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A rejuvenated Bolshoi limbers up in London before its big American tour

The Bolshoi Theater may have suffered from financial woes in the past decade, but a recent tour of its opera and ballet companies to Britain showed that it is still a rich artistic storehouse and that its name in Russian still means "big."

More than 420 singers, dancers, and musicians descended on the London Coliseum, bringing a repertoire of seven classical ballets and two operas of contrasting styles - the traditional and opulently staged epic of "Boris Godunov" and Peter Ustinov's new avant-garde production of "The Love for Three Oranges," which had the normally staid Russian performers prancing around in eccentric costumes.

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The ballet company's first visit to Britain since 1993 revealed a wonderful array of vital principal dancers; a well-disciplined, beautifully coordinated corps; and a plethora of young male dancers who would be the envy of any company.

Next year, Americans will be able to savor this balletic banquet when new artistic director Alexei Fadeyechev brings the full ballet company to Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Orange County, Calif., with "Romeo and Juliet," "Don Quixote," and a divertissement program.

This fall, "Stars of the Bolshoi," a group of top soloists, will crisscross the United States, opening Sept. 2 at the Luxor Theater in Las Vegas.

The hope is that "Stars" will act as a vanguard for next year's big tour and restore faith in the Bolshoi name.

In 1996, the company suffered a disastrous tour to Las Vegas. Booked by an inexperienced impresario who saw no need to advertise, for the first time in its history the company experienced near-empty houses. It was forced to return home early, its morale and reputation shattered. The episode was captured in a TV documentary called "Dancing for Dollars," which screened in the United States on Bravo in October 1997.

The Bolshoi Theater, celebrating its 224th season, was once the brightest jewel in the Soviet Union's cultural crown. A hot line to the Kremlin saw money pour into its coffers. A night out at the Bolshoi was on the agenda for all visiting dignitaries.

Raising prices - and foreign funds

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However, the decline of communism and the ensuing chaos in the country put a clamp on government financial support. Like most of Russia today, the Bolshoi faces a shortage of funds, not only for its artistic upkeep and new repertoire but also for its building. The famous pink-columned theater in the heart of Moscow is in dire need of renovation.

"If you compare what we now receive from the government - around $6 million per annum - with other Western opera houses, you will see that it is about [a tenth as much]," reports Vladimir Vasiliev, the director of the Bolshoi Theater. "The rest comes from ticket sales - reluctantly, we have recently had to raise those prices."

The anticipated $200 million restoration of the theater now looks to be another year away. UNESCO has designated the literally crumbling building as one of its heritage sites and is expected to help financially.

Mr. Vasiliev acknowledges that the theater, which employs more than 2,600 workers, is a challenging enterprise, especially since last year's economic crash in Russia saw many of the theater's international sponsors leave the country. Now laws prohibit foreign companies from using the Bolshoi as a tax write-off, thus further discouraging support.

Vasiliev has instituted an endowment fund, "Friends of the Bolshoi," in the hopes of conjuring up funds from abroad.

A new refined, lyrical style

On the brighter side, the internal turmoil of the past few years, in the form of backstage bickering and complaints of a stagnant repertoire, has been quelled. In his four years at the helm, Vasiliev, one of the Bolshoi's legendary dancers in the '60s and '70s, has created a more harmonious atmosphere, restructuring the management, instituting contracts for the artists, and inviting Westerners to stage productions. But it has not been an easy task, and many politicians would like to oust him and return to the past.

It wasn't all smooth sailing in London, either. While praise was heaped on individual dancers, the Bolshoi was criticized in the press for bringing only traditional ballets and none of the more recent creations, such as Balanchine works, that are in its repertoire.

But the paying public didn't seem to mind and was quickly won over by the dancers. Today they possess more refined, sleeker bodies, with long, lyrical limbs, in contrast to the stocky, muscular artists that performed the daredevil bravura ballets of the Soviet years.

The Bolshoi flamboyance and gusto is still there, too, when it comes to the colorful character and national dances of the old ballets. The most lasting vision, however, was of 32 ballerinas in white tutus, slowly and elegantly descending a zigzag ramp in a series of unified arabesques and backbends in "La Bayadre." The impressive display showed beyond a doubt that the Bolshoi is still very "big" in both quality and dedication.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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