Iron Curtains! The Bolshoi’s Dark Side

Ballet’s transcendent form has long been pitted against political intrigue in Russia

When Jack Diamond, the Canadian architect esteemed internationally for his concert halls and opera houses, was chosen to design a new opera house in St. Petersburg in 2009, he did not make too many assumptions about the project. This was wise. His patron for the project was the notoriously aggressive and fickle Valery Gergiev, the legendary head of everything artistic in St. Petersburg: opera company, symphony orchestra, ballet company, even urban arts planning and, who knows, probably the time of day as well. Gergiev was also a close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which was both useful and problematic, as the post-modernist French architect Dominique Perrault would very soon find out.

Perrault had already been commissioned for this project, a new opera house that was to stand juxtaposed with the historic Mariinsky Theatre (Mariinsky I) and was envisioned as a magnificent new monument to the glory of Russian culture. Poor Perrault had even overseen the laying of the foundations for Mariisnky II when Gergiev (and more importantly Putin) took an intense dislike to the design. Officially, the reason given was insufficient accommodation to severe northern weather conditions. Unlikely, but whatever the reasons (probably they included soaring cost projections), even as the great hole was being dug and the foundational concrete poured, the Russians were looking around for another architect altogether.

Welcome to the often indistinguishable worlds of Russian politics and Russian ballet. Politics rules in Russia, right down to the business of who sits where, as Jack Diamond was to discover to his chagrin. As luck would have it, Diamond’s most recent tour de force, the opera and ballet house in Toronto (ineptly named the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts), had been coming in for massive praise. Gergiev was more than curious and made a lightning visit to see the building, professed himself “delighted,” and almost as quickly decided Diamond was his man, provided he could design a house on the already “available” foundations.

Diamond, a South African émigré who fled the old apartheid regime as a young man, is a committed egalitarian. As an architect, unusually, he puts performance and audience concerns—sight lines, acoustics, storage space and rehearsal rooms—ahead of grand architectural conceits. By his own admission, he made only one assumption. Despite the elitist nature of opera and ballet, he thought he was setting out to create a “palace of art for the people” and, having surveyed the czarist echoes of the old Mariinsky next door, he was sure of one thing: there would be no need for a “czar’s box”—the old-fashioned royal perch at the symbolic centre of the first tier.

As Vladimir Putin’s best American friend, Donald Trump, would say: “Wrong!”

The “Putin Box” that Diamond was obliged to create is even grander than the old czar’s box and has become the updated symbol of what anyone peering into the realm of Russian performing arts has to learn, first and foremost: politics and hierarchy trump everything. Well, almost everything. That lesson is at the heart of Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today by the Princeton University scholar and New York Times commentator Simon Morrison, an engrossing and comprehensive history of the Moscow theatre and ballet company that share as their name the Russian word for BIG. Big in everything: big in storied history and accomplishment, big in scandal, big in courage, and just as big in moral turpitude and betrayal. The story of the Bolshoi, inevitably, is also the story of Russia.

Right from the start, Morrison, a Canadian-born and -educated academic (University of Toronto and McGill, before he headed off to Princeton) has to grapple with an art form that demands of the human body the extremities of physical endurance and the soaring demands of artistic creativity—and which, in Russia, has long been pitted against grotesque rivalries and political intrigue. This is at the heart of what intrigues so many outsiders who get involved with studying the history and culture of the ballet world. It is what informs all the dark tales of brutal artistic directors (Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Dark Swan, for example, or last year’s television series Flesh and Bone). On this front, the Bolshoi trumps them all. This is the opening paragraph of the book:

On the night of January 17, 2013, Sergey Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater Ballet, returned to his apartment near the central ring road of Moscow. He parked his black Mercedes outside the building and trudged through the wet falling snow toward the main entrance. His two boys were asleep inside, but he expected that his wife, Mariya, herself a dancer, would be waiting up for him. Before he could tap in the security code to open the metal gate, however, a thickset man strode up behind him and shouted a baleful hello. When Filin turned around, the hooded assailant flung a jar of distilled battery acid into his face, and then sped off in a waiting car. Filin dropped to the ground and cried for help, rubbing snow into his face and eyes to stop the burning.

Morrison’s account hardly lets up once from this point on. The unfortunate Filin—caught out by intense rivalries within the Bolshoi and partially blinded for life—and the acid attack itself became symbols for the screwed-up side of Bolshoi history, a dark leitmotif nestled ominously beside the art form’s high points through more than two centuries: the extraordinary artistry of two of the greatest ballerinas the world has ever seen (Maya Plisetskaya and Galina Ulanova), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s plaintive and soaring ballet scores, the transformation of male dancing from “the effete” to the “virile,” and the greatest ballet ever created (Swan Lake). We travel mostly on the political caboose of this transcontinental journey, from czarist court dramas throughout much of the 19th century to the cruel grotesqueries of the communist czar, Joseph Stalin, right down to the “people’s choice”—President Vladimir Putin. Czar, dictator or “persuasive” president: at the Bolshoi Theatre, as with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky, they all have had their showpiece box seats in the first tier and they all have their representatives running the show.

