06.12.2023
Ilze Liepa: "I never cease to wonder how interesting my life has been molded"
Our heroine of today needs no introduction. People's Artist of Russia, brilliant ballerina, also a theater and film actress, and on top of all a member of a legendary dynasty of creative artists. She writes books, scripts, fairy tales, and is the head of the Russian National Ballet School. In sum, there is whale of topics to be discussed in an interview with Ilse Liepa, and so we did at Capital Ideas.

– You have a fabulous name: Ilse. If it's not a secret, who of the parents decided to call you that?

- When I was born, my father, who had just returned from the USA, wanted to name me Jacqueline, in honor of the wife of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated at that time. But Mom intervened, and I received the name Ilze, which also has its own romantic history.

The fact is that my parents met when my mother, Margarita Zhigunova, while still a student at the Moscow Art Theater Studio School, was engaged at the Riga Film Studio in her very first movie called Ilze. My mother was a real beauty, and my father was infatuated, and could not but fall in love. The name Ilze served my parents as a reminder of the reference point of their acquaintance and the beginning of love.

- You were born in Moscow, lived on Nezhdanova Street (now Bryusov Lane). Your house is noted for being home to many famous people. What childhood memories have you preserved?

- At the beginning of our street, lived Ivan Bersenev, Vsevolod Meyerhold, and in our house - the great Kachalov, and on the top floor – the family of Ekaterina Maximova. The apartment of Ekaterina Geltzer, an outstanding Russian ballerina, passed over to my parents. Now, my brother Andris Liepa lives there. I have a different home address, but I really love our good old house, it is intimately related not only to my childhood, but also to my whole life.

This, I will tell you, is absolutely amazing; it is some kind of sacred place where creative energy literally bursts out like a fountain. Here it is so comfortable to meditate, fantasize, and compose. 

Many outstanding people have visited our hospitable home, from musicians and artists to famous surgeons and writers. My father, for example, was friends with twice Hero of the Soviet Union pilot-cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov, and knew his family well. When the legendary Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart came to Moscow with his troupe, he would visit my parents after the performances. Of course, Andris and I had the opportunity to communicate with the great master.

I do remember something else. Next to celebrities we would welcome ordinary people who would sit with us at the table. My father greatly appreciated them for their responsiveness and kindness, considered them his friends. For instance, two women from the city of Saratov, Zoya and Sveta, often visited us and even spent the night at our apartment. They were loyal fans of my father and they were always welcome in our house. Maris Eduardovich would provide them with tickets to the Bolshoi Theater, and invited them to join him during special informal parties with his solo performance.

- You set your foot on the Bolshoi Theatre stage at the age of five; you took part in the opera performance "Madame Butterfly". Did this mean that your parents predetermined your fate?

- In any case, it was my own decision to become a ballerina. My father adored the stage and charged us with this love for performing arts. You see, when such a creative person as Maris Liepa was around, then we, his children, simply could not have chosen a different life path.

My Bolshoi Theater began with the opera. After seeing an ad, my father took me to a competition where children were selected to participate in the play "Madame Butterfly". They liked me and offered me the role of... the son of the main character.

Why was the girl chosen for this role? Simply because the actress who played Madame Butterfly had to carry a sleeping child in her arms. And, as a rule, the girl still weighs less.

During the performance, there was a touching moment when Butterfly says goodbye to her child before stabbing herself. I remember that I felt sorry for my stage "mom" to the point of tears. By the way, the performers of this role changed from performance to performance. I especially remember the brilliant Galina Vishnevskaya and the amazing Margarita Miglau.

I had my own dressing room next to the stage. It was there that the dressing rooms of the prima donnas of the Bolshoi Theater were located. At that time, being a five-year-old child, I could not imagine what kind of journey it would take me to return one day to these rooms again.

- What are your best memories of your renowned father Maris Liepa? Do you think he would be happy to learn how his children succeeded in life?

- I think he would have been pleased with us, but for something, probably, he would have scolded us. Dad and mom did not draw boundaries between their creativity and family. It was such a unified space, and it seemed so natural that we could not even believe it might have been otherwise. Perhaps this allowed my brother and me not to be afraid of the glorious height reached by our father, and not to perceive it as a challenge.

– In what performances have you been lucky enough to see Maris Liepa, and how do you assess his roles, for example, in "Spartacus or "Giselle? 

