Ismene Brown

What happens to male ballet greats when they retire?

What happens when a torrent of exceptional male stars leave the stage and flood the jobs market? Especially in a world when classical ballet appears to be becoming less fashionable, eclipsed by contemporary fashions and nervousness about audiences?

The titan of the Royal Ballet and Bolshoi, Irek Mukhamedov, was renowned at Covent Garden in the Nineties for his unique combination of muscle and gentlemanly manners, and if English National Ballet’s men are looking particularly refined on their winter tour of Swan Lake and Coppelia it may well be the result of his stellar coaching last month.

ENB’s director Tamara Rojo invited him over from Slovenia, where he has been running the national ballet, to hand on some of his precious knowhow to her young team of new male soloists. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact in London of Mukhamedov’s arrival in 1989. Most of all, he generated a new forcefield in the last years of the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan – who created Winter Dreams for the romantic Irek and The Judas Tree for the terrifying, brutish Irek, and both were united in his unforgettable performing of MacMillan’s Mayerling. But also the Russian showed that it only takes willpower and a sense of inquiry to transform yourself from a world-famous Moscow hunk into one of the greatest Albrechts in Giselle of living memory.

Here is a video double-helping of Irek’s streamlined partnering and charisma, first powerlifting in his signature Bolshoi role of Spartacus, filmed with the gorgeous Lyudmila Semenyaka in 1990 just before he suddenly quit Moscow for London – and then elegantly smooching in Manon at the Royal Ballet with the kittenish Viviana Durante a couple of years later (this is an illicit spectator video – the only record, it appears, of that period’s most memorable partnership).

Russian Irek in Spartacus, Bolshoi Ballet

Anglicized Irek in Manon, Royal Ballet

Having quit the stage, the mighty Mukhamedov hasn’t been able to reflect his dominance as a dancer in his subsequent career.

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