Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Art and Passion of Danseur Extraordinaire Venzislav Wicke-Dermendjiev

As he glided across the stage, the dancer felt his body being taken over, as if he was being possessed by the moment. As a surge of emotion coursed through his body, the artiste began to feel the line blurring art and reality fading away. He was no longer just playing a character – he had become the character. At that moment, he was Colas, and the girl of his dreams – Lise – was there for the wooing.

And finally after the music had died down, he stood in the middle of the stage. Exhausted from the adrenaline rush, he nevertheless stayed in the spotlight, soaking in the applause that the wowed audience gave him. It was there and then that Venzislav Dermendjiev – then a young artiste – realised that the world of dance and that of ballet in particular was not just a calling. It was a part of his natural being.

 A danseur is born

Much has changed in the 33 years since Bulgarian-born Venzislav Wicke-Dermendjiev decided to make the ballet his livelihood when he joined the National Theatre in Sofia as a soloist. In those three decades, he has played the role of performer, teacher and choreographer; interspacing them between his other commitments as husband, father and now diplomatic spouse.

But one has not changed though. And that is his love for dance. As he told PASSIONS, even as a child, he would feel that dancing was the most natural thing in the world. After all, as physically active and energetic youth, Venzislav believed that the best way to express himself was through his body and movements.

It could also be said that his love for dance may have been hereditary, as he was the youngest son of the Director of the Bulgarian State Ballet School. Yet, despite his unique position, he never imagined that he would pursue ballet as a vocation.

His opportunity came as a result of fate when he performed a folk dance for Alexander Kolyadenko –one of the Russia’s most renowned ballet teachers. Amazed by his natural talent, Kolyadenko spoke to Venzislav’s mother, convincing her to let her son learn classical ballet instead of folk dance.

Speaking on what makes ballet special, Venzislav said, “Ballet is very aesthetic compared with other dances. It expressed beauty in an abstract way and is more a sport than a physical exercise… Like singing instead of speaking.”

A man of great talent, he has starred in diverse roles such as in the classic Viennese Balls (above) to playing the role of Chino in a 1991 production of West Side Story.

Although he was a late starter, having only enrolled at the National Ballet Academy in Sofia at the age of 13, Venzislav proved himself to be a natural, despite needing to cram eight years of study into five intensive ones. After graduating with distinction, he was chosen to be among the few to be sent to perfect his skills at the legendary Kirov Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad).

There he studied under the tutelage of the legendary Russian ballerina Feia Balabina, where he refined his technique. Then after an obligatory period in the military, Venzislav returned to Sofia in 1978 where he joined the National Theatre as a soloist.

The world is his stage

Recalling his most memorable moment at the National Theatre, Venzislav revealed that it was when he played Colas – the lead male in the ballet classic La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter), as it was the first time he headlined a show. Building on that, he went on to perform in productions such as Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake – all the while honing his talents, while drawing inspiration from the likes of Vladimir Vasiliev of the Bolshoi Theatre and Mikhail Baryshnikov – who was regarded as one of the best ballet dancers in the 20th century.

After spending a decade at the National Theatre, Venzislav headed west in 1988, when he managed to secure a contract at the Volksoper Vienna in Klagenfurt, Austria. Here, he starred in countless Viennese balls, as well as performances around the world. It was during this time that his repertoire was extended and he took on diverse roles such as a Gypsy King in Coppelia and Chinese dances in The Nutcracker.

Playing different roles, he told PASSIONS, is indeed a challenge. “Once,” he said, “I even had to play four different characters for one production. As a professional, you have to be very flexible, and you will adapt to the choreography as well as the intentions of the choreographer.”

“Every role in itself is a challenge,” he said. “Once I even held four different roles for one play, and each performance had me play someone else every time. As a professional, you become very flexible, and you are bound to adapt to the choreography as well as the intentions of the choreographer. While I am capable of dancing modern choreographies, my personal preference is character dance.”

 Retirement… but not quite

Whether he was dancing solo, such as in The Wonderful Mandarin or with a partner in productions like La Fille mal gardée (in this picture), Venzislav has always performed with the utmost skill and passion.

If there is one thing that Venzislav is as passionate about – it not more so – than his art, it is his family. It was during his time at Vienna that he came into contact with the woman who would become his wife – an actress and singer by the name of Andrea Wicke. Of course, many would know her today as the Ambassador of Austria to Malaysia.

In fact, it was the Ambassador’s appointment to an international posting after joining the Austrian Foreign Service, coupled with time catching up with him which led to Venzislav hanging up his dancing shoes. The epiphany came when he danced in 1001 Nights in Vienna, when he realised how challenging it was to actively dance as he did before. “It was a big and strenuous role that really taxed me,” said Venzislav. “I was 35 then, which is quite an age for one to be in ballet!”

Like old soldiers, ballet dancers do not die, nor do they (unlike old soldiers) fade away. By a twist of fate, Venzislav would go back to his homeland when Ambassador Wicke was posted to Bulgaria. There he studied ballet directing at the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, which he also completed with distinction within 5 years.

By the time they returned to Austria, Venzislav was only doing ballet occasionally, and took up teaching instead – sharing his experience with others. This also continued when they moved to Vilnius, Lithuania for his wife’s first Ambassadorial posting, where he conducted occasional choreographing at the National Ciurlionis School of Art.

When asked what skills a choreographer requires, Venzislav said, “You must be able to find a common language and make yourself, as well as your intentions, clear to them. Only by empathising with your dancers, and finding out what their strengths and weaknesses are, can you help them express themselves optimally in their given role.”

Dancing in Malaysia

Venzislav’s performance in the ballet Don Quixote in Istana Budaya in Kuala Lumpur, a role he was specially invited to play by the Dance Society, which received wide applause from the audience and critical acclaim. Photo courtesy of Wee Ling

In 2009, H.E Andrea Wicke was named by the President of Austria to be the new Austrian Ambassador to Malaysia, which meant that the couple were once again on the move. Although Malaysia may be a good distance from Europe, Venzislav was not unfamiliar to the country or its charms.

He had, after all, previously performed with the Volksoper Vienna at the JW Marriott Hotel in 1997. He shared that the warmth and friendliness of the people during that first visit was so good that “I happily joined my wife when she was posted here.”

However, being a diplomatic spouse has its restrictions. For one thing, Venzislav is unable to teach in Malaysia as he is barred from working. Nevertheless, he is still as passionate as ever about his art, and in January 2011, was given a special invitation from the Dance Society to play the role of Don Quixote in the eponymous ballet.

 There could be no better final role for a man who had given so much of his time for his art. As he explained, “The role of Don Quixote is typically for danseurs my age who don’t dance full-time, but are very experienced on stage – both in dancing and in portraying complex characters.” Concluding the interview, Venzislav Wicke-Dermendjiev said, “With Don Quixote, I have closed a long circle in my life which has been a great experience for me.”

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