- I consider the ballet "Spartak" staged by Yuri Grigorovich to be of unsurpassed excellence. The main achievement of the director was the role of Marcus Crassus performed by Maris Liepa. Handsome, athletic and at the same time refined, Liepa was the best Crass of the Soviet ballet.

Fortunately, Andris and I have seen my father in many ballet productions, and I can tell you that he had dozens of outstanding roles in his portfolio. "Giselle" is also an absolutely amazing performance, where Maris Liepa was able to interpret his character in completely different ways.

My father had a rich wardrobe of his own stage costumes. For example, for the ballet "Giselle" he had several collets (the so-called male costume in ballet) for the first act and several collets for the second. Preparing for the performance, he would choose a costume depending on his mood. As one of her father's fans accurately put it, the ballet "Giselle" became the creative diary of the master. By the way he danced, you could tell in general what was going on in the life of Maris Liepa.

I also remember that usually before the performance, my father was like a "man without skin" – extremely agitated, irritable, sometimes even unbearable. As he himself admitted, long before you go on stage, you become like a compressed spring, your body and thoughts are all subordinated to one thing. The upcoming performance. The powerful energy that was characteristic of the artists of the 1960s generation is really striking. There is no comparable drive in ballet now, and I do not know why so. 

Nevertheless, despite this feeling of tension and nervousness before the performance, sometimes my father suddenly would revert to a calm mood and would talk to us, revealing his creative secrets to my brother and me.

Andris and I often visited his dressing room before going on stage. My father would talk to me “through the mirror” while doing his makeup (Liepa always did it himself), and this was the actual start of his own performance. He could say, "Well, let's think about what my Albert might be like today." And then he would suggest an interpretation of the performance, because “Giselle” for a dancer could be anything. But Albert by Liepa presented himself as a ladies' man; then ardently in love with Giselle, who passes away at the end of the first act because Albert is cheating on her. Before each of the performance, my father kept coming up with a new story for his hero.

- The hearsay claims that Maris Liepa kept diaries all his life?

- My father kept diaries, true. I am amazed at how deep his feelings and knowledge of life were. On stage, Liepa wrote, an artist should work with utmost energy, with full dedication not to match the size of the auditorium, but to match the size of the cosmos. Amazing words! It seems to me that Maris Liepa was exactly like that in life and in art.

It so happened that in the pandemic year, my father's anniversary was planned, but due to the restrictions imposed, we could not organize some kind of performance in his honor. Somehow, quite surprisingly, we have put up a performance – we played on the stage of the Great Hall of the Conservatory. There was music and there were texts of my father from his book, and from some of his interviews. It so happened that my father's diary entries formed the basis of the play "My father is Maris Liepa".

This production is about a purposeful person who is in love with his profession. There is nothing fictional about it. I perceive it as a kind of conversation with my father.

- In which country, in your opinion, you will find the most grateful audience?

- The viewer needs to be won over every time. I remember how during the Olympic Games we came to London with the project "Russian Seasons". Even then, there were very tense relations between our countries; we were warned that there might be some provocations against artists from Russia. Moreover, Valery Gergiev's concert in Trafalgar Square was canceled the day before, while the British public, of course, loves him and is always waiting for his concerts.

We performed at the Colosseum Theater and it was a stunning success – the audience applauded standing up. A representative of the Russian Embassy in the UK, coming to us behind the scenes, said: "You do much more with your art than we, diplomats!"

Such a warm welcome, I think, would be possible in London, Berlin or Paris today. After all, those people who love Russia, Russian ballet, have not disappeared. They are waiting for a meeting with real art.

When I first came to London, I realized that the British still remember and love Maris Liepa. There is a society of ballet lovers there, whose members specially prepared an exhibition for me at Anna Pavlova's house, where they collected all sorts of newspaper clippings and photographs recalling all my father's tours in the United Kingdom. It was so touching!

When I left the theater, the fans of Maris Liepa laid out huge photos of me right on the pavement. Then they dragged me to a cafe where we talked for a long time about Russian ballet. I remember their names - Judy, John…

I have a Latvian first name, patronymic and surname, but I am absolutely a Russian person. My father, I am sure of it, would also be on the side of Russia. Even during the performance I always address the audience and say that "Russian" is not an ethnic, but a spiritual concept. Maris Liepa considered himself a Russian artist. He glorified the Russian ballet school all his life.

