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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Small Stage, Boshoi Plans
Glenn Walters

No one passing by the Bolshoi Theater these days could fail to notice the scaffolding that surrounds it or the other signs of major construction. For now, and until at least early 2008, Russia’s leading home of opera and ballet has closed its doors for the first head-to-toe renovation ever to be undertaken in its entire 150-year history.

The most critical works in progress are the laying of a new foundation, some 22 meters deep, designed to give the theater a firm footing on its marshy site adjacent to the Neginnaya River (a stream long confined to an underground tube). Also on the agenda are repair of the theater’s crumbling exterior and a return to its original yellowish-gold color, installation of a completely new and up-to-date backstage, and refurbishment of the auditorium’s faded decor. Whether or not the target reopening date is realistic remains to be seen. Much depends upon problems that may as yet be unknown and a timely flow of funds from the coffers of the Russian government.

Until the renovation is complete, the Bolshoi’s opera and ballet troupes are slated to perform, on a greatly reduced schedule, at the theater’s much smaller, 900-seat New Stage, which opened three years ago, and once or twice a month at the monstrous Kremlin Palace of Congresses. The closing of the main building also means that rehearsal space is at a premium, reduced to merely half of what was previously available.

For the theater’s dancers, fewer opportunities to perform at home will be offset by more touring activity than usual, both inside Russia and abroad. Principal dancers have also been granted greater leeway in taking on guest appearances with other dance companies. But holding together a 240-member troupe of soloists and corps de ballet, the largest of its kind in the world, and maintaining the troupe’s morale until reopening of the main theater still present the Bolshoi with a task of formidable proportions.

Despite current adversities, it still remains business as usual when it comes to renewing and expanding the theater’s repertoire. This season has already seen Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ and Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’ added to the store of operas, as well as a ballet double bill which brought back Rodion Shchedrin’s ‘Carmen Suite’ to honor the 80th birthday of its original star, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, and offered a delightful new ballet called ‘The Card Game,’ set to music of Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by the ballet company’s artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky.

Next up on schedule of premieres is Prokofiev’s classic ballet ‘Cinderella,’ absent from the Bolshoi since 1973, and due to make its return there on February 2. In charge of the new production is Yury Posokhov, a former Bolshoi dancer and currently a member of the San Francisco Ballet. Posokhov made his Bolshoi debut as choreographer two years ago with the highly acclaimed one-act ‘Magrittomania,’ which took as its inspiration the paintings of Belgian artist Rene Magritte. ‘Cinderella’ will be his first try at staging a full-length ballet.

‘Cinderella’ was met with huge success at its Bolshoi world premiere in November 1945 and remained in the repertoire for some 281 performances. Among the first to appear in its title role were such now-legendary ballerinas as Olga Lepeshinskaya, Marina Semyonova and Galina Ulanova.

That original ‘Cinderella’ played as a traditional fairy tale and provided an occasion for mom, dad and the kids to attend the theater. Posokhov, according to advance reports, has in mind something of a very different sort, one that could well cause dismay among more conservative members of the audience. According to Yury Borisov, a director from the world of spoken drama who is assisting Posokhov, “what you will see on stage may not conform to your feelings about the piece, even though the choreography is classical and everything will follow the [original] scenario. But, in addition, we have taken an unconventional approach to ‘Cinderella’ that will upset stereotypes. Prokofiev himself will appear on stage, acting as a link between dreams and reality.”

The heart of the matter lies in the connection Posokhov and Borisov see between the music of ‘Cinderella’ and Prokofiev’s state of mind while he wrote it. “Cinderella is my Lina,” the composer once declared, referring to his first wife, who was arrested as “an agent of foreign powers” not long after he returned with her to the Soviet Union in the mid- 1930s and who remained imprisoned until after his death in 1953. Friends recall the composer suffering severe pangs of remorse over Lina’s fate as he composed ‘Cinderella,’ and Posokhov and Borisov have made considerable effort to gather evidence that Prokofiev poured his most profound feelings of the moment into the notes of his score. “To Prokofiev,” says Borisov, “Cinderella was a combination of muse, angel, servant and his own essential self. Our ballet will be a mystery and a parable, in which the hero is none other than Prokofiev.” Besides Prokofiev, the production promises cameo appearances portraying other notable figures of the past, including Maria Callas and Marlene Dietrich.

Even if, for some viewers, the result turns out to be a compelling new look at a Prokofiev masterpiece, others are almost certain to be offended, as was the case with the Bolshoi’s radical staging of the composer’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ two years ago. And knives are no doubt already being sharpened by Moscow’s ballet elite in anticipation of the battle to come.

Unlike ‘Cinderella,’ the Bolshoi’s final ballet premiere of the current season, Dmitri Shostakovich’s ‘The Golden Age,’ due on March 23, seems virtually assured of success. The choreographer is Yury Grigorovich, who ruled the ballet company with an iron hand for the three decades prior to his abrupt dismissal from the theater 11 years ago, and who remains greatly revered by many Moscow ballet lovers, and the production is a revised version of his original 1982 staging.

‘The Golden Age’ follows on the heals of ‘The Bright Stream,’ premiered three seasons ago, and ‘Bolt,’ which made its debut last February, to complete the Bolshoi’s trilogy of Shostakovich ballets in time to honor the composer’s memory during this year’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. For the revival of ‘The Golden Age,’ Grigorovich is said to be planning only a few choreographic changes, but will reduce the ballet’s original three acts to just two.

The fortunes of the Bolshoi ballet received a considerable boost with the appointment two years ago of Ratmansky as its artistic director. Considered by many experts the most talented of the younger generation of Russian choreographers, he had previously staged ballets with great success at numerous theaters, including the Bolshoi and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky, and danced as a soloist with companies in Ukraine, Canada and Denmark.

Looking toward the future, the 37-year-old Ratmansky declares himself intent on maintaining a balance at the Bolshoi between the old and the new. For next season, he has tentative plans to revive a ballet classic and to present an evening of short works by noted American choreographers. But he is quick to emphasize that his first priority is choreography by Russians, and particularly Russians from among his own contemporaries. If that’s the case, the staid old Bolshoi seems bound to be in for some adventurous years ahead.

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