Representatives of the ballet company of the Mariinsky Theater wrote a letter addressed to the Minister of Culture, where they described a list of grievances to the management of the ballet and requested to "conduct an audit of the financial and administrative activities of the Theater." The administration of the Mariinsky Theater reacted with a press release in which it declared the grievances unfounded, yet agreed to "discuss any problems with the dancers." V.A. Gergiev himself dignified the letter with his answer. The Ministry, however, has been silent so far. Taking advantage of the pause, we talked with a prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater Darya Pavlenko.
Marianna Dimant. Darya Vladimirovna, are you the Chair of the labor union of the ballet department?
Darya Pavlenko. I am just a member of the union. Our Chair is Dmitry Nikolaevich Pykhachev; however, now he is taking an unpaid leave, and so we are working together with Valery Kon'kov.
D. The letter which the labor union of the ballet department sent to the Minister of Culture, is signed by three people. Why did you not go through its approval at a meeting of the entire ballet company?
P. Because the letter is about problems that do not require a meeting of the company: we pointed out violations of the labor laws that exist in the theater. It is an indisputable fact. To call a meeting regarding whether or not internal labor rules are needed in the theater, I think is pointless. They are not only needed, they are required.
D. In the press release distributed by the Mariinsky Theater, it says that such rules exist.
P. Yes, I know what the press release says. The rules that they are talking about are from 1986. They are 25 years old---they were created in a country that no longer exists. We think that they need to be adjusted. The Chair of the labor union showed us these rules---they do not have any signatures. The rules need to be approved both by the administration of the Theater and by the Chair of the labor union. Since there are no signatures, they are invalid.
D. Have you tried to discuss this with your management?
P. Certainly. First, we talked about this with the administration of the ballet company. They said: "Yes-yes, we would like to have such rules." And then we sent an official request to V.A. Gergiev's deputy Yu.A. Shvartskopf. We also touched upon other issues in that letter, and we did not get answers to any of them.
D. When did this happen?
P. This happened in May. After this, we talked to Valery Abisalovich. He said that he was aware of the events and that he was going to deal with all this.
D. Has he dealt with it?
P. I understand very well that, as busy as he is, it is very difficult to make time to sit down and start addressing the problems of the ballet company. But we simply do not have a choice. Because the artists of our department voted for us, we have to get things done. Artists come to us with various complaints---on how work hours are being counted, on the absence of days off (sometimes it happens that we work a month with no days off)---and we simply have to react.
D. But why did you start reacting only now? Didn't you have a labor union before?
P. We did, but it wasn't very active. We were elected in April 2012. The problems were accumulating gradually, and now we can say that the boiling point has been reached---primarily because of the experimental pay scale of the corps de ballet artists. I want to emphasize that everything that we are talking about concerns, first and foremost, the corps de ballet. Soloists are able to speak about their problems themselves, and they are of course inclined to be occupied with themselves first. But the corps de ballet cannot defend themselves.
D. Has the system of the distribution of grants changed? Was it different under Makhar Vaziev?
P. We have had grants since 2003. Under Makhar Vaziev, the grants were fixed. In other words, there was a certain part of the grant that did not depend on the number of performances. The ballet management was not satisfied with this, because a person could do nothing and receive salary for nothing.
D. I recall that in one interview Yuri Fateyev said that this system needed to be changed.
P. Yes, and he did a lot to introduce the new system. We are not against this system---we would like it to be adjusted. Bolshoi Theater's practice is that part of the grant remains fixed, whereas another part is a bonus. It is awarded to those people who worked a lot and well. Whereas people who worked poorly will only receive the fixed part.
D. How does one decide who "worked poorly"? Does it mean "too little"? It is possible to work little and well, and it is possible to work a lot and poorly. And also it is possible to work both little and poorly. Who should be deciding this?
