Nacho Duato Shakes Up Russia's Mikhailovsky Ballet

Nacho Duato is like the nose in Nikolai Gogol's classic tale—he follows you around St. Petersburg, popping up in odd places. In posters on the Metro and billboards on Nevsky Prospekt, the Spaniard's chiseled face stares out. No surprise that his look is defiant. After a prestigious career in Europe's and America's most avant-garde dance troupes, Duato has come to ballet's historic capital to shake Russian dance to its foundations.

Duato is the first foreign choreographer in a century to run a Russian ballet company—St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet, now in its 178th season—and traditionalists are nervous. The Mikhailovsky's chief savior and sponsor, banana magnate Vladimir Kekhman, has invested $35 million of his own money to revamp the theater. Last year, frustrated by a series of failed homegrown directors, Kekhman invited Duato to give the company an upstart fillip. After 20 years as director of Spain's national ballet company, and more than a decade at the American Ballet Theater, Duato is facing the biggest artistic challenge of his career: dragging Russian ballet, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Ever since Duato breezed into the "dusty and creaky" Mikhailovsky, he has been tearing the place up. "No need for the classical movements here," Duato tells a dancer in rehearsal. "Forget the port des bras! Forget that your arms are your arms—just drop them, as though they are something heavy." Demonstrating, Duato drops his limbs as though he's carrying buckets. When he's not drilling the dancers in his debut ballets—revivals of two pieces Duato developed with the American Dance Theater in the 1980s—he's hunting through the props department and dropping by on the costume makers. "They did not expect me to show up every day, but I did," says Duato. "I am here not just to change the choreography but also the music, the costumes, the website, everything."

Duato is not the first person to try to shake up Russian ballet. Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in the mid-2000s, did a brilliant job when he revived some socialist-realist Shostakovich ballets. St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet has also invited legendary contemporary choreographers like William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor to stage individual productions. But what Duato calls "the power of entropy" in Russia's grand old companies is still enormous, as is the conservatism of Russia's ballet schools, sponsors, and audiences. "It is hard to deal with the heritage of ballet conservatism, the idea that our ballet is the best in the world," says Ratmansky, who left the Bolshoi in frustration after five years.

Still, there are some who believe that opening a window onto modernity will let in a fatal draft. "A good classical dancer can quickly learn contemporary choreography, but a contemporary dancer cannot be taught how to dance classical ballet," says Andrei Kuligin, a dancer turned manager at the Mikhailovsky troupe. "Thanks to the Iron Curtain, we managed to preserve the most beautiful old school—the world was amazed when they saw it after perestroika, as we turned out to be the only survivors still dancing the real classical ballet which Europe had lost a long time ago." That old school has been maintained by mercilessly drilling dancers in special academies from the age of 5. The result is an unrivaled, living museum of classical dance—and many older fans like it that way.

"If I want to see modern ballet, I go to America. If I want to see tradition, I go to Russia," says Lyudmila Bibikova, who's been a Bolshoi fan since the 1950s. "Athletic American girls are so much more convincing when they dance modern ballet. Small, fragile Russian girls are just more suited to traditional lyrical roles."

Duato is undaunted. He has selected 30 of the Mikhailovsky's best dancers to stage his first big set piece in December—a reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. The choice is an act of symbolic chutzpah: the ballet was first staged at the Mariinsky in 1890 by Marius Petipa, the last foreigner to run a Russian dance company. Sleeping Beauty was also the ballet that Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev chose to launch Russian classical dance—then seen as stunningly avant-garde—on European audiences with his Ballets Russes. In the meantime, Duato is also restaging his own Without WordsandNunc Dimittisthis spring. The latter features such shockers as a very physical duet by two men and a trio where two male dancers seem to be pulling prima ballerina Ekaterina Borchenko's long, beautiful body apart.

Duato's Sleeping Beauty is also built around rule-breaking: in Russia, the part of the wicked fairy godmother, Carabosse, is usually performed by a man dancing without pointes. Duato has decided to have a female dancer on pointes perform the part. Nikita Dolgushin, the company's principal dance coach, is shocked. "That would destroy the contrast between the good fairy and the wicked fairy!" he fumes. "If we cannot find common grounds for the ballet's concept, I am out of this project. Then my name is not going to be on the posters and my reputation will stay clean in case of fiasco." What the old ballet master does not yet know is that his new boss is thinking of replacing all of Sleeping Beauty's mice and rats with "let's say punks," Duato muses with a mischievous grin.

Whatever the old guard may say, Duato's ideas have found a passionate following among young dancers. Alexander Sergeyev, the 24-year-old star of the Mariinsky, loved the modern work Duato did with visiting greats like David Dawson and Jirí Kylián. "We adored the ultimate freedom" of the modern pieces, says Sergeyev. "I personally feel much more uplifted and fulfilled when I dance contemporary ballets than when I star in Swan Lake."

Ultimately, Duato's experiment raises questions not just about Russian dance but about Russia itself. Is it better to play catch-up with the West by importing talent and ideas—or should Russians just stick to what they do best, even if it's old-fashioned? "Russians have their great classical repertoire. That is what they do best and no one else does—so fine, let them do it," says Bibikova. Duato says that is not enough. Dance is a universal language, not a national one, he believes. And no tradition can be alive unless it develops—and only then will it be able to truly inspire and transform its audience.