a move collapses amid general skittishness. Irek dances the part of the absent senorita. “Is she married?” asks Yosei. “Yes” replies Irek “and she has a child. But with more experience – is better!”
It is two o’clock now and the rehearsal is almost over. They repeat the sequence one final time. “Chaotically, we’ve done it!” says Irek. He talks to the boys about when they might next rehearse. As they leave, Adam Cooper is waiting at the studio door. Now Irek must teach him the part of Crassus from the ballet Spartacus.
Questions for Irek can be posted on the separate questions thread, while full details of the Gala at the Coliseum on 30th. September in aid of the charity KIDS can be found in our special section with interviews, features and additional links