The Bolshoi’s historic theater. Photo by Thinkstock.
The world-famous Bolshoi Ballet became world-infamous last year. In January 2013 its artistic director was attacked with sulphuric acid, maimed and part-blinded—due to a toxic mix involving casting, money, grudges, an aggrieved dancer and his ballerina girlfriend. The dancer justified his action at trial by accusing management of corruption and injustice, but was convicted and is now serving a six-year stretch in prison. Meanwhile, one of Russia’s most celebrated dancers got fired, followed by the Bolshoi’s own chief.
The headlines were covered by a fascinated, uncomprehending global media. Not least baffling was how the Bolshoi carried on dancing regardless, its London tour last summer another critical and public triumph slap in the middle of the turmoil.
Now, as the Bolshoi prepares to visit New York, the uproar of last year is being rationalized thus: An individual behaved criminally, he was egged on by troublemakers with their own agendas, the stirrers have left the company and any basis for real complaints is being dealt with.
It is a PR message everyone wants to believe, but it’s covering a jumble of serious issues. The hastily appointed new chief, Vladimir Urin, has had to act like a bomb disposal expert in a minefield of scandals, starved egos, genuine labor inadequacies, ideological posturing and the practicalities of working around an artistic leader still undergoing intensive medical treatment. All this, and art too.
In last year’s purges, both Urin’s predecessor, longtime chief Anatoly Iksanov, and the Bolshoi Ballet’s celebrity star Nikolai Tsiskaridze (who wanted Iksanov’s position) lost their jobs. Urin, who everybody thinks is a thoroughly decent guy, announced he would introduce a ground-breaking labor contract with the dancers to address their grievances, set to come into force this spring. With the injured ballet director Sergei Filin still at his post and Pavel Dmitrichenko, the attack’s organizer, being jailed, it looks on the surface as if right has prevailed.
Clockwise from top left: Ruslan Skvortsov and Maria Alexandrova in Swan Lake; Alexander Volchkov as Spartacus; Yuri Baranov in Giselle; Svetlana Zakharova in Don Quixote.
Yet will personnel shuffles and a labor contract be enough? Urin’s had to make the Soviet-devised payment system work in modern times for modern theaters. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky hire their enormous troupes on retainers, to which dancers earn performance bonuses based on a fixed scale per show, per number. This puts a dancer’s earning power into the hands of the artistic director or even a corporate sponsor, and relegates the out-of-favor performers to a low-paid life. With 200-plus dancers and few solo chances, the bulk lead a fairly drudge-like existence (many are said to be off “sick” at any time). The American Bolshoi recruit Joy Womack added to last year’s imbroglio by claiming she was advised to find herself a sponsor to pay for her career advancement (a claim rejected by Urin).
I asked former Bolshoi Ballet director Alexei Ratmansky—in office 2004–8 before leaving for American Ballet Theatre—whether he thought the new labor contract would be the solution. Although it was supposedly made imperative by Dmitrichenko’s allegations about corps de ballet poverty and “favoritism,” Ratmansky believes it to be more style than substance.
“I doubt there is any company in the world better socially protected than the Bolshoi Ballet, very different from the Mariinsky,” he told me. “They all have life contracts, and the theater often buys its employees apartments, especially when they’re employed from outside Moscow. There is a Bolshoi medical center, special sanatoriums and kindergartens.”
Female dancers are entitled to three days off per month during their periods and three years fully paid maternity leave. “There were ballerinas whom I never met during my five years,” Ratmansky notes wryly. “The corps de ballet only works an hour and a half if there is a performance in the evening; dancers have two months fully paid summer vacation; all soloists and promising corps de ballet members have personal coaches—there are about 25 at the moment.”
Principals and coaches have Bolshoi limousines on daily call and travel business-class, says Ratmansky. “So I don’t really know what else could be improved, in social terms,” he says. “The deal is more about improving the atmosphere, to give the dancers a feeling of participation in some decision-making.”
“Atmosphere” is something Ratmansky was familiar with in Moscow. The West regards his five years in office as the Bolshoi’s brightest era for decades, but he has openly stated that Tsiskaridze, in particular, was blatantly contemptuous of his authority, which contributed to the bruising tensions that led to his 2008 decision to leave.
Above: Anna Nikulina, Ruslan Skvortsov and Denis Savin in Giselle.
