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.”

Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Chigusa

Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Edited by: Louise Allison Cort and Andrew Watsky
Publisher: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2014

This book of essays by multiple authors tells the story of an extraordinary tea-leaf storage jar named Chigusa. The jar was crafted in southern China during the 13th or 14th century and shipped to Japan, where its use as a tea-leaf storage jar endowed it with special status. The bestowing of a personal name — Chigusa (“thousand grasses” or “myriad things”), an evocative phrase from Japanese poetry — was a sign of respect and reverence.

Chigusa is the rare object that allows us deep insight into how people in Japan looked at, thought about and valued things over time,” said Andrew Watsky, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. He co-authored the book with Louise Allison Cort, curator of ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, which organized the exhibition, Chigusa and the Art of Tea in Japan.

The exhibition is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 11, 2014, through Feb. 1, 2015.

Italian Master Drawings: Exhibition goes beneath the surface

Michaelangelo picture

On display will be an architectural sketch depicting a floor plan for an unrealized chapel (bottom). It was only through the use of infrared reflectography in the mid-1990s that the sketch, located on the reverse side of a study of profile heads (top) that had been tentatively associated with the artist, was confirmed as the work of Michelangelo. Michelangelo, Bust of a Youth and Character Head of an Old Man, 1520s. Black chalk on tan laid paper. Gift of Frank Jewett Mather Jr. (Photos courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum)

A new exhibition, 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, on view from Jan. 25 through May 11, 2014, explores the mental process behind creation through nearly 100 rarely seen highlights by such masters as Vittore Carpaccio, Michelangelo, Luca Cambiaso, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Guercino, Salvator Rosa, Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, and Amedeo Modigliani.

The creative process is captured in the Italian word disegno, which translates as “drawing” or “design.” But the term is far richer, said Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum. She defined the term as “encompassing both the mental formulation and the physical act of creation,” a construct that was, she added, “embedded into the Italian drawing process by the 15th century.”

The exhibition represents the culmination of more than 35 years of scholarship on the museum’s Italian drawings, including the acquisition of more than 125 works that have entered the collection through gift, bequest or purchase.

Many of the drawings have benefited from new insights concerning attribution, iconography, dating, function and provenance. Among the many noteworthy findings is the discovery, first made in the 1990s, of an architectural sketch by Michelangelo on the reverse side of a study of profile heads that had been tentatively associated with the artist. The drawing, depicting a floor plan for an unrealized chapel, is obscured from view by an 18th-century collector’s mount. Only through the utilization of infrared reflectography was the floor plan revealed.

The exhibition celebrates the publication of a new scholarly catalogue, Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, authored and edited by Giles, Postdoctoral Research Associate Lia Markey and Renaissance art specialist Claire Van Cleave, with contributions from many leading scholars.

Laura Giles

Laura Giles, the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings, is curating the exhibition. (Photo by Henry Vega)

The catalogue is the first academic exploration of the collection since 1977. The research for the catalogue received significant support from The Getty Foundation’s Cataloguing of Museum Collections Grant Program.

In tandem with the publication of the exhibition catalogue, the museum will add updated research and high-resolution images to its online collections catalogue, allowing global access to the Italian drawings collection.

The museum’s collection of over 80,000 works includes more than 1,000 Italian drawings from the 15th through the early 20th century, encompassing the history of Italian art from the early Renaissance to early modernism.

–By Erin Firestone

A. M. Homes wins Women’s Prize for Fiction

A. M. Homes

A. M. Homes (Photo by Marion Ettinger)

The 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction was awarded to A.M. Homes, a lecturer in creative writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts, for her novel May We Be Forgiven. The £30,000 ($46,000) prize rewards excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing worldwide. Homes received the prize in London.

A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Homes has written the novels This Book Will Save Your Life, Music For Torching, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers and Jack. Her short-story collections include Things You Should Know and The Safety of Objects. Homes has also written for television: she helped write and produce the television show The L Word, and adapted her first novel, Jack, for Showtime

 

Three win Guggenheim Fellowships

D. Graham Burnett

D. Graham Burnett (Photo by D. Hong)

Three professors have received 2013 Guggenheim Fellowships for demonstrated excellence in scholarship or creative work.

D. Graham Burnett, professor of history; Deana Lawson, lecturer in visual arts and the Lewis Center for the Arts; and Colson Whitehead, lecturer in creative writing and the Lewis Center for the Arts, were selected by a network of former Guggenheim Fellows to receive grants that would provide them with the ability to work with significant creative freedom for six months to one year.

Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, D. Graham Burnett, and Colson Whitehead win Guggenheim Fellowships (Photo by Dru Donovan)

Burnett focuses on the history of earth and oceanic science from the 17th through the 20th centuries. He has written about changing human conceptions of nature, art and technology, and serves as an editor at the Brooklyn-based art magazine Cabinet.

Lawson’s work uses photography to approach personal and social histories, particularly in black culture. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries throughout New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta, including the Museum of Modern Art, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Print Center and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. She has also displayed her photographs in the Helene Bailly Gallery in Paris and the KIT Museum in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead (Photo courtesy of Colson Whitehead)

Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and his collection of essays The Colossus of New York was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Whiting Writers Award.

Big hair brings to life a 17th-century satire

Bigwig character photo

Gary Fox, Class of 2013, played the title role in Der Bourgeois Bigwig. In the background is Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn, Class of 2016, as the enthusiastic lackey. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Extravagant wigs and sumptuous costumes serve as metaphors that breathe life into the social satire of Der Bourgeois Bigwig, a new adaptation of a 17th-century comedy by Molière that pokes fun at both the pretentious middle-class and the snobbish aristocracy.

A production of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the Department of Music, Der Bourgeois Bigwig tells the story of a wealthy merchant who aspires to become an aristocrat, but who only succeeds in looking foolish and falling prey to con artists. The adaptation was created by playwright James Magruder, who served during 2012-13 as Princeton’s Class of 1932 Visiting Lecturer in Theater, and is based on Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as well as a 1912 musical version by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Bürger als Edelmann.

Performed for the first time in fall 2012, the play was directed by Tim Vasen, director of the Program in Theater. Michael Pratt, director of the Program in Musical Performance, conducted the Princeton University Orchestra. Performed by an all-student cast, the Bigwig production was also a credited course, taught by Vasen.

“Our production was a 21st-century English language version of an early- 20th-century German musical adaptation of a late-17th-century French play,” said Vasen. “Yet, the story, the themes, the satire and jabs at pretense to a higher perceived social class resonate as vividly today as they did over 300 years ago.”

The title role was played by Gary Fox, Class of 2013, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry with certificates in French and theater. His classmate, Lily Akerman, who earned her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature with certificates in creative writing and theater, choreographed the production. New York-based designer Anya Klepikov created the set and costumes, with lighting design by Jane Cox, a lecturer in theater and the Lewis Center for the Arts.

-By Steve Runk