News » Ivan Vasiliev

How a Banana Tycoon Lured Bolshoi Stars to His Theater
Author: DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
Date: November 20, 2011
Publisher: New York Times

MOSCOW — He is often called Banana King. But Vladimir Kekhman — the fruit magnate who stunned the dance world last week by enticing two of the biggest stars in ballet to quit the eminent Bolshoi and join his far lesser-known Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg — considers this title an understatement. “I was sort of the Emperor of the Banana,” he said.

Similarly understated, Mr. Kekhman said, were reports that he has spent $20 million of his personal fortune upgrading the state-owned Mikhailovsky and restoring some of its pre-revolutionary architectural splendor since he was named the theater’s general director four years ago. “I have donated $40 million, not $20 million,” he said.

But what will no longer be underestimated by anyone are Mr. Kekhman’s ambitions to catapult the Mikhailovsky onto the A-list of world stages for ballet.

Last Monday, at the start of a week that the just-reopened Bolshoi hoped to focus on its premiere of a production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” two huge stars, Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, announced their resignations. Such a move — to leave one of the grandest stages in dance, especially for a lesser-known Russian house rather than for a big-name company in the West — is virtually unheard of in the ballet world.

And it was a remarkable feat for the Banana King, whose only artistic credentials before becoming general director of the Mikhailovsky were owning a jazz club that he opened in St. Petersburg (because, he said, he had nowhere to listen to his favorite music) and playing clarinet as a child in his native Samara, about 700 miles southeast of Moscow, where, he recalls, an uncle was known as the best piano tuner in town.

His brazen raid created an uproar among Russian’s cultural class. “Premier dancers of such rank have never left the Bolshoi,” wrote Tatiana Kuznetsova, the ballet critic of the daily Kommersant. “Yes, they could run abroad. But that happened in Soviet times. In modern Russia, the artists only come to the Bolshoi.”

Not anymore.

Last year Mr. Kekhman recruited the contemporary Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato to be artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet, itself a bold move that showed a desire to test boundaries given the revered status of classical dance in Russia.

And Mr. Kekhman, at age 43, recently gave up all of his day-to-day responsibilities as a major owner of Russia’s biggest fruit company to focus on the Mikhailovsky. “I have a new profession right now,” he said. “And this profession has brought a new life to me.”

Mr. Kekhman’s new life also represents a new — and, detractors say, potentially worrisome — role for wealthy arts patrons in Russia, where post-Soviet business titans are maturing and reaching for new cultural prominence.

Unlike the superrich Russians who have been buying professional sports teams or sponsoring galleries or exhibitions, Mr. Kekhman has used his wealth and political connections to shake up two of the nation’s most venerable cultural landmarks. He was appointed general director of the Mikhailovsky at his request in 2007. There are now suggestions that his eventual goal could be control of the Bolshoi.

News of the defection of Ms. Osipova and Mr. Vasiliev had not yet sunk in when Mr. Kekhman publicly predicted that he would soon lure away David Hallberg, who just this fall became the first American dancer to enlist permanently with the Bolshoi. Mr. Hallberg had said part of his motivation for moving was to dance with Ms. Osipova.

Ms. Osipova and Mr. Vasiliev, who are a couple, have left themselves open to charges of selling out, quite literally — curtailing the artistic trajectory of their careers for financial reasons.

Mr. Kekhman said their deal included not just higher pay for each performance but also a spacious apartment in Moscow, which the dancers said would remain their hometown. “I always offer a market price,” he said.

Flashing his business-world toughness, Mr. Kekhman said the dancers would be able to live in the apartment right away but would become owners only when they completed a five-year contract with the Mikhailovsky.

The dancers’ agent, Sergei Danilian, who also represents Mr. Duato, the Spanish choreographer, acknowledged that they would be paid more than at the Bolshoi. And he said he wished Mr. Kekhman had not discussed the apartment deal publicly, but added that Mr. Kekhman had always displayed a singular style not long on discretion.

That style was on display when Mr. Danilian first met Mr. Kekhman at Lincoln Center four years ago. His impression then, Mr. Danilian said, was of an obviously wealthy man, very much in his own world, who knew little about the arts even as he mixed with stars and tried to attract interest in the Mikhailovsky.

But Mr. Danilian said Mr. Kekhman set about educating himself, attending performances and meeting with artists and managers worldwide.

“Mr. Kekhman can buy another yacht or another villa in the South of France, but he decided to help a theater in his own city,” Mr. Danilian said. “He decided to spend his money for the performing arts. This is really something new.”

New, perhaps, but not universally admired. Detractors say he is causing havoc in the arts world, and potentially wrecking careers.

There is no question that the dancers’ departure has stung the Bolshoi’s leaders. It may hurt all the more because Ms. Osipova and Mr. Vasiliev were generally regarded as the performers who perhaps most epitomized the Bolshoi’s brand of ballet — larger-than-life dancers capable of sky-high jumps and space-devouring sweep and willing to sacrifice academic perfection to electrify their audience.

The Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iskanov, has described the departure as an “attack.” In interviews, the dancers have said the decision was an artistic one and that they craved more freedom.

Mr. Duato, the choreographer, said they would get it. “I am keen to help Natalia and Ivan to express the new side of their artistry, something apart from the core repertoire they have been performing,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Russian dancers are the best in the world and it is a shame they had been respected only for the classics so far.”

Mr. Kekhman said he first approached Ms. Osipova and Mr. Vasiliev about a year and a half ago and that he was more confident about his chances to win over Mr. Vasiliev.

“It was pretty obvious Ivan, who was stuck in his heroic roles, needed to go somewhere else,” Mr. Kekhman said. But he added that the Bolshoi had driven Ms. Osipova away, by focusing on other ballerinas and not setting its calendar effectively, making it difficult for her to plan international appearances. As an example, he noted that Ms. Osipova was not scheduled to perform in “The Sleeping Beauty,” which had its premiere on Friday.

That Mr. Kekhman, a titan of a rough-and-tumble business, is in a position to comment on the world’s top ballet dancers is remarkable. He had made millions importing and warehousing fruit. (One banana shipment from Ecuador shared a container with a large quantity of cocaine, but his company said it owned only the fruit, not the entire container, and no charges were filed.)

He was appointed general director of the Mikhailovsky in 2007 by the governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina I. Matviyenko, who is now chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament.

Knowing little about the theater business, he enrolled in a management course at the St. Petersburg State Theater Arts Academy and almost immediately came into conflict with artists at the Mikhailovsky. The opera company even wrote an open letter to President Dmitry A. Medvedev complaining about his management.

One conductor said Mr. Kekhman ordered him during an intermission of “Swan Lake” to make changes because he thought the swans were too slow and mournful. The conductor said he replied: “You must not interfere. You are a dilettante.”

Elena Obraztsova, an opera star, quit her job as artistic director at the Mikhailovsky because of disagreements with Mr. Kekhman in his early years, but has remained as an adviser. In an interview, she said that she had come to admire him for revitalizing the theater, architecturally and programmatically.

“He was like a child with a new toy,” she said of his early days. “He did a lot of silly things like giving advice to musicians or a conductor. But I should say that he grew tremendously since then.”

“Thanks to his efforts,” she added, “the theater put on a new spirit.”