P. This is a very delicate question. Everybody knows very well that every manager likes some artists more than others.
D. Do you agree that it has always been like this, and probably always will be?
P. Yes, it has been and will be like this. Not only in ballet theaters, but also in drama theaters. There are artists who are able and willing to work, but the director (or, in our case, the ballet manager) does not see them. Precisely because of this we would like to make sure that artists who, due to various reasons, do not participate in many performances, are somehow protected. Of course our ballet bodies wear out quickly, and if at 20 everything is fine, then at 35 everything is not so fine. And you stop being liked. But you have a family, and moreover, you spent your health working in this profession, and it is not quite right to deprive you of stable earnings.
D. They could respond that they are not Social Security.
P. They say this to us all the time.
D. You profession is cruel: you lose form, you have to leave and do something else. Perhaps one could reason this way as well.
P. Still, it seems to me that there should exist some gratitude for the fact that the person gave himself to the theater for 15-20 years…
D. Ok, but who should be deciding whether the person is in shape, and whether he is able to go on stage? Do you have a collegial body that has such powers? Do you have an Artistic Board?
P. At this point, all the decisions are made by two people: Acting Director of the Ballet Company Yuri Fateyev and his Deputy Tatyana Bessarabova. The Theater's press release says that when these issues are decided, the opinions of coaches are taken into account. In reality, this is not the case. I can only recall a few times when something was discussed by a "council" consisting of the management and repetiteurs. For example, when the fate of the ballet soloist Yelena Sheshina was being decided. At that time, Yuri Valeryevich gathered the repetiteurs and discussed with them her firing (in the end, he still did what he thought was necessary.) We would like to have an evaluation once a year, conducted by a committee in which there would be some independent representatives---in order to reach a balanced and maximally independent decision.
D. We started talking about grants---what are the components that make up the earnings of a corps dancer?
P. First of all, the base salary---it is, if I am not mistaken, from 10 to 18 thousand [rubles per month net of taxes], if I am not mistaken. The distribution of the grant depends on the person. If it is an artist who satisfies the management, then he receives the base rate.
D. What is the base rate?
P. The base rate is the part of the grant that is paid for performing a certain part of the repertory. It is sort of a price list. Each part, from the big ones to the smallest ones, even "walking", has its price. The waltz in "Swan Lake" has one price, and the parts of the swans have another price. Let's say that swans are "priced" at three thousand rubles, that is, this is their base rate. However, if the person does not quite satisfy the management, then they deduct a certain percentage from this base rate, and he might receive two thousand or one and a half. If a girl is occupied in each act and is liked by the management, she receives one sum. If she is not liked, then she receives another sum.
D. Does there exist an official document which describes the rules of how the size of the compensation changes?
P. Such a document does not exist---we brought this up as well. The regulatory document says that the grant is disbursed according to how occupied a dancer is. So if a person goes on stage, he receives his money according to the base rate. It says that money can be deducted only after consulting the repetiteurs and only after issuing an official memo to this effect. None of the people who we asked were given the memo when the money was deducted from them. Moreover, sometimes the money gets deducted before going on stage---i.e., an artist has not gone on stage yet and has not had a chance to make any mistakes, but 20% has already been deducted from him.
D. Why? Does this get explained somehow?
P. This is a difficult matter. No, it is not explained. I think (perhaps I am mistaken) that it happens because there is not enough money for everyone. There is a certain total amount of the grant for the theater overall and, in particular, for the ballet. This amount is fixed, it cannot be changed. See, "Swan Lake" has 32 swans, and if everyone gets paid, for example, three thousand rubles, then there will not be enough money for everyone. So they started deducting certain percentages. I am astounded: why is it impossible to revise this system? To arrange it so that people are not offended---currently, they are not being told why they are being fined. The grounds can be anything: you are too tall, or your knee does not fully extend (when that knee has perhaps recently been operated on), and so on. Much is arbitrary and subjective here. We discussed with Fateyev the fact that this system is not well thought-out. Certainly we are not talking about paying everyone the same. But then they should pay according to categories, and not have this humiliating system of fines.
D. Does the company support you?
P. I think that unofficially, the majority of the company is supporting us; however, of course they are very afraid to get up and say something directly: "I say something, and then I will be left out of a tour, left out of performances, and be left with only the base salary."
