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Dance Revolution

Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre is the world's preeminent stage for ballet. In 2005, its doors shut for a nearly $1 billion renovation. Now, after six years of scandal, corruption and palace intrigue, the Bolshoi is back.


THE BOLSHOI THEATRE WAS burned in 1853 and bombed in 1941. Lenin tried to have the building, with its neoclassical Corinthian columns and aristocratic air, knocked to the ground in a gesture of proletarian wrath. And a stream flowing under the building did everything in its power to weaken the stone foundation. Despite this ceaseless assault, the Bolshoi remains standing.

This building, home to some of the world’s leading dancers, singers and directors, is the gem of all Russian performance spaces. It opened in Moscow in 1825 for the Bolshoi Ballet, a company founded in 1776 by Catherine the Great, and saw the premieres of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Rachmaninoff’s opera Aleko. It’s home to the biggest opera in Russia and the largest ballet company in the world (its name in Russian means “big”). But when inspectors discovered cracks in the structure in 2005, the theater shut down. It was literally falling apart.

Originally set to reopen in 2008, the Bolshoi has undergone a renovation that was mired in scandal and embezzlement. The records of one firm working on the project, ZAO Kurortproekt, showed it was paid three times for the same work at a time when the Kremlin was trying to crack down on corruption. The cost ballooned to $800 million and the opening was delayed three years.

Now, if all goes according to plan, on October 28, 2011, the footlights at the Bolshoi will shine anew.

“Pray God doesn’t make you live in a time of change,” says Anatoly Iksanov, general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, a ribbon of cigarette smoke filtering through the bristles of his white mustache. Iksanov is in charge of two and a half orchestras, 220 dancers, 110 opera singers and thousands more stagehands, costume designers and conductors. Yet he still manages to sleep through the night. Which, he points out wearily, is the only time delegations of artists aren’t knocking down his door. “Artists must be given a lot of work,” he says, lowering his gaze. “When they’re busy on tour or creating new shows, they quit blaming managers and creating crazy scandals.”

Indeed, scandals are frequent occurrences. Take one from last winter, when several dozen very racy pictures of Gennadi Yanin, the ballet’s manager, were emailed to hundreds of people and posted online in what some speculate was a smear campaign against a potential acting chief. And that’s in addition to the continuing public barbs and criticisms from disgruntled former and present dancers.

To all of this, Iksanov shrugs. The scandals, he says, are for public consumption and the journalists who love them. While he wants to protect the Bolshoi name, his concern isn’t the petty back and forth of dancers. His charge is to promote the Bolshoi name from “one of the best” to “the best.” That means drawing new audiences to the old art. Last spring, the Bolshoi teamed up with Bel Air Media and Pathé to broadcast its ballets in movie theaters around the world — Europe, the U.S., Japan and Brazil — even screening ballets to gauge audience interest. A test screening of the ballet Flames of Paris in Paris created such a stir that by the time the Bolshoi booked the tour and the dancers arrived in the city, everyone knew about the show and almost the entire government came to the premiere.

Iksanov is also in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Ministry of Culture, which is working to solve labor law issues that are stagnating the talent at the Bolshoi. The Bolshoi gives lifelong contracts to its members. “We’re not allowed to fire those who have not retired, and we can’t bring in someone new. It’s a big problem,” says Iksanov. “Without new artists, new blood, we can’t grow the way we need to.”

But Russians can be reluctant about change, even though (or perhaps because) they’ve had their fair share of it. In 2000, Iksanov was appointed to oversee the company’s transition from the damaged historical stage in the Bolshoi Theatre to the New Stage, a brand-new, smaller house next door, during renovations. His challenge was to keep the company intact and make sure it continued performing. Bigger productions found a temporary performance spot at the Kremlin Palace, and others toured Europe and beyond. Iksanov had his work cut out for him — the smaller space wore down the performers, particularly because the job went three years over schedule. Artists are already a finicky bunch. But then so are conservationists.

Russians with a white-knuckle grip on tradition wanted the decaying theater untouched and left as a museum. Iksanov recognized the importance of retaining the interiors, but the stage and inner workings needed an overhaul to support new technology and keep pace with the world’s most renowned institutions.