Following that explosive introduction, Morrison mercifully follows a more or less orthodox chronological order, from the Bolshoi’s murky beginnings in the 18th century, when Catherine the Great enfranchised one of her princelings to organize court entertainments, including a ballet company. That, in turn, eventually brought into theatrical and ballet history a dangerously intriguing English rogue named Michael Maddox, who took everyone—empress, princeling, dancers, audiences, even orphans—along for a very merry ride, indebting everyone and everything for hundreds of thousands of rubles, exploiting performers without remorse, and concluding his sojourn at the Bolshoi in a cataclysmic fire at its first performing theatre (the Petrovsky) on October 8, 1805 that looked for a while to be the end of the entire endeavour: tutus, the tour-en-l’air and transmogrified swans yet to come!

Ballet, however, is—if nothing else—an art that defies and transcends logic, earthly damnation, bankruptcy, philistinism, cruelty, misplaced idealism, ineptitude and ordinary sordid corruption. It defies it with intangibles: through sheer beauty, for example, or through fleeting moments of choreographic sublimity, through solitary or collaborative acts of pure genius, through heroic eroticism or metaphysical dreaming. Is this in fact the very definition of bipolar art? To have all of this, and so much more, coupled with Russian emotional extravagance is, quite simply, incredible. What Simon Morrison has done, therefore, and wonderfully so, is put this extraordinary mélange of history and high art and human cupidity into an account that manages to contain incredulity even as it seeks to find an explanation.

There are many highlights, especially for fanatical balletomanes, but for the general reader the Bolshoi under the communists is at the heart’s core of the book. This is because Morrison has to explain how such a vicious regime came to identify its own progress and fate with the company and the theatre. Identify? Hell, Lenin himself took to the Bolshoi stage in 1918 to proclaim his constitution, so he clearly understood the significance of the connection. All the Soviet leaders—Stalin more than any of the others—loved that czar’s box. For Stalin it was an expression of power, and with that power he set an example to administrators of all Soviet enterprises, ballet companies no less than state factories. Morrison reinforces this “example from the top,” I think, by carefully delineating the appalling and often cruel managerial machinations of successive general managers and artistic directors, none more pig-stupid than Elena Konstantinovna Malinovskaya (1875–1942): “Stern, stout, and flush-faced from nicotine, she knew nothing of culture.” Like Stalin, she believed in regular purges and an atmosphere of imminent denunciation and random terror.

The Bolshoi story also includes the competition between the Bolshoi and its great rival, the Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg (known for decades under the communists as the Kirov in Leningrad). The czars favoured the former, the communists the latter. Critical opinion over the years tended to credit the Mariisnky/Kirov with purity of line and elegance of production, set against the Bolshoi’s staple of brutalism and over-the-top heroics (The Red Poppy or Spartacus, for example, or The Bright Stream or The Bolt and a whole procession of other doctrinally approved offerings). But Morrison does not delve too much into this rivalry, quite correctly, because a lot of it was arbitrary or outright false. All the dancers in both companies were subject to the vagaries of the times. They all danced in various productions of Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, regardless of which company performed them first. They all had to take on Soviet realism. When Mikhail Baryshnikov, the rising star of the Kirov, defected from the Soviet Union on tour in Toronto in 1974, he was actually travelling with a smallish troupe that billed itself “The Bolshoi.”

The case of Baryshnikov is interesting because he was not really a victim of unrelenting Soviet demonics. His genius was recognized; he was under pressure to join the party and his continuing resistance had “come to the attention” of the higher authorities. But what really irked him was that the stratified Soviet ballet system, which Morrison describes so vividly, meant that a short dancer like Baryshnikov would never be allowed to do certain roles. It was this artistic straitjacketing that set him bolting from the stage door of the then O’Keefe Centre in Toronto into an amazing career in the West, where he got to embrace the destiny his talent had intended for him. Some of the fellow dancers and administrators at the Kirov and the Bolshoi—the sorts that got into such crazed anger and paranoid plots that they could conceive of that appalling acid attack—were what he fled and what stain the history and reality in Russia and remain a thread throughout Morrison’s tale.

What Morrison also makes clear is that the Bolshoi is, first and foremost, the symbol of Russia—its sense of itself, its pride and, sadly from time to time, its shame. That clears the air for some wonderful small biographies of leading dancers and choreographers and bizarre administrators. This strategy mostly works well. Is it unfair to afflict the author with his occasional descent into “vacuum-cleanerism” where no detail is left unattended, no intrigue unexplored? It is a small enough complaint, as is the fact that there will be those who might, occasionally, feel that they have been thrust into War and Peace minus the handy dramatis personae guide provided in some editions of the Tolstoy masterpiece. Bolshoi Confidential, however, has an excellent index and even those of us who fancy we know a thing or two about the company and ballet itself will be (are!) grateful for it.

The Bolshoi journey is as wild as Russian history. Out of the strictures and occasional chaos of late czarist rule we get Swan Lake. Out of the communist revolution we get extraordinary dancers: propagandistic ballets with crappy choreography, for sure, but also those dancers who set world standards for athleticism and grace. Out of post-communist Russia we get … well, an amazing conclusion by the author:

Ballet is the cruelest and most wondrous of the arts, a discipline and a dream that asks people to aspire to the angelic in a demonic competitive process. The results of that process at the Bolshoi, time and time again, have proven artistically stupendous but personally, physically catastrophic. Yet the dancers keep dancing, hoping to escape the constraints of the here and now and grasp instead at something everlasting. There is no other choice. To dance, after all, is to condition the body, and with it the mind, to let go.

So far as I know, there is no better popular study of the company, its history and its principal stars through the centuries. It is written with grace and a formal intimacy that effortlessly draws you in to the tale yet makes sure you do not settle for easy answers—even when someone is throwing battery acid around.