Trauma of the Tutus: Bolshoi Ballet Corps Loses Soviet-Era Perks

THE facade of the Bolshoi Theater was renovated recently, its classical portico replastered in cream and salmon pink.

But it will take more than a fresh coat of paint to patch over the vicious conflicts that now threaten to tear apart the august ballet and opera troupe apart.

Backstage unrest boiled over into the theater's richly decorated auditorium last night, when the ballet corps went on strike for 20 minutes, delaying the curtain for a performance of Giselle.

Genteel though that protest might seem, nothing like it has ever disturbed a performance at the Bolshoi, founded in 1776. Reforms that threaten ancient traditions are rocking the theater's foundations and alarming artists who work there.

Tempers and passions have risen to such a point that ``mafia'' and ``little Stalins'' are only the more polite of the insults that are being publicly traded among members of the Bolshoi company. Bolshoi spokesman Alexander Kolesnikov laments, ``the situation is very nervous. Artists are emotional people ... and the conflicts are affecting the company's morale.''

At the heart of the problems besetting the Bolshoi is a plan to introduce labor contracts for dancers and singers, which would replace the job-for-life system that prevailed during the Soviet era. A noisy clash of personalities - between artistic director Yuri Grigorovich and the reformist general manager Vladimir Kokonin - further tangles the debate.

With the cold winds of market economics blowing around the theater's colonnades, it cannot pay all 900 dancers, singers, and musicians a living wage for as long as they want to stay onstage.

Once upon a time, music critic Andrei Zolotov points out, ``the Bolshoi would appear in the West for a brief tour, create a sensation, and then disappear back to Moscow for another few years. Now they are part of the world opera market, and they have to deal with competition.''

Mr. Grigorovich's critics - and they are many and vocal in intellectual Moscow circles - say that the Bolshoi is in no shape to compete. Once an innovator, and the Bolshoi's driving force for decades, the artistic director has imposed a style that has become ``canonized, scholastic, and dead,'' argues ballet historian Natalya Chernova. He has not choreographed a new ballet for 15 years.

Reformer Kokonin and the Bolshoi administration say these are good enough arguments for Grigorovich to go. But the performers are more afraid of contracts that they have not yet seen and back the artistic director.

Last week, at a mass meeting, 500 members of the company appealed to the Russian government to sack Kokonin forthwith.

Such government involvement is not unusual for the Bolshoi, a state institution. But its intervention in terms of hard cash has fallen short. Last year, the Bolshoi received a $12 million state subsidy - an enormous amount of money for other struggling Moscow theaters but well below what is needed.

The building alone, behind its smart facade, needs $300 million worth of repairs, officials say. And for many, it is worth saving. The swathes of scarlet red brocade drapes adorning the boxes and the heavy cut-glass chandelier hanging from the painted ceiling cast one back to an earlier time of Russian grandeur. (Except, perhaps, for the hammers and sickles extravagantly embroidered in gold thread onto the dark red curtain).

``The Bolshoi is an imperial theater'', says Mr. Zolotov, the music critic, dismissing those who want to see a more modern repertoire. ``It is a theater for classical ballet, and for new ballets in the classical spirit.''

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