BACKSTAGE AT THE BOLSHOI
AHEAD OF THE BOLSHOI BALLET’S VISIT TO BRISBANE IN JUNE-JULY, PHIL BROWN TRAVELLED TO MOSCOW TO VISIT THE 243-YEAR-OLD COMPANY AT CLOSE QUARTERS
The dodgy-looking fellow out front of the Bolshoi Theatre caught my eye. What was he up to? That soon became evident because he sidled up, pulled something out of his pocket and asked ... “Ticket?”
“No thanks, mate, I’ve already got one,” I replied. He nodded and moved on, looking for a sap who would be willing to pay several times the original price. The Bolshoi Ballet is, after all, the hottest ticket in town – in Moscow – always.
Not that it’s overpriced. You can pay the equivalent of $300 for a premium seat but student tickets in the last circle go for as little as 200 Russian roubles (less than $10). But every show sells out quickly and scalpers rely on that.
Asking how much he wanted would have been interesting but that conversation might have got out of hand. He could have been an undercover cop or member of the Russian mafia and, from what we’ve seen in the movies, you don’t want to cross them.
Being a tad early for the ballet, I wandered out into chilly Theatre Square, which was doused in a fresh layer of snow (it was mid-february and the temperature was minus 3C). I took out my phone to snap some photos of the Bolshoi Theatre’s imposing facade but for a minute or so, I just stood and gawked, taking in the vision splendid – the facade of the Bolshoi Theatre with its impressive neoclassical columns rising like a temple. An impressive site in an impressive city.
I had never expected to find myself in Moscow, capital of the Russian Federation, but duty called. The mission was to spend just over a week holed up in the famous Hotel Metropol, an art nouveau treasure that is a Moscow legend. It is enjoying a new wave of fame thanks to the novel A
Gentleman in Moscow, by American author Amor Towles, which happens to be set in the hotel, rather handily located just across the road from the Bolshoi Theatre, home to the Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Opera and Bolshoi Orchestra.
The job was to interview the famed ballet company ahead of its forthcoming Brisbane visit and to see the two ballets they will be bringing here for the QPAC 2019 International Series – Spartacus (Aram Khachaturyan’s dramatic sword and sandal epic) and Jewels (George Balanchine’s sumptuous triple bill), both of which will grace the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, from June 26–July 7.
The Bolshoi Ballet has been to Australia before and last visited for QPAC’S International Series in 2013 when it was a sensation. They were, apparently, keen to return and this visit is quite the coup. The Brisbane season is an Australian exclusive and ballet lovers from the southern capitals will have to come here for their fix of culture.
A SYMBOL OF THE NATION
The Bolshoi is the world’s biggest ballet company (it has more than 200 dancers) and the most famous – even people who don’t know anything about ballet will have heard of it.
It is based in several buildings in the heart of Moscow, a five-minute walk from Red Square and a short stroll from the Kremlin.
The main building is the Bolshoi Theatre, an iconic symbol of Russia’s cultural heritage.
The Bolshoi Ballet is, in turn, similarly iconic and a national treasure. When it tours, the Bolshoi Ballet dancers are ambassadors for their homeland and the company is a great source of Russian pride as ballet director Makhar Vaziev confirms when we meet in his office in a building behind the Bolshoi Theatre.
The tall, imperious, former dancer (he was with the famous Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky Ballet, based in St Petersburg, where the great Rudolf Nureyev began his career) and has been at the Bolshoi for three years. Prior to that he spent more than a decade with Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, the company that starred at last year’s QPAC International Series.
Standing behind his desk, to assuage a niggle in his back, Vaziev, 57, keeps an eye on a nearby television screen as he chats, watching dancers go through their paces in the many rehearsal rooms in the building.
The 24-year-old star Italian dancer Jacopo Tissi is on screen and I ask: “How’s he doing?”
“OK,” Zaviev says, watching intently.
