Ballet: sometimes it’s better if the curtains stay closed.
For somebody who’s not remotely interested in ballet, I’ve watched a lot of ballet. I acquired my experience by accident, after getting to know a Moscow bank executive in the early 2000s. He had a box close to the stage at his permanent disposal, and offered me free access. Figuring I might as well see what this jumping about in tutus lark was about I went very often, for a year or so.
I can’t recall much of what I saw now, and probably remember the weird ones better than the good ones. “Spartacus”- that turgid old Soviet warhorse- made me laugh when the legionaries pranced across the stage. Then there was a ballet called “Legend of Love”, a strange Azeri effort based on a story by Nazim Hikmet that I enjoyed more than “Swan Lake”, though the music was nowhere near as memorable.
My all-time favorite however was Shostakovich’s “Bolt”, an avant-garde piece about workers searching for a missing bolt in a Soviet factory. It hadn’t been performed in decades. The music was radical, as was the staging. Come to think of it, I think I even paid to see that one. The rest, however, is essentially a blur of dudes in tights throwing skinny girls in the air… plus lots of leaping.
Still, even if I didn’t love every performance, the theater itself was always an interesting place to visit. Prior to the restoration it was grand but shabby and still had the ancient Soviet curtain replete with hammers and sickles. People-watching was fun: there was usually a mix of wealthy and middle class Russians, ancient Russian grannies, Germans, and Americans in shorts. That last part of the demographic always annoyed me- I may have been a bearded foreign freak, but at least I dressed smartly. I was in an executive’s box after all.
There was also something very ritualistic about the audience’s responses: lots of synchronized clapping, compulsory flowers for the leads, and loud shouts of “bravo” whenever somebody spun around a lot. I suspected that the audience praised athleticism more than artistry.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all this because of the recent acid-tossing scandal at the theater. David Renwick of The New Yorker just published an excellent piece digging deep into the murky world of the Bolshoi, reminding me of people I hadn’t thought about in years- such as Anastasia Volochkova, the notorious “fat ballerina” who is now claiming that the Bolshoi pimps out its ballerinas to Russia’s elite.
That’s been happening since the Tsarist period, of course.
Then there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the company’s ageing star dancer. I saw him on Moscow’s Golden Mile once, in tight pants and leather jacket, luxuriously coiffeured, half-dancing as he walked down the street. Even when he didn’t think anyone was watching, he was watching himself. Tsiskaridze always seemed preposterous to me, cheesy like the pop opera singer Nikolai Baskov. He emerges from Renwick’s piece as a vaguely sinister, intimidating figure.
It’s not surprising to learn that…
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