The Bolshoi Ballet Theatre, Moscow – October 2013
This is it. THE Bolshoi Ballet. Since it was founded in 1776, it has withstood the fall of Tsarist Russia, outlasted the Soviet regime, witnessed Napoleon’s defeat, the Bolshevik Revolution and two World Wars. This incredible legacy is carried proudly by its artists, who interpret our stories of love and tragedy, of moral dilemmas and victories, and bring to life our identity. They are living, breathing manifestations of our past and present; their work is proof of our existence.
Regrettably, the artists are at times eclipsed by scandals that have nothing to do with their work, but are a product of its turbulent environment, from which the Bolshoi is, unfortunately, not isolated.
Navigating this complex landscape are the devoted artists who approach their craft with immediacy and exuberance. Their tenacity is woven into each heartfelt performance as they build upon Bolshoi’s legacy. It is by their pride and undeniable talent, and the coveted place that ballet holds in Russian hearts, that the Bolshoi has become the national treasure it is today.
Here is my experience at the Bolshoi.
Renovations to the theater were completed after six years in 2011 and cost over $1 billion, (above those amounts, who’s still counting?), but the result is incredible. The New Stage, the Artists’ Building, and the grand Historic Stage, a monolith fronted by eight neoclassical columns, rising ten storeys tall and sinking four storeys deep beneath the ground, define Teatralnaya Square in the center of Moscow, just 10 minutes walk from the Kremlin and within President Putin’s capricious jurisdiction.
What an absolutely unbelievable, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming experience. Ballet class at the Bolshoi, with principal dancers in front and behind me, including, Mikhail Lobukhin, Spartacus from the other night’s performance. Tendu, piqué, piqué…..together with them in the barre exercises. Dare I say, I was dancing with them? Okay, I know, but let me live it out for a moment.
Victor Barykin’s 10am class was in studio #5 on the 6th floor, with the beautiful octagonal skylight. He was a graduate of the Moscow Choreographic School (now the Moscow State Choreographic Academy) and veteran dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet for 17 years, and now at 59 years old, he still keeps a svelte figure. Classes are only one hour so they move quickly. It was a small class of about ten dancers; Barykin watched them attentively as they followed his exercises. When he gave corrections, he would show them with his body as best as he could. “You need to lift your rear end,” he said to one of the dancers, tucking his rear up exaggeratedly, then with his arms mimicked the snappy leg movement he wanted to see. “Yes, yes! There you go!” he exclaimed enthusiastically when she did it correctly; she nodded with satisfaction and smiled.
One after another, they sailed through the most intricate grand allegro jumps and turns, effortlessly, of course. I had never been this close to anyone of such calibre. These are really, some of the best dancers in the world, the standard to which others are measured against, and I was awe-struck to be there.
Alexander Volchkov, principal dancer, doing pirouettes à la seconde. Love his expression at the end – “Yeah, I know, I just rocked that!” See dancer in red pants applaud and give him the thumbs up.
The Upper Stage is a luxurious rehearsal theater on the 10th floor inside the Bolshoi Theater building. It could be a venue in its own right, with about 120 seat capacity, large raked stage and orchestra pit. On this day, 81 year old renowned French choreographer, Pierre Lacotte, wearing his signature red scarf, was setting the choreography for Marco Spada, premiering at the Bolshoi in two weeks. Artistic director Sergei Filin makes a point to attend as many rehearsals and performances as possible. He took a seat in the center of the first row, well-dressed in a suit as always, and sporting dark sunglasses to shield his still sensitive eyes. Following the vicious acid attack on him in January 2013, his presence in these times is more meaningful to the company than ever. Principal dancers David Hallberg and Evgenia Obraztsova were on stage rehearsing the title roles of Marco Spada and Angela, his daughter. Flanking them, about 40 soloists, coryphées and corps de ballet dancers, who, in another company could well hold principal rank, but here, made up the strong ensemble. Lacotte’s assistant, Anne Salmon, directed from the stage with the help of a Russian, microphone-bearing translator, stepping in among the ensemble to mold the four intersecting lines. Hallberg and Obraztsova were perfecting their mime – him, gestures of disapproval of her marriage, and her, crying and pleading. The Bolshoi never skimps on dramatic expression, that artistry, and trademark of Russian ballet that transforms dance steps into stories and memorable characters. I’ve never been surrounded by so much talent. Not of just one star, but, here in the same room. were all these masters at the top of the dance world. It’s just an ordinary day at the Bolshoi.
While corrections were given to the dancers of the pas de deux, the dancers of the ensemble waited. A few practiced some of the gestures in the choreography. One of them casually did a quadruple pirouette, finishing precisely, on center. (Of course, a quadruple, it’s exactly what I do whenever I’m waiting around.)
Some of the larger productions have three or four casts. Even if dancers are not in the cast rehearsing on stage, they still must attend the rehearsals to pick up the choreography and corrections. They sit on the sides of the stage looking attentive, but I wonder if some are thinking about their to-do list – “Darn, I have to do my taxes.”
“Te ustala?” I asked her if she was tired. She was one of the dancers from the rehearsal and we were waiting for the lift. She nodded as she leaned against the wall, rested her head against the door frame of the lift and closed her eyes. I said to her that she danced very well. She smiled faintly to acknowledge my compliment, then shook her head disapprovingly, “No, I didn’t dance well at all today.”