Like many Russians he speaks a little English – but only a little – so our conversation is brokered by a translator. He stresses that the Bolshoi Ballet means a lot to Russia and Russians.
“It’s a symbol of the nation,” Vaziev says. “And when we tour we are on a cultural mission. The Bolshoi is very important and people tend to say … if everything is fine with the Bolshoi, then everything is fine with the country. They have thought like that for a long time and it is partly true. To a degree the Bolshoi is a mirror of Russia, without exaggeration, and it got its authority through generations of outstanding artists.”
(The Bolshoi Hall of Fame is filled with great ballet stars including, among others, Ekaterina Maximova, Ludmila Semenyaka and Alexander Godunov, who famously defected to the West in 1979.)
As for things going well with the Bolshoi … they have been lately, although there was a nasty blip on the radar in 2013 when one of Vaziev’s predecessors, Sergei Filin, was infamously attacked, having acid thrown in his face outside his Moscow flat.
The HBO documentary Bolshoi Babylon explored that incident and the dark underbelly of the glamour and beauty.
One newspaper headline trumpeted: “If the Bolshoi is sick, it’s because Russia is too.” Soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko, who hired thugs for the acid attack, was jailed over the incident. Bitter rivalries and infighting at the Bolshoi were reputedly behind it.
“So sometimes not everything does go well at the Bolshoi?” I suggest to Vaziev in a veiled reference to the affair.
“But that was in the past,” he says firmly and moves on.
THEATRE OF OPERATIONS
Of course ballet, being the extreme sport of the performing arts, requires lifelong dedication, passion and a constant struggle to get to and stay on top, so it can be something of a pressure-cooker profession.
Spending the day at the Bolshoi is an eye-opener. It’s an almost military operation with hundreds of employees but the atmosphere feels surprisingly relaxed and happy.
The ballet shares the building with the opera and the orchestra so it’s busy — very busy. Security is tight, with metal detectors and bag searches. Once inside the belly of the beast, the first dancer I encounter is
Denis Rodkin, a principal and star of the Bolshoi. He’s 29, tall, handsome, a tad princely and, at that moment, injured. But not badly enough to stop him from coming to Australia in June, he insists.
He’s hot property right now and there’s a photographer and journalist from The Times of London nipping at our heels as we chat, again, through an interpreter. (The Bolshoi travels to London after Australia.)
So it’s a three-way conversation with, presumably, some of it lost in translation. When asked if he’s looking forward to visiting Australia he smiles. A couple of English words punctuate his rapid-fire Russian, most notably “kangaroo”.
Most of the dancers I speak to in Moscow (the ones who haven’t been here before) see Australia as a land where kangaroos and nature’s bounty are on show.
“Do you have kangaroos in Brisbane?”
“Yes but not at the airport,” I respond and he laughs. Rodkin, who dances the lead in Spartacus, is coming with his girlfriend, fellow Bolshoi dancer Eleonora Sevenard, 20.
“To us it will be an alien world,” Rodkin says as the English journalist edges closer, a not-so-subtle hint to wind up. “I know that the kangaroo is a stereotype of your country but I really want to see one.” It’s explained that this can be easily arranged.
Going behind the scenes at the Bolshoi includes backstage peeps into the rehearsal rooms where coaches, often former star dancers, work with their proteges. I get to catch up with more dancers after a matinee performance of Spartacus on the main stage – known as the Historic Stage – of the Bolshoi Theatre. There is a New Stage in another theatre building nearby and between the two there’s usually always a ballet on. But the Historic Stage is the main act.
Standing in the wings for the last half-hour of a matinee performance of Spartacus is fascinating and it’s amazing how chilled everyone seems. The dancers chat and joke around – a little too loudly it seems – and they come on and off the stage like sportsmen from a bench. The guys are all mucking around with their swords while the girls are more intent on limbering up but they all rush on for a huge finale. After the curtain calls, I walk on to the stage to chat to a couple of exhausted dancers, pause for a moment and look out. It’s my first glimpse of the interior of the Bolshoi Theatre and it’s awe-inspiring, although my first impression is not what my companions expect.
