Almost as good as an evening at the theater: Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential lifts the curtain on one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballet companies. In this glittering, accessible history, Morrison tracks the ascent of the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet over two-and-a-half centuries while delivering a fascinating look at the dance-crazed culture of Russia, where the stars of the stage have long enjoyed celebrity status.
The word bolshoi, in English, means big, and as readers will discover, it’s a fitting modifier for a troupe made famous by the powerhouse athleticism of its performance style and the outsized personalities of its primas. Today, the company employs approximately 250 dancers. With a staff of 3,000 and a budget of $120 million, it continues to live up to its name.
The book opens with a set piece that’s stranger than fiction: Morrison’s account of the 2013 acid attack, plotted by a discontented principal, that permanently damaged the eyesight of Sergei Filin, the company’s artistic director at the time. As Morrison goes on to demonstrate, such a scandal is not without precedent at the Bolshoi. It’s only the most recent in a series of over-the-top incidents connected with the company—a theatrical lashing-out that underscores the institution’s mystique.
The Bolshoi’s “past is one of remarkable achievements interrupted, and even fueled by, periodic bouts of madness,” Morrison writes. He traces the troupe’s roots back to 1776 and the early pantomimes mounted by its first director, a shyster magician from England named Michael Maddox (whose dubious background makes for a fascinating side story). The company’s home theater was established near the Kremlin.
In the early 1800s, the Bolshoi came under the auspices of the Moscow Imperial Theaters, and guided by influential ballet master Charles Didelot, its members received rigorous training that included correction via baton. (“Bruises and loving pats on the head were the measure of a dancer’s promise,” notes Morrison.) The company matured into a performing entity that staged great 19th- and 20th-century ballets. Morrison shares the stories behind seminal productions of classics like Don Quixote and Swan Lake, and many major choreographers and composers have cameos, including Petipa, Gorsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev.
The company’s history, Morrison says, “travels hand in hand with the history of the nation.” In 1853, a fire led to a lavish refurbishing of the Bolshoi theater. Decades later, the Bolsheviks, disapproving of its Imperial-era opulence, wanted to demolish it. They defaced it instead. In 1922, Communist leaders gathered there to vote on the formation of the Soviet Union. Stalin sometimes addressed the party from the Bolshoi stage, and at one point, the theater was used as a makeshift polling station.
With the Communist Party came a renaming of the institution—it was known as the State Academic Bolshoi Theater—and the days of socialist realist ballets, when subject matter for stage performances was state sanctioned, and dance became a vehicle for propaganda. Ballets about collective farming and hydroelectricity were the norm. Bulldozers were employed as stage props. Yes, the ballets were as awful as they sound. Morrison classifies them as “ideological dreck.”
Chronicling the company’s comeback from this clumsy pas de deux between government and art, post-Soviet Union, Morrison paints a portrait of an indomitable institution, one with a gift for metamorphosis. In 2011, invitations to a gala event celebrating a $680 million redo of the theater were reportedly available on the Internet at a price of 2 million rubles—yet another grand gesture connected to a company that could only exist in Russia, where, as Morrison puts it, “politics can be theater and theater, politics.”
A performing arts historian, journalist and author, Morrison draws upon archival material to tell a story that’s at once sweeping and deeply detailed. Bunheads will appreciate the anecdotes of passionate performers whose behavior could take dramaturgical turns (the impetuous Matilda Kshesinskaya, mistress of Tsar Nicholas II, once sent live chickens onto the stage during the performance of a rival dancer) and the insightful critique of the career of Maya Plisetskaya, the ballerina who best embodies the Bolshoi and a flamboyant mega-star who performed until the age of 70.
Longtime balletomanes and initiates to the art form will both enjoy Morrison’s masterful account of an epic company. It’s a welcome addition to the literature of ballet, and a poised performance from start to finish.