Spring in the steppes of the Bolshoi Ballet

THE Greek god of music, poetry and sun wore a dusting of white. Overnight, the snow had fallen on Apollo’s shoulders as he stood in his chariot drawn by four horses.

Despite the temperature – minus 10C – it was tempting to linger and gaze at the sculpted bronze god perched high above the colonnaded facade.

But my challenge was to find a small side door at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, one that gives access to the business side of the building and, eventually, the office of the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director, Sergei Filin. Not simple. Like a Russian doll, the beautiful bones of the theatre enclose a nest of smaller spaces.

Through the side door were more delays – metal detectors and bag checks, a maze of passageways – before I found ballet dancers, slender as greyhounds, clustered around noticeboards and, finally, Filin’s office.
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Fourteen years as a principal dancer of the Bolshoi Ballet have left their imprint on the 42-year-old Filin, who still stands in the graceful pose of a dancer at rest, back held straight, neck elongated, feet turned out.

In the director’s chair less than two years, he has the herculean task of managing more than 200 dancers, two stages within the theatre, now renovated to its imperial splendour at a cost of more than $800 million, a repertoire poised between the weight of tradition and innovation and a history of byzantine internal politics within an institution founded in 1776.

As Filin talks about his plans, his calm demeanour hardly falters as the phone rings insistently – and goes unanswered – and while visitors knock loudly but in vain on his office door.

Though he speaks through an interpreter, occasionally he answers my questions in English. That’s not a huge surprise: after all Filin has travelled the world, dancing throughout Europe, the Americas, Japan and China.

“I’ve been everywhere – except Australia and central Africa,” he says.

So will he take the marathon challenge – the 24-hour journey from Moscow to Australia – when his company heads to our shores next year?

“I hope so,” he says, “I’ve got friends living in Australia. I think it must be so beautiful.”

But for the immediate future, “My main task is to keep the best classical repertoire the Bolshoi has to offer but also to bring the world’s best choreographers to the company.”

Filin says “finally our dream has come true” with the theatre’s reconstruction, completed in October last year.

“We have the historical stage now and we’re very happy to have two stages,” he says. “The classics can be presented the way they were before, on the old stage, with all the decor in a way we couldn’t show them on the smaller stage.” Filin will continue to use the smaller stage to present new work by contemporary choreographers such as Mats Ek, Wayne McGregor and Jorma Elo. His new commissions include a ballet inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s 1839 novel A Hero of Our Time and two ballets based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew.

Hamlet, Filin says, will be “very original, a very new ballet, with new music, new choreography”.

“The choreographer is a secret for now,” he says. But as Jean-Christophe Maillot, artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, has recently been commissioned for a new Bolshoi work, he could be the one.

Before the Bolshoi Ballet’s tour to Brisbane from the end of May, the company will stage Ek’s The Apartment and an ambitious ballet festival marking the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Four companies will present their versions of the ballet that shocked Paris at its premiere in 1913.

Along with interpretations by the Finnish National Ballet, the Bejart Ballet from Switzerland and Pina Bausch’s Dance Theatre from Germany, the Bolshoi will present McGregor’s new work, The Sacred Spring.

During my hour with Filin, only one subject triggered the hint of a frown on his smooth forehead: rumours that he may lose David Hallberg, his star acquisition.

Last year the principal dancer from American Ballet Theatre in New York performed in Moscow as a guest at the Bolshoi Ballet.

Filin thought Hallberg combined the elegance of the French school of dancing with the “freedom and modernity” of American ballet dancers, and that he mixed dramatic talent with great technique.

After the guest appearance, Filin took Hallberg to dinner and asked if he would like to join the ranks of the Bolshoi’s principal dancers. Soon after, Hallberg became the first American principal dancer of the Bolshoi.

Not everyone was thrilled. The Bolshoi principal, Nikolay Tsiskaridze, complained Hallberg’s hiring was “an insult to the entire Russia ballet, a demonstration of indifference to the rich Russian tradition and culture”.

Soon after came the whispering. Would Hallberg be lured away by Vladimir Kekhman, the general director of St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre, following in the starry footsteps of the Bolshoi couple Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova? The highly acclaimed young dancers “defected” to the Mikhailovsky soon after Hallberg went to Moscow.

“Absolutely not,” Filin says. “David would never do it. This was published in a Russian newspaper and David wrote an open letter to the paper stating that he was not going to leave the Bolshoi. David likes being here and now officially he is a member of the Bolshoi Ballet company and he can make a decision on how long he would like to work here. It could be five years, 10 years.”

How does he feel about the loss of Vasiliev and Osipova? “I don’t think about it. They’re grown-ups. They can make their own decisions, do whatever they feel like.”

Yes, but it seems Kekhman, the self-described emperor of the banana (he made his fortune as a fruit importer), was relentless in the way of a football team owner, spending a great deal of his own money collecting star names by offering big salaries.

“If the way he is managing the theatre produces positive results, then the outcome can be good. I’ve got my own opinion but I’d like to keep it to myself,” Filin says.

In Russia, ballet politics can be as convoluted as Kremlin politics although the machinations began long before the Soviet era, in fact as long ago as the tsarist era, reflected in a part of the Kremlin grounds that the public can visit, the museum in the old state armoury building that displays carriages, thrones, crowns, Faberge eggs and the coronation dress of Catherine the Great.

