A new director in charge but the problems won’t go away

Classical ballet in Greece often seems like a Louis XIV chair in a Nea Liosia living room – no matter how much we try to believe that the art of ballet is at home here, all many Greeks think about it is how much the tutu resembles the men’s fustanella worn by the presidential guards. Inside the Greek National Opera Ballet’s rehearsal rooms on Pireos Street, dancers were exercising to an Edith Piaf song, young men with severe expressions and muscles of iron, slight young women in point shoes and their hair in ponytails are in class with the ballet’s new director Irek Mukhamedov. The piano music mingles with the hum of the air vents and the traffic outside on Pireos Street. In a break, ballet mistress Maria Miliopoulou, who ended her own 25-year dance career just under a year ago, talked about the frequent changes of directors, each of whom had brought ambitious plans with them, only to see them never brought to fruition. When Miliopoulou joined the ballet in 1973, rehearsals were held in the foyer of the Olympia Theater, but she is nostalgic about those times. «The last two years have been called a new age for the company but that isn’t quite true. Every new director comes with a dream. Making it come true depends on policy decisions and circumstances rather than personal effort,» she said. Today the company consists of about 60 dancers, who had to pass an entrance exam. However, we also heard that there have been times when some have appeared in the company out of nowhere. Meritocracy has always been a serious problem for the Opera Ballet (just like everywhere else). «Insecurity is one of the main characteristics of this job,» said one dancer. One of the most tragic stories in the company’s history was the suicide of one of its dancers a few years ago. Some said he had been disturbed, others that he wanted to show his frustration with the way he had been treated by management. The tragedy was quickly forgotten. «Conditions are bad. We only got a physiotherapist last year. Whoever couldn’t afford one before had to grin and bear the pain,» said dancer Stratos Papanousis, who is acting assistant choreographer. «We have had to dance on a stage built over a storeroom in which there was paint and turpentine, with the fumes coming up through the floorboards.» Everyone knows there is no future for a dancer in Greece apart from the Opera Ballet (founded in 1939), other than nightclubs and the few modern dance groups that have emerged in recent years. Irek Mukhamedov has been in Athens for a year-and-a-half and took over the company’s helm two months ago. He declares he is ready to deal with the difficulties presented to him. «It’s a challenge. But when you decide to climb a mountain, you only think about the peak and not coming down again,» he said. Before assuming his current post, he was ballet master during the directorship of his predecessor, the distinguished British dancer Lynn Seymour, whose sudden and explosive departure last year caused considerable upheaval within the company. Before coming to Greece, Mukhamedov didn’t know there was a classical ballet company in Greece. «Over time I realized that most Greeks didn’t know either, so that was some consolation,» he added. He believes the first thing that needs to be done to bring ballet out into the public eye is to get more coverage in the media. «If people don’t know we exist, it’s as if we are not doing anything,» he said. Another vital requirement, he believes, is to set up an Opera Ballet school. «Good ballet is the result of good training. Do you think the Kirov or the Bolshoi would exist otherwise, if they didn’t have their schools?» Despite the large number of ballet schools in Greece, there are no ballet companies apart from the National Opera Ballet. And that is not the only problem. There have been rumors of authoritarian behavior on the part of some past directors, and that some dancers have been humiliated. On the other hand, some dancers are said to approach their work with a civil servant mentality. Mukhamedov, a Russian who has spent the greater part of his life in Britain, blames the sun. «When the sun shines nine months of the year, it is natural that they won’t behave like English or Russian dancers. And don’t forget that dancers are people, people who have been through hard times. Some feel as if they haven’t been given opportunities. If you have nothing to look forward to, you can’t feel right. Naturally, not all of them are destined to reach the top. That is why as a director, you can’t always please everyone, but you can still be fair. If someone isn’t very good at one thing, it’s possible that he will be good at something else.» This article appeared in the January 20 issue of the Kathimerini supplement K.