Vilen Galstyan

Vilen Galstyan: “My life was spent in a wonderful creative atmosphere”


YEREVAN — The name Vilen Galstyan encompasses a whole epoch in the story of Armenian ballet.

Born on February 12, 1941 in Yerevan, Galsytan graduated from the Yerevan Choreographic School. He started to perform at the Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet Theater, quickly becoming the central figure of Armenian ballet. He danced at the Bolshoi Theater, in England, France, the US, Sweden, Japan, as well as in numerous cities of the Soviet Union. Professor Galstyan is a People’s Artist of Armenia, winner of gold medals at the International Competitions in Varna (1968) and Cairo (1971), laureate of the State Prize of the Armenian SSR, holder of the Orders of Movses Khorenatsi and Mesrop Mashtots.

He graduated from the balletmeister department of Moscow Theater Institute, and went on to stage ballets in Egypt, South Korea, Uruguay, Russia, often with his wife,  ballerina and dance teacher Nadezhda Davtyan (1951-2019).

Vilen Galstyan performing in a ballet

For years since 2014, Galstyan has been the chief choreographer of Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet Theater, as well as the director of Yerevan Choreographic College.

In 2000, he founded the balletmeister department at the Yerevan Institute of Theater and Cinema.

And as if his services to art were not enough, he passed on his artistic talents to his children, daughter Juliet and son David, who today hold aloft the name of Galstyan on the international stage, the former as an opera singer (in Switzerland), the latter as a ballet dancer (in France).

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Vilen Galstyan’s 80th birthday celebration was a wonderful occasion to bewitch again the stage of the Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet Theater after a one-year break. On February 26, the ballet “Masquerade” staged by Galstyan was performed in honor of the patriarch of the Armenian ballet. Khachaturyan’s eternal music and the presence of the best soloists of the Armenian ballet on the stage in this sad period of Armenia’s history energized the audience, eager for high art.

Vilen Galstyan

Mr. Galstyan, looking from the height of your artistic career, how do you regard it?

In general, I have no reason to be dissatisfied with my artistic destiny. My life was spent in a wonderful creative atmosphere; I was able to do whatever I wanted — there was no role that I wanted to dance and I did not. Nature was so kind to me — I was lucky to perform at the Bolshoi Theater and around the world, with the best ballerinas of the time: Ekaterina Maximova, Raisa Struchkova, Malika Sabirova, Natalia Bessmertnova, Kaleria Fedicheva, Galina Ragozina, Valentina Ganibalova, Liliana Cosi. I was young at that time, so I was thinking it was something very usual, but now, looking back, I realize what a miracle it really was. And now the main interest of my life is to continue to create ballet performances for my theater, for my nation.

It can be said that the Armenian men’s ballet performing school has been strengthened by you.

To this day, our boys’ school is very strong. At present, there is no leading ballet group in Europe without Armenian young men. There are few famous Armenian ballerinas, while our nation provides gifted boys for ballet. It is a surprising phenomena. Our ballet teachers Hovhannes Divanyan, Hrachik Hovhannisyan are able to train good boys and our school seems to reconfirm that point. Our girls are very tender, very beautiful, very promising, but at the age of 15-16 their bodies begin to change in a way that is less conducive to ballet.

You are the first Armenian ballet dancer to enter the international arena, winning a gold medal in 1968 at the Varna International Competition of classic ballet. The 1960s were the golden age of our ballet. In your opinion, what was the reason for that?

Since we are talking about the past stage, it will not be immodest to say the following. Every job needs a leader and followers. I achieved a certain level in my art, so the others strive to reach that level too. The boys saw that I was bringing some new elements and techniques from Moscow, they were following me and trying to reach that high level too. There was a healthy envy for each other. Unfortunately, today our dancers cannot live on a ballet salary, but have to “waste” themselves by working in pubs and clubs. Most of them have families, so they should take care of them. One of our leading dancers does not even have an apartment. It happened that in the evening I sit in some restaurant and sadly notice one of our ballet dancers, who instead of relaxing and keeping himself in good shape for tomorrow’s rehearsal, earns extra money on the restaurant stage.

Vilen Galstyan accepting an honor

This is really very upsetting. Mr. Galstyan, you have worked in a number of countries, staging ballets on four continents. What did that experience give to you?

Each country has its advantages and disadvantages. I loved Uruguay very much, where I staged “Don Quixote” and Aram Khachaturian’s “Spartacus” for the first time in that country. The government appointed graduates of the Moscow Theater Institute to work in different countries. Yekaterina Furtzeva, the Minister of Culture of the USSR, highly valued me and sent me to stage or teach in different countries. By the way, it was gossiped in Moscow that singer Muslim Magomaev and I were Furtzeva’s lovers! But it was nothing of the kind (laughs).

Perhaps many people ask you about your cooperation with Sergey Paradjanov.

It was a surprise for me. I did not think I would make a movie. There was a rumor that Paradjanov, who was a powerful name in those years, was coming to Yerevan to make a film about Sayat-Nova. We thought he would choose one of our stage and screen actors. He came to watch our “Giselle” with composer Edgar Hovhannisyan, the then director of the theater. After the performance, I was called to the director’s room. When I entered, Paradjanov looked at me and exclaimed: “No casting anymore! My Sayat-Nova is standing here in front of us!” I said that I am not a film actor, I have a bad memory, I will not remember the words. Paradjanov said: “There will be no words. You will express everything with your hands and eyes.” During the shoot, he was showing movements very well, as he had received choreographic education. It was easy for me to do what he said. I was blessed to be part of that beautiful legendary film, “The Color of Pomegranate.” Many did not understand, but after the foreign screenings, everyone accepted that it was an innovative film, a revolution in cinematography.