- You have played in 19 films and even voiced animation. Who introduced you to the cinema world?

- My mother is an actress, and moreover, a person with a very strong character. The fact that I agreed to act in a movie, of course, was her resolute decision. Moreover, at that time I was going through a difficult period, I had limited engagement at the Bolshoi Theater. Due to these circumstances, I was rather sad. Suddenly, the first offer to act on stage came up. I couldn't imagine how you could combine working in the corps de ballet with cinema.

Mom was once again resolute, saying: "Be sure to agree, because you can't sit without a real job." Filming has been a great encouragement for me. There was a feeling of some kind of uplift from real creative work, from communicating with wonderful actors, my partners. It remained for life.

- And this "difficult period" of yours is not connected with the fact that you started writing fairy tales?

- It so happened that at that moment I was waiting to meet someone, but the person was delayed. So I thought: why should I sit and wait by the sea for good weather; so I took out a notebook and wrote the first phrase: "Once upon a time there were ballet shoes ...". I don't understand how it happened at all. But then it became terribly interesting to me; some topics and themes were born in my head, and I didn't know how it would unfold. But the story was already well alive inside me. I realized that one fairy tale could be started by "Once upon a time there were ballet shoes...", but the other needs another distinctive approach. This search for appropriate wording and style forced me to continue writing.

And then the inspiration was gone. But I am very glad that the book "Theatrical Tales of Ilze Liepa" has been published.

- There is a shortage of boys in today's ballet schools. Why?

- Honestly, there is a problem. I think the prestige of our profession is tumbling down. After all, you have to plow hard in the ballet world, and the remuneration is not very high. Young people are more willing to become bloggers, where there is no sweat and tears, but you just poke a finger at a computer or phone.

- In one of the interviews you said that the main and favorite projects of your whole life were the Russian National Ballet School and the Pilates Studio. Tell us about it.

- My friend brought Pilates to Russia. Maria Subbotovskaya is an incredibly creative person with a fine intuition. She was then the director of the Dr. Fitness club chain. She realized before others that Pilates was the future. It was Maria who opened the first personal Pilates studios in our country. She needed a face that would be associated with Pilates. And she believed that it could have been me.

As a result, we have opened five schools – in Moscow and St. Petersburg - where adults and children can practice ballet and Pilates. I developed a training methodology based on combining elements of these two directions, and wrote a book about it.

Ballet is an art that combines both the artistic part and the sport. But sports should be hidden in an artistic way so that it would not be noticeable. Pilates is the perfect helper in this endeavor. It helps to work out every finger, hand, forearm, and other body parts.

The body should "speak" in the dance. To achieve this, you need to put a lot of effort. For example, to develop flexibility and stretching, you need to do aerial gymnastics or catch and copy everything that is taught in the ballet classes.

But the gym is absolutely contraindicated for a woman, I think. This is a heavy load, first of all, on the joints. "Iron" is good for men, but not for ladies; even their faces change there, they become tough, turning into some kind of animal.

Pilates is a completely different matter. I call it "smart fitness" because it is a very serious and difficult workout and it replaces everything that can be done in the gym, but in the right modes, without harm to health.

Pilates is also an amazing system of rehabilitation after injuries. Medical and physical culture in Russia is now almost dead, and everyone gets injured.

There is practically nowhere to achieve full recovery.

- How often do you do Pilates yourself?

- I do it every day. This is a practice at the junction of Pilates and ballet. I always carry a "small stadium" with me, as I call it – a mat, a roller, and a ball, so that I can arrange a training session for myself.

My method is attuned to music. The musical movement is very important, it harmonizes the human system. I think this is very important.

You can bring a child to Pilates from the age of three. They are not engaged in ballet at this age, but Pilates is already feasible, because it is the prevention of many problems. Pull the back, pull the legs, everything is in the right mode. Body culture and food culture should be one of the parts of education. And if a girl wants to study ballet professionally, then we elaborate a personal training program for her.

– Ilze, does your daughter Nadia already understand that she will have to continue the Liepa ballet dynasty?

- At present, Nadia is studying at our ballet school, in the second grade. In general, it is a very demanding path to become a ballet dancer. Nothing is predictable. Looking back, I can't stop wondering how remarkable my creative life was molded in the long run.