The Bolshoi Theatre's hopes for a creative renaissance as its marks its 225th anniversary Wednesday rest in large part on a gangling Georgian with a penchant for Greta Garbo and chip butties.
Since joining the august dance company in 1992 as a gauche 19-year-old, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the black-haired boy from Tbilisi, has risen to the summit of his profession, working through the entire classical repertoire and electrifying audiences with the purity of his style.
Russian critics have enthused over his "clever, demonstrative technique" and his "excellent classical formation", and French dance maestro Roland Petit is to feature him in a new dance version of the Tchaikovsky opera "The Queen of Spades", based on the story by Alexander Pushkin.
"A ballet dancer must be an intellectual," Tsiskaridze told AFP earnestly as he explained his taste in movies.
His taste for French fries wrapped in white bread he found harder to explain, although he admitted to "eating a lot, especially sweet things," and being "lazy."
Though he became a dancer against the initial wishes of his mother, a physics teacher, Tsiskaridze has little else in common with Billy Elliot, the working-class hero of the international hit movie of the same name.
He was almost passed over by the ballet establishment, gaining entry to the Moscow Ballet Academy only at the third attempt, and being rejected by the Bolshoi until its artistic director, Yury Grigorovich, spotted his talent and overruled the admissions committee, ordering them to take him in.
Big-boned and unusually tall for a dancer, Tsiskaridze needed careful handling to develop his skills.
To the training he received from his teachers he adds scrupulous application, studying movie stars such as Garbo and Vivien Leigh to learn about self-control.
He prepares scrupulously for each new role, reading everything he can lay his hands on about the composer and the author of the text on which the ballet is based.
And he rejects roles he feels no affinity for. "I am not Romeo, I could never act the way he does. In 'Romeo and Juliet' I dance Mercutio, it's me."
Having danced on all five continents, he professes to be uninterested in fame.
"If I didn't have to I would never go on tour," he said. The appreciation of Moscow audiences, "very picky, clever and learned," was quite enough to keep him on his toes.
He also tries to relax by appearing regularly in a television show devoted to young, would-be journalists.
"I love ballet, but I always perform the same stuff. You have to relax once in a while if you don't want to forget your steps or peform like an automaton," he explained.
Which is, he believes, what distinguishes Russian dancers from their foreign counterparts. "Russian ballet is emotional. The great dancer Galina Ulanova always told me to skip the rehearsal the day before the performance, to take a walk and save energy."
It would be a mistake to perceive self-indulgence in Tsiskaridze's professed inclination to idleness and emotional display.
"I am rarely satisfied with myself," he noted. And he cannot turn down a challenge. "I am particularly fond of the role of Solor on 'The Bayadere' which is small but technically difficult, as it was written for a dancer who is short. But I proved I could do it."
He favourite role of all, he said, was "the next one."
And he had no intention of quitting the stage, even when his limbs refuse to do his bidding.
"The day I leave the Bolshoi will be the day I die. When I can't fit into a leotard any more, I'll take on comic roles. After that, dramatic roles, for just as long as I'm able to move." -- AFP
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