Were there no other offers to act in films?

Again from Paradjanov. Once sitting together, we thought about how to shoot the Armenian epic, “David of Sassoun.” He did not know our epic well, so I took the book and read it to him. Another time I took the libretto of Edgar Hovhannisyan’s “David of Sassoun” opera-ballet to Paradjanov to the hotel. He asked to copy it, then said: “Give me an hour.” He went to his bedroom, and an hour later brought his screenplay “David of Sassoun.” But as you know, this desire of Paradjanov unfortunately has never been realized.

How was the attitude of Soviet Armenia’s government toward ballet?

They appreciated ballet very much, always watching our performances. Yerevan’s mayor, Grigor Hasratyan, once as a shortcoming of our ballet, mentioned the lesser ballerinas. I said I could bring soloist girls from Moscow and Leningrad, if they provide apartments with basic conditions. Hasratyan immediately provided four apartments in Yerevan, and I brought nine or ten Russian ballerinas. This was the attitude towards ballet! Karen Demirchyan, the first secretary of the Armenian Communist Party was a great ballet fan too, he knew almost everyone’s names. I personally had the right to contact him directly by phone. When there were VIP guests, he would call and order “Gayane” with the best staff. As about today’s government… I find it difficult to say.

Vilen Galstyan speaks with the author, Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Your creative life has been full of remarkable episodes. I know that you were also part of the Canadian tour from which Mikhail Baryshnikov did not return. Would you tell us that story?

With pleasure! Misha was a close friend of mine. In Leningrad, I danced “Don Quixote” with Kaleria Fedicheva, who was very tall, of a large physique. After the performance, the leading dancers of the theater, Baryshnikov among them, came to congratulate and said me: “You showed us how a man should lift a woman. We cannot lift Kaleria!” From that day on, my friendship with Misha Baryshnikov started. We went to Canada together. And once, at a banquet in Toronto, Misha approached me, shook my hand and said in a very strange way: “Brother, goodbye.” He did not say he intended not to return to the Soviet Union, but I realized that something was wrong. The KGB employee immediately approached and asked me: “What did Misha say?” “He said he was going to hotel,” I replied. The KGB guy also disappeared from that banquet. Before that, Baryshnikov had left a note under the door of his stage partner Irina Kolpakova’s room, writing: “Irina Alexandrovna, I apologize a million times, but I no longer want to live in Leningrad and dance in that theater. I am leaving.” And since Baryshnikov and I were the leading dancers during this tour, after returning to Moscow, I was summoned for questioning by the KGB every day. A gloomy employee started to speak threateningly: “Don’t mess me about, tell me how it happened!” Then they took me to another gloomy man, who also pointed a finger at me: “What did you decide there? Did you also want to escape, you, traitor to the motherland!” So it went… Then, being in the US for the second time, I met Baryshnikov. It was a bit sad meeting in a restaurant outside the city. Saying goodbye, Misha gave me a very expensive diamond ring to take to his mother. I had to refuse because it was clear that the ring would cause me a big headache at the customs.

What other remarkable episode from your biography you can share with us?

I will tell you how I once was captured by [former Azerbaijan President] Heydar Aliyev! That year I was dancing with famous Tajik ballerina Malika Sabirova in Baku. The Baku ballet company was preparing for a tour in France. When Minister of Culture Furtzeva came and watched the performances, she said: “You have no soloists, so Galstyan and Sabirova will leave for France with you.” Heydar Aliyev, the then first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, who always brought flowers and drinks to my performances in large baskets (there was no such thing even in the Bolshoi Theater), called me and Malika to him and said: “You are not in Baku to work, you are my people, Caucasians, you should be my personal guests.” And he took us to his stunning and gilded seaside palace of old eastern royal style near Sumgait, that ill-reputed city in the near future. Malika and I swam in the sea, rested. Lavish dinners were given in our honor. We rested for five days, then started training. Three days later we went to Baku, we rehearsed and danced with the group, thinking we would go back to our daily routine, but Aliyev told us: “This was still the first part, I won’t let you go!” They took us to that palace again, where we stayed for one more week. We lived royally, but we realized all this was done so that we would not go to France. We went to Baku again and told Aliyev we have a performance at the Bolshoi Theater. He finally let us go, Malika and I fled to Moscow. Here Furtzeva, learning that we are in Moscow, while the Baku group was already in France, angrily called Bulbul-oghli, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture, who was in Monte Carlo and said: “After you come back you will have lots of trouble!” They hastily bought tickets for Malika and me and we flew to France without checking in at the airport. Bulbul-oghli started to justify himself, but it did not help, Furtzeva fired him. The Baku ballet group was very upset about our coming, but in the end they realized that we were not to blame. And when Malika and I went on stage in Paris, the audience applauded us for ten minutes.

Years ago we were talking and you said that you connect the future of Armenian ballet with our brilliant young dancers working abroad, who will come and push it forward.

I think so now, too. One of them is my son, Davit, who works in France and is aware of every step of the world ballet, knows much more than me. Even if they do not come here to dance, but let them come to work as a choreographer, teach, lead the ballet. This art, indeed, does not end with me!


At the end of the conversation, Vilen Galstyan said: “Unfortunately, most of our people do not know the value of ballet. It is very gratifying to meet a person in Yerevan who loves and knows ballet: this gives you a great value. How can one do not love ballet, it is the most beautiful art in the world!”

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