Steps and stum­bles in Bol­shoi’s trou­bled past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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