On an unseasonably warm, late-winter afternoon in a light-filled studio at the Atlanta Ballet, the company begins to wrap up a busy day of rehearsals. The atmosphere in the room is so full of easygoing camaraderie that a newcomer could easily mistake Gennadi Nedvigin for one of the dancers.
The slim, youthful Nedvigin certainly still looks every bit the ballet dancer — indeed, he was dancing among peers in a studio very much like this one less than a year ago — but he is decidedly not among their number anymore. Nedvigin is, in fact, the Atlanta Ballet’s new artistic director.
Although the company was founded in 1929, that top position has been occupied by just three predecessors before him. The passing convivial mood in the studio belies the unflinching seriousness with which Nedvigin has taken on the monumental task ahead of him, a lifetime of work steering one of Atlanta’s oldest and most venerable art institutions.
The production the dancers are currently preparing for is a mixed program called “Gennadi’s Choice,” and it will be the first chance for Atlanta audiences to get a good look at the artistic vision that Nedvigin has mapped out for the company and the direction he plans to take it in the coming decades.
“It’s a challenge for me to get myself into the studio with all the work that I have to deal with on a daily basis,” the soft-spoken Nedvigin says in a quiet conference room after rehearsal ends. “When I get into the studio, it’s my fresh air. It’s where I feel at home again.”
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It’s certainly understandable why the studio should feel more like home than the administrative desk. In many ways, the studio has been his home for most of his life.
Nedvigin grew up in Kamensk, a small town outside the city of Rostov in southeastern Russia. His father was a welder, and although his town had no ballet company, his mother, like many Russian women, idolized the ballet and its star ballerinas.
“When two boys were born, she was a little bit upset that they weren’t girls, but she brought my older brother to ballet school, and he enjoyed it,” says Nedvigin. “And then she brought me.”
Nedvigin was the only boy in his class, but it soon became apparent that, like his older brother, he had an innate ability for dance and lost his intense shyness the moment he stepped on stage. At 10 years old, he left home to study at the world’s most prestigious ballet school, the Bolshoi in Moscow.
“It was a very strict school in regards to everything,” Nedvigin recalls. “It was always about discipline. We had long days, six days a week. That was the strategy of how to develop a widely developed artist.”
Although the Bolshoi School is located in an elite neighborhood in the center of the bustling city of Moscow, Nedvigin describes it as a small, isolated “city within a city” with its own studios, classrooms, dormitories, dining room and even an onsite medical facility with staff doctors and a dentist. In the intensely competitive, cloistered atmosphere, a beginning class of 60 students — selected from auditions of thousands — was eventually winnowed down throughout the eight intense years of study to a graduating class of about 30.
Upon finishing school at 18, Nedvigin auditioned for one of the first privately financed ballet companies in Moscow, the Moscow Renaissance Ballet, and was immediately accepted as a soloist, skipping the beginner’s rank of corps de ballet, an unusual move indicative of his special talent. Nedvigin danced with Moscow Renaissance for two years before being invited to join La Jeune Ballet de France in Paris, an opportunity he accepted in order to to learn Western technique and see more of the world.
Toward the end of his first year with La Jeune Ballet, the company toured to San Francisco where Nedvigin and several other dancers participated in a collaborative production with students from the San Francisco Ballet School. At the end of the last performance, the San Francisco Ballet’s famed artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, was waiting for Nedvigin in the wings with the offer of a soloist contract.
The San Francisco Ballet was Nedvigin’s home for the bulk of his dancing career from 1997 to 2016, and he became one of its most prominent and acclaimed dancers. Audiences and critics alike came to know and admire him for his artistic precision and the technical perfection that had so impressed Tomasson at first sight. Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic of the New York Times, once described Nedvigin as “a paragon of finesse.”
As his dance career began to enter its third decade, Nedvigin, like many dancers, started to keep one eye on developing other skills for the next phase of his career. He began to work closely with the San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence (and fellow Russian) Yuri Possokhov, and in 2014, Nedvigin came to the Atlanta Ballet to set Possokhov’s work “Classical Symphony” on the company.
“I’d staged that ballet for other companies, but when I interacted with the dancers here in Atlanta, it was very special for me.” he says. The tenure of the Atlanta Ballet’s president Arturo Jacobus as CEO at San Francisco Ballet happened to have overlapped with Nedvigin’s career there, so it was one more reason for Nedvigin to feel right at home on his first trip to Atlanta. “I really grew close to the dancers. I felt their eagerness to learn, to get the new style of movement, just the excitement, the energy floating in the room for that challenging piece of work.”
But Nedvigin says he also soon discovered gaps in the dancers’ training and technique.
“We had to spend a lot of time on little technical things,” he says. “When those are not consistently trained, you’re most likely to lose them with time. It has to be constantly practiced.”
Soon after Nedvigin’s stint in Atlanta, the retirement of then-Artistic Director John McFall was announced, and Nedvigin threw his hat into the ring for the position.
“I had a few years left in my pocket to be on stage, but at the same time, I’d already achieved the goals I wanted as a dancer,” he says. “ And here was an opportunity to build a new career.”
In a whirlwind sequence of events, Nedvigin was accepted for the position and announced his retirement as a dancer. He was plotting out the 2016-17 season for Atlanta while still performing his final roles on stage in his last season in San Francisco, which lasted until April 2016.
“It was challenging because usually you have a little bit more time to prepare for the season, but I was satisfied with what I put together,” he says. The upcoming production “Gennadi’s Choice” includes a world premiere from emerging choreographer and American Ballet Theatre dancer Gemma Bond; the North American premiere of “Vespertine” by Royal Ballet choreographer-in-residence Liam Scarlett and scenes from the purely classical (and notoriously demanding) “Paquita,” one of the first ballets that Nedvigin performed early in his dancing career.
“It uncovers some strengths and weaknesses in the dancers,” he says of the rigorous classical work he’s staging himself. “It’s important to uncover those things and start working on them. My way is to start bringing the company to a new professional level by working on the quality of the dancing, and I think it’s a perfect piece for that.”
When he’s not at the ballet, Nedvigin says he enjoys spending time at his new home in Atlanta’s Morningside neighborhood with his family, his wife Miho, whom he met in San Francisco, and their 3-year-old daughter Mila, who has already enrolled in classes at the Atlanta Ballet.
“I come back home and we start dancing, so I’m not fully retired,” he says.
In the meantime, Nedvigin and the dancers remain hard at work taking the first steps toward shaping a company that promises to be every bit as exacting, aspirational and disciplined as the former dancer himself.
“It’s important for dancers to realize there really is no limit,” Nedvigin says. “There is always more you still can do every day. There is no ending point where you say, ‘OK, I achieved everything.’ Whenever I stepped off the stage, I knew there was always more, more, more. That is the exciting part of art. There is no end to it.”
“Gennadi’s Choice.” Presented by the Atlanta Ballet. March. 17-19. $20-$128.Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 770-916-2800. www.atlantaballet.com.