Nikolai Tsiskaridze is a ballet – and box office – phenomenon.
A mere 15-minute performance in May at the Kyiv National Opera House brought a standing ovation from an audience that had paid up to Hr 2,000 for tickets.
Tsiskaridze, 37, is the leading dancer at Russia’s Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater, a global superstar and, to put it mildly, a bit of a showoff.
At the show on June 3, which featured dancers from the top Russian ballet companies, he performed a dance from Raymonda with the leading ballerina from the Kirov Ballet, which largely boiled down to self-satisfied posing by the dancer.
The audience was applauding before he had even taken his first leap.
At the Bolshoi he is famous for his demanding character. His relationship with Anatoly Iksanov, the theater’s general manager, is falling apart at the seams.
The dancer irks the Bolshoi’s administration with his public criticism, complaining about the poor state of dancers’ changing rooms, the uncomfortable dance floor and equipment that needs replacing.
“Maybe I irritate him; I don’t care,” said Tsiskaridze in an interview after a rehearsal for the show. “The theater’s managers come and go, and I will stay,” he added.
A spokesman for Iksanov declined to comment on their relationship.
When he is reproached with not being modest enough, he always answers: “Modesty is the best policy only for those that have nothing to be proud of.”
The Bolshoi’s star dancer speaks with the self-importance of a man sure of his talents and achievements, at the same time exuding charisma in the same copious quantities as the sweat pouring from him after another tough rehearsal. Being this good is hard work.
Tsiskaridze undeniably has plenty to be proud of. He grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia, the son of a single mother who was a school teacher of math and physics.
He never knew his father. Dancing ballet from the age of 11, by 13 he had already moved to Moscow to continue studies there.
His graduation exam at the Moscow Academy of Choreography was held by Yuri Grigorovich, then chief ballet master at the Bolshoi.
“An ‘A’ to the Georgian and take him to the Bolshoi,” Tsiskaridze quotes Grigorovich as saying when he was informed that there were no more places at the theater.
Nikolai Tsiskaridze (R) during practice in Kyiv’s National Opera on June 3. (Anastasia Vlasova)
The dancer said Grigorovich took the list and wrote his name at the top, which set Tsiskaridze on a path to dancing stardom.
“With whom do the masses associate classical dance? With Tsiskaridze,” said Denys Matvienko, a leading dancer of the Kirov Ballet and a former star of the Kyiv Opera and Ballet House after the concert in Kyiv. “He is a phenomenon in dancing; he has become a superstar.”
He has been recognized as a People’s Artist of Russia and in France as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.
He has also transferred his talents from stage to the small screen, appearing on Russian television in various pop-music shows.
Tsiskaridze said it’s a way to fund his lifestyle, which is markedly different from the youth he spent living in a communal apartment. “I have very significant needs because I have gotten used to living well,” he said.
Tsiskaridze’s students at the Bolshoi are also excited about their teacher. Denis Rodykin, 20 years old, said Tsiskaridze is unique because “he understands what he is dancing.”
“When one looks at him on stage, one sees that his lightness makes him different from others. He has both the technique and the ability to get into his role,” added Rodykin. “There are, of course, equals to him. But nobody can copy him.”
Tsiskaridze is also a frequent guest at Opera Garnier in Paris, but he has no plans to emigrate from Russia, as a full-time slot in France is out of the question. “They invite non-French dancers to the Opera Garnier, some exclusive artists. But they don’t take them forever. All the rest in the world is of no interest to me,” he said.
So he continues to live in Moscow, which he adores. “There isn’t a city more luxurious in the world. Not according to its wealth, nor its chic, nor its level of life,” he said.
Tsiskaridze is just one year away from the traditional retirement age for ballet dancers of 38, but is showing no signs of slowing down.
During a rehearsal for the Kyiv performance, sweat flicked off him as he spun in a perfect pirouette on the beautiful long legs that are the foundations of his fame.
At one point, however, he stumbled and fell on his knee, sending the choreographer into panic.
Tsiskaridze tore ligaments in his knee in 2003 while performing at the Opera Garnier and was off stage for a year, leading some to doubt he could return.
This time, Tsiskaridze got up quickly. Later, he said he will dance at the Bolshoi “for as long as I wish,” wiping another stream of sweat from his brow with a towel.
“But I don’t think that I would wish to do it for long,” he said, adding that he would later like to work as general manager of the Bolshoi.
But not yet. This New Year’s Eve he will perform, as every year, in The Nutcracker.
“I’ll do it for as long as I can. This is my gift to myself, to my good self. To no one else,” he said.