For somebody who’s not remotely interested in ballet, I’ve watched a lot of ballet. I acquired my experience by accident, after getting to know a Moscow bank executive in the early 2000s. He had a box close to the stage at his permanent disposal, and offered me free access. Figuring I might as well see what this jumping about in tutus lark was about I went very often, for a year or so.
I can’t recall much of what I saw now, and probably remember the weird ones better than the good ones. “Spartacus”- that turgid old Soviet warhorse- made me laugh when the legionaries pranced across the stage. Then there was a ballet called “Legend of Love”, a strange Azeri effort based on a story by Nazim Hikmet that I enjoyed more than “Swan Lake”, though the music was nowhere near as memorable.
My all-time favorite however was Shostakovich’s “Bolt”, an avant-garde piece about workers searching for a missing bolt in a Soviet factory. It hadn’t been performed in decades. The music was radical, as was the staging. Come to think of it, I think I even paid to see that one. The rest, however, is essentially a blur of dudes in tights throwing skinny girls in the air… plus lots of leaping.
Still, even if I didn’t love every performance, the theater itself was always an interesting place to visit. Prior to the restoration it was grand but shabby and still had the ancient Soviet curtain replete with hammers and sickles. People-watching was fun: there was usually a mix of wealthy and middle class Russians, ancient Russian grannies, Germans, and Americans in shorts. That last part of the demographic always annoyed me- I may have been a bearded foreign freak, but at least I dressed smartly. I was in an executive’s box after all.
There was also something very ritualistic about the audience’s responses: lots of synchronized clapping, compulsory flowers for the leads, and loud shouts of “bravo” whenever somebody spun around a lot. I suspected that the audience praised athleticism more than artistry.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this because of the recent acid-tossing scandal at the theater. David Renwick of The New Yorker just published an excellent piece digging deep into the murky world of the Bolshoi, reminding me of people I hadn’t thought about in years- such as Anastasia Volochkova, the notorious “fat ballerina” who is now claiming that the Bolshoi pimps out its ballerinas to Russia’s elite.
That’s been happening since the Tsarist period, of course.
Then there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the company’s ageing star dancer. I saw him on Moscow’s Golden Mile once, in tight pants and leather jacket, luxuriously coiffeured, half-dancing as he walked down the street. Even when he didn’t think anyone was watching, he was watching himself. Tsiskaridze always seemed preposterous to me, cheesy like the pop opera singer Nikolai Baskov. He emerges from Renwick’s piece as a vaguely sinister, intimidating figure.
It’s not surprising to learn that the Bolshoi is a deeply unpleasant place behind the scenes, split into factions, riddled with infighting. Dancers’ salaries are not great, careers are short and nobody there enjoyed much of a childhood as they all spent it getting shouted at by angry, retired ballerinas turned teachers. Even so, the acid-in-the-face insanity… well, that was something else. Extreme yes, but then again, we are talking about artists here, people with febrile nerves and fertile imaginations. The whole story has all the hallmarks of a silent movie melodrama, a 19th century novel, an opera or-indeed- a ballet.
Of course it’s a terrible crime, but it’s also a PR disaster, and not just for the Bolshoi. When Dmitry Medvedev reopened the theater after renovations he rightly declared that it was one of Russia’s few internationally recognized brands- and now a dancer is (allegedly) wreaking baroque vengeance upon his boss while different camps conduct personal feuds in the international press. Meanwhile, as the Bolshoi stoops lower than Lindsey Lohan in scandal terms, mobsters are getting shot in the streets of Moscow. Suddenly it looks like the 90s all over again in Russia.
What’s truly mind-bending however is Russia’s indifference to its global reputation. The cops rounded up some losers and a dancer, got them to confess, case closed. But hardly anyone believes them, especially not members of the theater. It’s like Pussy Riot all over again; the “solution” exacerbates the original problem. And thus the scandal deepens, plunging Russia’s reputation further into the mire.
What’s going on? Well, evidently Putin’s not much of a ballet fan; he’s busy overseeing preparations for Sochi, and so perhaps the children feel free to carry on. Stalin on the other hand was a huge balletomane and would have sorted this mess out very quickly indeed. Of course he might well have arbitrarily shot the wrong people, but everyone would have been too terrified to complain and that would have been the end of the scandal.
And as for me, well… to tell the truth, I always preferred the Moscow circus anyway.