“It’s like the Muppet Theatre,” I say. “On steroids.”
I AM (AT) SPARTACUS
The theatre is big, very big. Bolshoi actually means big, or grand. The theatre seats up to 2153 but looks like it could take more and the gilt edges give it a regal splendour and it has a massive chandelier consisting of 25,000 pieces of crystal.
That night, at my first full performance of Spartacus, I am struck again by the beauty and grandeur.
A night at the Bolshoi Theatre in winter begins with a visit to the cloakroom to deposit the goose down jacket borrowed for my Russian adventure.
Once everyone has deposited their coats it’s evident that many have dressed to the nines for their big night out – some for attention, including young Russian women who have, according to my companion, obviously had “a bit of work”.
The atmosphere is anything but stuffy, with everyone obviously thrilled to be there, and selfies are the order of the night. My program informs me that this production of Spartacus, featuring the choreography of the great Yuri Grigorovich (who is still working at the age of 92), is the 351st performance of this ballet at the Bolshoi, the 330th of this latest production, which dates back to 1968.
And it is the 243rd season of performances on the Historic Stage. Mikhail Lobukhin is in the role of Spartacus for this performance and the courtesan Aegina is Olga Smirnova (who we can expect to see in Brisbane) debuting in the role, which makes it a special evening.
As she takes her final bows there are shouts of “bravo, bravo” echoing throughout the theatre – full-bodied footy shouts at that.
During both intervals (Spartacus is a long one) I remain in the theatre to people-watch and to marvel at the ornate surrounds.
IN STEP WITH TRADITION
During my week in Moscow I visit the Bolshoi several times and then mooch around, taking in the Kremlin, which is impressive (the scale is mind-boggling), and Red Square where you can queue for Lenin’s Mausoleum, one of the city’s most bizarre attractions. Lenin, embalmed, lies in state there just beyond the Kremlin Wall and a viewing is short and sharp as soldiers watch over him while tourists and locals alike are ushered through in silence.
Just across the road from the Bolshoi Theatre, the Hotel Metropol is a popular haunt of Bolshoi dancers and the company’s international guests often prop there. The doorman tells me I just missed the great American dancer David Hallberg, who is a guest artist with the Bolshoi Ballet.
“He was staying here a few days ago,” I’m told, which is of interest because I interviewed Hallberg last year when he was also a guest in Brisbane, one of the international stars who performed with Teatro alla Scala ballet company when they were here.
Like the Bolshoi Theatre, the hotel was built during the days of imperial rule but it also became much valued by the Soviets who used it as a base and they held meetings there as they did at the Bolshoi.
My second ballet show is a Saturday night performance of Jewels, featuring choreography by the great George Balanchine.
While Spartacus is earthy and epic with athletic dancing, Jewels is exquisitely refined – a ballet in three bedazzling acts – Emeralds, featuring the music of Gabriel Faure, Rubies with music by Igor Stravinsky and
Diamonds, with music by Tchaikovsky.
We’re fortunate to have both productions coming to Brisbane.
Both are accessible, which means you don’t have to be a ballet aficionado to appreciate them, and both are family friendly, too. Through regional simulcasts they will be seen well beyond Brisbane.
You may not get to see these ballets in the magnificent Bolshoi Theatre but you will be seeing the best dancers in a retinue of 185 people including dancers, technical and other staff. In Moscow there’s a lot of excitement about this and the dancers all say they can’t wait to get to Brisbane. And when they do – cue the kangaroos.
ABOVE: Artemy Belyakov and Yulia Stepanova dancing in Spartacus for the Bolshoi Ballet. LEFT: Olga Smirnova and Alexander Volchkov. FACING PAGE: The Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow; and principal dancer Denis Rodkin. PHOTOS: DAMIR YUSUPOV/CONTRIBUTED