Behind the curtain: Scandal, tragedy, art and politics at the Bolshoi

By Jamie Saxon

ON THE NIGHT OF JAN. 17, 2013, a hooded assailant approached Sergey Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater Ballet, and flung battery acid in his face. The crime made international headlines and stunned a community of artists known for elegance rather than violence. Some months later at a gala at the Kremlin, Simon Morrison, a professor of music and an expert on 20th-century Russian and Soviet music and ballet, met Filin, who had undergone numerous operations in Germany and had lost all of his sight in one eye.

“You could still see the scars on his neck from the acid,” Morrison said. “He wore these dark wraparound glasses and had an attendant with him administering drops. It was horrific, deeply macabre.”

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today

In his new book, Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), Professor of Music Simon Morrison weaves a richly detailed account of the Bolshoi Ballet from its origins in 1776 under Catherine the Great through its glorious history as a cradle for high art, political intrigue and shocking scandal. Book cover courtesy W. W. Norton & Sons.

Morrison’s encounter with Filin inspired him to explore whether the Bolshoi — a symbol of Russia presented to the world as a great cultural icon — had been roiled by these types of scandals in the past, and what that said about the institution historically and politically. He wrote a piece about the attack for the London Review of Books, prompting a literary agent to suggest that he write a book about the incident.

Morrison knew that the story of the attack, despite its tragedy, would not on its own have a lot of traction or depth as a book. He had to get into the history of the organization, explore the archives and talk with other scholars. To learn more about how art and politics intersect at the Bolshoi, Morrison began an intensive three-year research process.

The result is a richly detailed account of the crown jewel of Russian culture, considered an emblem of power by the government since its founding in 1776, according to Morrison. “It is a tale about the kind of negative pressures that lead to the creation of great art,” he said. “One of the morals of the story is that in the Soviet experience there’s something about immense censorship, repression and threat that leads to the production of masterpieces. The Bolshoi has been burned and rebuilt and almost liquidated numerous times, yet has produced some of the world’s greatest ballets, including Swan Lake.”

A member of the Princeton faculty since 1998, Morrison has been diving deep into the Moscow archives — once with mittens on his fingers — for nearly two decades and knows them well. He also knows the art of “gentle pestering” often required to access them. Morrison earned his Ph.D. in music history from Princeton in 1997, and his previous works include Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, and Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, a biography of Prokofiev’s first wife.

His research for Bolshoi Confidential took him into the small theater museum at the Bolshoi and the immense theater and dance archives in the Bakhrushin Museum as well as the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and the Russian State Archive of Social Political History, which houses the records of the Central Committee (the operating division of the Stalinist government in the Kremlin), among others. He also enlisted the help of freelance archivist Ilya Magin, whom he said was indispensable for researching the Imperial era in the St. Petersburg archives. In addition, Morrison conversed with dance critics and historians in Moscow “who have lived and breathed ballet all their lives.” He even wrangled an invitation to spend the day at the dacha, or country house, of Yuri Grigorovich, ballet master from the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era into the 1990s, now almost 90.

Among the gems Morrison uncovered was an enormous box of bureaucratic correspondence about the search for a real donkey for the ballet Don Quixote, created by the famous choreographer Marius Petipa. During the ballet’s first run in St. Petersburg in 1869-70, a female donkey was borrowed from a nearby vaudeville show. “This poor thing had a heart attack and died on the stage during a rehearsal,” said Morrison, who read the long veterinary report. In Moscow, the Bolshoi used a male donkey from the Moscow Zoo. “This donkey was trotted in with its minder from the zoo to the theater every day for the show and there was a budget for ‘treats in the form of bread and oats’ for the donkey. To the present day in Moscow, they use a donkey in Don Quixote,” he said.

Stalin at the Bolshoi

Professor of Music Simon Morrison explores how the Bolshoi Ballet was used throughout history as a political tool. Pictured is Joseph Stalin (fourth from right), former leader of the Soviet Union, attending the Bolshoi in the mid-1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

Throughout its storied past and to this day, the Bolshoi — the theater and its eponymous ballet company, arguably the finest in the world — has been indelibly controlled by the government — culture and politics, performers and bureaucrats, forever entwined. For example, the iconic Soviet ballet of the late 1920s, The Red Poppy, a tale of Soviet sailors who are detained in China, is about the Stalinist regime’s involvement in the rise of Communist China. “The Central Committee decided when and how this ballet would be produced and performed in 1927,” Morrison said.

The Bolshoi, with more than 2,000 seats, was a kind of political convention center during the Soviet period, Morrison said, and was used for the signing of the Soviet Constitution in 1935. After the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin gave speeches there.

In 2005, at the start of its most recent renovation — which took six years and cost $680 million — the theater was gutted and boxes of ancient materials were found in the basement and attic. Soldiers were brought in to move the materials into the administrative building next door. “There is always that connection between arts and the government,” Morrison said. “The Bolshoi is a national treasure.”

Dancers practicing

Elizaveta Gerdt, one of the few ballerinas who did not leave Russia after the Soviets took over, instructs Bolshoi ballet dancers Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Preobrazhensky in 1947. (Photo Courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

While once accessible to people of all classes with affordable tickets in the Soviet era, today the Bolshoi is no longer “the people’s house,” Morrison said. Tickets can cost as much as $500. “It’s a kind of playground for the petrolruble crowd in that way in which oligarchs now control so much of the culture in Russia, much of it eroded into popularized entertainment.”

