Vladimir Malakhov: Keeping the world dancing in lockdown

The Ukrainian former director of the Staatsballett Berlin on modern dance trends, keeping fit on Instagram and getting vaccinated.

Vladimir Malakhov is known for his work in Moscow, New York and Tokyo. Still, he says, Berlin is where he feels most at home.
Vladimir Malakhov is known for his work in Moscow, New York and Tokyo. Still, he says, Berlin is where he feels most at home.Berliner Zeitung/Paulus Ponizak

Berlin- Vladimir Malakhov (53) opens the door of his apartment in Mitte wearing a colourful kimono over sportswear. He has just finished his daily Instagram ballet class. His smile is broad and he offers a slice of "bird milk" cake, a traditional Russian snack he usually buys at a supermarket in Lichtenberg. He makes some tea, sits down and lights a cigarette. 

Berliner Zeitung am Wochenende: Mr Malakhov, do you still smoke?

Vladimir Malakhov: Yes, I never really stopped. It was a very strange time last year. I usually never spend so much time in my apartment. I was stuck here. Normally, you know, I come in, change my clothes, stay two or three days, pack my bags again, and – ciao cacao!

Where were you when lockdown started?

I was just in Croatia to do a revival of Swan Lake. And then I went to St. Petersburg to visit my friends, then a competition in Kyiv. And then lockdown.

Is Berlin still home for you?

It is my base: wherever I go, I always come back to Berlin. I always look forward to this wonderful city. I stayed in Zagreb for three months to do Swan Lake there. But I missed my home, my plants and my friends. I get my energy from everything here. Look, I planted some tomatoes!

You look very healthy. What's your secret? How did you stay so perfectly fit and in shape?

That is thanks to my niece. "Maybe you can do something on social media," she said to me. Like a Facebook Live or something on Instagram. At first, I didn’t want that at all. But she insisted: please, people must know that you're still alive. And I said, OK, open Instagram for me, please. And then she opened an account for me.

Why do you do it?

It's like a present for people–and also to myself. Sometimes 200 people watch, sometimes 700. It helps me stay fit! All the training facilities were closed and there were also no performances. So these Instagram sessions became important to me.

Did you do one today?

Of course. Friday is a little easier than the rest of the week. Monday is like a warm-up, Tuesday is more complicated, something for the memory, some combinations. Wednesday and Thursday are very hard, I have to push, and today, Friday, is a little bit more for relaxation.

Dance is a celebration of life. You need the dress, the perfume, the reality of it all.

Vladimir Malakhov

Do you miss the interaction with the audience?

Well, I do get in touch with my audience and they also ask questions sometimes. But after all, you know, we don’t talk so much. It's ballet, we talk with the body, we don't talk with the mouth.

Can you still sit on juries for dance competitions around the world?

Yes, but all of that is now digital. I work on the iPad and watch auditions. But it is not the same feeling when you watch it all on-screen.

What is missing?

All the different nuances, all the details. Yes, you can meet people–you sit, you watch, you see the sweat and hear the sound of the feet. But dance is a celebration of life. You need the dress, the perfume, the reality of it all.

What has changed in the dancing world since you retired as a dancer?

Of course they do more tricks now. But you know, if I want to see tricks I go to the circus. If I want to see gymnastics I go to the Olympics. Because first all, it must be beautiful. It's art, after all! The same goes for pirouettes.

Vladimir Malakhov during the International Ballet Festival in Saint Petersburg, 2012. 
Vladimir Malakhov during the International Ballet Festival in Saint Petersburg, 2012. dpa/Anatoly Maltsev

What do you mean, exactly?

Well, people start to turn and turn around like crazy! When I began my career, two or three pirouettes were normal. Now they do 10 or 15! And fast! It's hard. But technique has improved so much, so it is possible!

Do you like it?

If it's done beautifully, yeah, I like it. But it is not the quantity that counts, it’s the quality.

Would you say dance and politics can overlap?

I studied in Russia. I danced in Russia. I was born in Ukraine and, at that time, it was all one country. But I'm an artist and don’t talk about political issues.

But everything is political nowadays. I mean, the whole debate around black dancers… Would you have cast a black dancer for Swan Lake?

Of course. I don't have a problem with a black dancer! I worked a lot with black dancers. All of them are my friends. But to bring the full-blown racial debate to ballet did not help.

In Berlin, it was controversial to expel a dancer while she was on sick leave.

But that is very common. If a director steps down and the next director doesn’t like a dancer – sorry, you are finished! But please don't go and play the race card. These things have nothing to do with the decision. If you're a good dancer, you can stay. And if you are not – ciao cacao

Was she a good dancer?

No, nothing special, maybe a good group dancer. The ballet in New York has an African American ballerina who became a principal dancer – Misty Copeland. She is beautiful and she deserves her title.

Are you in contact with the ballet?

Not much, but of course I still have friends there. Some say this is the worst year the ballet has had, ever. But I don't know lots of details because I'm not there. I just hear from people. They surely dance and do classes. But rehearsals are not really there.

So you still have good friends at the Berlin ballet?

Well, of course I do. When I built the company, I wanted to build a family, and I think I actually did. I danced with Nadja for many years. And I brought Dino into the company when he was 17 years old. And now he's married to another dancer and they are expecting a baby. 

How do you see your legacy as director of the company?

Every single thing I promised, I delivered. I brought the company to an international level. I brought in some new choreographers. The house was always full. I made it the most successful part of the Berlin operas. People were travelling a long way just to see us, from Japan, from the United States, from Russia.

So what’s next?

I am going to Saint Petersburg. It's breathtaking. I love the city. Beautiful churches, beautiful theatres. And now everything is open and especially compared to our life here in Germany, it is so different! Restaurants, theatres, and museums have already been open for a long time.

Is the curfew a problem for you?

Not in Berlin. But when I was working in Slovakia, I was filming and we forgot about the curfew. When I left through the stage door there was a police car in front of me. I was so afraid, but we had permission to film.

Will you get vaccinated?

Of course. I decided I want to get the Pfizer vaccine, no matter what other people say. And I did. My first shot is on 25 April. 

The interview was conducted by Sören Kittel.

Diese Texte sind in der Wochenendausgabe der Berliner Zeitung erschienen – jeden Sonnabend am Kiosk oder hier im Abo.

Berlin news in English.