The Romanovs sat in the royal box at the Bolshoi but Joseph Stalin was never as conspicuous. As dance writer Jennifer Homans recalls, the dictator preferred “a specially designed bulletproof enclave … audiences never quite knew when Stalin might appear or when his surrogates might be watching”.

Under Stalin’s rule, “control meant compromise”, so new, so-called “tractor ballets” dispensed with aristocratic airs to feature Soviet workers, folk dances and collective farms, an era hilariously lampooned in one of the two works the Bolshoi Ballet is bringing to Australia, The Bright Stream.

Yet at the peak of the Cold War, the Bolshoi Ballet became a great Russian cultural export, astonishing audiences in the West by the power of the dancing, the interpretation of classical roles by ballerinas such as Galina Ulanova and by the virtuosic and athletic dancing of showy pieces such as Spring Waters.

In Australia, the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, J. C. Williamson and Michael Edgley began to present Bolshoi troupes from 1959. Edgley and his colleague Andrew Guild continued the Bolshoi tours until the late 1980s.

The end of the Soviet era was marked in the Bolshoi repertoire by the works of Yuri Grigorovich, choreographer and chief balletmaster of the company for more than three decades. With ballets such as Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible he supervised more than 90 international tours of the Bolshoi.

Grigorovich is now 85 but his influence remains, with his interpretation of the classics still dominating the Bolshoi’s repertoire, including The Sleeping Beauty that opened the renovated theatre late last year.

Filin joined the Bolshoi in 1988, when the company was divided between those loyal to Grigorovich and those who wanted no more of him. After Grigorovich was forced to resign in 1995, the Bolshoi dispensed with three more artistic directors in the next eight years, until peace seemed to settle with the appointment of acclaimed choreographer Alexei Ratmansky in 2004.

He brought 25 new works to the company, reconstructed Soviet works including The Bolt and The Bright Stream, and helped a new generation of dancers to make their mark.

But Ratmansky, too, departed the Bolshoi, partly because of opposition from those loyal to Grigorovich and, as he once told me, there was “no time to prepare new works, to think about it, to accumulate energy”. As well, there was “no time for family, and the pressure of responsibility”.

Now based in New York, Ratmansky is considered the saviour of the dance world as far as narrative ballets are concerned and Filin has invited him to make a new work for the Bolshoi. So far, he’s unsure whether Ratmansky will take up his offer.

Near the end of his dancing career, Filin was highly praised for his performance in Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream during a Bolshoi tour of London in 2007. He portrayed a male dancer from the city, visiting a collective farm, but in a plot as convoluted as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he also stepped into a white tulle dress, pointe shoes and a rosebud headdress to masquerade as a romantic-era sylphide. Veteran critic Clement Crisp described Filin as the only premier danseur he had seen “who can impersonate a sylphide and get hilariously away with it”.

In 2008, Filin was offered artistic directorship of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre in Moscow, where he breathed fresh life into the company with ballets from the European choreographers Jiri Kylian, Jorma Elo, John Neumeier and Nacho Duato.

His time there appears, in retrospect, as a trial run for his present role, where openness to new choreography is one of his main goals.

Filin’s five-year contract will expire early in 2016 but by then he plans to have embraced many more influences from beyond the Bolshoi. There will be more international teachers from the West, among them acclaimed French teacher Yannick Boquin, and he promises to continue his annual open auditions for dancers from outside Russia as well as from within.

Following the first open audition, held three months after his appointment, “we signed eight people and they’re all working in the theatre now”.

But the door so far is only half open, as five of the eight were Russian and two others had just graduated from a Bolshoi school in Brazil. The eighth was superstar Hallberg, who had no need to audition.

So will he try to recruit more American dancers? “That depends. If they express interest and the necessity arises, then we will negotiate.”

Filin stirs slightly in his leather chair. The rapid knocking on the door is even more insistent. For the second time, he speaks in English as he praises The Sleeping Beauty, which I would see that evening. “It’s wonderful, very beautiful, it’s a fantastic production.”

It was a beautiful production, but I was just as intrigued by the renovated Bolshoi itself. Inside the main auditorium, six tiers of seats are each circled with their own necklace of chandeliers. The stage curtain is a work of art – gold and silver with rose thread – and each private box is encased with red silk curtains. The floor of the stalls is uncarpeted and, with wooden chairs rather than rowed seating, the acoustics are astonishing.

The overture to The Sleeping Beauty had never sounded more riveting and more clearly indicative of the contrasting themes of the tale of good and evil to come.

And Apollo was here inside, as well as outside. In the background of Ezio Frigerio’s set was a depiction of a classical pavilion that resembled the Claude Lorrain painting Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon. The audience sat beneath a domed ceiling, again decorated with a painting of Apollo and his muses. From time to time in its past, the Bolshoi may have been haunted by the gods of discord, but for now, the spirit of Apollo reigns supreme.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s season next year at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, begins with Le Corsaire (May 30 to June 5) and continues with The Bright Stream (June 7-9).

This article first appeared in The Weekend Review section of The Australian on November 17-18, 2012

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