Banana tycoon shakes up Russian ballet

MOSCOW Thu Dec 1, 2011 11:09am EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian tycoon Vladimir Kekhman made a fortune selling bananas.

Now he has a new mission in life: ballet.

Using the kind of business savvy honed from a decade at the helm of the country's largest fruit company he has staged a quiet coup d'etat in Russia's tightly knit dance world this year, luring star dancers away from Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

Many in the ballet world were stunned when Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev quit the Bolshoi last month to sign with St. Petersburg's little known Mikhailovsky Theatre.

Earlier this year, Kekhman imported Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato to become the first foreigner to lead a Russian ballet troupe in a century at the Mikhailovsky.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Kekhman said he also had his eye on the Bolshoi's David Hallberg, one of its highest profile acquisitions and its first American principal dancer.

"We usually get the dancers we want," said Kekhman, who founded his Joint Fruit Company in 1997 and became general director of St Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Theatre in 2007.

"David Hallberg is no exception. Even though he chose the Bolshoi when I offered him a position with us, I think he can still dance (as a guest star) at the Mikhailovsky. There is a lot he can do here," he said.

The secret of attracting the ballet's big names, Kekhman says, is to compensate dancers for joining a smaller stage with creative freedom but also apartments and "decent" salaries.

Kekhman, 43, who went back to school and graduated from the St Petersburg State Academy of Theatrical Arts in 2009, has so far invested $50 million into modernizing the Mikhailovsky.

"All of our principal dancers get the market price. That's how we hold onto the best performers because many of them are ready to sacrifice salary for prestige of the Bolshoi," he said.

INVESTING IN PERFORMERS

The 19th-century Mikhailovsky Theatre is eclipsed in St. Petersburg by the better known Mariinsky Ballet.

But Kekhman said his theatre was not striving to be the world's top ballet but to do something different and do it well.

"There are many theatres calling themselves No. 1," Kekhman said, gazing frequently at multiple iPhones.

"My goal now is to make Mikhailovsky the world's No. 2 theatre."

He said the theatre does not chase expensive stage sets or costumes, especially as Duato's modern ballets often require minimalist staging and are often danced without pointes.

"The Bolshoi and the Mariinsky use their brand names. They spend a ton of money on expensive decorations, while I think it is best to invest in performers and choreographers," he said.

Running on a budget some 10 times smaller than the emblematic Moscow and St Petersburg theatres, the Mikhailovsky is hard-pressed to compete on traditional presentation.

Last year, the theatre received 358 million rubles ($11.5 million) in state subsidies, and earned another 186 million from ticket sales.

Donations from Russian businesses, including Russian oil producer Rosneft, total about 50 million rubles ($1.6 million), Kekhman said, insisting he hardly invests any of his personal money anymore.

For now, he said he has no plans for after his contract expires in 2013.

"Right now I am completely consumed with the Mikhailovsky," he said.

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Olga Sichkar; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel)

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