But still the Bolshoi Ballet goes on. In late May, Pavel Dmitrichenko, the dancer who was convicted of and imprisoned for organizing the attack against Sergey Filin, was released on bail having served only half his sentence. “He now wants to dance again at the Bolshoi,” Morrison said. “If he does, which I think is 50-50 at this point, he may well be performing in the ballet that he was performing in when he was convicted, which is Ivan the Terrible. If that happens, the perverse ironies pile up because Ivan the Terrible is rumored to have blinded the architects of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square to ensure that they never again built anything as beautiful. Dmitrichenko’s rehabilitation is so implausible that it is almost guaranteed of happening. Ballet is like that.”

GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIPS awarded

Two faculty members and a visiting lecturer have received 2016 fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in recognition of their excellence in scholarship or creative work. The fellowships were awarded to Daniel Garber, the A. Watson Armour, III, University Professor of Philosophy, for his project, How Philosophy Became Modern in the 17th Century; Juri Seo, assistant professor of music, for music composition; and Raphael Xavier, a visiting lecturer in dance and the Lewis Center for the Arts, for choreography.

Garber researches the history of philosophy and the history of science in the early modern period, especially the questions of what is considered philosophy and what is considered science, and how that has changed over time. He is the author of numer- ous works on the science and philosophy of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and others.

Seo is a composer and pianist who writes music that is unified and fluid but also complex in structure. She brings influences from music of the past century into her compositions, which are serious and humorous, lyrical and violent, and use fast-changing dynamics. She has earned many composition honors and joined the Princeton faculty in fall 2014.

A hip-hop practitioner since 1983, Xavier is a choreographer with a profound understanding of movement, sound and musicality. In addition to his success at integrating hip-hop styles into dance theater, he has created an approach to dance that helps with physical healing and makes movement accessible to any body type. His artistic work also includes photography, film and music.

Raphael Xavier

Raphael Xavier (Photo by Brian Mengini)

Juri Seo

Juri Seo (Photo by Andrew Wilkinson)

Daniel Garber

Daniel Garber (Photo by Nick Barberio)

Emotional map illuminates an iconic rock song

Gilad Cohen

Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition, analyzed the songs of the English rock band Pink Floyd. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

IN A TYPICAL ROCK SONG, a few chords and a simple rhythm form the foundation for catchy lyrics that carry the listener along for three or four minutes. Expand these elements into a 20-minute song, and the result should be boring.

Yet songs of this length were common for progressive rock bands in the late 1960s and 1970s. Most of these extra-long songs were actually collections of “sub-songs” — sequences of disparate musical ideas, according to Gilad Cohen, a graduate student in music composition. As part of his dissertation research, Cohen analyzed the expanded songs of the ever-popular English rock band Pink Floyd.

The 1975 Pink Floyd song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is 26 minutes long. “And it’s all in the same key,” Cohen said. “The rhythm is very simple. You have a few chord progressions, and they just repeat themselves again and again.”

But the song is anything but boring. “There’s a very clever, detailed arrangement process that makes this music interesting, and allows it to maintain momentum throughout a long stretch of time,” Cohen said. The arrangement includes motivic development — the alteration or repetition of a motif throughout a piece of music — and the layering of instruments, in addition to the use of studio effects such as reverb and delay, innovative tools at the time.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a tribute to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s former leader. Barrett left the band in 1968 due to mental illness, which was likely exacerbated by his use of LSD and the intense pressure he felt to create hits. Cohen views the song as an emotional journey through the stages of grief, an expression of the band’s sense of loss.

A "bereavement map" for Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief - numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

A “bereavement map” for Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” reveals which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief – numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance.

To better understand how the sounds reflect these emotions, Cohen created a “bereavement map” showing which parts of the song express each of the five stages of grief — numbness, yearning, anger, mourning and acceptance. Like the real grieving process, the progression is not exactly linear.

Numbness, for example, is represented by drawn-out, improvised keyboard and guitar solos built around a single chord. Then, the guitar plays the song’s famous four-note “yearning motif,” in which the last note doesn’t quite belong with the rest. “It sounds like it wants to go somewhere,” Cohen said. “Pink Floyd is amazing at creating this tension.” Later, the same melody is played in two different rhythms, which alternately impart feelings of yearning and anger.

“Rock music is starting to have its day in the sun in musicological scholarship,” said Scott Burnham, the Scheide Professor of Music History and Cohen’s dissertation adviser. “Gilad’s work is timely, and it’s coming from a really great place — namely, his work as a musician and composer.”

Cohen shared his passion for Pink Floyd by organizing the first academic conference on the band’s music, “Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure,” which was held at Princeton in April 2014, and was co-organized by Dave Molk, a fellow graduate student in composition. The event’s keynote speaker was James Guthrie, Pink Floyd’s producer and engineer.

Cohen said he was inspired by the reactions of students, scholars and “hardcore fans” who attended the conference. “They’re really starved for this kind of knowledge. They listen differently to the music now,” Cohen said. “If I can expand someone’s enjoyment of music they’ve listened to throughout their lives, that’s a big thrill.”

–By Molly Sharlach