Photo: Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin, Swan Lake, Lincoln Center, July 2014. In Bolshoi Confidential, Princeton University Music Professor Simon Morrison presents a gripping, suspense filled history of the Bolshoi Ballet filled with drama not usually associated with theater histories. The 2011 acid attack of Bolshoi Artistic Director Sergei Fillin, which left him blind in one eye and partially blind in the other, made headlines globally; however, Morrison argues that violence surrounding the Bolshoi is not new, but dates back to the founding of the theater in the 18th century. Indeed, Morrison’s tale is filled with stranger than fiction events of murder, rape, suicide, execution, sex slave trade. A few examples:
- Russian noblemen in the Tsar Nicolas era had more than an artistic interest in the ballet, using the company as a sort of a harem. “Sexual affairs with dancers were a rite of passage for an adolescent nobleman, and it was not uncommon for older nobles to rely on the ballet school for lovers, plucking them from classes like fruit from hothouse gardens.” This practice had particularly tragic consequences for young dancer Avdotya Arshinina. Her father, unable to provide for his family after the death of his wife, “sold” her to a Russian prince for 10,000 rubles. After attending a New Year’s Eve ball of 1846, she passed out after the prince spiked her drink with a sedative. She was brutally raped and beaten by the prince and several others; she died of her injuries 13 days later. Her father was sentenced to prison in Siberia for two years. The prince was never convicted due to legal technicalities.
- Two 22-year-old dancers committed suicide at the end of The Red Poppy, jumping to their deaths from the upper reaches of the theater just as the curtain was to fall. The two women, hopelessly in love with Bolshoi designer Mikhail Kurilko, for some reason thought that a 70 foot leap was the best way to handle the situation. The lead dancer Ekaterina Geltser said, “I felt that something tragic had occurred, but I knew that I must play out my role. Then the curtain fell and I rushed to the corner where the two bodies lay bleeding and broken. One was motionless; the other was writing in agony.”
- Petty rivalries among dancers flared, leading to outlandish behavior. A rival of German dancer Luisa Weiss orchestrated an apple throwing attack against her at a benefit performance during her bows onstage. Not to be outdone, a fan of one dancer threw a dead cat at the feet of a rival dancer at the end of a pas de trois with a note pinned to the cat “premiére danseuse étole.”
- Incidents of violence by Bolshoi staff against dancers for not following directions were somewhat routine. A dancer with a full bladder ran off stage and did not hear the call back to the stage and arrived late for her bow. Ballet Master Théodore Guerinot lost his temper and slapped and kicked her in front the chorus. The dancer fainted and took to bed for six days.
Notwithstanding the shocking and sordid events, what sets the Bolshoi apart from other artistic institutions is that it is an integral part of the country’s soul; Morrison argues that Russian history and the ballet are closely tied: “The history of the Bolshoi travels hand in hand with the history of Russia.” This link with Russian history is particularly evident after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when the seat of power moved from Saint Petersburg to Moscow.
After taking over, the Bolsheviks considered blowing up the theater as it was symbol of the decadent imperial era. However, practical considerations intervened as the revolutionaries needed space for political meetings. The Bolshoi is 500 meters from the Kremlin and has hosted many historic events. The Soviet Union was born in the theater in 1922 with the ratification of the Soviet constitution. Lenin made dozens of speeches there; the Communist International met there along with NKVD (precursor to the KGB) heads. The Bolshoi theater was where Stalin delivered speeches before cowed Communist Party officials where the likely penalty for being the first to stop applauding was death. “To put in an appearance in the Bolshoi Theater meant that you belonged to the very highest echelon of power; but to disappear from there was synonymous with a fall from favor and death.” Over the years, the theater hosted world leaders from Ronald Reagan to Fidel Castro, entertained by the Bolshoi Ballet.
Over time, the Communists allowed the arts to survive by taking on class struggle themes celebrating Stalin and Communism. The great Imperial Theater worked hand in hand with the government, serving ideological purposes. In later years the Bolshoi brand became important to the Soviet Union and was a source of much needed hard currency from global tours. “Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the ballet served the Kremlin as a cultural exchange operation and a conduit for low-level espionage by the agents who kept the dancers in check.”