Evening rehearsals are pleasant gatherings. Office staff of the theater pop-in at the end of their work day. Ballet masters répétiteurs and dancers who are not in the production take the chance to observe the other dancers and the choreography, sometimes filming with their mobile phones for later study. Dancers’ children occasionally come along after their parents pick them up from school. These rehearsals bring together the people in this theater to enjoy a bit of ballet. Just one of the perks of working at the Bolshoi.
Behind The Scenes
In 2011, at the invitation of Bolshoi Artistic Director Sergei Filin, David Hallberg became the first American dancer to join the Bolshoi as a principal dancer. “I came to light a fire under my ass;” said Hallberg, “I came to challenge myself, to learn the Russian style and dance Bolshoi’s repertoire. It’s an experience I can’t turn down.”
Asian girls represent! When Joo-Yoon Bae arrived to Moscow from Seoul, there were a lot of things she had to adjust to, including the food.
“Think of dance companies like football teams, dancers go wherever they get contracts. Before, the Bolshoi used to be all Russian. Today, it’s getting to be very international.”
“The audience reaction is different in each country. In Japan, they are very quiet during show, but applaud very loudly after and they always want autographs. The French, they never act impressed but they are still appreciative. Australians laugh at the weirdest parts. For example, in one of the most tragic moments of Le Corsaire, they laughed!”
“The choreographer hands you a role, and you must do it, without questioning it. If you do question it, choreographer brings in the other directors to reiterate that you must do it the choreographer’s way.”
“I don’t have a favourite ballet or role. In the Bolshoi, you cannot have a favourite, you must be able to do it all.”
“In the Bolshoi, no one coddles you, no one asks you to try harder, you must push yourself to do your best.”
“Some dancers work harder than others, and those are the ones who get noticed. Usually, but not always, talent will prevail. The Bolshoi is like any large institution in Russia.”
“When I joined in the early nineties, artists had freedom to create without the influence of money. Now, money gets in the way of creativity.”
“Some dancers, when they are promoted, for example, to the soloist rank, they immediately put on airs. But, that’s just human nature, isn’t it?”
“If I had a son, I would not encourage him to be a dancer,” said a male dancer. “A man, to have power, must be a lawyer, doctor, or in politics. But, I know it will be up to him, not me.”
“Some of the younger dancers who come into the company are quite arrogant, because they think that getting into the Bolshoi is their final accomplishment.” (It doesn’t take long for them to realize the tough road ahead.)
“Anybody can do contemporary ballet, but the classical repertoire, no one is better than the Bolshoi.”
It’s an affliction of theaters to be built like a maze. I mapped out my trail in my notebook – down the purple hallway with the mirrors and barre (do a few barre exercises as I pass through), left at the rack of Giselle costumes, right of the dressing rooms, past lift #3….Though I still got lost many times. One of the dancers at the end of the hall saw my flustered expression. She gave me a big, heartfelt smile and asked, “Are you lost?” “Yes!” I answered with relief. “If you wait just a minute you can come with me,” she said reassuringly. She gathered her bags, then waved for me to follow her and the other girls. We happily chatted on our way to the lift; the other girls said nothing. She was from Tblisi and studied at the same academy as Nina Ananiashvili. “This is your floor. It was nice to meet you, have a good evening!” She smiled at me until the doors closed completely, all the while, the girls next to her stared straight ahead with their Moscovian poker-faces.
Mens’ and ladies’ dressing rooms are on separate floors of the Artists’ building. There are multiple rooms on each and racks of costumes line the hallways. I walked through the mens’ floor one afternoon; loud heavy metal music blasted through the halls. Whatever pumps you up for the show.
Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus
It was 6:30 in the evening, half an hour to show time. I sat down with Bolshoi dancer Arsen Karakozov at the artist’s café inside the theater; he was not performing that night. A few male dancers were there getting coffee, dressed in sweats and hoodies. “Are they performing tonight?” I asked Arsen. “Yes, they are in the corps,” he answered. “Merde,” I said to them, and they raised their cups and smiled. At 30 minutes to curtain, I thought they’d be less idle, but Arsen assured me, “they have time; the guys will go for make up in 15 minutes; they will get a tan.”
Premiered in 1968, Spartacus remains a classic showpiece of Yuri Grigorovich, the former artistic director of the Bolshoi ballet who stamped a deep impression into its legacy over the 31 years he reigned until 1995. In the ballet, Spartacus is the leader of a successful rebellion against Crassus, the evil Roman leader. Spartacus nobly pardons Crassus’ death, only to be tragically killed by the still vengeful Crassus. Not a delicate ballet, it’s full of bravado and inseparable with the Soviet times in which it was created, perhaps owing its staying power to nostalgia for those times.
Arsen led me through a maze of hallways and elevators, smiling and chatting with dancers and theater staff as we passed, until we reached backstage. He showed me to a narrow bench just inside the downstage wing on stage right. “Please, enjoy the show,” he said with a warm smile. The dancers took their places in the wings. I recognized one of them from the café, and he smiled at me through his tan-coloured makeup. The dancers seemed calm while I was overwhelmed with pre-show jitters. A few minutes after 7pm, the house lights went down.