RUSSIAN-BORN. ATTRACTS CROWDS. ALL TURNED OUT.
BY LINDA BESANT, December 2005
Artur Sultanov is the tall, dark-haired and handsome Russian-trained dancer everyone asks about at OBT performances. The one whose physique is so ballet-perfect it gained him admission as a child to the Vaganova Institute, St. Petersburg’s sacred ballet training-ground. The one who had audiences laughing out loud in Christopher Stowell’s Eyes on You in OBT’s Fall Program, and will dazzle them with the classical purity of his dancing in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The one who tells us he has found his niche in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre after dancing with the Kirov Ballet, Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, and Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco, California.
Tell us about your training at the famed Vagonova Institute in St. Petersburg.
It was difficult, but we got a good education. The schedule was demanding, from 9:20 in the morning to 5:30 every day with a one-hour break. We studied all kinds of normal academic subjects like math, science, literature, five years of French, three years of English, and all kinds of history—history of St. Petersburg, art history, history of civilization, of philosophy, of ballet. We had music appreciation class, and five years of piano. The schedule was very hard, with four academic classes before ballet, then ballet class around 1 p.m. for one and a half hours, then more academic classes, followed by character dance or partnering or acting class. I started at the Vagonova Institute when I was nine, and completed my training at 17.
Can you explain what character dancing is?
In character dance, for the first three years we studied the dances of the 16th to the 18th centuries, the court dances and forms like the Polonaise and the Minuet. Then for five years we studied the national dances of different countries, like Hungary and Spain. You learn the different national flavors. The teachers don’t really explain it much, you learn to feel it. Each dance has different arms, different head turns. I think because Russia is so close to Europe, you learn the history of those nations and you get to understand how people feel dancing in those countries.
What was it like to dance at the Kirov Ballet?
At the end of my schooling, a couple of directors came to watch our last class, kind of like an exam. I got an offer from the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, and I was excited about it because I wanted to do more contemporary work. Then, some students were invited to audition for Kirov Ballet. I got an offer to be a corps member there, so I was very excited about it, as well. I couldn’t decide, for maybe a month, what to do, because Kirov is a prestigious place to dance, and Eifman is more experimental, dramatic, more dancing for the men. I talked to my parents, and I talked to my Character teacher. Finally I chose to dance with the Kirov Ballet.
I was intimidated at the Kirov, because there are big stars in Russia, and I was young. You don’t really have enough support to get better. And, actually there is an interesting thing about it. When you join the company, there are different “rules.” After your first paycheck you have to buy some liquor for the company, and some food, to celebrate it. Not rules, exactly, if you want to do it that’s fine, but if you don’t want to do it, you feel like you’re forced to. And then, after each premiere that you do in the company, you have to celebrate again, you have to buy vodka, buy other stuff. There goes all your money.
Another rule for a new company member is to wet down the hardwood floor in the studio, to make sure it’s not slippery. Nobody likes doing that. It’s a big studio. You get some kind of buckets or big bottles and throw the water down on the floor, before the barre part of class and sometimes during the barre, and then for the center work a couple of times. It’s a tough job.
One of the great advantages of dancing with the Kirov was that I did get to tour a lot. I went to Spain, Italy, Germany, Finland, Hong Kong, New York.
What did you do after you left the Kirov Ballet?
After two years at the Kirov, I decided to change my scenery. I was hoping to dance more contemporary work. I joined Eifman Ballet and danced as a soloist there. I toured to Israel and Holland with them. But then I got injured, my back was completely out. My Mom used to live in Carmel, California, and I came and stayed with her for about three months. My back was better, so I decided to audition, and I joined Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet.
So before coming to OBT you experienced three totally different kinds of companies...
Yes, Kirov is completely classical. Eifman does only Boris Eifman choreography of dramatic ballets, like Russian Hamlet and Red Giselle. Lines Ballet’s repertoire is all contemporary. Dancing with Alonzo King stretched me as a dancer both artistically and physically. It helped me a lot to understand that ballet doesn’t have to fit the stereotype—it doesn’t always have to be pretty. After awhile, I wanted more variety, to grow as a dancer in some new directions. So I decided to come to Portland and dance with OBT.
You’re in the middle of your third season at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and you seem to like the Company...
OBT is a very nice group of people to work with, and because it’s a small company you can get to know the people on a personal level. The dancers are very mature, they know what they need from their jobs, they know what they want to achieve, where they want to get, why they want to spend eight hours here. It’s nice to work with people who value their time and value my time.
Also, I think Christopher is very good at putting programs together. He puts all different pieces together, and they are all pieces that are worth showing, they show different styles and different dance steps. I like that he doesn’t just go with one style. For him, as a director, he has specific tastes, but even if a piece might not be his favorite style, he puts it in because it is good and worth seeing.
Portland seems like a good fit for you and your wife, Cynthia. What do you enjoy when you’re not working?
We love it here. I like nature here, I like the community feeling. It’s not very small, it’s not too big. There’s not so much traffic. It has some old feel and some new developing areas. It’s much cheaper than the Bay Area. People can actually buy houses here. We just got a house, so I like working on the house. I like to fix things up. We like to have people over.
Also, I like to go to Borders and find new music, something that I’ve never heard before. Playing piano again is big on my list of things to do eventually. I’m really looking forward to the day when I can get a piano and play again. I really appreciate piano music. And I like watching basketball.
Basketball is my favorite sport to watch. I watch all the important games. I like the speed, and how they use their coordination. It’s kind of a fast paced game, with a lot of breaks. I can relate to that, dance is short bursts of time too. You do one variation, you go off stage. You do a pas de deux, you go off stage. Basketball is kind of similar in that way. Basketball reminds me of partnering a little bit too, even though they don’t partner each other.
In partnering you have to anticipate the next move of your partner, and the same in basketball, you have to anticipate what’s going to happen next. In ballet, you have to feel your partner, you have to kind of be with her. In basketball you have to feel the person you’re guarding, or who is guarding you. But in basketball you’re playing against each other, and in ballet you’re playing with each other.
I love partnering, not only performing, even working in the studio and figuring things out. It’s very rewarding, just because we’re trying to communicate, how does it work, how can we make it better.
Every partner is so different, they have completely different personalities. It’s interesting to see how we adjust to each other because we all need different things. Any time that I see that a ballerina is happy with her performance, it makes me happy.
You were very funny as “the husband” in Eyes on You...
Working in the studio you get all the technical details in place. Then you have to think of making your partner comfortable. Then you think of the theatrical aspects. It’s a little embarrassing to try to be funny in the studio, especially when people are watching really closely. You feel like sometimes you’re making a fool of yourself, “Oh, my face looks weird,” but if you’re not afraid to do that, it’s actually good because you can learn something more.
I don’t think I pass that self-conscious level that I can let it all out in the studio. I’m more conservative in the studio. When you’re in the theater you don’t really see your expressions in the mirror. It’s different, you just kind of get inside and let it all out, you add personality and put the technical details in second place.
One thing you want to be sure audiences know about you...
That I have a wonderful wife. She studied ballet in Damara Bennett’s school in San Francisco, and I think that knowledge helps her to understand what it’s like for a dancer. My life wouldn’t be complete without all of her love and support.