D. Valery Gergiev responded to your letter by saying that "the anxiety of artists, especially the young ones, is related to the fact that they need to live somewhere. And even the most generous salaries do not result in favorable possibilities at the Mariinsky or at the Bolshoi, or in orchestras, where young musicians are unable to save enough money for an apartment in a year or two."
P. I did not quite understand his answer. The thing is, we did not write about apartments in our letter, and also we did not only write about money. We also wrote about quality. Yes, good work should be compensated well. But when a person is forced to think about how much he will make this month, artistic quality suffers. The atmosphere at the theater has changed a lot: experienced artists do not want to help their young colleagues, because they fear losing their chances to go on stage. I told this to Yuri Valeryevich, and he responded to me: "Dasha, it has been like this all the time."
D. What do you mean?
P. When a girl joins the company, it is sometimes difficult to learn, as we say, "the order", from one rehearsal. When I started out, the older artists never refused to help the younger ones. Now sometimes they do.
D. Do you realize that people can reproach you for being preoccupied with your own situation? In fact, V. Gergiev has already done this quite directly, having said that you are worried about your rare appearances on stage.
P. It does cause me pain---I really do worry that I do not have many performances. And I really would like to go on stage more often. But I cannot imagine how my union activities could assist me in this matter. I never went to Gergiev to ask for any parts. I am embarrassed to do this. I do not know how to advertise myself, and was not bold enough to do this. Although I thought about it many times. I love my work---for me it is not only work, it is a very significant part of my life. But what I am doing now does not have any bearing on my personal situation. Not once---since April---did I say anything about my personal problems. By the way, in October I had eight performances (two premieres among them), and I am absolutely delighted. Although I do not know what will happen tomorrow…
D. Why do you think several leading artists left for other theaters?
P. Under Makhar Vaziev, artists also used to leave the company. This happens due to various reasons. I am concerned about something else: young artists, yesterday's graduates of the Academy of Russian Ballet, do not want to join our company.
D. Why---is there any answer to this quesion?
P. I think that the reason is again financial. Last season, young artists that joined the theater, received a base salary of 15 thousand rubles. That's it. Unfortunately, many preferred to join other companies. When I was graduating from the Academy, I could not believe that I was being hired by the Mariinsky Theater. Back then, it was a huge honor. And now young dancers do not elect to join our theater. And soon this will impact the quality of the performances.
D. By the way, if we are talking about quality---how do you rate the stage of the Concert Hall where, judging from the press release, there have been 11 ballet performances this season?
P. The Concert Hall is not equipped for ballet---perhaps something special needs to be staged for that venue. It does not have curtains, it is not equipped to have sets, it has a bad floor. For example, we dance the second act from Giselle there. And of course we are disappointed. We would like to live through everything, to create some impression of a performance---but there it is impossible in principle: the spectators are sitting right above you, and on the side, and behind. And artists feel very awkward.
D. Returning to the letter, I would like to ask what resolution you see to this situation?
P. I would very much like that they pay attention to our letter, without any hysterics. Without "wow, how dare they!" We think our letter is very properly written, and we ask to sort out what's happening. We do not ask to dismiss these people and those, and to replace them with some others. Our goal is not a war. We ask to sort things out. It's a cry for help---much has been lost already, unfortunately. We would like to at least correct something---rather than take revenge. Revenge is not the point. The point is that there should be normal working conditions, and that artists should come to the theater to engage in artistic endeavors, rather than think why we are left without a day off again and so on. I think that the direct responsibility of the administration is to ensure that the atmosphere in the theater be conducive to artistic activities, rather than hinder them.
D. Do you think that everything that you were talking about directly influences the quality of performances?
P. Yes, I think so. And when spectators come to the theater having paid a lot of money for their tickets, and get a show of questionable quality, I am ashamed.
D. But wouldn't you agree that this is not directly related to money---there exist dancers who won't dance better even if you pay them a million...
P. Still, at the Mariinsky people used to always come for the performers, and now this is disappearing.
D. This is a different topic… Perhaps it is necessary to purchase some stars?
P. No, I am confident that it is necessary to grow our own. And it is necessary to give people a chance and to help them.