“The Bolshoi Theatre is a living, breathing organism,” says Iksanov, as he stands to leave and meet with the main conductor of the current opera, The Golden Cockerel, opening in two nights. “It needs to advance to survive.”

“I CAN TALK ABOUT this for hours,” says Mikhail Sidorov, spokesman for Summa Capital, the construction company President Medvedev hired in 2009 to oversee the final stages of the renovation. He’s standing below the original stage on one of the four new subterranean levels that doubled the size of the historic theater to 80,000 square meters. This particular level has a chamber orchestra stage out of a futuristic flick. The room looks empty at first, but the floor is segmented like a puzzle. Using a complex hydraulic system, platforms rise up, turning a flat floor into a raised stage with rows of tiered seating for 300, like a pop-up book. The German engineers behind this underground stage gave the same hydraulic advantage to the expanded 135-capacity orchestra pit.

As Sidorov points out that there can be no more than a two millimeter gap between each section, he couldn’t be more excited. If you didn’t know better — if it weren’t for his spotless suit and uncalloused hands — you’d think he’d renovated the Bolshoi himself. His two-hour tour of the theater includes stories of contacting the great-grandsons of the tradesman who provided the original front hall tile, the hand-looming process that took three years to dissect and then weave the exact fabric from the period of Alexander II, the restoration of acoustics that the Soviet era destroyed. An observation about a replica electric lamp can make Sidorov sigh. It’s a happiness that attends a job well done and almost finished.

His company picked up the project after the renovation had dragged on for four miserable years. Everything came to a deadlock in 2009 — tales of corruption and ineptitude had reached their zenith, and nine general contractors had come and gone. Iksanov appealed to Medvedev, who took on the Bolshoi as a personal project, creating a special group in the Ministry of Culture to oversee it and hiring Summa Capital to take on the final renovations. With the energy and resources behind a Medvedev-backed project, the estimated 2015 finish date suddenly shifted to 2011. Summa Capital immediately expanded the 24-hour workforce from 400 to 3,600 people.

Nineteen hundred of those workers are restorers and craftsman of gypsum, wood, bronze, fabric, handmade stucco, dyestuff and more. Of the 1,900 restorers, 162 are gilders.

THE AUDIENCE HALL of the Bolshoi Theatre has six levels of balconies, each broken up into recessed boxes. Shop lights make each look like a backlit shadow box. On a four-foot scaffolding, a gilder sits on the side of her hip, her knees and feet tucked in at her side. She uses her finger to spread petroleum jelly on the back of her hand. She picks up a fanned brush made of squirrel tail hair and brushes it over the thin layer of petroleum before touching the top of the brush to a thin leaf of gold resting on a suede pillow. When she picks up the gold leaf, it shivers. The tiny, lustrous square is hand-hammered so thin that light shines through it. It is a tenth of the thickness of a spider’s silk. It will cling to every crease of a fingerprint on an oily finger. Rub it between your fingers and it disappears. But place it on molding that has been prepped with clay and egg and a swipe of distilled alcohol like vodka, and the frail leaf bonds to it, creating the illusion of solid gold. “No golden paint will have such a noble effect, such a bright color,” says Vera Babich, a third-generation gilder. “Over time, gold paint darkens and never achieves the same look.”

When all is said and done, the audience hall will be adorned with five kilograms of gold. It will cover the ornate double-headed eagles of Imperial Russia that replaced communism’s hammer and sickle above the czar’s box, and rim the six balconies that surround the wood-paneled, violin-shaped hall, which is ready to reclaim its top spot in the world of acoustics. Three hundred kilograms of gold surround the two-ton chandelier. Each piece of gold is individually cut, so not a scrap goes to waste.

Babich personally trained 60 of the workers, including her two daughters. “From my childhood my father was a gilder and took me to his projects. I didn’t have to study — he taught me to gild and polish on every job.” Not everyone catches on so easily. Sometimes it takes two years just to learn how to prep the molding.

Babich didn’t always know she wanted to be a gilder. She got a medical degree after college, but even before that, she had another passion. “When I was younger, my parents traveled too much for me to attend classes,” she says. “I love my work and my job, but it was my dream to be a ballerina.”

INNATE TALENT POSSESSES the eyes first, a glimmer as a dancer holds a pose: a curved neck, extended chin, the unfurled fingers of a buoyant hand held aloft in a quiet dance studio. Then the first strike of a piano key shoots through the body, animating a fierce delicacy of movement.

