The Bolshoi and the fractured state of Russian ballet
An acid attack at the world’s most famous ballet company has shone a spotlight on an institution in crisis
Bolshoi ballet dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko performing in Ivan the Terrible at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow last November. He has confessed to organising an attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director at the Bolshoi. Photograph: Anton Tarasov/Reuters
The motive for such a brutal attack on the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director could only lie in the institution’s constantly simmering political squabbles. In the past, these were ideological battles between traditionalists and modernists, but these days people talk about lawlessness, corruption and criminality in the theatre.
A lot has changed for Russian ballet since the fall of communism in 1991, much like the country itself. “The Bolshoi reflects Russia’s debilitating pathologies,” says Oliver Carroll, editor of the openDemocracy Russia website. “It is tempting to think that beautiful places like the Bolshoi are exempt, but in reality the stakes are higher and the money more tempting.”
Threats and intimidation
Past directors also suffered threats and intimidation, and even potential successors were targeted: company manager Gennady Yanin was tipped to become artistic director before almost 200 sexually explicit photos of him with other men were emailed anonymously to international media, agents and colleagues. Filin’s email account was hacked last year and a false Facebook page was set up under his name with postings of obscene material.
Ballet was revered in Soviet Russia and was its most successful cultural export during the cold war, notwithstanding defections by leading dancers. Joseph Stalin had a private box in the Bolshoi Theatre and both its ballet and opera were relatively well-funded. As communism collapsed so too did funding, with the Bolshoi’s annual budget falling to €10 million. As in the rest of Russian society, oligarchs began to replace the state, and now the Bolshoi has a board of directors with benefactors happy to pay almost €300,000 for the privilege. This has also changed the type of people who come through the front door.
“In Soviet and early post-Soviet times prices were reasonably low, and families could afford to attend. Now, not only are prices much higher, it is also extremely difficult to get a ticket, especially for prime performances,” says Carroll. “Touting is much more significant. A lot of tickets are reserved and eventually find their way on to the black market, where they go for up to four times face value.”
The image of the ballet dancer has also changed in post-communist Russia.
“Ballet dancers were not only a symbol of high culture and its unusually central place in Russian popular culture, but maybe the only officially sanctioned images of ‘glamour’,” says Christina Ezrahi, author of Swans of the Kremlin .
But if glamorous images of Maya Plisetskaya dressed by French couturier Pierre Cardin could acquire subversive power in the anti-consumerist, drab reality of Soviet Russia during the years of Brezhnevite stagnation, in post-Soviet Russia the ballerina is competing with the supermodel.
“During the Soviet period, the parents of a long-limbed girl living in the Russian provinces might have dreamt of a better life for their daughter as a ballerina. Now, they might have dreams of their daughter as a supermodel on the arm of a loving oligarch,” Ezrahi says.
Money is not always a corrupting force. The Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg has been taken over by millionaire fruit importer Vladimir Kekhman (known as the “banana king”). The company dates back to 1833, but has long lived under the shadow of the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) as St Petersburg’s second company. Kekhman installed himself as general director, and appointed Spanish contemporary choreographer Nacho Duato as artistic director and the vastly experienced Mikhail Messerer as ballet master.
“As well as the beautifully restored theatre and premises, there is an air of optimism about the place,” says Judith Mackrell, dance critic with the Guardian , who visited the company earlier this year.
Although Kekhman’s money has provided creature comforts, he has also made shrewd appointments, particularly with Messerer. One of the world’s leading ballet teachers, he has a huge depth of experience in both western and Russian ballet companies, which has helped to smooth the Russian-trained dancers’ expansion of repertoire and the company’s reinvention.
But Kekhman’s boldest stroke was luring star dancers Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev from the Bolshoi. “According to Messerer, the company felt different even before star appointments of Vasiliev and Osipova, but with these two in place, he obviously feels their profile is dramatically raised,” says Mackrell.
Difficult working conditions
For those dancers unable to command star salaries, money remains an issue. Underpaid, they face growing living costs in Moscow and St Petersburg and a short career, which means there is danger of a “brain drain” as dancers move abroad.
Those who stay could face more difficult working conditions. “In May, the Mariinsky will open Mariinsky II, its new opera theatre,” says Ezrahi. “How the ballet company will be able to perform on three stages simultaneously, the Mariinsky I, Mariinsky II and the theatre’s concert hall, without compromising its quality and the health of its dancers, is a mystery.”
As Sergei Filin receives treatment in Germany to save his eyesight and repair his damaged face, Moscow police have arrested three men, including Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko. He confessed to organising the attack, although he claims he did not expect the perpetrator to carry out such a brutal attack or to use acid. In response, 300 of his colleagues at the Bolshoi wrote an open letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin and other officials casting doubt on the confession. “The conclusions made by the investigation seem premature to us, the evidence unconvincing and Pavel’s confession, later changed, the result of strong pressure on him,” they wrote.
The infighting at the Bolshoi looks likely to continue. Principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze is an outspoken critic of Filin and has been accused of creating a poisonous atmosphere in the theatre.
He recently appeared on state television NTV alongside former ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who claimed that female dancers were forced to attend parties and sleep with oligarchs, some of whom are members of the board of trustees. The claims were rejected by Bolshoi management.
“The biggest challenge the Bolshoi faces right now is certainly to put a stop to the public infighting and scandal-mongering,” says Ezrahi. “But Russian ballet has demonstrated its enormous resilience in the past. Scandals come and go, but as long as the great schools remain, Russian ballet will be okay.”
Russian ballet companies: The big three
“Bolshoi” means “big” in Russian and the company’s style is renowned for its bold athleticism. Formed in 1776, it has spent much of the past 50 years under the eye of the autocratic Yuri Grigorovich,
artistic director from 1964 to 1995 and a significant presence within the company.
Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov)
Formed in 1740 and known for its classical style with an emphasis on beauty and discipline. Ballet master Marius Petipa was a key figure in the 19th century, creating enduring classics such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Giselle. The Kirov is also known for its high-profile defectors such as Rudolf Nureyev (1961), Natalia Makarova (1970) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1974).
Based in St Petersburg since 1833, it has been transformed by the investment of businessman Vladamir Kekhman. Its current high standards might come under threat as Kekhman was declared bankrupt in Britain last year, his company owing more than $1 billion (€774 million) to Russian banks.