Every ballet director since the Soviet-era ballet chief Yuri Grigorovich’s 31-year rule (1964–95) has had to fight brutally for authority, and Ratmansky’s worldly, post-Soviet taste put him at odds with influential Bolshoi traditionalists who see no further than the close-minded master choreographer, now 87 and still an influential presence. (Filin is the seventh ballet director since 1995.) Russian choreography to this day suffers from that regimented attitude. The quality of Bolshoi dancing is not at issue. The Bolshoi’s special difference is that it has often seemed geared not just toward artistic ends but also toward government function. The Kremlin is just across Red Square from the Bolshoi, and since Stalin’s time, politicos and ballerinas have had closely interwoven social lives.
Iksanov, appointed general director in 2000, fended off politicians with his financial and commercial savvy. In his 13-year tenure, he introduced Western practices in programming and financing to attract foreign artistry and corporate sponsorship. The Bolshoi budget multiplied 10 times. He also appointed both the progressive Ratmansky and Filin (who’d been one of Ratmansky’s leading men) to the ballet leadership in 2004 and 2011.
Such deeds swiftly reinstated the Bolshoi on the world stage but became grievances for those who felt they undercut home values (a feeling that mounted in Putin’s nationalistic presidency). A Russian business trip from the provinces or tourist package is incomplete without a Bolshoi night out, and they expect Russian classical ballet, not foreign imports.
An inside theater source—who spoke on condition of anonymity—said the Bolshoi directorship is constantly undermined by its stars’ high-level political support networks. “It’s quite normal for the top artists to take their problems as high as presidential circles, over the head of our theater leaders,” said my source. When Svetlana Zakharova, prima ballerina and a former parliament member, walked out after being named second cast for John Cranko’s Onegin last year, she was seen by many as wholly in the right, and Iksanov’s firing soon after was virtually expected as punishment for allowing foreigners to slight the theater’s prima ballerina.
Tsiskaridze in particular has built up a top-level fan club among wives of ministers and oligarchs. A group of performers and cultural leaders wrote publicly to Putin in late 2012 demanding that he replace Iksanov with Tsiskaridze. Iksanov dismissed Tsiskaridze last June at the cost of his own job, and it did nothing to prevent Tsiskaridze’s march upwards. Soon afterwards the Culture Minister shoehorned Tsiskaridze unexpectedly into the top seat at Russia’s legendary ballet school, the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, to a storm of protest. My company source says that dancers see the outcome as a strategic win for Tsiskaridze: “Now he has a trampoline.” When Urin, 67, retires, Tsiskaridze will be waiting.
Clockwise from top left: Maria Alexandrova in Don Quixote; Vladislav Lantratov in Don Quixote; Nina Kaptsova and Mikhail Lobukhin in Spartacus; Ekaterina Krysanova in Don Quixote.
As for Filin, whose contract comes up in 2016, he has Urin’s declared assistance to rebuild his authority while undergoing treatment to improve his sight. “He usually has someone with him at work, but his spirits are back as they were,” says the source. This seems remarkable given the ferocious character battering that he took from Dmitrichenko and Tsiskaridze during the trial, all of it unchecked gossip.
Urin also appears to be backing Filin’s artistic choices, thinks critic Tatiana Kuznetsova of the Russian newspaper Kommersant. His promotions and hires—Olga Smirnova, Vladislav Lantratov, Semyon Chudin and bold New York choice David Hallberg—have become the Bolshoi’s new A-team, alongside Zakharova.
Filin’s eclectic season programming, including three premieres by foreign choreographers—Pierre Lacotte’s Marco Spada, John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias and this summer’s Taming of the Shrew by Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s Jean-Christophe Maillot—have kept dancers busy with new stylistic coaching as well as the relentless classical rolling schedule. “People hardly have time to breathe,” Kuznetsova says, “so what kind of ‘atmosphere’ could there be? Here it’s like we’ve had enough of all this now.”
What remains unanswered is whether most Russians can discuss the Bolshoi Ballet without violent nationalistic passions. It has long been political first and performative second. In London, New York or Paris, discussions about a ballet company might pivot on where it sits within today’s dance spectrum, but what is at issue when the Bolshoi performs is the message it gives about how Russia sees itself.
Ismene Brown is the founder and dance editor of The Arts Desk, and was the London Daily Telegraph’s dance critic for 15 years.
Performance photos: Mikhail Logvinov, Damir Yusupov and Elena Fetisova, Courtesy Kennedy Center (Giselle) and Lincoln Center (others)