Morrison weaves accounts of Russian history throughout, placing events at the Bolshoi in context. The story began in 1776 when Catherine the Great created the Petrovsky Theater with Englishman Michael Maddox leading the way. Although the “swindling magician” ran the theater into the ground, the precursor to the Bolshoi developed into a source of national pride. After fire gutted the Petrovsky theater, the neoclassical Bolshoi Petrovsky Theater opened in 1825. The building served as a symbol of the rebirth of Moscow after the 1812 invasion of Moscow by Napoleon’s army, where two-thirds of the population evacuated the city.
Bolshoi Confidential provides fascinating accounts of the development of Marius Petipa’s most popular ballets. Petipa had a colorful past, having fled to Russia in 1847 from Spain to avoid prosecution for relations with a mistress of a diplomat or the daughter of the mistress. This was after he engaged in a duel with an envoy for insulting his honor by kissing a ballerina on the cheek. After a series of failed ballet masters at the Bolshoi, he staged major ballets that live to this day: Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Swan Lake. Although he created numerous productions for the Bolshoi, he resisted transfer to Moscow. After all, Moscow’s Bolshoi was the poor cousin of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky theater.
The Bolshoi gave Pyotr Iiyich Tchaikovsky his start as a composer after his eduction in Saint Petersburg. Swan Lake premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, choreographed by Wenzel Reisinger. The production was a flop as it was performed 39 times in its first six seasons to a dwindling box office. Reisinger was dismissed from the Bolshoi. In 1895, two years after Tchaikovsky’s death, Petipa and assistant Lev Ivanov reconstructed Swan Lake, the iconic ballet that we know today.
Morrison devotes considerable attention to artistic repression under Stalin, who took a great interest in the Bolshoi. Creative energy was sapped as all art had to celebrate the state and Stalin. Censorship boards looking for ideological defects made getting a ballet off the ground very difficult. Artists did not escape Stalin’s Great Terror. After a failed attempt at Romeo and Juliet, the head of the Bolshoi, Vladimir Mutnïkh, was put on administrative leave and executed shortly after.
Bolshoi Confidential has a riveting chapter on one of the greatest ballerinas of the Soviet era, Mia Plisetskya. Her childhood was marred by Stalin’s Great Terror and the book provides a dramatic account of the last time she saw her father. A Soviet businessman, he was at the Bolshoi for the proclamation of the Soviet constitution with Stalin presiding. He lost favor with the regime because he communicated with his brother, a Trotskyite who emigrated to the U.S. His father’s stature seemed rehabilitated as he received an invitation to the prestigious 1937 May Day celebrations in Red Square.
Eleven-year-old Mia planned to put on a new dress and walk hand in had with her daddy to the parade. But just before dawn that day, “the stairs creaked beneath the leaden weight of sudden steps.” The apartment was searched while her pregnant mother sobbed, her little brother wailed, and Maya watched. “The last thing I heard my father say before the door shut behind him forever was ‘Thank God, they’ll settle this at last.'” His family was told that while in prison, he had been deprived of the right to write letters for a decade. That meant he had been shot.
Shortly after, Plisetskya’s mother, a silent film actress, was jailed with her newborn. Singing lullabies to her baby in a Moscow prison before being shipped to Kazakhstan in a cattle car, she ended up in a labor camp for traitors. She would be spared execution. Maya was taken in by her aunt, Bolshoi dancer Sulamith Messerer.
Plisetskya became a Soviet icon. Morrison describes her as an eccentric, explosive performer who moved in and out of Soviet favor. “Critics were baffled by her iconoclasm. She could be reckless on stage but also mesmerizing, possessing a physical vocabulary that ranged from toreador moving in for a kill to fashion model on the catwalk.” Mia Plisetskya died at her home with her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, in 2015 in Munich.
Morrison takes readers to the current state of the Bolshoi. His comments on former Bolshoi Artistic Director Alexei Ratmansky are particularly enlightening. Ratmansky, now an Artist in Residence at American Ballet Theater, is re-creating Russian works that were not completed due to Soviet censorship, giving ballet audiences a glimpse of what might have been.
Morrison’s account is entertaining, although wading through the early chapters is a chore. At times, it is difficult to follow all of the many personalities presented as there is little development of some of the characters. Bolshoi Confidential provides a sweeping history with many shocking stories with less emphasis on critical commentary on the Russian ballets. Nonetheless, Bolshoi Confidential is a great read filled with important historical content about both Russia and dance.
Check out Morrison’s website for reviews and his other works.