'Bolshoi Confidential' weaves history, scandal, art into a compelling survey

Morrison, who is a professor of music at Princeton University, gives the story of the Bolshoi a first-rate historical treatment.

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today By Simon Morrison Liveright 512 pp.

If you are intrigued by Russian history, Bolshoi Confidential – despite its incongruously lurid title – will fascinate you. If you love ballet, this story of one of the world's oldest and greatest ballet companies should be a star attraction – as an added bonus – you will be able to feel as if you’ve gleaned, from the keyhole of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, a reliable peek at 235 years of the country’s history.

What gives Russian ballet its grandeur and distinction? Ballet has its roots in Renaissance Italy and of course blossomed in France before flowing east to Russia. But by the middle of the 19th century, something new and distinctively Russian had been created. “Ballet in Moscow ... developed along its own lines," writes author Simon Morrison, "reflecting local conditions much like species of birds evolving on a remote island – particular, even peculiar in its adaptations.”

Morrison, who is a professor of music at Princeton University, gives the Bolshoi a first-rate historical treatment. Thoroughly scholarly and simultaneously astute and clear-voiced, he sometimes has to carry out what seems like archeology to discover how the business and the art of the Bolshoi proceeded.

“More is known about the scandals,” he says regretfully, “than the glories of the Moscow stage, because the scandals generated heaps of documents, and the glories [of the 19th century] inspired nothing more specific than poetic tributes, bouquets of words....” Because of the carefully laid-in details, this is a lengthy but steady and engaging book, as the precision of those details reveal, among other things, the sausage-making labor of putting together a ballet. (Everyone sticks his or her finger into it!)

But what makes the Bolshoi particularly significant? And what makes Russian dancers so special and why oh why has the Bolshoi had its greatest balletic flowerings when its traditions, choreographers, or dancers have transplanted themselves? “Great art was conceived at the Bolshoi, but paradoxically Russian ballet did not realize its own greatness until it was exported elsewhere – to the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, to theaters in Paris, London, and New York. One imagines the theater weeping at the injustice of it all.”

After an introductory narrative about the Bolshoi’s last blockbuster scandal, the blinding by acid of its artistic director Sergey Filin in 2013 at the instigation of a resentful dancer, Morrison proceeds more or less chronologically.

The Bolshoi had its modest beginning in 1780 during Catherine the Great’s reign when an English con-man named Michael Maddox opened a variety theater called the Petrovsky. Like the Music Man, Maddox never got caught so tightly by his creditors that he couldn’t slip out of their grasps; he always landed on his feet with someone else footing the bill. The present Bolshoi Theater stands a stone’s throw or two from the Kremlin and dates from 1825, after its previous structure burned down to the marshy ground.

Until Napoleon’s French army invasion in 1812, Russian ballet was no great shakes and was less popular than the operas or almost any other entertainment at the Bolshoi. During that war, the company uprooted and fled east along the Volga and performed on noblemen’s estates. After Russia defeated Napoleon on its home soil, national pride led to the Bolshoi’s and Mariinsky’s adoption, absorption, and abstraction of the country’s regional and ethnic dances.

Ballet wasn’t always done with closed-mouths: “The divertissements of the post-Napoleonic period included a lot of talking and singing.”

Morrison most interestingly describes the original settings and decisions about the collaboration we know as Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake," the most famous of ballets, and how different it is and how much it has evolved since its origin in 1877: “That which goes by the title 'Swan Lake' in the world’s theaters is an estranged and abstracted version of what was imagined” by its first several collaborators. As the decades passed, Morrison observes, “It would change further, both inside and outside of Russia, sometimes owing to budget problems or an acute shortage of swans or swan costumes, at other times to more serious political considerations. The Soviets abolished both the mysticism of the ballet and its tragic ending.”

A particular ballet apparently evolves more than any other performing art does. Movements in time and space can’t stay the same; the simple deterioration of the dancers’ bodies brings about changes and modifications. Add to those natural changes a meddling governmental administration in the tsars’ times or the ideological terrorism of the Soviet times, and the dances and dancing would most certainly be affected. Morrison points out that “Brilliant Soviet composers would be censored, their careers threatened along with their lives, in their efforts to create the right kind of music for the right kind of dance as determined by the thugs at the helm of the ship of state.”

Morrison is admiring of and amazed by the survival and occasional flourishing of balletic art despite the aggressive interference by authorities: “As the way forward to the imagined communist utopia detoured and narrowed, growing more prescriptive, so too did the route of Soviet ballet. But the art mattered, in a way that, arguably, ballet has never mattered anywhere else. Choosing suitable subject matter was a high-stakes game....” 

Never ignoring or excusing the horrors of Soviet history, Morrison conveys a grim humor at the thought of officials dictating ballets featuring factory workers and their machines: “The Bolshoi floorboards would literally be reinforced to accommodate industrial equipment that was to appear in ballets and operas about dams, crops, tractors, power plants, and collective farms.”

Morrison devotes much of the last section to the adventures and artistic heroism of the long-lived Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) and to one of Russia’s latest exports, the dancer Alexei Ratmansky, who now choreographs at the American Ballet Theater in New York. The only thing that's missing from "Bolshoi Confidential" is what’s missing in all discussion of the performing arts: the actual living performers right in front of us.

Bob Blaisdell reviews books on Russia and Russian history and is writing a biography of Tolstoy.

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