If you’ve never seen a ballet, or ballerina, or a TV broadcast of tiny people leaping around a faraway stage, it doesn’t matter. Talent announces itself as a force, a biological draw and immediate impulse to never, ever take your eyes off of this inhuman being. It shouldn’t be so easy for a novice to tell a principal dancer from her understudy, but it is.

Anastasia “Nastia” Meskova is easy to pick out, but then again she isn’t your typical Bolshoi ballerina. “It’s easy to see it in Nastia,” says Ludmila Semenyaka, Mescova’s master teacher and legendary prima ballerina for the Bolshoi. “You come to see a performance, and you can do nothing but watch her. You realize something strange is happening and you can’t explain why.”

Nastia is known equally for her fire and beauty. The 25-year-old has danced since she was two. She auditioned for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy at the age of eight — two years earlier than most — and now works as a soloist for the Bolshoi Ballet. The best part about her solo title, she says, is that it guarantees she and her 5-year-old son can finally have an apartment to themselves during the few hours a day she has to enjoy it.

On most rehearsal days — 10 hours long, minimum — her chestnut hair is swept up into a haphazard bun and she wears the uniform of most Bolshoi dancers: skirt, leotard under a well-worn, draped sweatshirt and the down booties marketed to mountain climbers but coopted by ballet students. What makes Nastia different is her presence. An actress knows how to hold a room, harness intensity, study a character: the holy tenets of Russian ballet.

Russian ballet may share French technique and Italian style, but it owns emotional intensity. In the late 19th century, actor, director and coach Constantin Stanislavsky took ballerinas from their barres and taught them to live onstage as swans, sleeping princesses or star-crossed lovers. Character was about beauty and humanness. Shades of feeling and believable truth. Method acting before it had a name.

You can see it in Nastia as she watches herself in the mirror. Her movements aren’t the stoic poses and arches of the other girls. She’s aggressive and seductive. It makes sense that she’s taken with contemporary, modern and neoclassic dance pieces — forms traditionalist Russia is slow to love. “Doing 1000 Years of Silence on tour in France last summer gave me freedom. It took me four or five months to change my mentality and let go,” says Nastia. “Russians just don’t understand contemporary dance. For me, it’s a pity, because why not? You should drive the car at every speed.”

Nastia straddles the Bolshoi changeover. She honed her modern style with choreographer and former Bolshoi artistic director Alexei Ratmansky before he took a position at American Ballet Company in New York. She’s worked with Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi Ballet’s new artistic director, in the past, respects him and believes he can bring good change to the Bolshoi. She danced on the historic stage before it was closed, and like many dancers, she blanches at the idea of any additions to her home theater, let alone massive hydraulic systems and four new floors. “The old building saw so many things. It’s no longer a place I know,” she sniffs. “I feel like they knocked down a cathedral and put up cardboard.”

The director for the piece she and a partner are working on, Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, will be in to watch the couples perform the piece after a couple of months of rehearsals. He’ll pick the lead couple or he may change them around. Nastia isn’t overly stressed about it, which also seems very un-ballerina-like. But with a child, she’s hyperaware that a retired ballerina’s pension isn’t much to live on. She doesn’t want to teach. She wants to live like principal dancer Nikolay Tsiskaridze, who judges on a show similar to American Idol when he’s not dancing. She wants to find multiple platforms for her talent. Maybe finish college. Or go back to acting.

“Onstage you spend all of you. All of your power, everything,” Nastia says. “You must love it or you’ll look like a picture — flat. Right now, it is the love of my life. In Russia, you dance with your soul.”

She begins the dance again. It has soul, like a great ballerina. Like the Bolshoi Theatre will have again soon.

Seattle-based writer RACHEL STURTZ took six months of ballet when she was 13 to prepare for this story.

One Response to “Dance Revolution”

  1. William Conville Says:
    September 1st, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Dear Rachel,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your delightful article on the renovation of the worlds most beautiful theatre.

    Your article captures with fluid precision the history, struggles and pending triumph as the Bolshoi like the Russian Firebird reinvents itself and returns to life.

    Many, many thanks for a wonderful article!!

    With Appreciation
    Bill Conville

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