The Bolshoi is arguably the most famous ballet company in the world; it all but stars in its own epic tale of fortune and failure, a story with more dramatic turns than a pirouetting prima ballerina.
The Bolshoi (yes, that’s Russian for “big”) was formed in 1776 in Moscow by the English entrepreneur Michael Maddox and the Russian arts patron Prince Urusov. Its first dancers were drawn mainly from the Moscow Orphanage; Filippo Beccari, an Italian ballet master, had begun teaching there in 1773, having been given just three years to whip the new recruits into shape. The company swiftly grew in size and stature – by the mid-19th century it boasted 155 dancers and had developed a distinctive theatrical style that encompassed folk dancing, melodrama and comedy as well as ballet.
It was soon eclipsed by the ballet at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, where Marius Petipa was busy developing the style and choreography of what became known as “classical” ballet. Despite notable stagings, such as the first productions of Petipa’s Don Quixote (1869), and of Julius Reisinger’s Swan Lake in 1877 (a flop – the now-classic version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet was produced later in St Petersburg) – the Bolshoi went into decline. Towards the end of the century it was cut to almost half its former size, and the directorate of the Imperial Theatres considered closing it down altogether.
But change – and revolution – were afoot. Alexander Gorsky, who directed the company from 1900 to 1924, was an enthusiastic artistic reformer, influenced both by Stanislavsky’s theories of drama and by the work of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Following the 1917 revolution Moscow was made the country’s capital, and the Bolshoi became the flagship company of Soviet Russia – though increasingly (and especially after Stalin) its works were in the heroic socialist realist style, The Red Poppy (1927) being the most famous example.
The arrival of Leonid Lavrovsky as director in 1944 upped the company’s artistic and technical standards. When the Bolshoi first visited the west in the 1950s, its bravura, muscular style caused a sensation, and the company went on to become the Soviet Union’s single most important cultural export. In 1964, Yuri Grigorovich became director and began producing blockbuster ballets that were hits around the world.
Perestroika changed that. Forced to compete in a global marketplace, the Bolshoi ran into financial problems and standards fell. In 1995 Grigorovich was ousted from his autocratic rule, after which the company staggered on under successive directors. But in the 21st century, its fortunes changed once again with the financial support of Russia’s new super-rich and the artistic directorship of young Alexei Ratmansky, who between 2004 and 2008 hugely broadened the repertoire and also revitalised old works – a painful process that none the less met widespread acclaim. The current director is Yuri Burlaka, a specialist in reconstruction; Ratmansky continues as guest choreographer, and Grigorovich has also returned as a ballet master.
The Bolshoi Theatre has been closed since 2005 due to a massive renovation project that has already overspent its budget and overshot its 2008 deadline, with still no end in sight.
Watching the Bolshoi ballet
The Bolshoi is often contrasted with the Mariinsky ballet: compared with the St Petersburg company’s refined, aristocratic delivery, the Bolshoi has long been associated with a flashier style that melds drama with spectacle. The Bolshoi’s calling-card in this mode is Grigorovich’s Spartacus, a butch sword-and-sandals spectacle that wows audiences with sky-scraping lifts and big, dam-busting bounds.
As with most major ballet companies, the core repertory still consists of the classics – Giselle, Swan Lake and so on – but during Ratmansky’s time the scope widened considerably to include the likes of George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and Roland Petit. Today’s Bolshoi dancers need to be more versatile, even if their approach remains theatrical.
As well as introducing modern works, the Bolshoi’s been revitalising the past. Ratmansky scored a surprise hit with a new version of an old Soviet ballet, The Bright Stream (set to music by Shostakovich), and the Bolshoi has revived or recreated a number of old or lost ballets, including The Flames of Paris.
Alongside Gorsky, Lavrovsky, Grigorovich and Ratmansky, the Bolshoi’s notable choreographers include Adam Glushkovsky (in the early 19th century), and Vassily Vainonen and Rostislav Zakharov (mid-20th century choreographers who moved from the Kirov – the Soviet name for the Mariinsky).
Ekaterina Geltzer and Mikhail Mordkin were the star dancers of the bravura Bolshoi style in the early 20th century. In the Soviet era, Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya ruled the roost, while husband-and-wife duo Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev were stars from the 60s on and Irek Mukhamedov a favourite before he left for the Royal Ballet in the 80s.
In 1848, when the director of the Imperial Theatres sent his mistress, the ballerina Yelena Andreyanova, from the Mariinsky to the Bolshoi, members of the Moscow audience were so resentful that instead of throwing flowers on stage they threw a dead cat. Andreyanova fainted – which so moved the audience that they then gave her a standing ovation. She stayed with the Bolshoi for 15 years.
In their own words
“I think it’s not possible for the company to live as a museum. But the classics are our heritage and our roots – if not us, who will preserve these works? We have to breathe new life into them.” – Alexei Ratmansky, interview with Nora Fitzgerald, Washington Post, 2007
“The St Petersburg style is cooler, it’s more academic, it’s classicism in its highest level. The Bolshoi is more spontaneous, more emotional – more crowd-pleasing, I would say.” – Ratmansky, in a video interview with Charlie Rose, 2005
“I love classical ballet, but there must be a balance … Life is continuous and ballet is continuous. We have to move ahead, or else the Bolshoi will become like a big trunk in the attic.” – Ivan Vasiliev, interview with Joel Loebenthal, Dance Magazine, 2009
In other words
“When the Bolshoi first appeared in the west, in 1956, the sheer scale and power of the dancing caused a sensation. Bolshoi technique – particularly the high, spectacular lifts – and Bolshoi characterisation had a huge impact on companies around the world.” – Zoe Anderson, Independent 2007
“Ratmansky has said that he wants the Bolshoi to remain true to its own style – a politic statement that may also be heartfelt. Don’t tell him, but the Bolshoi style is going to change, partly because of his ballets, and so be it.” – Joan Acocella, New Yorker, 2005
“In the old days the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet, with their soft backs and lyrical St Petersburg schooling, could be relied upon to knock spots off the Bolshoi … Not any more. Today Moscow rules.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2007
“Bolshoi nazvaniyem, bolshoi svoistvom”
– Russian for “big by name, big by nature” (less complimentary if addressed to a dancer, though).
“Couldn’t they dance some more to Lady Gaga?”
– So last year. The Bolshoi accompanied Gaga in 2009 at an art-fashion-celebrity-fest. Artist Francesco Vezzoli produced a slick video from it and extolled Gaga as “one of the Nijinskys of our epoch”. Our lips are sealed.
The Mariinsky ballet is the other big Russian company. The American Ballet Theatre has several Bolshoi connections – notably Mikhail Mordkin, Alexander Gorsky’s star dancer, whose subsequent American company was ABT’s precursor; and Alexei Ratmansky, currently a resident choreographer at ABT.
Now watch this
Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya in a 1953 film of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.
Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev and Maris Liepa in a 1968 production of Spartacus.
A 1990 performance of Grigorovich’s The Stone Flower.
Maria Alexandrova in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream.
Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Le Corsaire in 2008. Interspersed with interviews (in Russian) – but the dancing is a-maz-ing.
Where to see them next
See the Bolshoi Ballet website for performance dates.