Friday 20 October 2017

Revolution, sex slaves and acid attacks

Non fiction: Bolshoi Confidential, Simon Morrison, Fourth Estate, hdbk, 507 pages, €28

Sensitive exploration: Morrison's new book on the Bolshoi could have delved further into some of the 21st-century intrigue of the Moscow-based company
Sensitive exploration: Morrison's new book on the Bolshoi could have delved further into some of the 21st-century intrigue of the Moscow-based company
Acid attack: Pavel Dmitrichenko
Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison

Mark Monahan

The 2013 blinding of the Bolshoi's ­director was just the latest in centuries of scandals.

In Moscow, on January 17, 2013, a masked man threw a jar of distilled battery acid in the face of Sergei Filin, then artistic director of the Bolshoi, as he returned home after a performance. Filin's right eye was destroyed and his left half-blinded.

The mastermind behind the attack turned out to be one of his dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, said to resent Filin for not giving sufficient promotion to his girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova, also with the Bolshoi. Despite insisting that he "only" wanted Filin roughed up and that he hadn't sanctioned the use of acid, Dmitrichenko was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison.

That attack, the culmination of years of in-fighting at the world's biggest ballet company, is the starting point of Simon Morrison's Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today. Behind its Ellroy-esque title lies an exhaustively researched, elegantly written sweep through the history of the Bolshoi theatre and the ballet company that bears its name. (Although a professor of music at Princeton, for concision Morrison sticks generally - although not exclusively - to the balletic, as opposed to operatic, side of the operation.)

"From the start, the Bolshoi Theatre was rife with political and financial intrigue," Morrison begins, and this remains his central theme: that the players may have changed over the centuries but, in essence, 'twas ever thus. The first chapter paints an enjoyable portrait of Michael Maddox, the wheeler-dealer Englishman who, in 1780, indirectly acquired a licence "for the presentation of entertainments" from Catherine the Great, which he put to use first at the Znamenka playhouse (until it burnt to a crisp) and then at his new theatre on Petrovka Street (which followed suit).

As the story progresses, we see an increasingly grand - or "bolshoi" - sequence of theatres rise from the frog-ridden Moscow bog, only to burn down again. The current structure was not completed until 1856, which - entirely uncoincidentally - was the year of Alexander II's coronation. The tsars would repeatedly use it for grandstanding galas. For them, dance was emblematic "of cultured enlightenment and of hierarchical, top-down government".

Even after the revolution, little changed. The Communists soon grasped that, far from being an intolerable relic of imperialism, the Bolshoi could be made to serve the hammer and sickle, too. In fact, in the Twenties, ballet came to matter in Russia as never before.

Under Stalin, the Politburo cemented its control over artistic life. In a pithy section, Morrison outlines how Stalinism decreed that all practical concerns were subordinate to the ideals of socialist realism: "No compromises, no second-guessing, no vacillation." Rather than give the censors anything to get upset about, the safest option for artists was to ensure that nothing off-message even reached the stage.

Morrison's sensitive exploration of the life of the great, headstrong ballerina Maya Plisetskaya becomes a prism through which to analyse the pressures that were heaped on dancers to toe the Soviet line. (Fearing she might be an unreliable ambassador, the ministers of culture ridiculously struck her from the Bolshoi's first ever tour to London, in 1956.) The epilogue begins with the theatre's reopening in 2011 after its phenomenally expensive restoration, and concludes with an optimistic outlook for the Bolshoi and, rightly, for ballet as a whole.

As well as giving the historical context - including vivid depictions of the theatre at the heart of Moscow, when it was stricken first by Napoleon and later by the Wehrmacht - Morrison has an eye for an anecdote. Some are fun: one tale of an apple being lobbed at the feet of one dancer on stage in 1845 is soon followed by another one about a dead cat being hurled at another's. Others are sombre: we hear of the unknown teenage dancer Avdotya Arshinina being dumped outside a hospital having apparently suffered an appalling sexual assault. As Morrison puts it, this "exposed a wretched economy wherein lesser-skilled dancers were promised access... to aristocratic circles, only to become sex slaves".

Complaints? Even though he leaves the Bolshoi Opera largely on the sidelines, there remains a sense that Morrison has tried to cram a fraction too much in. Even so, I wouldn't have minded a slightly fuller prologue, maybe talking to more of the recent Bolshoi big-hitters, exploring further 21st-century intrigue at the company, and perhaps going even harder on blazing egotist and former Bolshoi star Nicholas Tsiskaridze.

There are also little slips in the text: "santioned" spelt thus; "decimated" wrongly taken to mean reduced to one-tenth (as opposed to by a tenth); the marvellous principal Ekaterina Maximova's surname variously transliterated; Alexei Ratmansky credited as one of several Bolshoi artistic directors during the 1990s (he actually held the post from 2004-08); the phrase "bras en couronne" - a poncey term for holding the arms above the head in "fifth position", and one I've never once heard uttered by a dancer - both used and misspelt.

As it happens, Morrison gets miffed at me for an interview with Bolshoi star Olga Smirnova that ran in 2013, in which I suggested that there's something Russian (that is, Russian-trained) about the way she dances. I wouldn't necessarily refute his claim that her dancing has also been influenced by neo-classical elements, but given that Smirnova was trained at St Petersburg's 278-year-old Vaganova Academy - like her teacher, her teacher's teacher, and so on - is it really falling into the trap of "Russian exceptionalism" to imply that that tradition might have been a dominant influence on her?

As for my praising her "swan-like neck" - well, that's exactly what she has, and I've never made any claims for Russian-ness there. Still, it would be churlish to make out that Bolshoi Confidential is anything other than an impressive and entertaining piece of work, one that deserves admirers among both balletomanes and relative newcomers. It sheds fascinating new light on the Bolshoi's chequered history up to the current, neo-imperialist Putin era, with scholarly sections on Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while finding time to study the extraordinary, largely neglected career of the 19th-century ballerina Ekaterina Sankovskaya. There's even a droll anecdote about an ill-fated donkey.

A quick footnote, though. Only last month, it came to light that Dmitrichenko, the man behind the acid attack, had been back in the building for at least a month, doing ballet class, and apparently hoping fully to return to the fold.

And that's the thing about this wonderful, fascinating, exasperating institution. No sooner have you ­committed the Bolshoi's story to paper, than the story has already moved on.

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