Steps and stumbles in Bolshoi’s troubled past
In January 2013, on a night recorded in headlines around the world, someone threw acid in the face of the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Those who planned the attack on Sergei Filin (it started with a disgruntled dancer) were caught and punished, but the damage to Filin’s sight remains, as does the perception that the Bolshoi is a snakepit of intrigue and corruption.
It’s an impression that Simon Morrison does nothing to dispel in Bolshoi Confidential, an incredibly well-researched and meticulously detailed history of Russia’s cultural behemoth.
Beginning with the Bolshoi’s birth in 1776, under the auspices of an expat Englishman named Michael Maddox, Morrison traces the company’s journey from disreputable 18th-century entertainment to jewel in the tsar’s crown, from communism’s leading cultural export to capitalism’s bankable prize.
It’s a journey scarred with terrible events. Take the case of dancer Avdotya Arshinina, who, in 1847, was drugged and gang-raped (one of her assailants was a prince) and died in hospital from her horrific injuries. Her case highlights how members of the nobility, including the tsar, frequently set their sights on female dancers as mistresses or sex slaves.
Ninety years later, politics, not sex, was the weapon of choice at the Bolshoi. In an ideological purge, the director Vladimir Mutnikh — who had championed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet — was executed. Surely no other dance company has endured greater suffering — or produced more legendary performances.
Despite the toxic politics and lethal backstage machinations, the Bolshoi became the dance world’s pre-eminent international star (frequently touring abroad after Stalin’s death) and the embodiment of a new heroic style of classicism, showcased in muscular and vivid dramas. It has been home to some of the most illustrious names on the ballet stage, from Galina Ulanova to Vladimir Vasiliev, Maris Liepa and Maya Plisetskaya. During the most repressive Soviet years, dancers were banished to labour camps, while many others lived under the shadow of KGB minders or had their families held hostage to ensure their return from overseas tours.
Morrison devotes an entire chapter to Plisetskaya, whose career more than any other symbolised the plight and passion of Russian ballet. Flamboyant, athletic, glamorous and celebrated in the 1960s as “a trusted Soviet brand”, she gave larger-than-life performances in ballets such as Don Quixote and Carmen and danced Odette/Odile, the heroine of Swan Lake, 800 times (by her own reckoning).
Yet her father was shot during Stalin’s reign of terror and her mother imprisoned. Under Nikita Khrushchev, she was named a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union but she had many enemies within the Kremlin, and didn’t help her cause by firing off frequent and high-spirited attacks on the authorities.
Her conversations with foreigners were constantly monitored, yet, as Morrison writes, “she played the role of cultural diplomat abroad, charming foreign heads of state and serving as muse to Parisian fashion designers”. In short, she learned to play the system even while chafing against it. In the 80s she left Russia, prefiguring the tidal wave of talent that emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union. She became the artistic director of the Rome Opera and head of the Spanish National Ballet; last year she died aged 89 at her home in Munich.
The Bolshoi Theatre, a short walk from Red Square in Moscow, is as fascinating as the people who worked in it. Burned (and rebuilt), bombed by the Luftwaffe and rigged with explosives during World War II, it survived Napoleon, the Russian Revolution, two world wars, Stalinist purges and the end of the Soviet Union.
It was the site of tsar Nicholas II’s coronation gala and played host to meetings of the Communist Party, while the Soviet Union was signed into existence on its stage. In the 21st century, with the blessing of Vladimir Putin, it has undergone an almost $1 billion refurbishment to restore its former glory. Presumably, the peephole through which gentlemen of means could once spy on female dancers putting on their make-up is long gone.
And what of the ballets? Morrison catalogues the works made for the Bolshoi stage, although as he points out with painful attention, it’s a miracle any of them survived the constant meddling of official censorship. In his colourful descriptions, the vile stupidity and self-interest of these arbiters of taste beggars belief. He describes the birth pains of Swan Lake in 1877 (decades later Stalin insisted it be given a happy ending) and, in the 20th century, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, The Red Poppy (a fine example of Soviet propagandist art) and Spartacus. As a musicologist (Morrison is a professor of music at Princeton University), his writing about the besieged Soviet composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev gleams especially bright.
This is a scholarly text and there is no doubting the scale of the task undertaken. Copious amounts of information have been gleaned from trawling through state archives and private papers, going back more than 200 years. If this book has a weakness it is Morrison’s desire to include every scrap of information in the finished product. The casual reader may find it clotted with too much erudition, too much trivia, while the ballet-loving reader will lap up its wealth of background and gossip. As a resource, this book will prove invaluable.
What of the Bolshoi in a post-Soviet future? No matter that its talent is now free to live and work abroad (as the great choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and the acclaimed ballerina Natalia Osipova do), or that the modernisation of the classical ballet repertoire threatens to leave Russia behind, the Bolshoi can always count on one thing. As Morrison writes: “The dancers keep dancing, hoping to escape the constraints of the here and now and grasp instead at something everlasting.”
Bolshoi dancers; Sergei Filin almost a month after he was attacked, below