BOLSHOI CONFIDENTIAL: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today
4th Estate, 2016, 507 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Behind the Illustrious reputation of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet lies a much grimier reality, says Simon Morrison, professor of music at Princeton University, in Bolshoi Confidential, his history of the 250 year-old cultural institution. Raised from the swamps of Moscow, the Bolshoi Theatre which houses the ballet began life as a light entertainment and vaudeville hall, using cheap labour from a nearby orphans’ home for the children of serfs, before growing ever more opulent and elitist.
It was the place to be seen for every pompous stuffed shirt in the Tsarist court. Its aristocratic ballet directors treated the lowlier dancers like serfs. Corrupt administrators embezzled state funds, resulting in mass lay-offs (once mid-pirouette) and savage wage cuts. Economic compulsion forced dancers to turn to keeping dairy cows to make ends meet or propelled female dancers into the arms of wealthy patrons and the pawing attentions of the Tsarist elite - it was “a wretched economy where lesser-skilled dancers were promised access, through their art, to aristocratic circles, only to become sex slaves”.
There was thus every reason for Russia’s socialist revolutionaries in 1917 to regard the Bolshoi as a decadent icon of gilded autocracy. The 1,400 Bolshoi workforce greeted the 1917 revolution with anticipation, forming, in the spirit of the democratising times, a management-workers’ council, including ballet, orchestra, choir and trades representatives, which sent a representative to Moscow’s public and social services union committee.
The Bolshoi wasn’t all that bolshie, however, as this union was one of the very few which supported the capitalist, war-fighting provisional government and was hostile to the Bolshevik-led workers’ soviets. Anti-Bolshevik factions in the Bolshoi administration were replaced after the October revolution, however, and the Bolshoi remained in operation throughout the Bolshevik era despite a vigorous public debate about using fuel, food and other scarce resources to keep the aristocratic arts humming whilst labourers starved during a time of debilitating counter-revolutionary civil war, invasion, blockade and famine.
The Bolsheviks’ education and culture minister (the People’s Commissar for Enlightenment), Anatoly Lunacharsky, was the Bolshoi’s most energetic defender, ensuring food rations were supplied, wood was obtained for heating and that silk and leather ballet pumps (five hundred a season) were procured.
The Bolshoi’s other influential champion was the Bolshevik and government leader, Vladimir Lenin, who, in battles with didactic ‘agit-prop’ advocates who wanted a thorough proletarianisation of culture, cooled their premature cultural fever by calmly arguing that ‘it is too early yet to put the bourgeois artistic heritage in an archive’. Like Trotsky, Lenin saw that cultural revolution is a slow, organic process taking decades, if not centuries.
Still, experimentation was now on the Bolshoi agenda. Traditional repertoire mixed it with modernist ballets (almost-nude dances set to avant-garde scores by Scriabin), ballet-operas about soccer (including one by Dimitri Shostakovich, a political and cultural revolutionary, fan of American jazz and blues, and soccer fanatic) and populist ballet-circus hybrids. Dozens of Bolshoi orchestra members decamped to Persimfans, the egalitarian orchestra that played without a conductor.
Despite Morrison’s obligatory anti-Bolshevik sentiments (Lenin’s “pseudo-Marxist political posturing” behind his “utopian fantasy” was “destined for tragedy” gives you the general idea), he unearths no horror tales of Bolshevik censorship or repression of the Bolshoi. Indeed, Morrison has to agree with one critic that “the revolution [for all the suffering it induced – sic], was a free-for-all for creative experiment” for at least a decade after the Bolshevik revolution, and even into the early Stalinist 1930s, when “fear did not yet hang in the air” during artistic debates.
It was only after Lenin’s death, Trotsky’s political defeat and Lunacharsky’s removal to a diplomatic posting that grey Stalinist political conformity, censorship and terror descended on the Bolshoi. The classics were deemed safe (Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was a hardy perennial) but new works were politically sensitive and were repeatedly sent back for extensive ideological repairs. Major composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian all fought bruising, frustrating and potentially lethal battles with Stalin’s censors. Meanwhile, members of Stalin’s entourage helped themselves to pretty young ballerinas.
The post-Stalin Soviet era was freer but some malign traditions persisted. Celebrity dancers could still be groped by a drunken Premier Brezhnev in the back of his limousine whilst a Béla Bartók expressionist ballet was menacingly critiqued for its ‘anti-socialist-realism’. In Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, a ballet scene involving a drunken priest from his adored Russian Orthodox Church had to be excised. As a despondent Bolshoi ballet master lamented in 2015, ‘there was censorship; there still is’.
The Bolshoi’s artists’ unions are today headed by Bolshoi administrators; corruption is rife (bribes are paid for auditions or prime roles); ‘claques’ (“professional audience members” who offer demonstrative applause for selected dancers in exchange for $1,500 tickets which they resell) get staggeringly rich; and the principal dancer in 2013 organises an acid attack on the artistic director for passing over his ballerina girlfriend for plum roles - just another day at the ballet. The brief Bolshevik interregnum of artistic freedom and political grace is looking better all the time.