Russia's Bolshoi Theater back from the brink of destruction
The iconic Bolshoi Theater, home to the famed ballet and opera troupes, reopens its doors today after a nearly $1 billion renovation to restore the once-crumbling theater to its 19th-century glory.
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A group of veterans of the Bolshoi's ballet and opera troupes recently visited the theater, and many had tears in their eyes.Skip to next paragraph
"We spent our lives in this building, and we felt like we couldn't live without it," says Boris Akimov, a famous ballet trainer who insists the new stage is a ballet dancer's dream. "These seven years of renovations have seemed like an eternity. It's wonderful to be back, and it's perfect. The hall has been completely restored, but backstage everything's different."
A storied history
The Bolshoi artistic troupe was founded in 1776, but the current theater was built to replace one burned down by Napoleon Bonaparte's Army, which occupied Moscow in 1812. Major renovations were made after another fire struck the building in 1855, but – as often happens in Russia – politics intervened with negative consequences. In order to speed up the theater's opening to please the freshly crowned Czar Alexander II, constructors took shortcuts and failed to fix the theater's already sagging foundations.
After briefly considering the notion of razing the Bolshoi as an anachronism from the hated czarist order, the Bolsheviks embraced the theater and the artistic traditions it embodied and hailed them as symbols of Soviet greatness. Dictator Joseph Stalin frequented the Bolshoi's opera performances, and the Communist Party sometimes held meetings in its lavish concert hall.
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But aside from cosmetic changes, the Soviets did little to arrest the spider webs of cracks that spread throughout the structure as its foundations shifted disastrously.
"I watched the beginning of the renovation process with dread; the building was so decayed that it could have collapsed completely," says Anatoly Ikshanov, the Bolshoi's general director. "The artists didn't see that at all, but I did. It was a very close call. But it was worth it, because now our theater is more alive than ever."
The first four years of the Bolshoi's renewal were dogged with accusations of corruption, waste, and incompetence. In 2009, the State Duma's auditing chamber accused builders of cost overruns that were 16 times more than the budget, in addition to being three years behind schedule. So the Kremlin fired almost everyone associated with the project and brought in the Summa Group, with freshly topped off budgets and strict orders to bring the Bolshoi back from the edge of ruin.
"It had become a matter of prestige for the state, before the eyes of the whole world, to do this properly," says Sergei Hodnev, a theater critic with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "So all the administrative buttons were pressed, and results followed. And it's a great job. The genius of the place has been completely preserved."