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

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE | BIG READ - WORDS: PHIL BROWN QPAC In­ter­na­tional Se­ries 2019, Bol­shoi Bal­let, June 26 – July 7; qpac.com.au

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?”

Rod­kin asks.

“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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.